Saturday, July 30, 2005

Welcome, Ezra

Welcome to Ezra from "So I Said I Am Ezra," a new blog from the Troy University community. Ezra (a nom de cyber) appears to be focused mostly on posting poetry. I spoke with Ezra, who told me that the plan was to post poetry unattributed, so that readers would confront the poems on their own terms, rather than by the reputation of the poet. A pretty cool idea, though I'm probably going to see if I can't figure out a way for Ezra to set up links so that the reader can eventually track down any poet they really like, in case they want to read more of their materials.

Dr. Hawkins, Tear Down This Wall!

Well, OK, it might not be quite Reagan's "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech, but in Troy University news we've been in the process of tearing down our own Berlin Wall. When I was hired at Troy, it was the Troy State University system, with the various campuses more-or-less independent, having separate curricula and accreditation. This often created absurd situations. One very common one was that if a student took American Literature at one Troy State campus, the credits didn't transfer to the other campuses.

As of August 1st, the Troy State University system will be no more, replaced by Troy University. Each campus will simply be a separate location of the same university. The transition has sometimes been difficult, but I for one am glad for it. I think the change was overdue -- so kudos to the trustees and administrators who led the way on this one.

One small problem -- I had to learn to stop putting "State" in the middle of "Troy State University." It was difficult for me, but I succeeded so well in finally eradicating it that I find myself accidentally removing "State" from other phrases in which it should be. One example is my graduate school, Wayne State University, which I now call "Wayne University" unless I concentrate on saying it right.

[One more note -- I have a general guideline that I don't post most Troy University news to the blog. This is mostly because I'm afraid if I start praising certain decisions or events, if later I neglect to praise another decision it could be read as a criticism. In this case, however, I thought it a significant enough moment in the life of Troy University to break with my own rule. Now, back to our regular broadcast schedule.]

Friday, July 29, 2005

Two Hoorays!

Hooray! I've gotten a lot of work done already!


Hooray! I've been awarded the "Order of the Quill" at A Knight's Blog!

Now I've just got to get a handkerchief or other favor from Mrs. Nokes to carry into tournament.

"Never let the facts...

... get in the way of a good theory" is one of my favorite catchphrases to pull out in academic settings, generally reserved for when someone is confronted with a fact in conflict with their theory and, rather than explain it away, they simply ignore it. The amount of irony with which I imbue the phrase depends largely on how much I like the person or the theory.

I've been reading Erich Fromm's The Art of Loving, and it is rather like the girl in the nursery rhyme: "When she was good, she was very, very good; when she was bad, she was awful." I found this bold application of my catchphrase:

"According to the great and decisive discoveries of Bachofen and Morgan in the middle of the nineteenth century, and in spite of the rejection their findings have found in most academic circles, there can be little doubt that there was a matriarchal phase of religion preceding the patriarchal one, at least in many cultures" (54, emphasis mine).

Heh heh ... I love it. First he acknowledges that what he is about to state has been nearly universally rejected, then he audaciously claims that there can be "little doubt," without even making overtures at presenting evidence in support of his claim. It might be poor scholarship, but he gets an A+ in chutzpah.

The Mental Perils of Blogging

If you notice the times of my posts, you'll realize that while I might blog at any time of the day, I tend to blog most heavily early in the morning and late at night. This is because I don't want blogger to interfere with some of the more intellectually rigorous parts of my day, so I only blog when my brain isn't being used for something else. Whenever I blog in the middle of the day, it tends to be a very good or very bad sign; either I have gotten a solid bit of work done and am taking a break, or I'm unable to get anything done and am trying to get my brain in gear through other activities (usually strategy computer games or blogging).

But the real peril of blogger so early in the morning and late at night is that sometimes blogging gets into my dreams. Last night, I dreamt I got onto Digital Medievalist and Lisa Spangenberg's post welcoming me, and found that in the comments section several dozen people had written to disagree with MacAllister Stone's description of my blog as "cool." Their descriptions (in my dream) were marked by profane negative appraisals of the blog.

The scary part is that, if the dream were true, it would mean that I have more readers than I actually have in real life! The meaning of the dream, Dr. Freud? Never eat a Reeses peanut butter cup just before bed, no matter how delicious it looks.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tradition and Reason

Policy Review has an interesting article by Lee Harris entitled "The Future of Tradition," the main question of which is,

"But is it possible to defend tradition with the help of reason? Can a particular tradition be justified by reason? And what if our traditional belief conflicts with reason — can we rationally justify keeping it? "

The article is interesting, but it is founded on a false premise: that tradition and reason are potentially competing modes of thought, and that reason itself may potentially be a superior mode of thinking than submission to tradition.

Harris misses this point (or perhaps pretends to): Reason itself as he is using it refers to the Western rational tradition. In other words, reason is itself a tradition, a particular disciplined mode of thinking that may or may not be superior to other modes of thinking. Why, in his examples, do cultural fights between reason and tradition end in disaster? Because if reason wins, it undermines its very traditional foundation, and if tradition wins, it destroys the very reason it birthed.

Allow me to explain it this way: What if I attack Western rationalism as a system of thought? How can you defend it? If you defend it through reasoned argumentation, you are creating a very small circle of logic, no larger than when someone asserts "The Bible is true because it says so." Instead, one must do what Harris feels compelled to do every time he brings up the Sophists -- justify reason according to intellectual tradition. In fact, Harris's article has the great virtue of acting as performance art in that it justifies tradition by appealing to reason on the surface, but beneath the surface is really justifying reason by appealing to tradition.

I'm not sure whether he avoids saying so directly because he is missing this point, or if he is only pretending to in order to avoid alienating his apparent intended audience of reason-partisans.

...I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child...

Over at Poliblog, Steven Taylor has a post about the beliefs of children, responding to a post elsewhere.

Dr. Taylor writes:

"When I was little I believed that the world actually existed in black and white, and that it only became color a few years before my birth. My reasoning was pretty straight-forward: all the evidence I had (photographic and movies) were black and white, hence the world itself must’ve been black and white, right?"

I believed exactly the same thing. Furthermore, since the earliest color photos in my home had faded into sepia tones, I reasoned that color had come into the world gradually, first in black-and-white, then sepia tones, then the full color of my own lifetime.

Also, growing up in northern Indiana (Amish country), one day I asked my mother why the Amish didn't use cars and lights and whatnot. She responded, "Because they don't believe in electricity." To my young ears, though, I thought that what she meant was that they didn't believe in the existence of electricity, rather than simply believing in using it. I asked her, "What do they think when they see cars and electric lights and stuff?" She misunderstood what I was asking -- assuming that I was asking what they thought about those of us "English" who use them, rather than my actual question, which was about how they reasoned away the efficacy of these devices -- and responded after a moment's thought, "I just don't know."

I was probably ten or twelve years old before I realized my error. Up until then, I thought the Amish must be the stupidest people alive, unable to reason out the effectiveness of electricity by seeing the workings of a television or lightbulb.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Post-lapsarian Lunch

So I was having lunch with a colleague yesterday, and he asked me, "what do you think the nature of the Fall is?"

[Yes, this is really the kind of conversation we in English Departments have at lunch. The College of Business guys talk about sports and their lawns, and the College of Arts and Sciences guys wonder if the ubiquity of "Grade A" beef is the result of beef grade-inflation]

The context of the question had to do with relativism, and the apparent contradiction inherent in saying "There is no truth." It's a version of the Cretan Paradox. I find it is hard to find absolute relativists among serious thinkers; apparent relativists generally have a firm foundation upon which they presume truth is constructed. Study any relativist long enough, and you'll either discover that the "relativist" has a bedrock beneath which he will not sink, or that he's not really a serious thinker.

After a short discussion, I was interested to realize that both my colleague and I had independently determined that the Fall (that is, the Edenic Fall of Man) was the relativistic de-centering of God and re-centering of the Self. When the serpent says, "you will be like God, knowing good and evil," he is really offering Eve the promise of relativism. He is offering Eve the chance to be a goddess and establish her own definitions of good and evil. Every time a man sins, then, he is re-enacting the original Fall, by tacitly declaring his own superiority to God, and his own sovereignty over the rightness or wrongness of his actions. When a man declares, then, that there is no truth, he not only re-enacts the Fall, but embraces it.

Monday, July 25, 2005

Er, that wasn't what I had in mind...

After my recent coinage of "philogram" to mean a friend you know only virtually through electronic means (such as blogs or chat rooms), I decided to see if the term had taken root.

Imagine my surprise to find that exists ... but for some reason didn't come up on Google when I coined my term. And, what, pray tell, is

It is a Korean SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) site. I can read Korean (no, I'm not joking), but my reading is very slow, and much of this is too technical for me to read at any speed. I searched the site a bit to try to figure out why they called it "philogram," but I can't find any reference in the earlier posts. Unfortunately, I can't get my non-Korean version of Word to do a search for me on Korean words, so I've got to do it the old fashioned way, by eye.

In any case, their blog pre-dates my coinage by about 6 months, so they must have had *something* in mind. Occasionally, someone misspells "phylogram" to denote a phylogenetic tree, but their SETI site doesn't seem particularly biological.


Life imitates art

The countdown to the new fall semester has begun (less than a month), with the usual mad scramble: last-minute changes to the schedule, the publishers of our new composition texts haven't gotten us desk copies, etc. Now is the season when I have to make hard choices.

One of the big choices I generally have to make is about the "silent theme" of each of my courses. I like to have a theme on the surface for the students to focus on, e.g. my "love, sex, and marriage in medieval lit" theme for the medieval survey this semester. Being the evil man I am, though, I also like to have a hidden agenda, a subtext for each class. Some examples of this might be "research papers should put the writer in dialogue with scholarly/professional discussion on the topic" or "all translation and editing is a form of interpretation" or "the lessons of literature are relevant to my life."

This fall, I'm going for broke. I think I'm going to have the same "silent theme" for all of my literature classes: Life imitates art, not visa-versa.

I suspect this is going to be a tough one for students, particularly younger ones, because it is so counter-intuitive. On the surface, this seems to be nonsense. Doesn't life precede art? And as such, needn't art imitate life?

Of course, SOMEONE's life had to precede art ... we just don't have any record back that far. The earliest Man we can trace had art, from cave painting to music. Once we get further back, we've got animals. For all of recorded history, life has imitated art.

Let me offer an example. You are in love -- now, how do you behave? If you are a male, you do things like attempt feats of physical prowess, as well as demonstrating sensitivity through such things as writing love poetry or giving gifts of perfume, candies, or flowers. If you are a female, you place yourself in situations of "distress," such as having your books carried from class-to-class, or needing some repairs done around the house. While there is a biological component to each of these, how do we know how to express our biological desires in the culture? Through art, of course.

We try to live as art teaches. We express love in the ways of characters in stories. We speak in unfamiliar situations in ways that we've read characters speaking. We select the clothes we wear based upon an ideal determined by art (such as fashion photography). We take on the roles of characters we see in art, and judge others by those same characters.

In the 80's, the most popular father in America was ... Bill Cosby. No one can name one of his real children, but anyone alive at that time can name his fictional children. Students often tell me that their ideal teacher is Robin Williams from "Dead Poets' Society," far more often than they name a real teacher from their past. Our president wears cowboy boots, but I've never seen him rounding up cattle. My penchant for tweed jackets and bowties is an ironic comment on depictions of professors in art, not actual professors I have known. Women love to wear the same dress that Haley Berry wore in a particular film, but they hate it if a real live women is wearing the same dress as they. At the Cafe du Monde in New Orleans last week, people seemed to be more intent on striking poses than actually drinking coffee and eating beignets. And, most annoyingly to me, whenever in Europe all young Americans try to be characters from Hemingway.

I sometimes wonder if mimesis is really about how closely a work of art imitates life at all. Perhaps we consider something "realistic" if it presents an artistic representation we ourselves are able to imitate in our own lives. Maybe "true to life" doesn't mean that the work is similar to my own life -- maybe it means that I am able to mold my life to a role in the work.

Maybe understanding that life imitates art is too subtle an idea for most young people, but I'm going to give it a try anyway. I'll try to keep y'all posted on how its going as the semester progresses.

[updated 12:48PM to fix a stupid error]

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Libertarian cajuns, dangerous boars

Folks who know me know I'm neither a libertarian nor a Libertarian. Heck, I'm not even a libertine. Nevertheless, the latent libertarian that dwells in all Americans stirred during my trip to New Orleans.

We went on a swamp tour, which was led by a fellow who had no formal education, having quit school at the age of nine. After that time, he spent all his time in the swamps with his grandfather, who taught him all about hunting, fishing, trapping, and swamp survival. He's one of these guys who'd do you no good at a cocktail party, but you'd want backing you up if a gator ever came after you. Besides all that, he was affable without being obnoxiously "folksy" for the tourists.

What awakened my inner libertarian was the frequency of the phrase, "...the State won't let us..." On nearly every topic we discussed, at least once he had to say, "when I was a kid we used to do it this way, but now the State won't let us," or "the State makes us do it this way instead," or "the State passed such-and-such a law that ruined the market for..." After the tour, I thought about that. Here's a guy with no education, no real ambitions beyond the next duck hunt, living in a swamp, and even here he finds his daily doings micromanaged by government agencies. I suppose government intrusion (or protection, if you prefer) becomes more noticable when we are not completely engulfed by it, as we are in the more inhabited areas of the world.

On a completely different (but still swamp-related) topic, I was interested in his stories of wild boar in the swamp. He claimed to know someone who bagged a boar weighing about 400 lbs. Unlike gators, which he gets to chase him so they can harvest the eggs, he said he immediately flees up a tree if chased by a boar. It seems that the boar is the most frightening creature in the swamp, even moreso than the alligator. All this lines up nicely with the Anglo-Saxon fear/respect of the wild boar. Wolves and such were considered the scavengers of war; it was the image of the boar with which warriors adorned themselves, as with this Anglo-Saxon boar atop a helmet.

Next time I read Charlotte's Web or watch Babe, I'll do so with more trepidation. In fact, properly re-cast, Babe: Pig in the City could pass as a horror film.

To know me is to ignore me...

I'm back from New Orleans, and I realized that no one I know (with the exception of my boss, Bill) actually reads this blog, since none of my family or friends seems to know that I was missing.

"Gee, I wondered why you weren't returning my phone messages..." is a common utterance this afternoon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Virtual Post

When I got home from the office at 11PM last night, the wife announced that we were going to New Orleans for a few days, so I'll not likely be blogging for a bit. By the way, if any thieves are reading this and hoping to rob the place, you have two obstacles: we've got nothing worth robbing (unless you know a fence who specializes in kimchi and used books), and our housesitters. Oh, yes, and the dogs might not bite you, but you are in danger of being peed on.

So, since I won't be posting in the meantime, I leave for you a virtual posting. You may simply insert the relevant passages:

The blogosphere is aflame about the topic of [insert topic here]. While my law-and-politics professor brethren (and sistren) have argued [insert summary here, with relevant links], what they fail to realize is [insert light needling here, with a wink and a nudge].

I had not planned to post on this topic, but one of the main threads of argument seems to be around [insert topic relating to textual scholarship or medieval literature]. Others have argued [insert summary and link here] is true, but I think in many ways it is both true and false. On the surface, it is true, but at the heart of it it is false, because [insert argument about textual scholarship or medieval lit here]. As one important personage wrote, [insert literary quote here]. I think that about sums it up.

[Close either with droll comment, or comment on nature of public intellectualism]

I ask my readers to feel free to create new posts according to this rubric and place them in the comments section of this thread, so that other visitors can get my virtual opinion on things.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Whew! Off the Fish hook!

Thankfully, I don't have to bother explaining to all my law-and-politics professor brethren (and sistren, Profesora) exactly how Fish is being misleading, because Jeff Goldstein over at Protein Wisdom took care of it. Jim Lindgren over at Volokh, on the other hand, seems to have been completely taken in -- which is not surprising, since Fish is being a bit too precious in his English department rhetorical trickiness.

In case you don't get all the "Inside English" references (like New Criticism, etc.), just know this: Stanley Fish is most famous for writing a book called, Is there a Text in this Class?, to which his answer (grossly simplified) is "No." So, when he writes writes of the Constitution that "the Constitution can't mean what the text alone says because there is no text alone" and "Intention comes first; language, and with it the possibility of meaning, second. And this means that there can be no "textualist" method, because there is no object - no text without writerly intention - to which would-be textualists could be faithful," what he is getting at is that as a text the Constitution doesn't really exist. Though on the surface it appears he is offering a rather conservative approach, it is actually a Trojan Horse to get readers to say, "Gosh, there really is no Constitution, only intention. And since we only know of the framers' intentions through other (non-existent) texts, we are really the ones who determine their intention." So, the distinction between what we want the Constitution to mean and what it actually means is moot -- we simply say that the framers wanted to to mean what we want it to mean, because all of our "reasons and evidence publicly offered" are textual as well.

All this is a rather old and tiresome slipperiness to which folks in English departments are accustomed; Fish is counting on NYTimes readers and my law-and-politics siblings not to get it.

It's too early for Fish

See, I got up this morning, and I've got a lot of work to do ... and next thing I know Stanley Fish has written another piece for the NYTimes, entitled "Intentional Neglect." Althouse has her read of it here.

I suppose it's my job as an English prof. in the TTLB Academy community to give a reasoned response to Fish's article ... but I can't. I'm too busy at the moment -- I've got to work on an article, a chapter, watch a training video (don't ask), and work on my ugly academic webpage. Wasting time on another Fish article seems akin to wasting time explaining why "Weekend at Bernie's II" was not a great film.

So, here's the short version, though I reserve the right to write up an expanded version if for some reason Fish lights up the blogosphere:

Fish's schtick is very tiresome. He's a sad case, like the former sports demi-god who keeps playing years after his prime. The fans keep applauding out of respect, but it becomes harder and harder to remember the days when he could slam-dunk. Worse, people look back on his old work and realize that he was never such a great player, but was a great self-promoter with a good agent.

I never thought much of Fish, but at one time there were others who did. He needs to stop sullying their memories. I could do a line-by-line critique of his article, which would normally be a sign of academic respect, but in this case I think it would be more disrespectful to do so.

So, polite applause for Fish, please, then let's ignore his article.

Monday, July 18, 2005

A Man's Gotta Have Goals

In a comment to this post about my first month of blogging, Scott Kaufman wrote:

"And best of luck on your next as-of-now-unmentioned goal."

Hmmm ... I actually didn't have another goal. I really started this blog because Dr. Gill over at Logoi Kai Erga suggested we do it together, and I've enjoyed reading Steven Taylor's blog. I set that secret benchmark for myself to make sure this was not a waste of my time. Beyond that, I suppose my goals were to try to say something interesting occasionally (the kind of thing I like to read in other blogs) and prevent blogging from interfering with my other writing. So far, so good, I guess.

Perhaps I should set another goal for myself -- something measurable yet meaningful. I'm too new to all this to know what a good goal might be, or even if a goal is desirable. Perhaps always striving for more hits or more links or more posts might get in the way of the original purpose of this blog, and merely become an electronic version of the faux-intellectual pundit one sees on news analysis shows. The goal "say smart stuff on a regular basis" seems foolhardy, since it would encourage me to imagine that I have smart thoughts on a regular basis; Mrs. Nokes can testify that my dumb ideas come with greater regularity than my smart ones.

Any input from readers or philograms (I love that new-word-smell) on potential goals would be welcome.

DeLong on Theory

Brad DeLong has an interesting post reacting to the talk at the Valve about Theory's Empire. I haven't joined the discussion over at the Valve despite being invited, because I suspected the discussion would not be worthwhile. I've looked at some of the posts there, and don't regret my decision.

I think DeLong gives too much credit to Foucault (I've not read Tribe); for example, his "rational kernel" looks like the "close reading" of the New Critics. Nevertheless, I think DeLong's article is worth a read because in his generousity to Foucault he demonstrates what might be done if one leaves Foucault behind, or as he puts it, using Foucault's ideas as "tools" rather than as "masters."

By the way, be sure to look at that LONG footnote. He includes excerpts from some of the few bits I've seen that are worth your time to read.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Literary Adultery

I've been reading Denis de Rougement's Love in the Western World, though I'm taking my sweet time on it of late. One of the arguments he makes is that adultery is the most prominent form of romantic love in medieval lit because love requires obstacles -- or at least literary love requires obstacles to form an interesting narrative arc.

I think he is right to say that the obstacle issue is one reason that love and marriage are so rarely compatible in medieval lit, but surely that can't be the only reason. Love does indeed thrive on obstacles: consider how you feel when separated from your lover because they have to travel, rather than simply leading busy lives. Throwing up obstacles, real or imagined, seems to help romantic love thrive.

I wonder, for example, about domestic dispute calls to the police. I've heard cops complain that they hate domestic dispute calls the most, because as soon as they arrive they are treated as interlopers, even by the person who called them. I suspect that sometimes the caller doesn't simply change her mind, but instead suddenly sees the police as obstacles to love rather than protectors -- and the storyline in her mind changes. It's hard to tell, since the psychology of the domestic dispute is so bitter and complicated.

Nevertheless, the jealous-husband-as-obstacle can't be the only reason for the prominence of adultery, since many other imaginable obstacles exist, e.g. the jealous father, the supernatural guardian (witch, dragon, etc), geographical separation, etc. Actually, it seems to me that in medievalism (depictions of the medieval in the modern world), non-adulterous obstacles are more common. And surely the most famous real-life love story of the Middle Ages, Abelard and Heloise, fits into the category of jealous father (uncle) rather than husband, followed by the obstacle of castration.

The most influential religious understanding of romantic love, too, is entirely within the bounds of marriage. The image of Christ as Bridegroom and the Church as the Bride is central to the Christian understanding of marriage. In this case, love must overcome a rather large obstacle -- death. The narrative demands that the marriage not be consummated (i.e. Pentacost and the founding of the Church) until after the resurrection, that is, after the Groom overcomes the obstacle of death to be united with the Bride. It goes without saying that adultery in this situation is a big no-no ... of all the angry husbands I'd fear, God's got them all beat in the wrath department.

I think, then, that adultery's prominence is partially explained by its role as an obstacle in the romantic narrative, but its primacy over other obstacles must have another explanation. Perhaps romantic love requires a profane element, and the complete violation of a sacrament of marriage fulfills that role.

In an episode of "Futurama," Bender is dating the Planet Express ship. Leela protests to him, "Bender, dating your co-worker and primary mode of transportation is immoral, illogical and a violation of interstellar shipping statute 437-B." Bender replies, "That's what makes it so nasty!" Why is the nastiness of the relationship an advantage in Bender's cartoon mind? I think this gets at the core of adultery -- if we make the profane aspect of it a virtue, as we find in medieval literature, we have no need to justify our behavior, and indeed justification itself detracts from the "romance" aspect.

Gimme good ol' fashioned married love any day.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

First milestone!

Today marks the one month anniversary for Unlocked Wordhoard! Hooray!

Even more importantly, I managed to meet a secret goal, which was this: I wanted to have at least 500 hits by the one-month mark. Though the number is itself arbitrary, I had a benchmark to help me determine if Wordhoard is really a site of public intellectualism (both from myself and comments from others), or if it is just a place of random musings in an echo chamber. If it were the latter, I might continue to keep it, but I would treat it as irrelevant to my mission as a professor.

As of this writing, I'm at 551 hits, averaging about 35 per day. Of course, by the standard of others who get hundreds of thousands of hits when they post pictures of their cats, this is small potatoes. But for me, even counting family, friends, and students, 35 hits per day probably represents at least a dozen people I don't know concerned about the life of the nuos (the mind or spirit). That's about the size of a seminar-level class ... just enough for me to think that this whole enterprise is worthwhile.

I've found another statistic that I think is pretty interesting, though I'm not sure what it means: the Site Meter tells me the average length of visits. Just two weeks ago, the average length was about two minutes. Now, it is just over four and a half. Like I said, I'm not sure what this sudden increase in length of visits means, but I hope what it means is that people are slowing down in their frantic pointing-and-clicking to consider some of the issues I raise here. I don't ask that anyone agree with me (indeed, I reserve the right to change my own mind at any time), but I do ask that people consider the matters raised here, and if they think they have something worthwhile to add, that they throw me a comment.

By the way, I hope readers are interested in love, because with my upcoming class on love in medieval lit, I suspect I'll be thinking deeply about love a great deal in the coming months, and posting accordingly.

Friday, July 15, 2005


Scott Gosnell has a very nice post about kinds of "friendship" that get struck up between people on the blogosphere, regardless of whether those people have met. He kindly mentions me, and writes:

"I’d really like to meet Dr. Nokes after having a stimulating discussion with him today here at The View (it started at his site). In a rather distant way, I now consider Dr. Stokes [sic] a friend, or at least an acquaintance, though we’ve never met. I suppose after exchanging meaningful conversation, opinions, viewpoints, whatever, you just can’t call someone a stranger any more. I know next to nothing about Pennywit, yet he can’t possibly be a stranger after the discussions we’ve had. Do we have a word for this type of relationship?"

I don't think we have such a word, so if I could coin a neologism, might I suggest "philogrammateus," a conflation of "brotherly love" and "scribe" in Greek? Of course, using the full word in common parlance would be challenging, particularly considering that the plural would be "philogrammateis."

I suggest, then, truncating it to "philogram" and "philograms." I too, consider Mr. Gosnell a philogram, and would love to meet him.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Why Professors are Dumb

I've had a discussion going with Scott Grosnell over at Pros and Cons about whether the Supreme Court should be limited to lawyers as justices. I've left another comment on his site, but it seems that the discussion is winding down to him saying that since the Court deals with important issues, we really want focused specialists deciding them, and me saying that since the Court deals with important issues, we need a broad spectrum of specialties. Of course, as a professor, I work in a place that puts a premium on having lots of specialists from all sorts of fields (a university), rather than concentrating specialists focused on particular fields (like at a technical college), so perhaps that is biasing my reasoning.

In a nearly unrelated note, though, I realized why professors seem to dumb to people around them, thus giving rise to images like "The Absent-Minded Professor" and "The Nutty Professor." Mr. Grosnell wrote:

"For obvious reasons, the theologans should not be making public policy and law."

Here we see why professors are dumb. I think he is right to characterize the reasons behind that statement as "obvious" ... but they aren't obvious to me. Ask the average Joe on the street, and he'd say, "Of course. That's obvious." Ask a professor, and he'll look puzzled and say, "Why not? Aren't theologians part of the 'public' in 'public policy?' Aren't they bound by the law?"

It's that dang Socrates. He started it all with all those dumb questions.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Hooray! (sort of)

Hooray! Public Brewery has lifted me out of last place in the Academy TTLB community ... now I'm only next to last ... and just behind Public Brewery.

Of course, I've been giving Scott Gosnell over at Pros and Cons an undeserved hard time of late about everything from apostrophes to the over-abundance of lawyers on the Supreme Court, so maybe I deserve to be in the ecosystem's dungeons a bit to do penance.

How's THAT for mixing metaphors!

Imagination fails

The news on TV today has been all about the shuttle launch (now delayed), so the old Is-it-worth-it-to-go-into-space story that gets recycled every space launch is ubiquitous again.

Here's the problem -- of course it is worth it, but we don't know why. Let me explain:

In the late 15th century, Columbus set sail in an attempt to find a shorter trade route to the Indies, and bumped into the New World instead. He was looking for spices, and instead found a continent. Even when he arrived at the New World, it never occurred to him that he had found new land. He had found something of value beyond his comprehension. Imagination failed.

Conquistadors came to the New World seeking gold, particularly the fabled El Dorado. The marched all up and down the Americas looking for the fabled gold, but it never occurred to them that they were seeking a lesser treasure. Even at that time, the greatest wealth was not in currency, but in land. They walked and rode over a fantastic treasure -- two continents worth of land -- yet they were so focused on the gold that they could not perceive the great treasure beneath their feet. Even if they had found El Dorado, of what value could a single city of gold be against two continents of land with new, undiscovered resources like rubber and chocolate. Imagination failed.

Arctic explorers travelled through and died in a land apparently devoid of value. The native peoples who dwelt closest lived a Stone Age existence -- not because they were fools, but because in such a hard land survival itself was at this primal level. There was no tillable land, and not even a legendary El Dorado to seek. Beyond the challenge, little motivation existed. Yet, they did it, and below them were vast oil reserves of which they did not even dream. Imagination failed.

Of course, these are merely explorations of physical space, ignoring the more valuable explorations of the mind. When Newton "discovered" gravity, of what value was it? I suspect more then one person said to him, "Pfft. Stuff falls down. I coulda told you that." Da Vinci explored areas through art that were centuries ahead of use. Akhenaten's ideas suggesting monotheism flew in the face of three millennia of Egyptian thought, and met with a backlash upon his death, with the attempted destruction of record of him -- yet monotheism eventually won out.

So, can I articulate a justification for risking blood and treasure to venture out into a cold, dark void? No, I cannot. Imagination fails.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Dion's Three Types of Blogs

Michele Dion over at La Profesora Abstraida has created a taxomony of academic blogs, dividing them into three types:

"1. Non-anonymous blogs that usually focus on public issues with only occasional mention of personal events (the birth of a baby, maybe a movie). Would any of these really hurt an academic on the job market? According to Ivan Tribble, yes. But it shouldn't be so.
2. Anonymous blogs by academics that usually focus on personal rants, pets, and strange goings-ons, but that have little academic content. There's a reason these are anonymous.
3. Anonymous blogs that blend #2 with #1, and here, I'm thinking specifically of Bitch, PhD."

As with other taxonomies, this one could be further sub-divided, I think. For example, I notice that many of the other academic blogs at the Truth Laid Bear Academy Community tend to focus nearly-exclusively on current political events, whereas my blog has only occasional forays into this area ... and even then tends to focus on broader, more nuos oriented issues, such as in movie reviews and my discussion of fetishizing text in the Supreme Court decisions (a post that's more about textual critique than law).

Nevertheless, my blog seems to fit firmly into the first category. My traffic and links tend to come mostly from medievalists, and occasionally those interested in poetry. That poetry bit is a mystery, since I'm not a poet myself and the only discussion of poetry I can remember is a discussion of Rosie O'Donnell's website. Maybe poets just like to get a little respect from us more prosey-types.

Hat tip to the Public Brewery.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Wise Blood

I finished reading Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood late last night, and I was struck by my reaction to it.

Some authors have a way of inspiring me to write. Sometimes I'll read someone and think, yes, this writing is good! I'd love to produce something similar.

Other writers cause me to despair. I think, wow, this is so good, I could never hope to produce anything of value. I ought to give up all forms of writing.

Flannery O'Connor is in the latter category. I was able to write today only through willing myself to do so. Even producing something so pedestrian as a Facts on File entry (which is what I was working on) seemed impossible.

I'm sure creative writers must experience this all the time. I wonder if there isn't some term for this quality in a writer that either encourages or discourages other writers. If not, I think I ought to be one.

How about a non-lawyer?

Just thinking out loud here...

Is there any reason, other than political expediency, that Supreme Court justices should be lawyers? Would it kill us to have, for example, a philosopher? A businessman? A farmer? A poet? A politician (OK, we have some of those, but aren't they lawyers anyway?)?

The more I consider the issue, the more I think it would be wiser to have most Supreme Court justices not be lawyers, but instead be from a broader spectrum of fields advised, if need be, by a staff of clerks who are lawyers.

In limiting potential justices to lawyers, aren't we guaranteeing that the Court will lack the competence to rule on issues involving ethics, economics, politics, medicine, religion, etc? It seems to me that we need either to restrict the number lawyers in the Supreme Court, or restrict the effects of its rulings beyond a very narrowly-defined arena.

In the interest of full-disclosure, I myself am not currently a candidate for SCotUS, but if asked, I will serve.

de Rougemont slaps moderns

On a reader's recommendation, I've been reading Denis de Rougement's Love in the Western World. I'm only about 1/3 of the way through it (I'm stupidly trying to read it and two other books at the same time, while writing an article), on page 114 I found this:

"Since Rousseau the moderns have indeed supposed that there exists a kind of normal nature upon which the pseudo-problems of culture and religion came to be super-added .... This touching illusion may assist them in 'living,' but not in the understanding of their lives."

Sunday, July 10, 2005

On blogging job seekers

*sigh* Since I didn't think too much of this article on the dangers of blogs for job-seekers when I first read it, I resisted responding to it. Since it seems to have lit a fire under some of my fellow academic bloggers, I feel compelled to say something.

As I read the article, I thought, "Well, of course you don't publish your gripes about your workplace, lest others avoid having you as a co-worker." Then there was the personal stuff about applicants that they didn't like. Again, fair enough, I suppose, though we are starting to get into the area of unprofessional voyeurism when you google up an applicant and take offense at his hobby journal.

Then I got to this doozy, which was when I realized that the article had taken a sharp left turn and was heading south:

"The content of the blog may be less worrisome than the fact of the blog itself. Several committee members expressed concern that a blogger who joined our staff might air departmental dirty laundry (real or imagined) on the cyber clothesline for the world to see. Past good behavior is no guarantee against future lapses of professional decorum." [Emphasis added].

If a committee is not going to judge the merits of candidates based on their past behavior, then on what criteria should the committee base its opinion? I've served on a number of hiring committees, and in my mind past behavior is the MOST important criterion.

Sure, past publication record is no guarantee of future publications; past service is no guarantee of future service; past good teaching is no guarantee of future good teaching -- but when I see these things I think it more likely that a candidate will continue on with their past behavior. If, on the other hand, a candidate has no publications and has attended a single academic conference in their career, I'm likely to be skeptical of their claims that they are about to burst forth in an explosion of scholarly work. It might happen, but I doubt it.

Take, for example, my colleague Steven Taylor over at Poliblog. I'll use him as the example because we work at the same institution, and as he is tenured in a different department than I am, I'm pretty unlikely to ever serve on a hiring committee considering him. If I googled him up and saw his blog, what I'd find is more than two years worth of archives of sustained, serious thought about the political matters of the day. Why would I assume that after doing this for years he would suddenly begin violating professional decorum?

I can think of many legitimate reasons committees might object to a blog -- perhaps its content is unprofessional (as distinct from non-professional, such as a personal or hobby blog). Perhaps they might find that the candidate's theoretical approach is not what they wanted ("Gee, we advertised for a post-colonial guy, but he's an archtypal critic..."). Perhaps they find that the candidate is trying to pass off blog entries as publications equivalent to legitimate peer-reviewed kinds. But to reject candidates simply because they HAVE blogs? This seems to me silly, capricious, and a violation of professional standards.

As I don't have tenure, it is always possible I could find myself interviewing at the school "Ivan Tribble" hires for. I wish I knew which school it is, so that I could avoid applying. After all, their past bad behavior (of rejecting candidates for having personal blogs) is almost a guarantee of future lapses of professional decorum, and who would want to work in such a place?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Short entry on hurricane

Another blogger complained today that my posts are too long, so I'll try to keep this short:

Hurricane come. Maybe no power. Maybe no blog for while. Will blog if can.

Friday, July 08, 2005

Review of War of the Worlds

I gathered some unexpected inertia for an article I'm working on, so I decided to reward myself with a trip to the movies. Here follows my review of War of the Worlds ... but first, a rant.

I was waiting for the film to start when a couple and their child sat down immediately behind me. The child was maybe, maybe 3 years old ... but I'd guess closer to two. First of all, no one has any business bringing a two-year-old to a movie theatre for any film not involving animated animals going on a quest. Second, no one has any business taking a two-year-old to a PG13 rating. Third, no one has any business taking a two-year-old out for a film that begins at 9:30 PM. Finally, after about the hundredth on-camera death, it's time to take the kid out of the theatre. Later in life, when I see that this child is grown up and has gone on a multi-state killing spree, I'll know why.

Anyway, enough with the rant. On with the review.

Glen Gill has made the case that War of the Worlds is modeled on the Revelation in the Bible. I think this is close, but not quite right. Gill himself seems to sense that this reading is off by about 5 degrees when he writes,

"As I say above, War of the Worlds closes his Biblical meditation with recasting of Revelations. I think there is a hell of a book in this extended interpretation. But I wonder what Spielberg himself would make of it, particularly my suggestion of Christian influence (since he is, obviously, Jewish). He'd probably concede that the narrative DNA of the New Testament can and does find its way into the consciousness of any American storyteller, regardless of their religion, simply as a matter of cultural geography"

I would argue that the leap into consciousness he talks about is because War of the Worlds is not part of the Biblical apocalyptic tradition, but is rather informed by the popular apocaylptic tradition. The Biblical apocalyptic tradition, from Daniel to Revelation, uses symbolic imagery to express truths that were too difficult or dangerous to express explicitly. The images that I saw were not Biblical images at all, but rather part of the Christian folklore that has grown around the End Times. After the initial lightning strikes (which someone in the film glibly comments are God's wrath on their neighborhood), the very first images of disruption we see are cars out in the street, unable to move because of EM pulse. No, this is not Biblical, but is instead a common Rapture image. For some reason, the popular Christian imagination of the Rapture (a doctrine I disagree with, BTW) is fixated on cars without drivers, and planes falling from the sky because the pilots have been taken up into Heaven. Without going too spoilerish, again and again the images are more reminiscent of older End Times films (like Thief in the Night) than of Biblical imagery. We have the stalled out cars, planes falling from the sky, two different Deluge sequences, and even an Anti-Christ figure who tries to supplant Ray (Tom Cruise) as savior of his daughter.

On another level, the film is about Ray learning to become a father. In apocalyptic terms, that's what the film is really "about" -- the revelation of how to be a good father. In the beginning, he is irresponsible, the kind of dad who other kids think is "cool" but no kid wants to be stuck with. The children don't even call him "dad." They call him what he is: "Ray," a destructive force in their lives just as the alien rays will be. In the course of the film, he transforms into the father he should be: laying down the law, sacrificing for his kids, protecting when they are young, letting go when they are older, ad libbing parenting skills he doesn't have, etc. Ray's final transformation comes relatively near the end of the film (I think it needed to be earlier, but it's a quibble) in a sequence of resurrection as an inversion of birth -- essentially, Ray has to be sucked back into a womb of death in apparent sacrifice before he can resurrect into the father he is supposed to be.

All in all, the film was quite good, though I wasn't affected by it as deeply as other viewers. Rather than being inspirational, the ending (of Ray's interpersonal relations, not the aliens) fell flat for me. I rolled my eyes at the last scene before the voiceover at the end. It's certainly one of Spielberg's better films, and is possibly his best science fiction film (though the much-underestimated Minority Report might be better). All-in-all, I actually think H.G. Wells' source material is difficult to work with if one is making a blockbuster. His book War of the Worlds isn't as ham-fisted in its propaganda as some of his other books (the dreadful In the Days of the Comet comes to mind), but it doesn't have a nice Aristotlian arc to it that makes for a good blockbuster film. Since Wells' socialism doesn't quite have the same appeal it did before the collapse of the Soviet Union, an adapter can't rely on the original polyvalence of his writing. Transforming it into a revelation about fatherhood is a pretty good choice, I think.

Inferior medievalists

New Kid on the Hallway has a post about her (his?) fears that she may be an inferior medievalist because her paleography and language skills are limited.

Pffft. Relax, New Kid. I might be on the literary side of things, but we literary medievalists have the same problems. Every academic field has its own issues, but one that I like to harp on for medievalists is that we are held responsible for knowing all there is to know about a millennium of literature (or, in your case, history) stretched over a continent. I knew a fellow in graduate school who specialized in Beat poetry, and I often thought it alien to focus on, at most, twenty years of poetry in a couple of cities.

For all practical purposes, a medievalist needs to know just enough about general topics, and as much as possible about a few. Take James Marchand's "What Every Medievalist Should Know" list. When I look at that list, I assume that these are areas that every medievalist should be able to master if need be. Is there anyone out there who actually knows off the top of his head everything on the WEMSK list?

His list of topics runs:
Anthropology Archaeology Arithmetic and Numerology Astronomy and Astrology
The Bible Biblical Commentaries Bibliography Byzantine (Medieval Greek) Literature
Celtic Literature Codicology Comparative Religion
Daily Life
Editing Encyclopedias (English) Old English Literature
Feudalism and Knighthood (French) Old French Literature
Geometry Geometry II (German) Medieval German Literature Gothic Literature Grammar
(Latin) Medieval Latin Literature Linguistics Liturgy Logic/Dialectic
Mechanics in the Middle Ages Medieval Science Music
Paleography Philosophy in the Middle Ages
Rhetoric (Russian) Old Russian Literature
Saints Seven Liberal Arts (Slavic) Old Church Slavic Literature (Slavic) Old South Slavic Literature (Slavic) Old West Slavic Literature Sociology (Spanish) Old Spanish Literature Standard Guides and Bibliographies (Wemsk Alpha) Symbolism
Textual Criticism Addendum to Textual Criticism Translation Time and the Calendar
Wemsk Alpha

Lets ignore the subject areas, and just focus on the languages for a moment. Who the heck has a working knowledge of medieval Greek, Celtic, English, French, German, Latin, Norse, Russian, Slavic (in its various varieties) and Spanish? If someone claims to have mastered all of these languages, he either has a very strange definition of "mastered" or has no time to do any actual writing about these languages.

You could improve your paleography skills -- so what? I've got some paleography skills, but I think it is possible to be a perfectly competant medievalist and do no paleography whatsoever (though, admittedly, one's areas of specialty would be limited). I've got a medievalist friend who likes to quote a very prominent medievalist who once told him about Latin, "You know, me and a dictionary, we go a long way."

OK, admittedly, I don't know you, New Kid, so you may be a completely worthless medieval historian ... but I doubt it. All scholars have areas of weakness in their understanding. The difference between a true scholar and a poseur is that true scholars are open about what they don't know and seek help from colleagues who are strong in those areas. Poseurs try to fake it.

Here at Troy University, we've got a medieval historian (Allen Jones) who is a specialist on Gregory of Tours and all those Gaul-types. The amount I know about the Gauls could probably fill a single blog entry. The amount I know about Gregory could probably fill a single sentence, provided it was a sentence fragment. On the other hand, I know stuff about Anglo-Saxon charms that is probably known by maybe a half-dozen other people alive today -- and he doesn't know jack about the Anglo-Saxons or medieval magic. Does that make either of us inferior? I don't think so. Allen's a smart guy, and if he tried to tackle medieval magic for a semester or so he could know enough to write an article on the subject.

So, cheer up, little buckaroo! We all have these insecurities. When you are called upon to be the resident expert on a thousand years' history over all of Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, there are bound to be blind spots.

Stones in the Field

Stones in the Field very kindly excerpted part of my blog in her "Interesting Things I've Been Reading Lately" segment. The excerpt was from one of my postings on love.

Thanks! I rather liked that posting, but not many people seem to have read it.

Least Plausible Actors in the Role of Ph.D.

Jonathan V. Last has a review of Fantastic Four, Batman Begins, and War of the Worlds here that I disagree with in terms of Batman Begins, but can't comment on the others as I've not seen them.

What amuses me is his running list of "Least Plausible Actors in the Role of Ph.D." I always laugh when an actor in his lower twenties is given the role of the Ph.D. in a film. I would like to add an honorable mention to his list: In the film Chain Reaction, Keanu Reeves plays a research assistant/machinist. I had trouble believing that Reeves could do either in-depth intellectual work or hard manual labor. He has to be honorable mention, though, since his character is technically not a Ph.D.

Now, if they had him in a role selling styling gel at the mall, that I'd buy. Er, the role, not the gel.

Last place! *weeps uncontrollably*

I notice I'm in last place for linked academic blogs in The Truth Laid Bear Academy Community. Just one question -- what's the deal with all the law and politics academic bloggers? Given just how much more we read and write in any given day, you'd think there'd be more good literary academic bloggers. Of course, there are some, but the field seems dominated by law and politics guys.

It reminds me of the Clinton perjury scandal, when he famously (and weakly) dodged his obvious lie by saying "it depends on what your definition of 'is' is." I recall seeing the airwaves clogged with legal and political types -- but I don't remember seeing any English professors called upon to say things like "if you don't know what 'is' means, you aren't a native speaker of English" or "Harrumph. Well, you see, the word 'is' has a complicated history, so no one really knows what it means..."

Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Love of Nations

All day long, Americans have been asking, "what will the reaction be in the UK?" In the aftermath of Spain's apparent capitulation to terrorists, the question is, I think, a fair one. I have been considering a different question today: "What will the reaction be in America?"

Generally, issues of love do not come into international politics. Political decisions are made on the basis of interest of the nation, and for the most part this is as it should be (any democratic government that does not rule in the interest of its constituents betrays them and sacrifices its own legitimacy). I would argue, however, that America has an irrational love of two countries that transcends interest: England and Canada.

Naturally, we have interests in those two countries, as well as an affinity for them because of cultural similarity and shared democratic principles. Our love for them moves beyond these interests and affinity, though. In many ways, Americans feel in the gut as if attacks on these two countries are oblique attacks on us -- or, to extend the metaphor, attacks on our lovers.

Consider other countries -- Australia, for example. Americans tend to think Australia is pretty neat. They speak English, they have a democracy, and apparently have some fetish for shrimp and barbeques. We would not like an attack on Australia, not one bit. If someone attacked Australia and they called on us for help, we would probably help out, but first our political leaders would have to make a case for it. Americans would tsk and say "what a shame," but our first reaction would be to send condolances or aid, not risk American blood. The same is true for many other strategic allies -- Japan, Korea, Israel, Taiwan, France (yes, even France), and any of the NATO allies.

England and Canada, for some reason, are different. We love them. Our affinity to these two countries is irrational (though I do not mean irrational in the negative sense) and transcends interests. Some might argue that we defend Canada because we have an interest in maintaining a long and essentially undefended border. Of course, we have that interest, but why do we not also have the same affinity for Mexico? If an openly-hostile government were to border us on the south, that line would be just as difficult to defend. I submit that even if the border with Canada were six inches long and guarded by a hair-trigger tactical nuclear weapon, we would still not hesitate to defend them.

Lovers squabble, it is true. Nevertheless, even if my wife and I were to be in the middle of a bitter dispute, if someone attacked her I would not make a decision to defend her; I just would do it. She would never wonder if I would defend her; she would depend on it as one depends on gravity.

Americans feel instantly the gut-churn of emotion as if a lover were attacked. When Spain was bombed, I think it fair to say that we sympathized in a more detached way. Even when terrorists essentially slaughtered a school full of children in Russia, we were shocked by the barbarity and inhumanity, but felt distant from the event. The bombings in London, with fewer fatalities, feel much closer to home. Americans will demand action, at least in the short term. Abroad, they will demand an even more aggressive posture toward terrorism, out of a desire for vengeance as much as defense. At home, disputes over the Patriot Act will be glossed over. The national debate over Gitmo will be replaced by criticisms of coddling terrorists. The Union Jack will suddenly appear in unexpected places. When a lover is harmed, you don't debate -- you react.

In the psychology of the nation, this is the first serious attack on American soil since 9/11. Sure, technically attacks on embassies abroad are attacks on American soil, but Americans don't feel them in the same way. Though the minds of Americans may understand that the attacks really took place abroad, our hearts feel the attacks at home.

Dane-geld in the news

Derbyshire over at National Review had this to say about the potential political ramifications of the London bombings. I include it here more for the Dane-geld reference than anything else. I hope he's wrong, but I must admit there's a certain logic to what he says.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Thief! Thief! We hates it!

I've spent the last day and a half dealing with an identity theft problem. Someone has set up a dummy e-mail account in my name, and is trying to get loans and such. I've taken all the appropriate steps (filing a police report, reporting to the FTC, reporting to the credit report agencies, etc.), so I hope to have mitigated the damage.

Just so y'all know, if you get an e-mail from, it isn't really me. It's my identity thief.

Thank God he can't steal my dashing good looks and sparkling personality!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Value of Sincerity

A confluence of events led me to attend the InConjunction Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention a few days ago. I have friends who are deeply involved in Live Action Role Playing, and since I like HP Lovecraft (the setting of the LARP) and acting, they sometimes tap me to play roles for their games. It is both twice as geeky and twice as fun as you imagine it to be. It just so happened that I was passing through Indianapolis during the convention, so I joined them. I had never been to such a convention, and was very curious.

Before going, a friend who had been before said, "We'll be the coolest people there." He was right. If my trip were a fictional film, I'd have ripped the filmmaker for unrealistic stereotypes of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fans. Every caricature of fanboys was there. The Comic Book Guy from the Android's Dungeon on "The Simpsons" was there in spirit, if not in the flesh.

To be honest, I didn't much enjoy the convention. My own role there was primarily to work the LARP, helping to direct the storyline. Most of the day was downtime between LARPs, though, and I simply could not become immersed in the sea of Sci-Fidom. I've never really understood collecting memorobilia beyond simple decorations, and while a strategy game involving hundreds of little tiles and chicklets might be fun with your friends, I don't have any desire to play such games with strangers. I think most of the people were there to meet old friends who shared their interests, but since I went with the only people I knew, I couldn't participate in that part either.

Here's the spot where people would normally denigrate these conventions. Even though I found a lot of silliness that calls for a thorough mocking, I have to confess that I found something rather charming about the whole thing. I mean, here were people who were in full hypergeek mode, meeting with the other hypergeeks to do the hypergeekiest activities around -- and they knew it. For the most part, they didn't seem to care. People went around in costumes and bought Buffy action figures and cheesy S&M art of dragons and robot maidens, and didn't care what people thought of them. They liked it.

The most counter-cultural aspect of the whole convention was the attitude. Most of us (myself included) spend a great deal of time cultivating a cool ironic detatchment from the culture around us. If we can treat our popular culture ironically, the logic goes, it shows that we are better than and smarter than the masses that consume it. Shows like VH1's Best Week Ever (which I love) allow people to engage in popular culture while simultaneously denying their attraction to it. We're like the anti-porn activist who crusades because it gives him a socially acceptable chance to look at the porn he is trying to ban.

Here were people sincerely and unabashedly wallowing in popular culture. While I think they could have chosen more worthwhile subjects than, say, Dr. Who memorobilia, I found their sincerity charming. I like irony, but sincerity can be pretty cool too in its own way.

Fetishizing the Ten Commandments

The US Supreme Court finds itself in a bit of difficulty of late over the issue of the display of the Ten Commandments in public places. Recent rulings on a display in Kentucky and a display in Texas create a situation in which, in essense, the court suggests that it has eroded religious liberties over time, and simultaneously undermines its own legitimacy.

The problem begins with the fetishization of texts, in which the metaphorical meaning of the text becomes bound up more in its medium than in the metaphors of the words themselves. The Ten Commandments has, for better or for ill, become fetishized by Christians and anti-Christian activists.

Consider this: In orthodox Christian thought, Christians are not bound by the Ten Commandments, and the Old Covenant which they represent. Though adherence to the Ten Commandments is a way of avoiding sin, the Commandments are almost irrelevant to matters of salvation.

So how did the Ten Commandments gain public prominence as they did? The focus on Moses as a law-giver suggests the legitimacy of legal workings in legislatures or courthouses, by simultaneously suggesting that the laws rest on a solid foundation reaching back millennia, and that God Himself legitimizes the legal work done there. Obviously, posting the entire Pentateuch is impractical, so instead images of Moses (such as that in the US Capitol and Supreme Court) and the Ten Commandments serve as representatives of a whole body of legal tradition. The Ten Commandments are a particularly nice example, since Moses asserts that they were written on the stone tablets by the finger of God Himself.

In that sense, the Commandments as a text are unimportant. Indeed, I've almost never heard the public debate on the issue address the particular commandments, i.e. the text itself. I suspect that if you were to ask most Christian and anti-Christian activists alike to name the Commandments, you'd probably get an answer like, "Um, let me see ... thou shalt not kill ... um ... something about coveting ... I think stealing is in there too..." In other words, the individual commandments are nearly irrelevant. Otherwise, the Court's rulings would be along the lines of disallowing the commandments that specifically mention God (like no graven images), but allowing commandments that don't (like prohibitions on murder and theft). Instead, the syllabus of the Court's ruling on the Kentucky display suggests that "displaying that text is thus different from symbolic representation, like tablets with ten roman numerals..."

In this way, the Ten Commandments are simply a fetish symbolizing the legitimacy of the State. I suspect in most cases displays are not motivated by religious activism, but instead out of the impulse to show ancient legal precedence. Anti-Christian activists want to destroy the text as a fetish ... they want to remove suggestions that the legitimacy of the State rests on Providence. It is rather like book-burning, in that book-burners are not so much trying to prevent people from reading the individual codices that are cast in the flames, but to destroy the fetishized texts. If you don't like the book-burning example, then consider it like the old custom of swearing on the Bible -- you are just supposed to touch the Bible-fetish; you aren't supposed to open it up and read it.

Christians have fallen into a trap by accepting the fetishization of the Ten Commandments. Of course, Christians are right to recognize that groups that seek to destroy Ten Commandments displays aren't against the Commandments, but are instead against Christians and the Christian history of the nation. Instead of participating in the fetishization of the Ten Commandments, however, Christians would be better served by promoting the text itself.

Let me explain this way: anti-Christian activists achieve important goals when they successfully eliminate Ten Commandments displays -- they blot out the public memory of the State's claims of legitimacy, they prevent public expressions of faith in other contexts, and they discourage Christians from getting involved in public and political life. Christians, on the other hand, do not achieve anything by putting up more such displays -- sure, they cheese off the anti-Christian activists, but they do not encourage the reading of the text itself, in this case the Bible. In a sense, they discourage reading the Bible by suggesting that being in the proximity of a Bible fetish is sufficient.

It's rather like those beautifully bound sets of classic books you'll find on people's shelves. They display them so that people will associate the owner with erudition. Generally speaking, you won't find a lot of English professors with such sets, since their appearance forbids reading -- you wouldn't want to ruin the set by breaking the binding. English professors tend to have shelves of well-worn, dog-eared books.

The textual scholar in me shouts out, "If you want people to respect a text, get them to read it. If you want them to read it, let them see you reading it yourself." If I were to demonstrate against the destruction of a text-fetish (such as book burning or destroying Ten Commandment displays), I would oppose them by reading the text itself. By saying that displays of ten roman numerals are OK, but displays of the text itself is not, the Court is admitting that it bans the text itself, just not the fetish. Who cares how the courts determine what is a religious and what is a historical fetish? What I care about is the Court banning texts.

The Supreme Court's problem is this: it wants to find a way to screen out the religious metaphors inherent in the Ten Commandments, but not the metaphor of legal precedence and legitimacy. So, in the apparently contradictory Texas and Kentucky rulings, the Court determined that the Texas display was acceptable because of its age (being more than 40 years old). In applying age as the primary criterion for determining the relative religiousity of the display, however, the Court appears to tacitly admit that the degree of religious liberty permitted decades ago was greater than the degree of religious liberty permitted today. This, in turn, undermines the very notion of precedence bound up in the "acceptable" versions of the Ten Commandments.

Eventually, the Supreme Court (or its co-equals, the Congress and the President) is going to have to straighten this whole fetish thing out. It can't simultaneously claim its legitimacy based on precedence of a text, then ban the very text that it claims gives it legitimacy. It's as absurd claiming that the Constitution forbids the reading of the Constitution. It seems to me that the Court will either have to allow communities the liberty to display the Ten Commandments and base its own legitimacy on the long tradition of Western law, or the Court is going to have to base its legitimacy on something else (such a popular opinion, or might, or a self-legitimizing Constitution). The only thing that is clear about the Ten Commandments rulings is that posting the text of the Ten Commandments nowadays is forbidden in the public arena, and a community's only hope in having such a display is that the display was erected during a time of greater religious liberty.