Archive for September, 2008

I have a hopeful forthcoming post or two about some things, but I am currently much in the middle of research for a paper due Friday on Thomas Reid. However, in the mean time, I have come across this quote from him on external world skepticists, and I’m not yet sure of the implications or if I agree, but I thought that the prose was fantastic and deserved to be posted.

The sceptic asks me, Why do you believe the existence of the external object which you perceive? This belief, sir, is none of my manufacture; it came from the mint of Nature; it bears her image and superscription; and, if it is not right, the fault is not mine: I even took it upon trust, and without suspicion. Reason, says the sceptic, is the only judge of truth, and you ought to throw off every opinion and every belief that is not grounded on reason. Why, sir, should I believe the faculty of reason more than that of perception? — they came both out of the same shop, and were made by the same artist; and if he puts one piece of false ware into my hands, what should hinder him from putting another?

Thomas Reid An Inquiry into the Human Mind, On the Principles of Common Sense Ch 6. Sec. 20

Scottish philosophy is awesome, by the way. Definitely heading up there for a weekend next month.


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A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless you with discomfort,
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships,
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger,
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

My God bless you with tears,
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their
pain to joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness,
to believe that you can make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.


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One Paper Down

I am pretty well finished with my first ever paper for the University of Oxford. It’s somewhat intimidating to be turning the paper in on Monday after only about a week to work (its 2100 words) on it, but I keep reminding myself that I came here to be pushed academically. Everyone is presently finishing up or editing their papers, or in the case of one or two crazy people, working on a second paper to turn in Monday. We have to do three of these papers from 4 different time periods in British History, with the first two time periods due on Monday and the last two due two weeks from this past Friday.

I did my paper on the 13th century Franciscan theologian/philosopher Duns Scotus. It was quite a troubling week at first, given that Scotus is about twice as hard to understand as Thomas Aquinas. The three of us lucky ones who chose Scotus all agreed that we at least will have good stories about our first academic papers at Oxford. I think I’ve complained a lot this week, which is just kind of how I am when I am engrossed in the reading and writing process. Hopefully I have not established too much of a reputation as a whiner, but perhaps that is unavoidable.

Despite the (ongoing) difficulties, I am glad in retrospect for choosing Scotus. His metaphysics is intensely complex at times, but I have realized that he was an important philosopher in many ways. The question I was answering had to do with his most important contribution to philosophy, and I chose the contingency of the divine will. I’m not really in the state of mind to attempt some kind of explanation to the whole thing. Read scholastic medieval philosophy for a week straight and you will understand what I mean. If you really want to know more, I could send a copy of the paper, or perhaps put it up on the blog somehow.

On a different note, tonight my friend TJ and I inaugurated what we hope to be a weekly Saturday night tradition: pan glazed peaches and ice cream. Earlier this week I had an idea to try to saute some peaches in a pan with butter and then put cinnamon on them. I was unsure going into it, but in hindsight, given the ingredients, not much can go wrong. This idea gradually evolved over the next few days, and tonight we thought we would try making some for the entire house (there are 24 of us), and I think we are starting to get the craft down.

Earlier this week I visited Hampton Court palace, which was where Henry VIII among others ruled. The place is an interesting amalgamation of architectural styles, and much of the area (in the palace) has been turned into a museum-type of tourist attraction. The coolest part was the gardens, which I don’t have any pictures of uploaded to my computer just yet. The gardens included “The Great Vine”, which is the oldest grape vine in Britain at something like 400 years.

These next few weeks before break will be interesting. I have two papers to write, and I am greatly interested in several of the topics. Unfortunately, many of from the fourth time period and I can only do one of them. I’m leaning towards doing Orwell, but may fall back to Marx, who I have a better handle on. For the next case study, I think I am going to do the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Thomas Reid. I know next to nothing about him but am quite interested in learning more. I would like to do one on literature, but I have to confess that I am more of a Russian and contemporary American literature fan than British.

Hope all is well in the States as you are careening towards that national election in a few months. Is it true that McCain is leading the polls now?

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Week 1: From the Kitchen

Presently, I am sitting in the kitchen of our home, Crick Road. It’s hard to believe that it has been over a week since I arrived in Oxford. It doesn’t seem like that much time has passed, but yet it also seems like I have been here for much longer.

I don’t have any pictures from around town yet, but the city is beautiful. There is a lot of character to the city, and although I am still finding my way to certain places, I feel like I have a good general sense of direction in the city.

I don’t have a long reflection tonight, but wanted to post to let everyone know that the week went very well. Although it was hectic at times, I have gotten much accomplished already. I have some ranting to do about the relationship of reason to Christianity but that will have to wait a bit longer. It’s getting late, and tomorrow is a long day with a trip to London!

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In an Aeroplane Over the Sea

As I sit here listening to the final track of Dylan’s masterful Blonde on Blonde, I am getting more excited about my trip to Oxford tomorrow night. Everything is packed but the computer (which will go after this blog post), and tomorrow I move to a new country for four months. It’s a little bit intimidating, but I have been looking forward to the opportunity and challenge to study at Oxford for some time now.

I hope to keep the blog fairly updated throughout the semester with some general posts rather than longer, (hopefully) engaging posts like the one I just posted, but I have to confess that I started a blog mostly to post long, probably narcissistic posts like that one. I will probably be pretty busy with orientation/meeting people for the first week or two, so if there are no posts, that is why.

In the meantime I hope everyone is doing well. I leave with a clip of one of my favorite Andrew Bird songs, “Case in Point.” It’s an interesting song that could be interpreted in a few ways, but I mostly leave it to test out how putting a video works in a post!

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Recently, I was reading Jonathan Culler’s introduction to literary theory in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series (which is great if you seem to be interested in just about everything!), and I was struck by this quote:

Theory makes you desire mastery: you hope that theoretical reading will give the concepts to organize and understand the phenomena that you seek to understand. But theory makes mastery impossible, not only because there is always more to know, but, more specifically and more painfully, because theory is itself the questioning of presumed results and the assumptions on which they are based. The nature of theory is to undo, with a series of premises and postulates, what you thought you knew, so the effects of theory are not predictable. You have not become master, but neither are you where you were before. You reflect on your reading in new ways. You have different questions to ask and a better understanding of the implications of the questions you put to the works you read.

Jonathan Culler Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction 16

I find that Culler’s description of theory is analogous to learning itself. Against supporting ideology, I want to argue that we never really “arrive” at a full understanding or articulation of what interests us. More simply, we can continue to drive deeper and deeper into what interests us.

I bring this up because of recent thoughts that I have had which I do not feel comfortable enough with to articulate – indeed, this is a common struggle for me. I do not think that they are developed enough to talk about in a fully coherent and somewhat completed way, yet I feel that they very much warrant discussion. I suppose that this might be one [hopefully healthy] desire which leads us to converse with each other, or in this case to blog, about our thoughts. So without further ado…

I watched the documentary The Corporation the other day. The movie is a riveting, although quite long (2 and a half hours) depiction of the rise of the corporation from the Industrial Revolution to the present day. I have always been quite suspicious of large corporations, and this movie does nothing but add more fuel to the fire. A few parts in particular struck me as – and I suppose this is the best way of putting it – ominous.

For instance, Howard Zinn notes that the beginning of what is the present-day corporation took place as a result of what was tantamount to an exploitation of the 14th amendment. The 14th amendment, of course, was introduced in order to guarantee rights to former slaves. Over the next few decades, however, these rights were applied to corporations. According to the movie, 288 cases were brought to the Supreme Court under the 14th amendment as opposed to a mere 18 by former slaves. Corporations were thus granted the status of a person under the law. Disregarding the disgusting misuse of an amendment which should be embarrassing in the first place, this seems disturbing to me. Corporations are seemingly communitarian in that they are constituted by a group of people, yet their legal standing reduces them to merely a person – and a person whose singly purpose is the making of as much money as possible (in theory with legal means only, but whether it is or not seems irrelevant). I have more thoughts here for a properly redirected corporate ethic, but I will leave it for another time.

It was also very interesting to notice the language and the implications that derive from corporate actions. Noam Chomsky noted at one point (I’m paraphrasing) that corporations seek to assert a notion of value as ‘how many created wants can I satisfy?’ This seems to be pretty basic analysis – the highest (and only) end for a corporation is to make money. Creating wants leads to more money for corporations. I think we all have experiences this idea of a created want – something that we desire yet is completely banal and will soon be forgotten.

If the notion of value (and the bankrupt ethic behind it) perturbs you, consider the brand imperialism that must take place. Branding seems to be an assertion of meaning. The “disney name” implies a very specific meaning (worldview?) that is intended by Disney. When the corporation wants to project a more “adult” meaning, the brand is touchstone pictures. Both touchstone and disney are owned by the same corporation. It follows that brand imperialism is thus the assertion of very specific meaning, and what I want to ask is whether this is really where we get authentic meaning from.

What seems to be at root here (and at stake, I suppose) is the commodification of everything by corporations. This seems to be only what must follow if the ethos of the corporation is to make as much money as possible. At one point in the movie, the narrator talked about the privatization of rainwater in a South American country (Bolivia, I think) which was (thankfully) overturned/prevented by a people’s revolt. What I want to ask in the face of the commodifcation of everything is whether the narration of our lives is merely the sum of these commodifications? Is it the case that this is thrust upon those whom the corporation has power over, and should this be the way it is? Should it be all there is?

It may be pointed out that with names such as Zinn and Chomsky (Michael Moore is also interviewed at length), that The Corporation has a decidedly leftist agenda. While it should be noted that those with opposing viewpoints are given a pretty fair share of time, I think it is obvious to say that the filmmakers share the opinions of Chomsky, Moore, and Zinn. I’m not so much concerned with the leftist critique as such (rather, I appreciate it) as I am with the alternative that seems to be offered up at the end of the movie.

It strikes at a fairly well-known division in thoughts between conservatives and liberals (or whatever terminology you prefer) in the United States. Liberals generally want more government responsibility (as Moore notes to close the film, people can be involved in the democratic process and control what their government does, which is impossible with corporations), whereas conservatives support the “free” market and the “invisible hand,” etc. I’m not so sure that I am satisfied with either, and I’m not so sure that either are really that much different from each other when it comes down to it. Theoretically they seem opposed, but I remain unconvinced that the different in practicality is very pointed at all.

Speaking of American politics, I’m not so sure that Senator McCain and Senator Obama are very much different from each other. After all, Obama recently parroted the same old American exceptionalism of the so-called Religious Right, as Jamie Smith points out.

I’m struggling to articulate a more thorough response, and I’m not entirely convinced that an ethic of secession from (in this case) the upcoming election is satisfying, either. Nevertheless, I am reminded of a poem by Wendell Berry called “The Mad Farmer, Flying the Flag of Rough Branch, Secedes From the Union.” I leave further reflection on this stream-of-consciousness post to you.

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