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Tag Archives: Anthropology

I recently had the pleasure of reading this impassioned piece from the Washington Post. By “recently” I mean “today.” I’ve since reread it several times, because the commodification of American colleges and the narrowing of academic fields is an issue very dear to my heart.

As I reread this piece (which, now that I’ve begun this blog post, I confess I find rather uninspiring), I must ask: who is its audience? The author’s entire argument can be summarized by skipping the entire article and reading the last sentence: “Genuine education is not a commodity, it is the awakening of a human being.”

Great. Super. Fantastic. I’m on board. I agree.

Who are you talking to? Are you talking to me? I just finished college. I’m probably going back for more school. My response to a similar article was a little salty, to say the least–but still. Is this directed at future employers? At students? At current college professors?

I think it’s the third one. C. Door Number Three. The soaring rhetoric and its entrenched location within the Washington Post seem to corroborate this first impression. Use of the word “naive” (a word often used to encompass the analytical category of “people who don’t understand academia”) deepens my suspicion.

So what is this article saying, then, if it is directed at other professors? What is the ultimate message being conveyed? I don’t know–I’m not a professor (my only degree is a B.A., which I promise you was hard-earned).

My first and immediate point to make in response to this article is:

A): re: “Genuine education is not a commodity.” True. “Education” in a liberal arts context is learning how to engage with and integrate multiple disciplinary, cultural, and/or epistemological perspectives. In other words, it’s about learning multiple different ways of doing things, in order to be able to apply the appropriate one(s) to all relevant situations. It’s something you can achieve on your own, or with the help of your parents, or with the help of unpaid teachers, or at a state school, or at an Ivy-league university. Education is, as this good professor says, “the discovery that you can use your mind to make your own arguments and even your own contributions to knowledge,” (I’ve made this analogy before); mastering multiple different theoretical perspectives, much like Bruce Lee learned multiple martial arts–to be able to better accomplish your own goals with the most effective method.

HOWEVER

What happens throughout this article is a persistent (and, if I can borrow the word briefly, pernicious) conflation of the process of learning, the undergraduate experience, and the university-as-business. 

EDUCATION, as we’ve previously pointed out, can happen anywhere. An argument can be made that it’s easier to achieve “education” in a college environment. That argument is not occurring here (or, rather, it’s occurring off the page, a dirty trick that I would have expected from a philosopher, not a classics scholar (though the difference is sometimes hard to spot. The easy test? Do they ever mention German names?). The education is what “good” students are after. This is why they are good students–because whether by temperament or economic good fortune, they are highly interested in the self-improvement aspect of a college education, not just its value as a commodity. I was one of those students, because I was extremely lucky financially, and because I am a huge nerd.

The undergraduate experience is a whole other canteen of nematodes, which I’m not going to get into right now, but basically shorthand version: going to a college, participating in classes, learning from professors, etc., all are part and parcel of what makes college so transformative. College can force you out of your comfort zone (if you aren’t EXTREMELY, NEUROTICALLY devoted to remaining within it), and it’s when we’re out of our comfort zone that we grow. However, it’s not the issue at hand.

Number three (again number three! Second one in the article! I wonder if it has any cosmological significance…?): The university-as-business. This is the part that our author seems to be worked up about, which I find troubling for reasons I’ll expand below. But basically, my response: College has become a commodity in the U.S. (and in the wider world, I’m sure, but I am not concerned with that at the moment). As our author acknowledges, college is “replacing high school as the required ticket for a career.” This means that having a college education makes you stand out (even at my workplace, my co-workers make jokes about my “fancy college degree”). Your odds of being employed (and employed well) skyrocket. Success in college pretty heavily indicates success later in life.

Now, unlike the last article I blasted on my blog, I don’t entirely reject the author’s point here. The commodification of education is a problem (not just because of the way in which it bars the doors to the lower and middle classes). Some students do treat their college purely as a business, feeling entitled to a degree with no effort or challenge on their part. The government sees colleges as businesses, and so does not offer them any great degree (ha) of support.

Ultimately, colleges have adapted. The college I attended occupied an uncertain middle ground between being a business and a place of education. There was a tension between the institution’s bottom line and their values. On the student side, there was similar tension–we sought to balance our role as students with our newfound power as customers. It gives students an unprecedented degree of power, to acknowledge that they are customers. We have to figure out what that power MEANS, all of us, students and professors.

Hence, my concern. Rather than acknowledging the changing face of education (and trying to offer some direction going forward), this article seems to deny it. Education is not about money, the author says. It’s about the students’ engagement with the material. Well…that’s not true. Not any more.

Education is about money. It is inextricably, inalienably, unavoidably about money. Even when you’re talking about student engagement–who are the students who can afford to be engaged? The ones who don’t work an extra 30 hours each week to pay for school? The ones who don’t have to take care of children? The ones who could afford to go to school in the first place? The ones who could buy the textbooks–the list goes on. The point is: “student engagement” is not the boogieman to pin the problems on. Like it or not, the problems are more complex than that. We can’t escape the complexities of the present-day university by just demanding that students pay more attention.

That is where my problem with this piece comes in. I don’t think it’s wrong…I just think it’s not asking the right question. The question we need to ask ourselves is: What does it mean that students are now customers? What new pressures does that place on faculty? On students? On administration? What power does this give all of those involved in higher education? When a bad grade or a faculty grudge can make or break a students’ future, how do we negotiate these structures? And when a bad review or an angry parent can ruin a professor’s future, how do we negotiate these structures? What about higher education needs to change? And what needs to stay the same?

And for the love of GOD, can we not commit the fallacy of equivocation so damn much? Jeez, people. More of you need to take philosophy classes.

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I would like to apologize in advance for this post. This lecture was originally delivered to the empty air at my workplace, early in the morning before we opened, as I worked at restocking the toy department. In its original form, the lecture was a masterpiece—a gem of rhetorical brilliance which I know I will not soon match. However, the workday that followed wiped out all but the roughest memory of my eloquence, and so what remains for you now is a pale imitation of the communiqué which should rightfully have been displayed here.

But disclaimers notwithstanding:

This rant was inspired by a throwaway line in James Cameron’s Avatar, a line which I may have remembered entirely incorrectly as being: “Good science is good observation.” Whether or not any character spoke these words, they became stuck in my head, and I couldn’t get it out without a ten-foot polemic.

It started me thinking (not surprisingly) about “theory” and observation.
“Theory” is a word I throw around a lot with some of my peers and mentors. We play fast and loose with it because we have a good sense of what “theory” is supposed to be. But when it comes time to explain “theory” for the very first time, to a wide-eyed audience (be they fifteen-year-old brothers or sleep-deprived undergraduates), the best metaphor I have so far found is the Theory as Lens.

Theory is like a pair of tinted glasses—or, more accurately, like the colored lenses in those glasses. It highlights certain shades of whatever it is you look at, and makes everything look somewhat alike. That lets us compare those things across something approaching the same dimension. For example, a theory of gravity lets us compare physical interactions across the same dimension—across a single, monochromatic dimension.

Now, there are issues with this metaphor—most prominently that this metaphor entails the idea that we are using theory to look at something. Really, a theory is an image of an object. The key points of the theory correspond to key points in the reality it represents—or, to put that another way; “That the elements of the picture are combined with one another in a definite way, represents that the things are so combined with one another.”  “Theory” is a representation of reality—so instead of glasses with colored lenses, briefly imagine a Polaroid with colored lenses. Isn’t that a weird image? This is why we went with the glasses thing.

But there are also real advantages to this theory, and one of my favorite points is this: If theory is like a lens, which highlights certain features of whatever we are looking at, then it becomes intuitive that looking at the same object with the same lens gives us no new information. To gain new information, we must make a change, either internally, in the way we approach the lens, or instrumentally, in the kind of lens we use. In other words, you can only learn so much by looking through one lens. Like looking at a multi-colored picture through a mono-color lens, the world has more information than can be parsed by a single theory. To put it in a punchy philosophical one-liner: Complex phenomena require a theoretical complex.

In the effort to investigate complicated situations, we have to use multiple theoretical perspectives. Jung employed “modern” psychology, Gnostic text, and echoes of the German Romantic tradition in pursuit of a theory of the soul. James Hillman, following him, employs Jung, comparative religion, and biographic methods while seeking the same goal. The classic French sociologists integrate philosophy, sociological theory, public statistics, and historical methods to investigate the patterns of organization and interaction between humans on the individual level and above.

So a theory is like a martial art—it’s good to master one, but you become Bruce Lee if you master all of them.

Okay, that was a weird way of putting it. More accurately:

Any one theory can be an extremely powerful way of representing events in the world. Theories can accentuate the shared factors in areas which might appear vastly different to “the naked eye,” letting us examine, for example, human silence and conspiracy on the level of friend groups and on the level of entire cultures.

But a single theory can only do so much work. And so the point becomes a little teleological—which theories you deploy (and how many) depends on what you want to do. For extremely basic physics calculations, Newton’s laws are good enough to get by. For higher-level work, you might want to also include theories on wind resistance, breaking points,  aerodynamics, and even particle interactions. No one theory is going to get a rocket to the moon, and no one theoretical perspective is going to create a discipline.  So for some tasks, a single theory will get you far. But for others…you need to get a little more creative.

This is just the beginning. More on theory and disciplinary boundaries will follow.

Stay tuned for more semi-weekly rants about theory, politics, and whatever action/sci-fi movie I was watching last night!

Have you ever read gender theory?

sweet mother of

 

oh god make it stop

Now, this is not exactly “gender theory”; this is feminism in a raw, elementally academic form.  This is not just any feminist theory: this is Judith Butler.

Judith Butler, whose Wikipedia picture stares out at you with the piercing gaze of Galadriel, has written extensively about gender theory–and identity at large–including Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of Sex.  She has produced many brilliant pieces, which are just as easy to read as other writing we have previously discussed, like the Outline of a Theory of Practice:

oh please not again

oh please not again

Why is that? It’s not just Butler (who, I stress again, is brilliant).  Gender theory at large is permeated, saturated with big words.   I’ve discussed this before.   If you haven’t read Bodies that Matter, you should. Butler’s writing is fantastic, and mind-blowing, and meshes well not only with gender theory but with contemporary phenomenology.

Unfortunately, Butler is also somewhat impenetrable.  No worse than Bourdieu or Foucault or Husserl or any number of other academic writers, but then the purpose of feminism is not “merely” academic, is it? It should not seem too much of a stretch to suggest that feminism is concerned with theory only as it relates to the achievement of certain stated goals; I.E. the advancement of a political perspective which co-opts the affectations of academic discourse to further its own propagation.  Thus, authors like Butler infiltrate the larger ongoing discussion of identity by using the regular linguistic patterns of “academia”; a subversive approach to feminist writing.

Partly that’s because it’s JUST SO EASY to slip into jargon.  We (and by “we” I am broadly generalizing about anyone who has been taught to talk about gender) have learned certain words, and we have trouble thinking about the topic in other words, let alone speaking about it.

But “the academic discourse” is not the only conversation.  And for every person who finds Butler’s work illuminating, there are lots more who find it inhospitable.  The language which feminism has learned can integrate it into academic discourse quite effectively, and more’s the pity; many promising fields and causes have failed as a result of being entirely integrated with academic discourse.

For feminism to succeed, it needs a voice that can be understood by everyone, not just by academics. For a broad cultural change to take place, feminism must permeate to every level of this big Marxian layer cake called “society.”

When I say “feminism must do x to succeed,” of course, I am drawing on actual stated feminist goals, which tend to exist either in the short term (I intend to use this paper to show the production of gender in interaction, I intend to challenge the perception of the body as a single entity, etc.) and also in the longer term (reshaping society, dismantling the patriarchy, creating cultural change).  To both of these types of goals, the academic voice is, of course, crucial.  We learn from the academic voice.

But we also need feminists who speak plain English.  Who can explain that gender is not quite as solid as it seems.  It isn’t an impossible task, but it is a challenging one.

For example, we can explain that (although we use it to define ourselves, identify ourselves, give ourselves shape and solidity), gender is like a handshake.  A handshake takes place between two people.  The handshake exists only in the interaction between the two people, and everyone involved in the handshake thinks about the others based on what they observe in the gesture.  Let’s slow that down and repeat: The handshake exists in the interaction between two people.  The handshake does not have an independent existence above and beyond two people.  It is not a “thing” you can point to.  It is the product of interaction, and it is created each time two people grab each other’s fingers and squeeze.

Now, no one identifies themselves by their handshake (except perhaps used car salesmen from the 1950s), but you could. You could define yourselves as a soft shaker or a hard shaker (shut up).  And you judge other people based on what you learn from that quick interaction: Do they have a strong handshake? Do they have a good grip? How are they holding their fingers?

Gender is the same way—we make decisions about ourselves and other people based on what we see, and what we do.

Are they wearing a dress? Makeup? What’s their body language like? And we can define ourselves as a dress-wearer, or a feminine-body-language-have-er—or, to use shorthand, a woman.  True, there are more moving parts in gender than there are in a handshake.  Handshaking involves how you hold yourself, your shoulder, and your hand.  Gender involves how you hold yourself, how you use your body, how you talk, how you think, what you wear, what you say, when you say it, whether or not you are comfortable saying it–and more.

Have you ever found yourself being more of a “dude” when surrounded by dudes? More “womanly” when surrounded by women?  Have you ever “dialed back” your gender (or heck, any other identity) in order to fit in?Have you squeezed harder on someone’s hand because their handshake was firm? Did you begin to make nerd culture references because you were talking to nerds? Have you changed what you do, to change what people think of you? Yes you have. What we do changes when we talk to different people. We’re human.  We calibrate.

shut up, Garrus

“Hey! That’s my job!”

In turn, when we have figured out who we are, when we make that apparent in our gender “handshake,” other people take that and interpret it in their own way.  You do that too.  It’s how we understand people.  Is someone wearing an Attack On Titan hoodie? Are they whistling a song by Fleetwood Mac? What other people are doing changes who and what we think they are.

Slowing it down; what does this mean? Gender is like a handshake.  A handshake consists of things we do (sometimes unconsciously–have you ever given a handshake without really thinking about it?) in interaction with other people.  It doesn’t exist outside of human context.  A huffy anthropologist once said “Human thought is consummately social.”

What does that mean? Gender exists only in human interaction and in human minds, not as a thing unto itself.  Does that mean gender isn’t important?

Not in the slightest.  Some other time, I’ll address the idea that just because something exists only in the human mind, it isn’t real, but for now we’ll bracket that issue and set it aside with the comment that it’s dumb.

Gender exists only in the interaction and performance of people.  Gender isn’t important?

Then why do we still shake hands?*

*You can replace “handshake” with any other reflexive, person-to-person cultural gesture, like bowing, high-fiving, greetings, language, the NHL…)

 

Gender is fundamentally important to us all.  The history of the world agrees.  But what is it? I am beginning to discover that it is much more than it seems.  And it is only by understanding that, that we can begin to talk about gender in any productive way.  Only by realizing that gender perpetuates itself in what we do, consciously and unconsciously, every second of every day.  Gender is something we do, and something we have done since childhood.  It is habit many times over.

That is what feminism is up against.  “Patriarchy” merely refers to billions upon billions of habits across billions of people, all placed below the level of consciousness, which have the final, practical, real-world result of destroying, oppressing, and handicapping human development. 

That’s a big job.  It’s not one you’ll finish just by controlling academia.  It needs to be the groundwater.  Feminism needs to be ubiquitous.  So if you’re still reading, and you’re a feminist, I would say this:

Take feminism everywhere. Not even in your overt actions, but in your thoughts.  Feminist theory can be at its most potent and most subversive when it is behind the scenes, when it is upsetting the foundations of the world and pretending to be business as usual.  When it seems to be the most natural thing in the world, feminism has the upper hand.

We have a big task.

Time to get cracking.

Hello reader,

I am confused.

Welcome back to jungwildeandfree, the vaguely anthropological/psychological/philosophical blog of an undergraduate student, a mixture of content which is either stripped from my academic journal or generated ex nihilo in cafes and coffee shops across the continental United states.

Let’s get this straight before I get started: I love academia.  It is my favorite place in the world, the place where I feel most at home.  There is nowhere else in the world where I can say “Geil is the dump truck!” and get a dramatic response.  Passive-aggressive academic critiques make me laugh my head off, and I would love to spend hours reading any collection entitled “Things Clifford Geertz Has Said Of Other Things.”   It’s full of people and concepts with complex names that are perfect for puns.  Pierre Bourdieu.  Cultural capital. Michel Foucault.  Archaeology.   The only other place in my experience that has such a massive wealth of in-jokes and stealthy puns is the internet, and I enjoy bandying about those memes as well.

Possibly it’s because I grew up watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

You’ve never heard of the Flying Circus?  Now I’m even more confused.

Let me explain.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a British television sketch comedy show that ran for four series and five years, created almost unilaterally by graduates of high-powered academic communities.  It was a sometimes surreal, often intellectual, frequently incomprehensible, completely hilarious show, and it was like (almost) nothing that had ever come before.It cannot be adequately described in text, so here are some classic samples: How Not To Be Seen, The Dead Parrot Sketch, and Philosophers’ World Cup.

It was my bread and butter growing up.  The theory I like to put forward (indeed, the theory am putting forward right now) is that it fundamentally shaped my sense of humor toward the strange, the bizarre, and the unapologetically intellectual, and sometimes the completely dumb.  As evidence I provide some of my favorite authors: Oscar Wilde, Terry Pratchett, John Kennedy Toole, and of course Spongebob Squarepants.  These were my cultural capital, my intellectual heritage and the means by which I connect with other people who share my weird taste for sass.

That is my establishing monologue; now you have some sense of where I’m coming from in my life.  Now we’ll move on to the actual point of the blog post, which is explaining why I’m so confused.

You see, I am an anthropology major.

Anthropology, for the uninitiated, is the science and study of humans.  It consists, broadly, of four categories: Archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology.   I am a cultural anthropologist.

Cultural anthropology is the science of gradually becoming less and less certain about anything you once considered to be real and solid, until such time as you become a void of total confusion/improvisation and gain the ability to pass this intellectual angst on to others.

Or, to put it in a more complementary light: Cultural anthropology is the practice of questioning every assumption we make, with the intention of laying bare the hidden motivations behind things that we might normally think are natural. 

Case in point: Gender.

When I started college, I learned the simple definition of gender.  Gender is the cultural/psychological part of the masculine or feminine, and sex is the biological.  Either way, easy.  Simple.  “I got this,” I said to myself.  But then I thought back to my biology courses and things got complicated.  And then I took more anthropology courses and things got more complicated.

I read an article by a dude named Goffman, “On Face-Work,” which suggested that when two people interact, they inter-act. When we interact, we perform ourselves, whether we do it on purpose or not.  When we interact with people, we do what we’ve learned to do, and we do things that we want to be seen doing.

Which is troublesome when it comes to gender, because gender is heavily performed.  How do I know what gender you are if I can’t tell from your clothes? Your hair? Your makeup? Even the way we refer to ourselves can be part of gender.

But it’s the word performed that is really messing with my head now, because the other day in class I was brought face-to-face with an even more nebulous possibility:

An actor isn’t actually the role they perform.  It’s not an identity that they assume, unless that role was a particularly meaningful one.  If the role becomes important enough to them, then the actor might take it on with a certain fondness.

So…then, if we perform gender like an actor performs a role, doesn’t that mean that gender isn’t really a thing in and of itself? What if that means that gender identity isn’t anything that we could nail down as existing in any kind of actual meaningful way? What if “Gender” is just a part of the way we interact with others? 

Well, shit.  That kinda throws a wrench in the works.  At least we still have biological sex as a benchmark. Right? Right.  That’s something physical.  That’s something real. I am biologically male.  I can say that definitively–because my phenotype (physical shape) happens to line up with my genotype (genetic design), which happens to line up with the level of hormones in my blood.   Because my body looks male, acts male, and because my genes read as male.

…Which isn’t always true.  Not everyone’s body always lines up along that biological game of tic-tac-toe. So that really isn’t particularly helpful either, now is it?  Turns out we might have people who are biologically and genetically male, but hormonally female or hormonally asexual.  Or people who are genetically male and biologically and hormonally female. GAH. I don’t even.

Now, I’m not going to demand to see a blood screen before I call you “Miss” or “Mr.”  Really, the ultimate point is,  there’s no way to tell who you are, unless you give me a hint.  If you tell me your pronouns, if you show me a hormone count, if you perform your gender in a certain way, then I’ll know what’s up. (Or I’ll think I will, until you surprise me)

But until that happens…well, if I think about it too hard, I’m gonna need a stiff drink.

As I said; cultural anthropology is the gradual process of becoming less and less certain about anything you ever considered to be solid or natural.   That doesn’t mean it’s not fun.   And I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

But I’m still confused.

The only thing that’s changed is that now, you might be too. Oops.

Hello reader,

Welcome to the fourth post in the Divisions series! I could make this segue more gracious, but I’d rather hurl you right into the thick of it.

Have you ever played an online multiplayer game? No? It’s somewhat poignantly similar to real life.

I myself am an avid player of an online multiplayer game about spaceships.  I have always been a fan of flight simulators, and like many people I am also a fan of explosions and pointless violence.   Therefore, this game is perfect for me, because it allows me to (a) fly really fast, (b) blow things up, and (c) be a little bit of an asshole.

Actual in-game footage.

I’m a special person.

Now, I don’t just mention this because I’m playing the game as I write this post. NAY, I mention this because it made me think about ethics as I was playing it.

A perpetual source of frustration in online player-against-player games is the skill gap, as any gamer can tell you.  Nothing is more infuriating than going up against someone who is just legitimately better than you at pressing a particular sequence of buttons to make your magic box turn a particular color.

What’s just as frustrating is the premium gamers.  The people who have, for whatever reason, elected to spend money on the game and improve themselves accordingly.  These people usually have some inherent advantage over the other players–even if it’s just that their ship looks cooler.

In other words, it’s not fair.  Which can be annoying.  Studies have shown that even monkeys understand when a situation is unfair.  Now if monkeys can pick up on an unjust pay system, surely popular news programs video game players can figure out when something is unjust.

This had been much on my mind recently when I went into my Chinese Philosophy course. So you can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was when I found my exact concern addressed by my professor, who addressed the idea of fairness in Chinese culture.*

*keep in mind that this is an idealized concept of “Chinese culture,” which was doubtless designed more to help provide a foundation for understanding for students who had never been to China, nor studied anything remotely Chinese.**

**but why on earth should that mean that we can’t use it to draw useful moral lessons?

His essential point was tied back to earlier discussions of the communal, fragmented social system, in which each individual in the heirarchy is responsible for their own little bit of power.  Much like the mythological landscape, where each brook and bramble has a spirit, everyone has a little power, which they exercise as subtly as possible. Even the housemaid has her own little sphere of influence–piss her off, and your dishes will be ever so slightly dirty for months.

Their society, like every society, is unfair. Civilization is unfair.  Civilization is based upon structures of asymmetrical power, upon hierarchies and hegemonies, and it is inherently incapable of becoming ‘fair.’  No one is born with the exact same set of privileges and plans as anyone else–and think how boring it would be if we were all the same!  There would be no one new to talk to.  Every conversation would be like watching a Frasier re-run for the seventh time–once, it might possibly have been interesting, but now, it’s exactly what you expected.

What I find interesting is that we, in the West, have come up with this idea that somehow the world needs to be fair.  Somehow everything needs to be balanced.  Everyone needs to be equal.

I think this is stupid, not to mention perspicaciously false.   (whoa) (what a big vocabulary) (and you know what they say about guys with big vocabularies) (they have large theories about the nature of reality)

If you’ve grown up and existed anywhere ever, you realize that people are not equal.  Some people are smarter than others.  Some are better at sports, or at wearing clothes, or at asking questions or doing academic work or hanging clothes–and whether this disparity is the result of legitimate skill-building or not doesn’t matter, because the end result is: nothing is ever going to be truly fair. 

This is obvious.  And I should stress at this point that I don’t disagree with fairness as an ideal.  I think it’s a good place to start.  But it isn’t enough.  Do we really want equality? I think that sounds dull, like a movie where everyone is the same character.  Real life has a dynamic quality–and I mean that in the dictionary definition of the word, as in life is a dynamic system, constantly changing, kept in balance by the flow of energy and advantage from one person/group to the next.

I still reflect on ethics when I play my spaceship game.  But now I fly secure in the knowledge that, while we may not all fly from the same starting point, my ion emitters can turn the enemy to slag just as effectively as anyone else’s.  And that’s what we really want–not for everyone to be equal, but for everyone to be able to have fun, to enjoy life, to develop themselves to the fullest point of their potential, and to unleash molten hell upon their enemies in the form of 70-pound coil-driven mortar shells.

Tune in next time, reader, when we take this point about value, inequality, and fairness and apply it to the universe!  

Hello again, reader! Welcome to part three of the Divisions series of posts! Last time, we left off talking about mythology and values.  In this post we’ll be talking about space.

Interstellar space?

Not exactly.

We’re not talking about the cold, remote void between planets.  We’re talking about space in the sense of space.  The world around us.  The space in which we build buildings and interact with one another. Space. You know, space.

Space often gets a little funky around humans.  One minute we’re wandering around on the plains, and the next we have thresholds and houses, and begin to chop up the universe into little manageable bits and pieces, some of them with great meaning and significance.   Space is all around us–but not all space is made equal.  Or, more accurately, we make space unequal.

Think of the space inside a church.  If you’re like me, you’ll notice instinctively that there is something different about a place of worship.  No matter how dogmatically you believe that all religion is hogwash, your voice is hushed, your breath is stilled, and all minds turn inward in reflection.

In reflection and in contemplation of copyright laws protecting photography of gothic cathedrals.

If that example fails to move you, consider another space: your home. Your home sits in the same open air and under the same weather as any other point on the planet. Why, then, does it seem so completely solid? Why does home seem so safe? Why do we relax when we close the door behind us? There is nothing particularly magical about a door.

Of course, we don’t call these spaces sacred any more.  There is nothing magical about the first dorm room we ever inhabit, or the first job we ever held.  We have progressed beyond the need for religion, right?

“…this experience of profane space still includes values that to some extent recall the nonhomogeneity peculiar to the religious experience of space.  There are, for example, privileged places, qualitatively different from all others–a man’s birthplace, or the scenes of his first love, or certain places in the first foreign city he visited in youth.  Even for the most frankly nonreligious man,  all these places still retain an exceptional, a unique quality; they are the ‘holy places’ of his private universe, as if it were in such spots that he had recieved the revelation of a reality other than that in which he participates through his ordinary daily life.” 

The spiritual world is coterminous to our own.  Sacred and profane overlap, but the sacred moment breaks through only occasionally, bringing with it timeless moments that influence us for years or decades.

WE’RE GOING BACK TO CHINA NOW.

Remember how we talked about mythology in China?

One thing that you might know already about eastern mythology: everything depends on where you are.  Every shrine, tree, and stream has its own place spirit, its own genius loci.  Space in our culture is divided.  Space in China and Japan is microdivided. A forest is divided into glades and rivers which are divided into individual trees and pools.  And the space matters.  If you’re on the river, you’d better be prostrating yourself to the river spirit.  If you’re in the forest, you’d better be damn friendly to the trees. And if you’re on a mountain, you’d better be showing proper respect to that mountain spirit.

The same thing happens in social spaces, not just in China but in many more communal cultures.  Each social task and economic niche is taken care of on a local and individual level.  It’s like the atmosphere at a small school.  If you want to get some help with your coursework, you don’t go to the outside world or onto the internet; you go talk to Kim in Learning Enrichment.  If you want to get into a club, you don’t fill out an application online; you find Will and schmooze with him for twenty minutes.  The division of sacred space is paralleled by the division of social space–and so, in Chinese mythology, it’s all about who you know.

So to recap: our experience of the world is divided.  Space may be infinite, formless, and homogenous–but humans slice it up into bits and pieces.  The same thing happens with social roles, although the West has by and large moved away from this model (except in small towns).  We divide the formless mass of society into infinite little groups, as this XKCD cartoon clearly shows:

In the next post, we’ll look at possible implications of a worldview where everyone has their own niche and responsibility–it makes for a very commonsense approach.

Hello reader, and welcome to the second post in the ‘Divisions’ series, which is peeled wholesale from the pages of my academic journal.

Last time, we left off on the suggestion that myths should not be evaluated solely on their intellectual content–that is to say, on what the myth says explicitly.  The important moves of the myth are not the ones in which they talk about people riding eight-legged horses or throwing around a hammer too heavy for anyone to lift.  The important moves of the myth are hidden.

My philosophy teacher asked a question of the class.  He said “What is the difference between a legend and a myth?”  Now, I have had a slightly unconventional education, so I raised my hand and said “A myth is more sacred, where a legend is more in the realm of the profane,” to which probably a few people said “say what now?”

Let’s back up a bit.  With the aid of a gentlemen named Mircea, let’s hash out a rough idea of what I mean by “the sacred.”

The first possible definition of the sacred is that it is the opposite of the profane.” 

Helpful.  Thanks.

But in reality this is quite helpful, because we know what the profane is.  It is the ordinary, the normal, the mundane.  In recent times it has taken on a negative connotation, but put simply, what is profane is simply and literally unholy. 

So. The sacred, or the holy, is something that is not part of our daily experience. Indeed, our friend named Mircea says quite explicitly that we “become aware of the sacred because it manifests itself, shows itself, as something wholly different from the profane.” 

The passage right after that is the really fun one though;

“The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred.  He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example.  But…what is involved is not a veneration of the stone in itself, a cult of the tree in itself. The sacred tree, the sacred stone are not adored as stone or tree; they are worshipped precisely because they are heirophanies, because they show something that is no longer stone or tree but the sacred, the ganz andere.” 

It would probably be helpful to speak a little German at this point; ‘ganz andere’ means “all other,” or “wholly other.” It is used here to represent something that is, quite simply, outside of our ordinary experience–a feeling, emotion, or presence that we most definitely do not feel every day.

So, to recap: what is the sacred?

Have you ever stood on the edge of a cliff and looked over? Or stood at the foot of a magnificent oak tree and felt dwarfed by its presence? Does the ocean make you ponder the vastness of infinity? Do you feel a deep, all-consuming awe when you read through astronomy textbooks?  Has your heart ever pounded out of your chest as you took someone’s hand for the first time?

That,   That is the holy.  I want to stress here that this concept of the sacred is not tied to religion.  This is strictly a matter of spirituality–our experience of the spiritual.  The most vehement atheist in the world can still be reduced to tears in the face of nature’s majesty.

In contrast, our normal existence? The daily hungry/thirsty/bored/happy/sad/tired/rested cycle? That is the profane.  The normal.

Returning to our topic: what is the difference between a myth and a legend? Well, properly speaking, a legend takes place in the profane world.  King Christian X of Denmark  is the subject of legends.  He was an ordinary man who did not exhibit supernatural powers, even if he was a lovely person.  No demons came down to do battle with him.  No angels sang for him.

A myth, by contrast, is touched by the sacred.  King Christian X of Denmark is not a myth.  Cu Cuchulain is.  Cu Cuchulain was a warrior, who was quite literally touched by the sacred: he was a violent, enthusiastic fighter blessed by the old Gods.  When surrounded by his enemies, the Morrigan, the Crone, came down to rest on his shoulder, and he tied himself to a rock to keep upright and fighting till the very end.

This myth conveys a story–a man of tremendous, possibly insane bravery.  It conveys something that the old Celts valued (something that their descendants still value today): mad loyalty and a reckless enjoyment of  trouble for trouble’s own sake.   In short, it conveys a cultural value.

Ah, see? Not so difficult; eight hundred words later and we’ve arrived at this conclusion: The purpose of a myth is not to be literally true.  The purpose of a myth is to express a value, to act as a carrier for morality.

Why do we start a philosophy course with mythology? Because mythology informs and inspires philosophy.  Mythology creates the cultural world in which people operate. Especially in terms of ethics and imagination. A myth is a narrative of significance, value, divinity, cosmic importance. It carries a message. Is it true? Does it matter?  If you learn a virtue from a story–if you learn courage, integrity, honesty, loyalty from a story–does it matter if it’ s true or not?

I don’t think so.

But we aren’t done yet.   Tune in next time, and we’ll talk about our friend Mircea Eliade some more, with an exploration of the role that space plays in the sacred.

 

Hello reader.

Welcome, or perhaps welcome back, to my blog.  It has a long and graceless history of sporadic productivity, but it is once again active, in tandem with my attempt at keeping an Academic Journal.

The academic journal is an animal which I have often heard described by professors or Ph.Ds, but which until recently was foreign to me.  It consists of more than my class notes–though it also includes the most interesting and thought-provoking lessons from my courses.  It consists of more than notes on the reading–though excerpts from books and movies find their way into it.  And it is not just a storage space for random ideas–although I find my imagination becomes more fertile when I stare at that loaded document.  It’s only the fourth day of classes and already it is eight pages long.

The journal is all of these things.  And it is more.  The journal is a place for development.  I take closely related concepts and draw the implied connections. I make the obvious statement that makes all my courses relevant to one another, and re-learn lessons I already knew.  And then, I take that obvious statement and I write it out in a new format, just to pound it further into my head.

To that end, I will be waxing eloquent in a series of posts entitled “Divisions,” brought about by lectures in three disparate courses.  I will inflict them upon anyone who wishes to look, and I hope that they prove entertaining.  It isn’t often that I find academic work written in proper English (one of the rare exceptions is the blog of a professor at my school), and I hope the informal tone can bring some much-needed levity.

So here’s the situation.

INTERIOR: UNDERGRADUATE CLASSROOM: DAY

It’s the first day of class, and we are discussing Chinese mythology.  Now, Chinese mythology is unusual in that it is a world with which I am absolutely unfamiliar.  This sounds a bit arrogant, but really–I know something about nearly every mythological cosmos formed in the ‘Western Hemisphere.’  The mysterious East is pretty much a blank spot on my writer’s imagination.   I was enthralled, as you might imagine.  A Queen with a human head and a serpent’s body.  A farmer god with an oxen’s visage.  Stories of fires quenched, crops irrigated, skills taught, and families established.  A place-spirit (a genius loci for you erstwhile fans of Jim Butcher) in every river, on every mountain, in every secluded grotto.  A world ruled by social connections.

Of course, this was a philosophy course.

That’s right, philosophy.  A subject commonly understood as the logical, rational pursuit of truth and understanding.  And we’re taking a crash course in Chinese mythology.   Why? It seems odd, to say the least.  Analytic philosophy is the practice of applying Occam’s Razor to a problem until it has been trimmed into a lovely theoretical topiary.  Myths are bunches of stories, all of them made up, arranged into a fetching cosmos.

Why start a philosophy class with mythology?

Well–and here is the kicker of this post–we started with mythology to convey more than just information.

Nüwa was her name.  She was the Creator*.She gave life to humanity, held back demons, and quenched ravenous fires to protect her children.  Multiple times, the world fell out of order on her watch; each time, she restored balance.

*I am told that it is actually inaccurate to refer to her merely as the Creator, but since I don’t speak the slightest bit of Chinese and (as I’ve said) have about forty minutes more knowledge in Chinese mythology than I did last Tuesday, I’m afraid I have no idea at all how to title her, if not in this fashion.

Anyway.  Interesting stuff, isn’t it? How silly of these ancient Chinese people. We know better.  The world was not actually saved from fire and demons by a lady with a snake body.  What a weird way to explain evolution.  Obviously incorrect.

But…maybe that’s not the point.  Maybe the purpose of the myth isn’t in its factual content?

Maybe, instead, this origin myth is trying to emphasize the importance of balance in the cosmos, and the tendency that the world has to return to equilibrium?  Maybe this myth is not meant to be a transfer of information–maybe it is meant to be an expression of cultural values.

Maybe, attempting to take this myth literally is just as much of a mistake as trying to use a metaphor around Drax the Destroyer.

Tune in to the next post for a more in-depth exploration of this idea.  What is a myth? What is a legend? And do they contain more than just factual content?

Until next time, reader.

 

Ave, lector.

You may wish to skip down to the picture of Morpheus.  Read the following at your own risk.

During the previous session of my seminar on consequentialism (a class which I greatly enjoy participating in at this particular undergraduate institution), wherein we were discussing the finer points of Kagan’s Limits of Morality—specifically, his section regarding the vividification of beliefs on a global scale, and its implications for individual action.  As we were in the midst of this discussion, we were briefly interrupted by the parents of a student, who wished to sit in on the class and were cordially invited to join us.  While they sat in the corner with expressions of some interest, we returned to our dialectic, and as we spoke I became conscious of a point that had troubled me for some time.  I, being a student of anthropology, would characterize this as a linguistic point.

Within the academical world, if in possession of a modicum of learning, one can be uniquely situated to unpack the subtle intricacies of an intellectual nomenclature, expanding the meanings of a relatively unassuming sentence to their fullest implications.  However, despite this positionality which I possess, situated as I am within the folds of anthropological science, I am unequivocally repulsed by a specific tendency within the current scientific (and indeed, academic) institution.

Within the following paragraphs, I shall strive to set aside the cumbersome locutions which so spark my ire, and generate a more perspicuous representation of my own qualms regarding this flawed discourse—a discourse which is present not merely in my own studies, but in any scholastic setting, contributing perhaps to the alienation of the intellectual within our broader culture.

Image

Simple version.

I was in class the other day.  We were talking about philosophy stuff.  One guy’s parents came in (they were visiting) and they decided to sit in (they wanted to see the class, and embarrass their son).  We said hi—and then we went right back to talking.  And as we were talking, I was thinking about what we sounded like.  We must have sounded crazy.  We used sentences much like the ones above, and it got me thinking: Why? Why do we make this stuff so complicated?

Once you drop into that ocean of big words, it’s easy to be hypnotized by it.  Easy to forget that not everyone can understand what it means if you say, for example –

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

That was Bourdieu again.  Some of you may recognize him. And what he’s saying is that it’s very common for people to get wrapped up in science, to forget that all those things that they know aren’t known by everyone else.  Which can lead a lot of the time to conversations that go like this:  A well-meaning academic says “Excuse me, I think that this one thing has potential implications hidden beneath its simple indexical meaning that make me uncomfortable with the ways in which it reinforces a patriarchal system of power.”  And the person they’re talking to has no idea what they’re saying.

I’ve always thought that the best way to learn a subject is to explain it to an eleven-year old.  It doesn’t even have to be a kid.  But whether you’re explaining Plato’s Myth of Gygas, Bourdieu’s critique of the concept of social rules, the interactions of subatomic particles, or the inner workings of a vintage Daimler-Benz twelve-cylinder engine—if you can explain any one of those things, or anything else you know a lot about, in the smallest words possible? Then you don’t just know how to say the idea—you know what it means.

Try it!  Think about what you’re good at.  Try to explain it to someone—a younger sibling, a parent, a close friend.  Use small words.  Personally, I hate all this fancy-ass academic language.  I mercilessly make fun of it.

The whole purpose of writing and speaking is to have someone understand you.  Some of my own blog posts have gotten technical in the past, and I apologize for that.  But thinking about this reminds me of another point—remember where you’re speaking from.  I think the word ‘positionality’ is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard.  But luckily there’s a word with a very similar meaning: POSITION.

Remember who you are.  If you know words like “heteronormativity,” chances are that you are situated in a position of privilege not enjoyed by every individual in our culture.  And if you understood that sentence without rereading it, the same is still true.  Not everyone has had a chance to learn big words—or to learn the ideas behind them, like “heteronormativity.” And even if it seems intuitive to you, getting angry at someone for not understanding this is like someone yelling at you because you don’t know how to secure the hydraulic clutch in a restored Daimler-Benz DB601.

So check your damn privilege.  And use tiny words.  I’m sure you have something important to say—everyone does.  But wouldn’t it be better to say it so that everyone can understand?

Stay spiffy, my friends.

Ave, lector.

As you are no doubt aware by now, I am a student.  I study anthropology at a liberal arts college, which is a location at which many mid-to-upper class young adults go to learn how to be baristas.

I’m joking, obviously.  A liberal arts education is essential to success. The number of famous people with broad, liberal-arts style educations is so long that I’m not even going to bother providing any sources for this claim.

None of this is related to my point, by the way.  And my point today is a scholastic one, so those of my friends who prefer to relax by not talking about the finer points of anthropological theory might want to tune out here.

I am currently taking a class on Social and Cultural theory.  My teacher has his own blog (It’s called Round and Square and it’s pretty awesome).  He assigns a lot of reading.  And some of it’s hard.  Right now, I’m reading THIS little bucket of fun: An Outline of a Theory of Practice, by Pierre Bourdieu.

Now, ordinarily there’s nothing I like more than to relax with a nice Bourdieu.

It’s the 1977 vintage.

I opened up this little black book (with plenty of time to read) and found a translator’s foreword.  That seems normal.  Everything’s good so far.  Then I turn the page and read the first sentences of the actual book itself.

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible. The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

Wait, where did you go? Come back! Come back! I didn’t mean to scare you.  Sorry.

That was pretty much my reaction when I read it, to be fair.  I put the book down and said “What the hell?” People gave me odd looks.  Some of them said things like “sssh!” or “shut up asshole I’m studying.”  I knew they were sympathetic.

I put the book aside for a minute and thought about the first two sentences.  I had no idea what they meant.  I understood the words, but that means about as much as understanding the words the first time you read a hexgram in the I Ching.  Which, to those of you who aren’t hopeless nerds, translates roughly as “I didn’t understand it at all.”  So I did what I usually do when I come across something I don’t understand: I opened up a word document and copied it down.   This forces a process of slow digestion: I had to break it down, and I mean all the way down.

“The practical privilege in which all scientific activity arises never more subtly governs that activity (insofar as science presupposes not only an epistemological break but also a social separation) than when, unrecognized as privilege, it leads to an implicit theory of practice which is the corollary of neglect of the social conditions in which science is possible.”

Basically, in English, I think, so far as I understand, this is Pierre’s assertion that a scientific theory of the world (epistemology) is always tied to the social condition of the theorizer.  ‘Science’ can only occur in certain conditions, conditions of privilege and leisure.

“The anthropologist’s particular relation to the object of his study contains the makings of a theoretical distortion inasmuch as his situation as an observer, excluded from the real play of social activates by the fact that he has no place (except by choice or way of a game) in the system observed and has no need to make a place for himself there, inclines him to a hermeneutic representation of practices, leading him to reduce all social relations to communicative relations and, more precisely, to decoding operations.”  

The anthropologist’s relationship with the subject is key. An anthropologist who watches their subject from the outside can is naturally inclined to describe things in a mechanical way, and in a communicative way.  If you’re not part of the process, you miss a certain understanding of the process. This makes sense; if what you’re doing all day is watching people talk and interact, your theory of what people do all day is going to be easily summed up by the phrase ‘talking and interacting.’  You don’t capture what they’re thinking, or what they do when they go home.  Pierre is saying that this approach–the “objective” approach–is not only misguided, it is a fundamental theoretical distortion, which is a very strong wording for an academic. 

Don’t be scared by the word “hermeneutic,” by the way.  It won’t be the last time you read it here. 

All these people do is talk! Seriously! And interact with each other! Laaaaaaaaame.

Now, this is the first two sentences of this book.  The ones that follow are shorter, but they aren’t any easier.  But this book is the shit. And by that I mean it’s AWESOME.

I wrote those two sentences down in my notes and ‘translated’ them from Bourdeausian into English.  And then I did research.  I went online and googled “Outline of a Theory of Practice.” I searched scholastic catalogs and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which, by the way, is a kick-ass resource).   And I read summaries of the book, including reviews by readers who said its writing was indeed a bit dense.  Well, actually, the exact words were…

theory of practice review clip

Classics, Philosophy, and Linguistics majors will be laughing here.

More importantly, I found this on Wikipedia: 

“At the center of Bourdieu’s sociological work is a logic of practice that emphasizes the importance of the body and practices within the social world. Against the intellectualist tradition, Bourdieu stressed that mechanisms of social domination and reproduction were primarily focused on bodily know-how and competent practices in the social world. Bourdieu fiercely opposed Rational Choice Theory as grounded in a misunderstanding of how social agents operate. Social agents do not, according to Bourdieu, continuously calculate according to explicit rational and economic criteria. Rather, social agents operate according to an implicit practical logic—a practical sense—and bodily dispositions. Social agents act according to their “feel for the game” (the “feel” being, roughly, habitus, and the “game” being the field).”

This I can understand.  Especially opposing anything having to do with Rational Choices, which is something I think I may be growing notorious for doing in my philosophy classes.  (I’m aware, by the way, that Rational Choice Theory lies more in the realm of economics or anthropology, but luckily for all of us my bro Aristotle is just as applicable to those fields as well.)

(thanks bro)

Broristotle

“Sup.”

Thus armed with some awareness of what Mr. Bourdieu was attempting to accomplish–and with a sense of sympathy toward this endeavor–I began to read once again, pencil in hand.  And it was not easy, but it was easier.  So I guess I’ll have to concede that, this one time, my dad was right–because he always used to tell me that it’s best to tackle a really rough book with some kind of summary to use as a guide.   

That was my first experience with Bourdieu.

I’m on page four now.

God have mercy on my soul.