St. Patrick’s Day: The Most American Holiday

St. Patrick’s Day plays a crucial role in the American holiday calendar, bridging the gap between the post-Christmas “TV event” season (Superbowl, award shows, etc.) and the summertime “grilled meat” season. More importantly, though, it seems to me that St. Patrick’s Day expresses the fundamental nihilism at the heart of American life. The sole purpose of the holiday is drunkenness — indeed, it is a celebration of drunkenness for its own sake. The completely phoned-in requirement of green clothing makes even the abomination of adult Halloween look like a rich and meaningful tradition. The reference to Irish culture — consisting of excessive drinking and the color green — is not so much a parody of Ireland as a parody of the very idea of a cultural heritage as such.

As we walked by the local “Irish pub” at 10 this morning, I pondered all those people with their drinks and their green t-shirts, and I thought: “This is it. This is all there is — utter nothingness.” When the end comes, we will all be bloated with cheap beer, wearing our green t-shirts, watching the asteroid strike or cataclysmic flood or nuclear detonation on big screen TVs, screaming, “Wooooooo!!!” And half of us won’t even tip.

On the old saw, “Be the change you want to see in the world”

It’s as though life is a constant election. With our every choice, we signal our preference, and someone or something (public opinion, the market, etc.) registers it and acts accordingly. We don’t simply consume things — we “support” them, like we support a political candidate. I eat organic food in order to signal to the market that food should be produced organically. I patronize my local bookstore whenever possible so that the market will know that local bookstores are valuable. I debate my family at Thanksgiving dinner because every individual who adopts liberal views on political issues contributes to a more liberal tilt in public opinion.

If every decision is an election, every debate is a jury trial. Politics presupposes the jury member as archetype — the definitionally ignorant observer, disallowed from bringing in any outside information, trapped in a room with eleven peers and eager to find some kind of lowest common denominator to bring about a decision. Whatever is presented in court — the liberal nephew’s arrogance about all the fancy things he learned in college, the hurtful personal aspersions cast on George W. Bush, etc. — is relevant. Whatever is not presented at the trial — the actual content and likely consequences of public policy proposals, the broader context that might explain a vote or a remark — cannot be considered. Political consultants and corporate marketers alike play to this purely virtual juror, and both are at once overconfident in their ability to manipulate this lazy ignoramus and horrified at the arbitrarity of his or her whims.

Of course, I am always the informed voter who has the leisure and resources to make responsible decisions, while the general public is made up of the inert juror, the proverbial swing voter from Ohio who is simultaneously malleable and elusive. Indeed, whose very susceptibility to influence makes the ongoing election so unpredictable and exciting. I can always do better in my efforts to manipulate (or, more politely, “persuade”) my swing voters, always spin better, always frame better. It’s not their fault that they keep making the wrong choice, because it always comes down to my presentation, my legal maneuvering. I live but to serve, to figure out some roundabout way to induce the swing voter to make the right decision — albeit always only for the wrong reasons.

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The phenomenology of temperature perception

In the U.S., our weather reports respect both sides of the analytic/continental divide, giving us both the empirical temperature and a phenomenological account of what temperature it feels like (wind chill or heat index). This can lead to some confusion. For instance, I initially thought that it wasn’t that big a deal that temperatures were below zero — most winters, it seemed to me, there had been extended periods when it reached that low temperature. Then it struck me: while it felt like it was below zero during most of those times, now it literally was below zero.

I had experienced something like a temperature of 15 degrees below zero before, but I had never experienced it directly — after all, the temperature was a record low. When I was experiencing 15 degrees below zero, then, what was my point of reference? And now that I actually was experiencing the literal temperature of 15 degrees below zero, I found, to my epistemological dismay, that it reportedly felt like a much lower temperature. In a kind of meteorological différance, each temperature is divided within itself. No temperature “feels like” itself, but only refers to another temperature, which itself “feels like” another temperature, in an endless play of signifiers with no signified.

Kafka as muse

The fine arts course I’m teaching at Shimer is based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has inspired countless works of music and visual art. It strikes me that if any more recent figure has the potential to serve as such a productive basis for art, it has to be Kafka. The Trial cries out for operatic treatment. A ballet of “Josephine the Singer” would be inspired. Imagine what visual artists could do with Odradek!

What do you think, readers?

A fashion post in tribute to Craig

I posted a couple tweets about clothing this afternoon, and since Craig expressed annoyance, I figured it would be a good idea to do a whole blog post! I joked to Craig that trying to conform to something like traditional men’s dress was an integral part of my “religious but not spiritual” lifestyle. It’s nice to have arbitrary guidelines.

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Radical Theology-Lite

I recently posted this comment in response to this blog post. Thought it might of interest to some readers. Note, this an edited version of my comment:

I really wish you guys would stop using the term ‘radical theology’. You have invented an entirely new genealogy of radical theology (Hegel, Tillich, Derrida and Caputo). Arguably, only Hegel belongs upon that mountain. Neither Derrida nor Caputo are proper theologians. Moreover, you’ve also enshrined Tillich, the liberal theologian, par excellence. Why is Altizer curiously omitted? In reality, what is being offered here is radical theology-lite. In this genealogy of this new tradition of radical theology-lite we are really getting a liberal theology that is in denial about its roots. Not that there’s anything wrong with liberal theology. There’s a lot of good ideas in the history of liberal theology. It is my contention that the reason why many emergent do not simply accept that they are liberal theologians is that they have bought into evangelical propaganda regarding liberal theology. Due to the fact that many people who are part of the emergent-radical camp are disaffected evangelicals, they simply cannot accept liberal theology and the mainline church. As a result, new words were made up that attempt to outdo liberal theology (see progressive, radical, incarnational, or emergent). Notice that “liberal” is always a dirty word in these circles. Liberal theology is always the convenient strawman that is created to make the new “third way” appear categorically distinct from its conservative and liberal brethren. I find the caricature of liberal theology that is operative in the discourse at Homebrewed Christianity unacceptable. In many ways, liberal theology is consonant with the radical theology-lite values laid out here: pluralism, humility, belief with doubt, an appreciation of symbolic language and political.

In response to the Subverting the Norm II Conference, Tony Jones wrote, “There are two types of radical theologians: those who want there to be a God, and those who don’t.” He is mistaken. I would argue that there is only one radical theologian and that is the one who rejects God. I was first introduced to radical theology by reading Altizer. What made Altizer, Hamilton and others radical is that they were Christian atheists. That was actually radical and Altizer grounded his atheism through a strange reading of Hegel, Blake and Milton. He didn’t equivocate with all of this postmodern posturing about language, mystery and the unknown. Radical theology was ontological.

I am curious about what is driving this rapid need to appropriate the term “radical”. It is overused in modern theology (see radical orthodoxy, radical theology, “ordinary radicals”). I am almost tempted to say that radical is an empty signifier that simply designates something as “cool”. Is this just another effort in the endless re-branding on the theological market? Is radical theology-lite simply the left-wing of emergent movement trying to buck its more conservative followers? What made the time right for someone like Caputo (upon whom this movement is clearly dependent) to capture the attention of theologians? I almost think that the desire to brand this theology as “radical” is a way to push actual radical theologians out of the market. Isn’t it bizarre that Tony Jones would act as if there are some bad radical theologians out there who don’t want to believe in God? For God’s sake, the whole point of radical theology was to proclaim the death of God! Translating that into radical theology-lite terms, we have this warped notion of Lacan’s Big Other that now is basically another way for the believer to disabuse himself of a false idol. The Big Other is bad. The God who is beyond the Big Other (who is insisting in the event) is good. It is only through ridding one’s self of the Big Other (which is possible?) that one can arrive at a purer, more “real” conception of God. The irony being that the very need to find a God beyond the Big Other in and of itself is a sign that the Big Other is still operative in the ideology grounding this theology.

White dudes — am I right?

This morning, I posted a series of tweets mocking The New Atheism. It was probably inevitable, then, that I got embroiled in a long discussion with a white dude who was very concerned to clarify that they’re not all like that. And I’m sure they’re not — but I was instantly reminded of the many discussions of race where the white dudes in the room were in an absolute panic to make sure that the conversation could not move forward until everyone posited that they personally were totally innocent of racism.

And this response is natural, because every white dude is a unique snowflake. They cannot be lumped together with any group or trend. To the extent that a white dude is associated with a group or trend, he gets to define its meaning unilaterally — so for instance, The New Atheism is not intrinsically imperialist because he personally is not an imperialist. Every white dude is entitled to total self-definition, and anyone who perceives him differently from how he wants to be perceived is committing an injustice against his personhood. Isn’t the person who presumes a white dude is racist, for instance, perilously close to the logic of racism? After all, what is racism but the making of generalizations — and hence, can we conclude anything but that generalizations are inherently racist? If I made any generalization about black people, for instance, you’d be jumping down my throat! But here you are claiming that all white dudes tend to be defensive, and are you any better?

I want to tell you a little story. Once I was on a crowded train. I observed that there was a family scattered across several seats near me, some closer to the door and some more distant, and it so happened that they were getting off at the same stop as me. Out of politeness, I waited for all of them to get off the train before proceeding to the door myself, so that they could keep their group together. When I got up, I wound up stepping in front of a young black man. He became offended and pushed past me, accusing me of racism because I had let the white family go ahead of me but felt entitled to cut in front of him.

The white dude in me was crying out — I’m not a racist! I had a perfectly justifiable reason to do what I did! I didn’t even notice who was behind me when I got up! Yet there was something else there as well, something that had developed during my years of living in a diverse community in grad school, something that said: Let it go. If he sees me as an entitled white dude, that’s fair enough. I really do look like that. I get so many advantages from looking how I look that I should put up with it on those extremely rare occasions where it proves disadvantageous as well.

I don’t want to put myself forward as a hero or an example. All I want to suggest is that being a white dude might be a least partially curable. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

An open thread

I am translating an essay on Benjamin, whose wide-ranging interests and untimely death meant that he left more projects unfinished than most of us will ever even haltingly begin thinking about starting. Thus I am inspired with a question for you all: do you have any projects that you very seriously intended to undertake and then abandoned? Do you still believe that you will eventually be able to return to them, or has the moment passed?

Against “cloud computing”

Part of my opposition to online education is that it seems to me to be a solution in search of a problem. One can imagine situations where it would be necessary or helpful — bringing education to the handicapped, or to rural communities, etc. — but the motivation for a disruptive transformation of the normal method of education seems to be lacking. As I frequently ask in this connection: is there a sudden shortage of rooms with chairs?

Similarly with cloud computing. Read the rest of this entry »

Olympics Open Thread

Does anyone have anything interesting or intelligent to say about the Olympics?

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