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New history articles (July 2012 edition)

Posted in Academia, Blogs, Greek, Reading by Alex L. on November 19, 2012

Historical Proceedings header

Historical Reflections journal cover

“Virtually a Historian: Blogs and the Recent History of Dispossessed Academic Labor” by Claire Bond Potter in Historical Reflections (Summer 2012).

Like the recording and newspaper industries, humanities departments in universities have struggled to generate enough income for their practitioners in the Information Age. Many members of this “dispossessed academic labor” pool vent their frustrations with the system online on blogs. Potter sees these (often anonymous) online criticisms as one of the only honest records available of how unemployed and underemployed historians truly feel about the labor conditions in higher education.

As someone on the brink of entering the profession of history, I find myself somewhat repulsed by the stygian tone of the more vociferous academic blogs. Part of me blames these down-and-out historians for not being more creative in how they practice history: is trudging the academic career path that they profess to hate really the only option they see for themselves? Why not reach out to the public, which finds history intrinsically interesting and presents a larger market for writing than the academy?

But the more empathetic part of me understands that such a recommendation is glib and naive. It is not so wise to abandon the academy completely as to reform it. And that won’t come without an honest — and often unpleasant — voicing  of dissatisfaction with the current state of things. (more…)

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Art and moral courage

Posted in Art, Continental, Museums, Storytelling by Alex L. on February 12, 2012

Louvre Museum at dusk (image courtesy of Gloumouth1 via Wikipedia)Does being an atheist mean you have to be non-religious, asks popular philosophy writer Alain de Botton? In a new book and in an interview on the podcast Philosophy Bites, he answers that atheists should give certain religious practices a second look.

Himself an atheist, de Botton argues these points in the interview: (1) it’s easy for people of all beliefs to forget moral lessons they’ve learned in the past and continue repeating their mistakes, (2) religions do a good job of creating a “moral atmosphere” that inspires people to think about goodness, evil, suffering, and kindness; (3) art museums should organize at least some of their galleries not chronologically but thematically, taking inspiration from church services that through the senses invite the viewer to consider moral and ethical questions; and (4) atheists should adopt for themselves ideas that they like from any religion just like one may both like and dislike certain parts of the same work of literature.

Can going to a museum make one morally courageous? I agree with de Botton’s first proposition, and I also think that art can remind us of our values. For me, narrative-centered art forms like film, literature, and biography have the strongest impact on reinforcing my beliefs (or challenging them, for that matter). Static forms of art (like painting) or highly stylized ones (like opera) are more difficult for me to apply to my life. Even though I still enjoy them, I lack a mental paradigm to delve into their truths. Music, poetry, and philosophy writing break down for me in the middle: the more their arguments and observations are delivered in a narrative form, the more I am capable of thinking seriously about them. (more…)

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Things, categories, patterns

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on February 6, 2011

A close-up of "doors", a painting by my friend on doodlemoose.com (click to see more)I don’t remember the topic of the discussion. I don’t recall who attended class that day. I cannot see in my mind’s eye now where I was sitting in that cavernous room in the basement of the bare-concrete humanities building. I just remember the voice of my history professor saying, in passing, to everyone in the senior thesis seminar that at some point in his twenties he had been “scrutinizing his categories”.

These strange words have stuck with me ever since, and I do remember pausing in class that day and mulling over them in my mind. What he meant, I think, was that at some point during his young adulthood he had thought about how he had come to know what he knows. For some foolish reason, these words of his began to emit in my mind the heady aroma of prophecy, and soon enough my memory of them had come to mean, “I too will scrutinize my categories one day in the near future, will rethink how it is that I have come to ‘know’ what I ‘know'”.

Truth is, though, I like talking about epistemology (the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge) about as much as I like seeing zoomed-in photographs of my face. Beliefs, like human skin, begin to reveal bizarre characteristics when seen up close. The problem is not so much with the beliefs or thoughts themselves as with our ability to scrutinize them. Most people, myself included, are just bad at coming up with insights about the way we think. Here is how a typical conversation about epistemology sometimes goes:

Svetlana: How do we know what we know?

Larry: Well, the world exists as an external entity. The individual person exists as a separate entity that sees, hears, smells, feels and tastes things in the world with his senses and understands the world through his mind.

So we understand an external world through our senses and with our mind?

Yes.

And our understanding of our world is always accurate? (more…)

On tricking ourselves

Posted in Greek, Reading, Stories by Alex L. on January 23, 2011

Pink elephantEven though I still read them once in a while, I am generally skeptical of self-help books. They are always incomplete, in my opinion, because they have to boil down scientific research (if they are even based on science) into easy-to-sell concepts and action steps. Getting Things Done is a good example. A recent classic in the “productivity” branch of self-help literature, GTD’s entire system is based on a ridiculous notion: to truly feel relaxed in the world, one must have all of one’s actionable  ideas “captured” into sorted lists. Can you really enjoy a casual walk with a friend, the argument goes, while not having a written account of all of your preferences and next-actions for all of your projects close at hand?

The answer is yes, in my opinion, yes you can enjoy your life without planning it every step of the way. The assumption the book makes becomes a personal-productivity tyrant: one can scarcely have an idea pass through one’s head without feeling an obsessive urge to write it down in one list or another.

Of course by “one”, I am referring to myself. That is not to say that I will credit the plethora of useful lists I keep for work-related tasks and the tickler file I employ in my office to none other than David Allen, the writer of Getting Things Done. I just realize that any self-help book is going to offer partial solutions to any problem, and one must have a healthy capacity for what Aristotle called “practical wisdom”, phronesis, to pick and choose what’s useful for one’s life.

So when I perused the Chicago Tribune’s weekly literary section – Printers Row – one day in early January, I read the article titled “Seven books to aid in your new year’s resolutions” with a large grain of salt. But one book did catch my eye, and with the glad-handed aid of Amazon’s cursed 1-click purchasing system, I ordered and downloaded Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard onto my e-reader device. (more…)

Mattie and Achilles

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Film, Greek by Alex L. on January 13, 2011

Mattie Ross from "True Grit"I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.

I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.

Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.

And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of  the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good  person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.

(more…)

On asking the right questions

Posted in Greek, Stories by Alex L. on August 22, 2010

Close-up of Raphael's painting, "The School of Athens"Philosophy began, on the sunny shores of the city of Miletus, as science. The first philosophers attempted to describe the processes of natural phenomena, and this has largely been the legacy of philosophy in Europe and the Arab world. But before Aristotle cast his discerning eye at the heavens and earth, began sifting and winnowing all that sensory data into categories, and cemented this scientific tone to the practice of philosophy ever after, there existed different methods.

Plato is considered to be the father of philosophy. Though only a relative handful of later philosophers had adopted his literary style of philosophical writing (Friedrich Nietzsche was one of them, prompting a modern commentator to note that Plato and Nietzsche are the only philosophers that contemporary people read for fun) he remains famous for the character of Socrates in the Platonic dialogues and the focus that he had carved out for philosophy.

Philosophy, according to Socrates, was the pursuit of discovering how to live a better life. This knowledge resides in every living person, he posited, and the method of mining this hidden treasure was knowing how to ask the right questions. Philosophy, as Socrates famously described, was not about finding the answers, but about asking the right questions.

The reason I bring this up is because this phrase, repeated so often in our culture that it has become a platitude (no pun intended), seems off to me. Today, I was thinking about some problems in my life that have gone unresolved for several years. Applying my brain – as a human being, my greatest tool – to the task of solving those problems, I have failed daily and repeatedly, though I had struck at the issues from every possible angle, seemingly asking all of the right questions.

(more…)

‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers

Posted in American, Culture, Literature, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 23, 2010

I never thought of the Chicago suburbs as a place worthy of literature. Books, on the contrary, are something suburbanites use, like drugs, to escape the reality of their environment – a dull, slow, lonely locale, without the drama of a big city or even a small rural town. As Dave Eggers notes in his book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (hereafter referred to as AHWoSG), often under the veneer of a safe and calm neighborhood, the spirit of a suburbanite dies slowly.

I’ve had this book since high school, just sitting on my shelf. I began reading it when I was eighteen, but, coming off of English classes focusing on Faulkner, Camus, and Sartre, I was sick of authors who played fast and loose with the rules of language, especially to evoke depressing thoughts. I just graduated high school, was looking forward to college, and didn’t need these heavy stories. So I stopped reading after skimming the first few pages.

Six years later, I tried reading AHWoSG again, and finished it in the course of a week. I did not realize until this latest attempt to read AHWoSG that a good portion of the book takes place in Lake Forest, IL. In fact, the author grew up there. One of the most influential novels of the decade was written about one of the most boring places on earth.

I was inspired by this, this entering of the Chicago suburbs into literary history. There is some beauty here  after all, if one has the eyes to see. (more…)

“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

Posted in American, American, Culture, Literature, Reading, Storytelling by Alex L. on May 4, 2010

"On the Road" cover - Penguin Great Books of the 20th CenturyWhen I was younger, I used to love reading a good book so much that I never wanted it to end, never wanted to say goodbye to its characters. Now, in my relatively more mature years, I rarely get this feeling, though I still love to read good books. Reading the last page about Dean Moriarty, I felt little sadness.

Beat writer Jack Kerouac writes in the last pages of On the Road,

So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and the only thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him. The bookie at the wheel also wanted nothing to do with Dean. Dean, ragged in a motheaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and the last I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again. Poor little Laura, my baby, to whom I’d told everything about Dean, began almost to cry.

“Oh, we shouldn’t let him go like this. What’ll we do?”

Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said, “He’ll be all right.” And off we went to the sad and disinclined concert for which I had no stomach whatever and all the time I was thinking of Dean and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.

Reading On the Road, I wondered whether the spirit of the character of Dean Moriarty had suffused itself into American culture – I saw it everywhere. The incessant traveler, lover of sights and people and smells, rubbing his belly for joy, sweating, American Odysseus without a home, Walt Whitman re-incarnate. Without Dean Moriarty, the journeys that author Jack Kerouac wrote about that he took with Dean would never have taken place. Dean was the leader. (more…)

Love and apocalypse in current pop culture

Posted in American, Culture, Film, Music by Alex L. on February 25, 2010

Hollywood has popularized the idea that romantic love is salvific, that all of one’s problems in life will be resolved by finding “the one true love”. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. Unlike old European fairy tales, there is no heroic quest (such as slaying monsters or the like) for the boy to endure before he gets – chauvinistically – the girl as a prize. In a typical Hollywood narrative (gross exaggeration intended), getting the girl is the quest.

In the past decade or so, there have been some works of art that have challenged this traditional Hollywood love story. In fact, they downright portray the opposite: romantic love not as salvific but as apocalyptic. The film Fight Club, with its fascist and destructive undertones, is also surprisingly a love story. The narrator, played by Ed Norton, claims in the opening scene that “the guns, the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla”.

In music, the young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s song, Temptation of Adam, echoes similar themes to Fight Club. The song is an allegory of romantic love compared to both the fall of Adam in the Bible and the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War. The song ends with these words, which interlace imagery and symbolism from all of those themes: “So I think about the Big One: W-W-I-I-I / Would we ever really cared the world had ended? / And you could hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight, / I think about that big red button, and I’m tempted.”

Are these works of art in current pop culture a reaction against the sugary Hollywood love story? And yet the two works mentioned above are not purely apocalyptic; one could argue that they have equally hopeful themes apart from the destruction portrayed in them (a contemporary example where destruction is indulged in for its own sake is the song “Aenema” by the band Tool). Perhaps this theme of ‘romantic love as apocalypse’ has always run parallel to ‘romantic love as salvation’ in American pop culture. I haven’t looked into it too much, but it does make for interesting works of art.

Tension between Philosophical Law and Hebrew Law

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Greek, Judaism by Alex L. on May 28, 2009

One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.

The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.

The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.

The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.

I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.