My new career in Star Trek hermeneutics

Gerry Canavan recently turned me on to The Daystrom Institute, a Star Trek subreddit devoted to the most intricate possible examination of the franchise. As my life has been in turmoil the last couple months with The Girlfriend’s move, etc., I have found myself ever more drawn toward the comfort food of Star Trek and have become a prolific poster there — even winning a “Post of the Week” and getting a promotion to Ensign! (Yes, it is that nerdy.) Here are some of my greatest hits thus far, most of which are focused on Enterprise since I’ve been rewatching it:

Here’s a page with some of the all-time greats from the subreddit.

Posted in Star Trek, The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off

Time Travel in the Greek and Hebrew worldviews

Much has been made of the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, but it has seldom been noted that these two worldviews represent significantly different approaches to time travel. Now obviously they do not include time travel in the full sci-fi sense, but both do include messages from the future in the form of prophecies, and these messages from the future do affect people’s actions in the present. (The closest Star Trek analogy may be the infamous “Future Guy” from Enterprise, who can relay messages without personally intervening in the past.)

From this perspective, Oedipus is fundamentally a time-travel story, and it results in a predestination paradox insofar as his very attempt to “change the timeline” by avoiding the horrible prophecy directly results in the fulfillment of the prophecy. In the Hebrew Bible, by contrast, we might look to the story of Jonah, where the prophetic message from the future actually causes a change in the timeline insofar as Ninevah repents.

While prophecy doesn’t always result in an alternate timeline, one gets the sense that within the Hebrew model of time travel, the possibility of changing the future is always “on the table” in a way that it definitely is not within Greek temporal mechanics. That might help us to understand why Jonah flees from his prophetic task — he likes the current trajectory that leads to Ninevah’s destruction and doesn’t want to divert it. And when he’s moping in the end, it may be because he finds it objectionable that God would bring about a happy ending using an unwieldy plot device like time travel.

Worst-sellers of the world, unite!

In Blood, Gil Anidjar, reflecting on the futility of writing a book (in this day and age!), appends a curious note:

The sheer weight of accumulation, fifty shades of clay and mountains of waste (not to mention, horribile dictu, footnotes), among other expansions and past all counts, nonetheless counts for something, that is, for nothing, if only because it accounts for and testifies to the victory of the quantitative—by attrition. Was it ever other- wise? This may or may not be a reason to stop writing books (though I suspect it is). Cunningly endorsing Marx’s take on the “gnawing criticism of the mice,” Lacan suggests somewhere that praise might be in order when producing a worst-seller.

Of course, despite ample room in 170 pages of footnotes, in this case he leaves it to the reader to track down this petite suggestion of Lacan’s. Challenge accepted–with no little resistance, psychoanalytically speaking of course. Turns out there are two quips in Seminar 17 worth quoting:

To spell it out for you, to clear my own name, what saves Écrits the accident that befell it, namely that people immediately read it, is that it is a “worst-seller” nevertheless. (222/192)

An issue of a journal called Études freudiennes has appeared. I cannot recommend reading it too highly, never having hesitated to suggest to you bad readings which themselves are in the nature of best-sellers. (229/199)

There you have it–the virtue of the worst-seller, the vice of the best-seller. Amazon rankings be damned!

Posted in The lighter side of AUFS. Comments Off

Haunted by Pat Quinn

[This story is perhaps outside the usual scope of this blog, but I fear it would be unintelligible if delivered via Twitter. So here we are.]

Last night, The Girlfriend and I went to Kuma’s Too, the spin-off of Kuma’s Corner, the metal bar legendary for its burgers. We were sitting at the corner of the bar, and hanging near us were letters from both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn congratulating Kuma’s for being named the best burger place by some publication. We have been seeing a lot of campaign ads from Quinn’s Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, and somehow we started free-associating negative campaign ads about Pat Quinn [please supply gravelly, accusatory tone]:

  • PAT QUINN writes letters congratulating burger joints while Illinois faces a pension crisis.
  • PAT QUINN appears unfamiliar with airport security procedures and he’s in line in front of you.
  • PAT QUINN’s sprinkler sprays on the sidewalk.
  • PAT QUINN replies-all.
  • PAT QUINN isn’t sure how his car alarm works but he’s really sorry.

In the middle of this discussion, Pat Quinn’s letter spontaneously fell off the wall and nearly knocked over my beer. I fear Bruce Rauner doesn’t fully grasp what he’s up against!

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The Girlfriend’s amazing cooking system

The Girlfriend has a remarkably effective approach to cooking that could be helpful for all those busy academics out there, particularly single or childless ones. The biggest challenge in cooking for only one or two people is that it is incredibly time-inefficient — you wind up spending as much prep time as you would for a much larger meal. Combine that with the fact that we all typically come home tired, and you have a recipe for ordering in way too often.

Her system is to cook everything ahead of time over the weekend, then package it for easy reheating throughout the week. It usually takes her an hour or so, which is much less than if she were to prepare individual helpings each day. Furthermore, it tips the laziness scale in favor of eating in, because putting her allotted portion into the microwave is actually the path of less resistence compared to ordering take-out. Sometimes with things like seafood, she’ll leave part of the meal to be cooked day-of, but it still winds up being more efficient. She includes her lunches in the routine as well — usually some kind of soup or salad — which is particularly important for academics, whose options for buying lunch tend to be depressing (I can barely look at a Jimmy John’s sandwich at this point).

There are disadvantages. First of all, you’re always eating leftovers, unless you time the first round of cooking to correspond with dinner time. Second, you need to be willing to eat the same thing multiple days in a week — if you don’t repeat, you lose the advantages of scale. Finally, if it turns out that you aren’t actually in the mood for one of your meals or it doesn’t turn out like you want, you’re going to find yourself reconnecting with your local Chinese delivery person.

The Work of Reading in the Age of Technological Distractability

Corey Robin confesses that he rides the subway for hours in order to be able to focus on reading. I have to confess that I once tried it, getting on a Brown Line train in Chicago that would take me around the Loop and back home again with no effort on my part — and it didn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I learned then that what made me so much better at reading on public transit was the fact that I was “redeeming” time that would otherwise be wasted.

Over the years, another trend has emerged in my train reading: there are certain types of texts that I can seemingly only read on public transit. Secondary sources, course texts that I’m not excited about, articles I’ve agreed to review — anything that I have difficulty motivating myself to read, I can nonetheless get myself to read if I take advantage of the “redeeming time” effect on public transit.

This is all well and good during the school year, when I have long commutes most days. During the summer, however, it begins to present problems. I travel much less frequently, and in any case, whether I’m working on writing or translating, I very strongly prefer to work at home — I’m not sure if I’ve ever written a usable word in a coffee shop. Sometimes I try going to a public place to read in order to take advantage of the ambient “social pressure” to look busy. There’s only so much coffee I can reasonably drink in a day, though, so I often prefer to go to a bar instead. This strategy obviously has its own potential downsides, but there are also times when the presence of someone who seems to want to talk to me can produce remarkable focus and discipline.

I’m not sure that the presence of the internet is the decisive factor in my difficulty with reading. If I’m reading something really compelling, I don’t really care who’s criticizing me on Twitter. In fact, sometimes it seems like the problem is that I take too much trouble to separate myself from the internet. Often when I’m reading at home, I go to the living room, which is at the whole other end of the house from the office where my computer is. If I get the urge to “check,” I have to get up and go to the office, and there’s always the danger that I’ll find a half hour has passed.

If I just let myself check my phone to confirm that nothing was really demanding my attention, maybe I’d be better able to focus — in fact, maybe I’d be able to simulate the ambient distraction of public transit, where I can always look up from my book and see who got on the train, or which stop we’re at, or who just started yelling. In short, perhaps my problem with reading isn’t distraction as such, but putting excessive pressure on myself to focus.

But in any case, I don’t read as much as I’d like, and I’m sure none of us do. Or do you? What do you think, dear reader?

Maimonides and Dawkins

I’m currently working through a bunch of Maimonides’ texts for a paper that I’m writing and have been reminded how brilliant he is when taking shots at his opponents. In “Helek: Sanhedrin, Chapter Ten” he lists three possible ways of reading aggadah, and I couldn’t help but procrastinate make contemporary comparisons.

Maimonides first names those that attempt to follow the teachings of the sages literally. “They believe that all sorts of impossible things must be. … The members of this group are poor in knowledge. One can only regret their folly.” Though they are no doubt reading wrongly and “humiliate” the sages, it’s hard to blame the masses too much–hard unless you’re a preacher, whom apparently he could not stand. Preachers, he says, should just admit that they don’t understand much. My teen years spent sleeping through church feel vindicated, as apparently preachers have been annoying for at least 800 years.

maimonides2-190

RAMBAM looking pensive

However, the real jabs come for the second group. There is a group that is so stupid that they think that the sages should be read literally and therefore dismissed. Really, the audacity of these people: “They imagine that their own intelligence is of a higher order than that of the sages, and that the sages were simpletons who suffered from inferior intelligence. The members of this group are so pretentiously stupid that they can never attain genuine wisdom. … They regard themselves as cultivated men, scientists, critics, and philosophers. They are more stupid than the first group; many of them are simply fools. … If these fools had worked at science hard enough to know how to write accurately about theology for the masses and for the educated, the real meaning of [the sages] would be clear to them.”

Obviously, Dawkins, et al came to mind here: “philosophers” who, thinking they are so obviously smarter than thinkers of the past simply because they were born later,  end up sounding like fools. Thankfully, Maimonides has some advice for people like this: “when, in some of your hours of leisure, you leave off drinking and copulating–collect yourself and reflect, for things are not as you thought following the first notion that occurred to you.” Hmm. About that…

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