National Poetry Month 2015 – Day 2

It Doesn’t Take Long to Learn, the Joke is Always on Us

 

On the playground, a little girl

bedecked in fragile pink frosting is doted after.

A mother in pearls, immaculate in J. Crew

clucks disapproval at every smudge.

Picture perfect takes pains to develop.

 

In a mad rush, the little meringue

crams a fistful of mulch into her mouth.

Runs drooling with muddy laughter

the opposite direction of her mother’s indignation.

Out of reach, with both hands paws bitter pulp off her tongue.

Word of the Day

Got to admit, sometimes I feel at a disadvantage writing and thinking in English. I study mostly French and German philosophers (Marion and Heidegger especially). Somehow those languages seem so much more hospitable (enter Derrida) to the philosophic project. Maybe in the case of Heidegger, the use of language seems more calculated and engineered (because it is). But French seems to effortlessly bend and twist to produce a subtly in thought that defies gravity. And easy translation.

Today I’m preparing a paper on Marion to present at a conference in March. I’m extremely humbled to be included in the program and very happy to be writing about work that on any given day takes up a good deal of my head space. In particular, I am writing on the way “vanity” in Marion’s account of the saturated phenomenon suggests the need to think beyond Self and Other to include Another, in this case the religious community.

“Vanity” is a pretty good word as things go. In Marion’s work, at least in my reading of it, vanity is the precipice at which the self comes to the end of its rope and becomes capable of the plunge into existential crisis. Vanity is a great word for this extremis because it carries with it both the self-absorption native to the self and, in the useage assigned in Ecclesiastes, its undoing, an exasperated admission of the futility of self-agency. That’s neat work for one word, especially one that retains the full connotation in English.

Writing on the subject today, I reacquainted myself with the word “deponent.” A deponent is both a person who makes a deposition and a passive verb that in nonetheless active in meaning. In other words, deponent turns out to be a handy word for discussing the self converted by the saturated phenomenon to witness. The witness is active in its capacity to register the saturated phenomenon, but is also passive in that the coming forward of the saturated phenomenon itself becomes the self which is attested.

Deponent is not at the heart of my argument (so much good has been said on that front by others better than I), but seeming as I so rarely find an English word (albeit one that is invoking Latin and Greek verbs) that fits philosophy so nicely, I thought I’d take the time to celebrate. Please feel free to share the love and list your favorite English philosophical phrases. In the meantime, keep writing.

Fully responsive template

Recently, I’ve been helping my partner redesign his website. As a result, one of the phrases that’s been popular around our house lately is “fully responsive template.” Chances are, if you are reading this blog, you know what I’m talking about, but for those that might not, a fully responsive template is a website page template that adjusts your content in response to the technology your reader is using to read it. In an age when your reader may be using a cellphone, a tablet or a standard computer screen, it’s a really useful thing to have.

I am also currently mapping out my spring courses. Especially, I am going Amerigo Vespucci all over the section of Introduction to Philosophy I am teaching as a dual enrollment course at a local high school. I’ve been teaching Intro for 4 years now. Not only am I ready for a good shake up of the material, but I well aware that I have an opportunity to turn a group of kids on to philosophy as something vital and inspiring.

Additionally, I am preparing for a conference in March on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion. The paper I’ll be presenting is an extension of the arguments I made in my graduate thesis, arguments that I’m really passionate about. It’s the first writing I’ve done on this particular line of thinking in awhile. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to once again wield the exquisite tool of technical language. Having been away from this kind of rigorous writing, I newly appreciate how much complicated thinking can be contained in a single word. On the other hand, having been teaching philosophy at the community college level for the last four years, I know that the same technical language that enables me to say so much, creates the possibility that a larger audience will hear very little. And I believe, as passionately as I do anything else, that the larger audience deserves to hear it. More than that, that if philosophy has anything to say about human existence, then it has a duty to make that truth as accessible to as many humans as possible.

So, I’m conducting a bit of an experiment. I’m going to try to construct this semester’s Intro to Philosophy class with a “fully responsive template.” It’s not just that I intend to use social media and internet sources (which I definitely do, visit my fledgeling Storify page), but I intend to demonstrate to my students that philosophy is a living discipline and then, hopefully, inspire them to live it.

Have ideas for me? Please join the conversation. That responsive thing, you know.

The Last Exorcism and Utilitarianism

I often use film as a teaching aid in class. In the first place, I love film. I have a visual imagination. Whether I am trying to work through a philosophical problem or a new poem, my brain “sees” main concepts in images which I can then “move” in relation to one another to “build” a solution. So film is a process I recognize, relate to and enjoy.

As far as my students are concerned, I recognize that we live in a visually saturated culture. I believe analyzing films offers my class an opportunity to connect with important philosophical concepts in a way that is relevant and meaningful to them. In addition, in the same way that I give my students tools with which to mine the meaning from texts, I feel it is important to expose my students to the reality that the content of visual story telling goes beyond the story being told to include the how of the telling. I encourage my students to become aware of not just what’s in the picture, but how the picture is framed and composed in understanding the author’s intent, presuppositions and underlying agenda. To sum up, films connect my students to the philosophical, connect the philosophical with their lives and help my students decode their visual universe (with the hopes that they’ll get all philosophical about it.)

This week in Intro to Ethics, we will be watching some opening scenes from The Last Exorcism. As many of you know, I’m a devotee of the exorcism film genre and this one is one of my favorites. The ending suffers from a Rosemary’s Baby over-reveal, but otherwise, the storytelling is really compelling. Ashley Bell’s performance is nuanced and intense. All well and good, but why show it to my ethics class?

In class, we are currently studying Utilitarianism, which along with Deontology and Virtue Ethics is one of three main schools of ethics we cover. The bumper sticker breakdown of Utilitarianism is “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people.” Different thinkers crunch the numbers differently, but on the whole, you are trying to solve for “good” in a way that maximizes that good for as many other members of your community as possible. In other words, utilitarianism is largely about weighing consequences (as opposed to character or intentions.) Utilitarianism certainly has its detractors (Elizabeth Anscombe for one), but it remains an important line of thinking (my favorite is Hutcheson).

Back when I first starting teaching the class, I was scouring my DVD collection and Netflix queue for movies that contrasted the different ethical schools. What I found was that it was really difficult to find any positive depictions of Utilitarianism. American story telling very much prefers a Virtue Ethics model for its heroes. In that story, the protagonist is faced with incredible odds that they navigate by the strength of their outstanding, inner character.

I get why this is a winning story. We want to believe that all our investments into building good character will yield good returns. We want to live in a world where good people persevere. However, it also suggests that the people who don’t get a victory, who can’t overcome their circumstances just might be bad people. Aside from being a gross miscategorization of our society, this is where the American meritocracy ideal goes wrong. It’s also the book of Job: if you’re in this kind of mess, then you must have done something to deserve it, because we know good people come out on the good. If Utilitarianism is depicted in films at all, it’s usually employed by villains or other characters that are opportunistic, self-serving and suspicious.

lastexorcism-09But not in The Last Exorcism. In The Last Exorcism, the main character, Rev. Cotton Marcus, is an exorcist trained from his youth in the church. After his son’s birth and subsequent medical problems, he loses his faith, but continues to officiate exorcisms because he believes that he is still helping people, people who believe that their maladies are supernatural. However, when he is confronted by the possibility that children, especially disabled children (a reality that is really frightening), are being harmed by the rite, he decides to expose exorcisms for the sham that they are. He is seeking the most amount of good for the most amount of people and acknowledges that children are a special class of vulnerable people that deserve a special kind of evaluation in his ethical math. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which is absolutely rare in American film. Now, of course, the movie unfolds in such a way that Rev. Marcus is confronted by a real possession in this last exorcism, but that doesn’t tarnish his portrait as someone who is trying to bring about good through his actions.

Can you think of another film that presents “the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people” in a positive light? I’d love to broaden my resources, but in the meantime, we’ll be watching The Last Exorcism.

Denomic Narratives and Contemporary Religious Experience

Really excited to be participating in the Balyor Fatih and Film conference at the end of this week. Here’s the outline that I’ll be using for my part of the panel presentation. I’d love your comments and questions as I continue to prepare.

If we accept that we way we portray monsters betrays our most deep-seated cultural fears, then horror movies provide an important peek into the darkened corners of our cultural closet, commenting on the source of our anxieties and mounting significant criticism of contemporary institutions and values.

In the same way that the recent proliferation of “zombie” narratives points to an unease with a strictly materialist account of the soul especially in contrast to our growing technical expertise in the area of bio-engineering, the new upsurge in “exorcism” movies and the abundance of demonic stories on television indicate a significant shift in popular beliefs concerning the nature of religious experience and the Christian church’s ability to effectively shepherd those experiences. I would like to briefly walk you through the some of the motifs standard in contemporary exorcism movies that form what I see as the basis of this criticism.

  1. Demonic narratives are constructed in an almost exclusively Christian context. One only has to survey the movie posters of recent exorcism films to observe a strong correlation. This strong identification with the Christian church is in marked contrast to the films of the same genre from the 1960’s (Rosemary’s Baby, Hammer Horror Films, Black Sunday) in which the demonic was portrayed as Satanic. By Satanic here, I mean a kind of evil for its own sake, not unlike the portrayal of other monsters with a more or less independent mythology, like werewolves or vampires. Evil comes with its own set of rules, its own set of rituals. Christian iconography is largely absent from these older films (or is only present in a perfunctory way), whereas the most recent batch of demonic films make extensive use of Christian symbols (The Rite, The Devil Inside). The confrontation is direct and even essential. Along these lines, in many exorcism films, the focal point of the ritual as per the film is portion of the rite in which the demon is asked to name itself. In a certain sense, the Christian Church is understood to identify and define the demonic. However, my point is not that possession is contemporarily understood as a uniquely Christian experience (although this is an interesting avenue of inquiry especially considering the Church’s unease with the prevalence of demonic stories within its canon), but rather my point is that the Christian Church has come particularly under scrutiny in the new demonic story. If we understand these movies to offer something of cultural significance, then they offer something specifically affiliated with the Christian Church.
  2. Demonic possession is portrayed as a genuine religious experience that resists traditional modes of religion enshrined by the Church. In a world that is otherwise dominated by modern secularism, demonic possession is depicted in a way that insists that the supernatural is valid, powerful and recognizably religious. The portrayal is predominantly physiological, including most notably bizarre bodily contortions, disruption of normal eating habits (either resulting in restriction leading to deprivation or manifesting in gruesome appetites), self-injury and visual and auditory hallucinations. These symptoms locate the portrayed experience well outside Christian devotion as it is commonly practiced or understood. Additionally, when religious help does arrive, it usually comes in the form of a rogue agent, a spiritual authority operating outside the institutionalized Church (Deliver Us From Evil, The Conjuring). Even in such cases that the church is officially involved, usually the individual agent is in some way pitted against the overarching institution (The Exorcism of Emily Rose). In this way, Church is portrayed as doggedly legalistic, embarrassed bordering on confused and often, ultimately neglectful. Perhaps more troubling, if demonic possession is depicted as genuine religious experience, then the Church, even functioning at its potential best, is seen as antagonistic to real spiritual experiences as they challenge its sincerity and the legitimacy of its authority.
  3. Demonic possession most often afflicts women, indicating that there’s nothing the Church finds scarier than women and women’s bodies. While general cultural stereotypes of women may be implicated, considering the strong ties between demonic narratives and pop-cultural perception of the Christian Church already discussed, I think it’s safe to suggest that the Church is perceived to capitulate to, if not intentionally propagate, the myth that women are spiritually more naive and vulnerable than their male counterparts. 9 times out of 10, the person possessed in the most recent crop of exorcism movies is female. Adding to this, the symptoms of possession usually include sexually suggestive or aggressive displays or are tied to the process of childbirth/menstruation (Asomdexia, The Last Exorcism). Exorcism movies indicate a public perception that the Church is downright horrified by women, sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular.

How is the church to contend with such criticism? I guess the first question is: should it? Considering the number of shows and movies that follow the formula that I just outlined for you, I would say that the church should be concerned with its popular portrayal. Again, it’s also that the new demonic narratives seem directed at the church in a way that’s noteworthy. However, it’s difficult to engage the subject of demonic possession without accusations of primitivism or supernaturalism. On the one hand, biblical stories of possession have been interpreted away from a literal understanding, favoring psychological or medical explanations for the afflictions related in those stories. On the other hand, spiritual warfare has become implicated with abuse of power (insert non-comment about Mark Driscoll or Bob Larsen here). I propose that postmodern philosophy of religion provides a way to turn the light on under the bed, to begin the work of addressing these fears without the necessity of perceiving demons around every corner.

  1. Post modern philosophy of religion allows us to focus on the spiritual experience without pre-validation. Exorcism movies often spend a lot of narrative time on “proving” that the demonic experience is “real,” both within the film and to the audience. However, for the purposes of philosophy of religion, subjective as it is, the experience recommends itself to be taken seriously. In Prolegomena to Charity, Jean-Luc Marion discusses the logic of evil. Marion writes, “Evil is experienced as the only indisputable fact, short of all delusion, that is exempt from the need for any proof or argument.” If people are having negative spiritual experiences, then it’s valuable to evaluate that experience and consider its mechanics and what it means.
  2. Post modern philosophy of religion urges the redress of suffering as a valid spiritual experience. This is along the lines of my first point, suffering in particular is a self-validating and genuine spiritual experience. American Christianity, being as it is wed to Modernist intellectualism coupled with a rejection of materialist accounts of humanity, has largely turned its back on the idea of physical, religious experiences, especially those that are negative. Protestant dread results in an expectation of suffering in the experience of God without dealing with the reality that suffering thoroughly sucks. Suffering is quickly reassigned as positive, having divine purpose, without authentically dwelling with the person suffering. To blame here also is the modern medical urge to treat, instead of be present with. Physical suffering as religious experience has a long history in the Christian tradition and while I am by no means in favor of a return to flagellation as a form of devotion, it’s time for the church to acknowledge the reality long embraced by eastern religions that spiritual events have a physiological component and to commit to patiently listening to those who share those experiences, especially when they are negative.
  3. Validate and incorporate the spiritual experiences of women. This is more of a historical argument than a philosophical one. While I applaud the efforts that have been made to push the envelope on this issue in some quarters, the fact remains that women’s voices and women’s experiences are not legitimized by the American church. Given the strong historical correlation between women’s spiritual experiences and physical experiences of religion (thinking particularly of the work of Caroline Walker Bynum in this regard), in order to meet the criticism launched by pop-culture conceptions of the demonic, the church need to reinstate women as leaders within the church. Not leaders of women. Or leaders for women. But instead celebrate women as leaders for the church, especially into areas that the church has neglected or ignored. I would also bring to your attention the work of Nel Nodding, in terms of “ethics of care,” the assertion that women bring a distinct ethical voice to the community, one that focuses on caring as a virtue. If the church wants to effectively deal with its demons, I would prescribe redrawing the lines of community around historically female religious experiences and embracing women’s bodies as wholly holy and not under seasonal reproof.

Origami Elephants Podcast

This week’s Origami Elephant episode opens with a longish tangent on horror films before addressing issues my co-host and I are facing in our new communities.

Origami Elephants is a podcast intended to walk the tightrope between religion and philosophy, faith and certainty, symbol and science. We tackle the elephants in the room, initiating a conversation about controversial subjects with an invitational tone.

Check it out.

A woman’s wiles

victoriandressContinuing research on Spiritualism, I found this gem in a Wikipedia entry on “apport.” For the record, an apport is a psychically transported or paranormally transported object. The article reports that Terrance Hines claims in his book, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal, that “female mediums went so far as to conceal in their vagina or anus objects to be ‘apported’ during the seance.” And why might a woman so conceal an object in such a place? Because propriety trumps skepticism in the conscience of the Victorian male. They wouldn’t search there for decency’s sake. Therefore, the object would be missed and could be mysteriously produced later on.

I recently ordered Mr. Hines’s book and am eager to inspect p.51 to see how this report is validated. Whatever the substantiation, the observation is stated in terms reflective of issues raised in my last post about gender, credibility and the Spiritualist movement. I realize, without the original text, I am jumping to conclusions, but I have trouble understanding why the charge is strictly drawn along gender lines. Male mediums also have bodily orifices. Victorian females also had a strong sense of propriety and likely were stamped with modern skepticism like their male counterparts. Again, this little snippet suggests that women were perceived as particularly prone to vulgar deceit and men especially called upon by society to safeguard against such trickery. Unless Hines has specific proof that this was a female ploy only, then I’m calling foul on this one.