Some of you may have already come across “A Person Paper on Purity in Language,” by cognitivist academic Douglas Hofstadter.
I’ve got a question about it. In the headline. Let’s work it out.
All those parts comprising me which are materialists rebel against our posting of a painting titled “The Good Omens” the day classes commence because classes start today, and that “luck” might be swayed goodly by the posting. Uploading the picture I did, in this semi-public forum, records the stirrings of my superstitions. This is a good thing. It is pointless, harmful even, not to acknowledge superstition where it still holds sway, even when it is not believed–especially when it is not believed.
There was always a part of my childish self that even in the deepest grips of obsessive compulsion knew no harm should come to pass as the direct result of my failure to adhere to my rituals. I fully admitted I’d invented for myself, and only to hold at bay entirely fantastic consequences. Still, I kept to the rituals, at the beginning and end of every waking hour without fail. My logic ran thusly: I disbelieved harm might come to me by way of magic should I fail to abide the rules of magic. But all the wicked children in those fairy tales which are the first warnings against hubris disbelieved the rules of magic too, so did not abide them, and as consequence were stolen by witchs or turned into monsters for their insolence. I would not make their mistake, but would be humble against those alien forces with which I communed, omnipotent, crafty beyond human invention, and manevolent utterly. I would keep the rituals, however hard or repetitive or embarrassing.
I grew out of the worst of my compulsions sometime before leaving middle-school. (My anxiety had generalized itself, or at least refocused itself upon social matters.) By the week of March 19, 2006, I was convinced that Nature was the sum totality of the real, and that She was comprised of only so many atoms in the void. Thus forever was eliminated the possibility of the distant causation of malicious, unseen forces hellbent on punishing me–or so it would seem.Even now I am not immune to magical thinking. Knowing it defies all reason, absurd imperatives still assert absurd imperatives to me. Recognizing that the easiest (though hardly healthiest) means at hand to quell their accompanying anxiety is to fulfill them, I sometimes do. As late as my sophomore year of college, I practiced a little ritual by which I checked the lock on my door and switched the light off-and-on-and-off-again twice before going to bed. This kept me from dying in my sleep. As late as last year, I had to glance over my shoulder before stepping into the shower, and blink once for every birthday I had had. This kept me from slipping in the shower and suffering retarding brain damage. Just last night I feared punishment with disfigurement for imagining a grotesque character described in my readings with the face of someone suffering noma whose photograph I’d once seen.
There is of course no possible way the universe-at-large could visit some sort of ironic punishment upon me for such thinking. I realize this. Even should I or someone I know become disfigured, or develop a degenerative disease, it should prove nothing; I should be tasked with explaining all the times conspicuosly appropriate punishments were not visited upon me or mine for my unflattering thoughts. * (Footnote below the fold.)
But still the anxiety remains. I can say now I do not structure my life around avoiding cursed combinations of letters and numbers, or forcing myself to think the right thoughts while touching objects. But without contradiction, I can say, On a theoretical level, I believe magic is impossible. But pragmatically, I do sometimes act as though assuming the arbitrary, autistic magics presupposed by imaginative strains of obsessive compulsive disorder. It can get frustrating.
Yes, she changed the national political scene, and certainly will stir more emotional pots before she fades away like so many other instant personalities who have filled the pages of People magazine over the years. (Imagine a “Where Are They Now” guessing game in 20 years.)
Palin challenged and changed the conventional wisdom that the best vice presidential candidates are the safe ones with long resumes, lofty credentials and low-risk personalities. She proved that the ability to excite people and play to their emotions can charge up a crowd much more than a carefully crafted policy statement.
She showed us how to smile while spreading accusations. In volunteering to lead the Republican right into righteous battle against their avowed enemies – liberals, bureaucrats, falsely labeled socialists – Palin showed style can win over substance, charisma over character, and fiction over fact.
But that’s not really much of a change for American politics, sad to say. She just took it to new lows.
Sarah Palin recalls to me how in my high school years I happened to overhear a conversation in the lockerroom between some right-leaning wrestlers and others on politics. (It probably was around the time of the 2004 presidential election.) The wrestlers shouted down opponents; the Democrats For Big Government, and therefore Socialists. They’re Against The Troops and Love Terrorists.
Sarah Palin reproduced all these absurd reductions; she has literally lowered the level of the national discourse to the locker room. A men’s locker room .
If this post succeeds, I might escape much small-talk on the most obvious question to be asked in the next few weeks. Between May and September, I:
-Spent a truly hateful amount of time on the Internet.
-Saw the president speak. What he said was nice, but should not even havehad to been said. Where, if not a university, if not at an American university, ought we not entertain every worthwhile perspective? It seems like he (and Pres. Jenkins) talked about how awesome and respectful this dialogue was going to be without ever actually dialoguing.
-Worried myself sick over the fiction-writing course I signed up for. I’m afraid that I might not be able to keep up. I’m afraid if I do, what I might produce might not be worth reading.
Oh, god. I couldn’t even avoid using the cliché “worried myself sick” when discussing a writing course. I am already a hack.
-Finished my language requirement. I did not learn to speak Spanish, but I learned how to pass a Spanish test.
-Failed to learn how to tell people I was taking Spanish without really obviously covering my embarrassment at taking Spanish. (“Yeah, I know everyone’s doing it. But the mother tongue of Cervantes, Santayana, and Borges must have a certain dignity to it.)
-Failed to understand why I was so embarrassed at taking Spanish in the first place., though I have my hypotheses. Possibly because I associate it with college students who don’t put any thought into what language they want to take. (I imagine one, a male, wearing at least two articles of clothing with the name of his college prominently displayed upon it, one of which is a baseball cap worn slightly askew. When pressed for the reasoning behind his decision to take Spanish, he would say he wanted to hit up chicks on the trip to Cancun next year. On said trip, he will only socially interact with other American students, and refuse to speak to housekeeping in any language.) Possibly because it was my last choice. I’d have liked to have taken Latin, because
i.) I took it for three years in high school,
ii.) the cultural component is fascinating, and
iii.) I wouldn’t be expected to actually speak it aloud.
However, no local colleges were offering anything but Espanol at a reasonable price. (The decision to knock it out over summer was my choice; I’ve always struggled with foreign languages, and doubted I could pass a course in one with a full schedule.)
-Maddeningly wondered if I have Asberger’s.
-Came to realize just how sick our healthcare system is in this country, but came no closer to guessing how it could possibly be improved.
-Finally got around to watching Season VII of BtVS. Overall impression:
You know how Buffy seasons drift kind of aimlessly for the first six to eight weeks or so with monster-of-the-week episodes before finally setting the stage for the Big Bad? Usually, that’s the dumping ground for the weakest episodes. But in Season VII, there were few weekly monsters, and the stage was given over to some of the most touching character development since Season V, Queen of the Seasons. I have especially in mind Buffy’s self-analysis in Conversations with Dead People and Selfless, which made me, for the first time, really believe in the character Anya Unfortunately, her continued presence after that episode was baffling and diminishing, and would seem to necessitate everyone forgetting the events of the episode.
The season went downhill once The First asserted itself outside Spike’s head. It was the most ill-defined of all the Big Bads, even The Master, who himself only ever felt like a stand-in. So, it’s all evil everywhere, older than creation…so what? It is preoccupied entirely with keeping the champions of General Decency off balance and conquering the world; this represents a rather more simplistic conception of evil than is at play in the rest of the Buffyverse. (Think of the Shadow Men; it was established that what they forced a horrible power on the girl who would be the First Slayer, which would take away part of her humanity and alienate her the world. Was not then the creation of the Slayer then an evil itself?) For this laziness of characterization and metaphysics, the tone of finality to the Scooby’s ultimate victory rings hollow.
Season V’s conclusion, The Gift, I find to be the better series finale. Chosenreiterated Whedon’s rather didactically, but touchingly; I got misty at Buffy’s voiceover at the casting of Willow’s spell. The only other cinematic production I do that at is, for some reason, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, during Theoden’s speech.
Those might just be the two nerdiest sentences I’ve ever written.
(And for the record, I’ve become rather disenchanted with LoTR for its moral simplicity.)
-Made maddeningly small amounts of money at work I do not want to discuss.
-Generally squandered what will probably be my last summer vacation, barring grad school.
-Missed all the crazy wonderful women of the MU Empowerment community. Including some who have graduated.
I hope that statement is interpreted as sweeter than it is creepy.
In a blog post, sex-and-relationship columnist and pundit Dan Savage discussed a Baptist pastor praying for the death and damnation of Pres. Obama. He makes some cogent points:
Remember when you could get arrested for wearing a t-shirt that insulted the president? Times have changed. Now you can threaten the president’s life in front of a sitting U.S. Senator. Good times. Hey, you can even pray for the president’s death from the pulpit…
They’re trying to get him killed.
But then he steers into an ugly place:
Let’s pause to contemplate the riots that will break out all across the country if these hateful douchebags succeed in getting the president killed. Most of the riots will take place in urban areas—in areas that support the president—and most of the people who get hurt or killed are going to be liberals and Democrats and progressives and people of color. That’s probably part of the plan. None of the suburban mega-churches or shithole exurbs from which most of this dangerous rhetoric emanates will be put to the torch. But if the can-no-longer-be-described-as-unthinkable actually happens—if they succeed in getting the president killed—rioters in New York City will find that Fox News HQ is rather conveniently located. Please make a note of it.
Hypothetical endorsement of lawless vigilante recrimination, even against those parties which help whip their viewers into a frenzy with routine, baseless comparisons of the administration to the Third Riech, is concession of any moral high ground. It is the promise to fight terrorism with terror, and an invitation to the strongest chiding by responsible participants in public conversation.
I’ve been considering for awhile how I might blog about faith-related topics here at the word warrior. I didn’t blog as much last year as I had intended, in part because I wasn’t sure how to go about doing it. I know how to talk about theology, biblical interpretation and authority, the formation of the canon and what-not with other Christians. In that case, there’s no question lurking in the background about me trying to force Christianity on anyone; it’s a given in those cases that everyone in the conversation shares a few fundamental beliefs, even if viewpoints on specific issues differ. Here, however, I always wonder if I sound self-righteous or preachy.
Nonetheless, I’d like to blog about how I think about matters of faith: how Scripture, community, experience, and scholarship all blend into a way of faithful engagement with the world. Frankly, recent comments have pushed me over the edge. Reconsidering long-held beliefs does not necessarily amount unfaithfulness. Whenever we question a belief or an interpretation of Scripture, we are not challenging God, but rather our human understanding of him. Given that our understanding is always imperfect, to question and doubt is actually essential to faith. The moment we think we have it all figured out, we have put ourselves in the place of God.
Additionally, if we really care about the issues we discuss at the Wordwarrior, I think we have to be able to grapple with how they connect with the faith that many of our classmates share. So I’m going to give this a try. Whether or not you identify as Christian, I hope you’ll find it interesting, encouraging, surprising, unsettling, or thought-provoking–I think that’s what the best conversations are about, no matter what your worldview.