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The SOTU, or as I like to call it, STFU

I didn’t want to watch.  The tickets had typos (I know, this is the least of our worries).  But then I listened to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism on Audible on the way into work today and remembered that things are not newly bad.  Things have been careening toward deficit-driven upward redistribution of wealth since at least the George W. Bush Administration.  We need to watch in order to bear witness.  In truth, I’m torn between giving Trump too much attention and doing my civic duty.  I decided to do my civic duty.

Before the address, I looked up “pre-game” reports and found that ABC called it Trump’s First “Must See TV” State of the Union and almost decided against watching again.  But here I am.  Girding my loins.  I switched to CBS.  Ok, I can’t talk about how creepy the thing is, how viscerally difficult it is to watch: Trump’s squint, his hand gestures, Paul Ryan’s self-satisfied smirk.  This cannot be my focus.  As I’ve been saying since more than year ago, these things are not what we need to concern ourselves with. Read more

Non-Imitative Yoga and Becoming Virtuous in Aristotle and Plato

In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it.  This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral.  The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous.  By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person.  Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation.  One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.

On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character.  The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do.  A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more

On Christianity and the Loss of Mourning

My grandmother-in-law died a couple weeks ago.  She was 105-years-old.  She seemed ready to go.  She held on for a long time, but I am glad that she felt like she didn’t need to keep holding on.  Still, I am sad she’s gone.  She would tell us a story about something that happened a long time ago and then she’d say, “It’s funny what you remember.”  We like to say that at our house now.  It’s been a kind of rite to visit her whenever we are in Spokane, a rite that connects us to other parts of the family.  I’ll miss that.  I’ll miss her matter-of-factness about the world.  “I’m not old,” she’d tell us.  Thinking about her now makes me smile.  I am sad that she will no longer be out there in the world.

I was going to tell my parents, and then I didn’t.  I didn’t because I knew that they would ask me, “Was she a Christian?”  And I knew that they would ask because they wanted to know whether she was going to heaven.  And that they would want to know that because they would want to know whether it was really an occasion for mourning or not.  Or at least, that’s how that question always felt to me.  Christianity, as I came to know it as a very young child, was about avoiding death and the need to mourn death.  The Christians I grew up around would evangelize to people who didn’t believe by asking them whether they knew where they were going when they died.  And they would tell them that they would go to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus.  When someone died, if they were a Christian, it didn’t seem like anyone around me would be really sad about it.  Countless times, reports would come to me of someone dying with the information that they were believers.

I’ve been working through some of the affects of Christianity and one that I think has stayed with me is the difficulty in truly mourning–whether it be loss or injustice.  I briefly discuss the way that Christianity seems to mourn mortality, and structure itself around avoiding death in my post on Christianity Without Metaphysics.  What I have lately come to realize is that Christianity, at least a Christianity that thinks the goal is heaven, has robbed me of the capacity to experience loss or mourning.  And it is only with the end of heaven that true mourning becomes possible.  What I have newly come to see and understand is that I want to be able to mourn.  I want to be able to acknowledge loss, to see the gaps left by the absence of people I love.  Like this last summer when I went to the small town in Montana where my grandmother lived her whole life and where my dad grew up and the whole town felt haunted by my grandparents.  I missed them because they were gone.  I missed them without consolation of a possible reunion.  They were there, waving from the porch until they couldn’t see us anymore, and then they were not.  And they will never be again.

I wonder about what we lose when we lose the capacity to mourn.  I wonder if we lose the capacity to take this life and this world, its pain, the real death of others, seriously.  I wonder whether this inability to mourn is what keeps us from doing something about genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar and of the harm done by ICE deporting DREAMers and ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Syria.  If death doesn’t matter, then killing doesn’t matter.

I’m of the mind that ways of thinking should be considered for how they work in the world, for their use, as much as for whether they can be justified and supported through argument.  This notion that we need not be really sad because someone has gone to heaven seems to work by limiting our capacity to feel loss in the face of death, which then makes us fail to take death seriously, which then leads us to accept the notion that some people are just going to have to die for other people to live the way they want to live.  But it also keeps us from thinking about the decisions we make in life as really real, as really mattering.  The only decision is to do what is required so that you avoid death.  And then heaven is just life stretched out where nothing will lead to the end, the eternal return of the same.

The Greeks had the Eleusian Mysteries believed to be protected by Demeter.  The Mysteries were commonly understood to be about death and to be about preparing for death.  Rumor has it the mystery of death is that there is no mystery.  The Mysteries were closely guarded, and I wonder if it was because if they were made public, then people might take living a heck of a whole lot more seriously.

I’m not someone who longs for heaven.  I think I would rather mourn than have the consolation of heaven.  But I do wonder whether really bringing about a world that might resemble heaven requires letting go of our hold on the consolations of death.


City as Canvas: Graffiti Exhibit at IMA

The City as Canvas exhibition first went up at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014.  A large portion of the exhibit is of work that Martin Wong collected in the late 1980s and 1990s while living in New York, including graffiti artists’ black books of sketches and a series of photographs from subway trains around the city (more on the backstory including how Wong built his collection by paying graffiti artists for their work can be is here).

I am glad that this exhibition was in Indianapolis.  Today is its last day at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.  I have to say that first before I pronounce on how it produces the sense of New York and graffitied New York as a strange and foreign culture where the natives did things like (gasp) spray paint on public property.  They even had a display of graffiti vocabulary to drive home the “look at the strange natives” vibe.  Growing up in Philadelphia in the 80s and the 90s, I find graffitied cities to be the backdrop of city life. I remember starting to recognize tags and seeing how much certain artists got around town, and thinking, it was like a secret code, because it was. Read more

Which America First?

Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos yesterday (full transcript here) about “America First,” saying, “I believe in America.”   Trump seems to think it is obvious who he means by America, and many of his supporters think it is obvious too.  Yet, increasingly, the policies of “America First” do not support those who support it.  Last week, in an effort to protect American interests the Trump Administration slapped a tariff onto solar panels coming from China this week.  Though Trump fancies himself a “job creator,” this move will likely result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs.  Solar panel manufacturing will help FirstSolar, Tesla, Suniva, and SolarWorld, but manufacturing only makes up a small portion of the solar panel industry.  Most of the work is in installation.  Some analysts are even suggesting that foreign companies will see most of the benefit. Read more

Phantom Thread: Never Cursed

I have never been so convinced that reviewers have missed the central theme of a film than in the case of “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Daniel Day-Lewis.  It is not about a man driven to aesthetic perfection more than money and power, whatever A.O. Scott seems to think.  Nor is it, as he puts it, “The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work.”  Nor is it about breakfast, as Anthony Lane suggests in The New Yorker, although that is a more interesting possibility, and it is true that breakfast is an important setting for the major moments in the film.  Like Lane, I thought of Hitchcock in watching the film, and specifically of “Rebecca,” but the film is in the end, more of a love story, than a horror story, which is perhaps its central surprise.

SPOILERS Read more

Black Mirror Episodes Ranked

So apparently listing all of the Black Mirror Episodes in the order from best to worst is now a thing.  So I’m getting on it.  For me best to worst does not mean I don’t like the episodes on the bottom of the list, I just mean, in terms of Black Mirror episodes, they were not as good as the ones ahead of them.

I was trying to think about what my ranking criteria are.  One element is how believable it is, not in terms of the technology, but the ethical dilemmas and decisions people find themselves facing as a result of the technology or the aspects of the human condition the technology reveals.  The more those dilemmas seemed to capture the truth of humanity in this moment in time the better I thought the episode was.  But I also coupled that with how interesting the technology / world created by the technology was.  So while I thought Shut Up and Dance captured the truth of humanity, the technology seemed pretty much already possible so the episode didn’t seem that imaginative to me. Read more

Mother! and the Wisdom of Silenus

I saw Darren Aronofsky’s film Mother! when it first came out and I’ve been mulling over it for awhile.  I was hesitant to see it because of reports that it was a horror film, but I didn’t think it was difficult to watch in the same way a horror film is.  It is unrelenting in the Second Act, but the unrelenting nature is purposeful.  Marc Maron had a just awful reading of it on his podcast after he interviewed Aronofsky, but mostly, astute viewers saw the allegory to Christianity and to the price the artist exacts from his material.  What I’ve been mulling over are the ways that the film is a critique of Christianity–of God as the artist and of Christianity as a practice of consuming the creations of the artist.

In what is to my mind the central scene of the film, Jennifer Lawrence’s character realizes that The Poet who represents God is trying to take the newborn baby from her.  So she holds the baby to protect it.  Eventually she falls asleep, and while she is sleeping, The Poet / God takes the baby and presents it to the people who tear the baby to pieces and liturgically eat the pieces of the baby guided by a priest in a clear depiction of Communion. Read more

Teaching through Encouragement

Yesterday, after yoga I thanked the teacher for the encouragement in class and he said, “It’s a pleasure to watch you work.” It got me thinking about how the encouragement and positive feedback motivates me to work through the difficult parts of class.  When I was in graduate school, I worked for a test prep company where I taught classes and also trained teachers for them.  One of the regular strategies that we were supposed to teach was that teachers should provide consistent positive feedback to students, even if students were struggling.  Evidence shows that encouragement motivates students to do more work.

Perhaps that point is obvious.  And yet, in the classroom, I find myself focusing more on making students aware of their deficits in order to get them to work.  In the same way that I sometimes hold back insight in order to motivate insight, I sometimes hold back encouragement to get students to see that more work, more thinking needs to be done.  Obviously, it takes judgment.  Sometimes students need to be made aware that they are not fulfilling expectations.  But often, students need affirmation for the work they are doing in order to be motivated to do more and better work. Read more

Yes, And…Two Exercises for Building Better Discussion

At least once a year, I teach a small upper division seminar course that is heavy on discussion.  I have been working on strategies to get students to talk through issues that their classmates raise rather than to jump from one free associated comment to another or to think discussion is just asking their classmates to explain things.  Last summer I saw some movie about an improv troupe in which they did this exercise where one person started with a name and then the next person had to say something related to that name and the next person something related to that and so forth.

It occurred to me that this exercise could help students think about how to listen to one another and to respond in related ways.  During the third week of class, after we had tried to discuss and ran into the typical problems–students don’t pursue issues after the first response, students don’t directly take up issues their classmates raise, students jump quickly  to other issues and remain on the surface for all of them, or students speak just to ask clarifying questions rather than to build on ideas–I started class introducing this game. Read more