Archive for December, 2009

I’ve been meaning to sit down and do this for about three weeks. Since it’s the last day of the year, I figure that I might as well get to it now or else I’d find myself stuck with an indefinite procrastinated task. My hope is to briefly recount my reading and thought patterns for the year in the hope that I can clarify some things. I do this primarily for my own benefit. I think that it’s a good task because it can help make plain the transitions that led from one book to another, but also expose the more haphazard adventures in reading. One of my fears is that my curiosity will lend itself to willy-nilly reading of anything and everything, and thus I hope that reflecting on my year of reading might help to curb this habit in the future.

2009 is probably the first full year that I really set out to read with purpose. For the most part, I’ve maintained the practice of taking some notes electronically (as well as in the margins of books, of course). This practice of note-taking was pretty much forced on my by circumstances in Oxford last fall. Previously, I had stuck to taking copious notes in notebooks (transcribing quotes, even), as well as writing entire drafts of essays out by hand. I continued to take notes by hand in Oxford, but time constraints and workload quickly pushed me to compose with OpenOffice. This took some getting used to at first, but the process eventually spilled over into note-taking, which keeps everything neatly ordered and makes transcribing quotes into the body of an essay much easier. I remain slightly ambivalent about the process of electronic-only, if only because I have experienced firsthand the benefits of handwriting essays and then editing them. I hope to integrate the two a little better in the coming year, although I am now partial to typed notes because it’s so much better for organization.

The books that I read in the earliest part of 2009 are a bit hazy for me. After returning to America, I had several books on my mind and several books that I had bought while overseas that I wanted to get to. My recollection of the winter break in late Dec ’09 and early Jan ’09 is that I started several books but didn’t really manage to finish most of them. This is a pretty bad habit and comes a little easily when I’m not disciplined; before I know it, I can make my way about 50 pages into 7 or 8 books. Still, a few books do stand out from that time. First is Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, which I bought on my birthday at Blackwell in Oxford and read most of the way through. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on early Barth and dialectical theology, although this is also due to the help from an additional book that I read some of over that break, George Pattison’s Anxious Angels. This book is about various religious existentialists, including Kierkegaard, Barth, Bultmann, Marcel, Unamuno, Shestov, Dostoevsky, Buber, and Rosenzwieg. The book is nicely divided into chapters one or more individuals, although it isn’t a collection of essays. I used the book for my tutorial in Oxford, and it has remained one of my favorite books to this day.

In the spring semester of ’09, I was taking 18 credits and was pretty busy with getting re-acclimated to the American educational system. My first – and to some extent, lasting – reaction to this was overwhelmingly negative; my biggest gripe was that in survey classes, we just weren’t going as in depth into things as I did for my papers in Oxford. I’ve since come to realize that this is more of a reflection on my current development than the undergraduate education system, and perhaps a sign that it would have been better to do a study abroad during the fall of my senior year (it is also probably worth noting that this is my fifth year of undergrad due to community college).

During the semester, I found myself with a pretty aimless generalized ambition. I wanted to do a massive study of something, and I ended up focusing on my efforts on a research paper for my Pauline Literature class. The paper could be about whatever we wanted so long as it related to Paul, and the topic I chose was the recent reception of by (often atheist) philosophers. If I recall correctly, my “idea” eventually blossomed into dissertation-sized proposal on all of Taubes, Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek, and was constructive to boot in some way that I can’t remember. Somewhere in the archives of An und fur sich this is all contained in a string of comments. Thankfully, Anthony Paul Smith suggested that I focus on the concept of fidelity in Badiou. As a result, I did a pretty close reading of Badiou’s St. Paul: the Foundation of Universalism and I feel like I have a pretty good handle on Badiou. Tangentially, I did a lot of reading in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory and some related places/writers. I also read Zizek’s The Puppet and the Dwarf during this time.

The summer of ’09 was a bit botched as well (a recurring them of ’09), because my desire to do some kind of massive reading was still not quelled. I needed to do a project/capstone for my interdisciplinary studies major, and I resolved to do an independent study on (at the time) philosophical hermeneutics. This was planned for the fall of ’09, and heading into the summer, I decided to focus on readings for this independent study and Kierkegaard primary texts. Thus, a lot of my summer was spent reading Gadamer; I read all of the essays in Philosophical Hermeneutics and most of Truth and Method. During the summer, I drove across the country with a good friend who was getting married later on that summer. We drove to LA, where I spent three weeks living with another good friend who I met during my semester abroad and several of his friends from college. It probably goes without saying that I didn’t do much reading on this ‘vacation’ – unless you count craft beer labels – but it was one of the best summers of my life.

I read both The Concept of Anxiety and Sickness Unto Death, the latter of which I would read again in the fall. I spent a lot of the remaining few weeks of the summer watching TV shows online, another vice that continues to this day. In any event, as I headed back to school, my thoughts about the independent study changed a bit and I decided that I wanted to do the death of God and its implications for philosophical hermeneutics. This led to a few weeks of confusion about exactly how I would approach this topic, which eventually changed into anxiety about the whole thing. During this time I was reading a lot of Vattimo, especially On Belief and Beyond Interpretation.

Eventually, at the suggestion of my chaplain, I changed my independent study to be solely on the work of Paul Ricoeur, and for the paper I would focus on Ricoeur’s influences and insights. This topic basically took up all of my free time in the semester, and I spent a lot of most weekends reading a lot of primary and even more secondary sources. I found Ricoeur’s essays to be a good place to get the breadth of his thought, although I read parts of some of the major monographs as well. There are a few that I didn’t get to touch, and this is definitely an area that I will continue to read in. The paper itself turned out to be fine, but that project is really still too vague when you look at it. It’s basically the task of writing an introductory book, and I’m nowhere near qualified to do that.

Finally, late in the semester, I started reading Goodchild’s Theology of Money for the book event at An und fur sich, and this was one of the most exciting reads of the year for me. I’ve posted a lot recently about this book, as well as other reading projects for the break, and I’ll probably have more to say about this in the next few weeks when I review my reading promises to myself before starting the spring. One thing I’ve noticed is that 18 credits is simply too much to really get a lot done in my spare time, and I’ve rectified this in the spring with a 15 credit semester, of which only 6 are for difficult/engaging classes. As a result, I hope to have more time to blog and to blog consistently about books. My traffic has gone up significantly in the month of December, and I hope to keep posting something of worth at least semi-regularly into the new year, as opposed to link posts or youtube videos.

I’m sure there’s more to say, but those are the main stories that stick out in my mind. As I look ahead to 2010, I can already identify some areas in which I plan to read more extensively: Kierkegaard primary works (need to get to Repetition, Philosophical Fragments, and Stages on Life’s Way), Leftist politics/critical theory/twentieth century marxism (willing to take suggestions here), and other works of constructive contemporary philosophy/theology that are akin to Goodchild’s. The first book that I am thinking of is Roland Boer’s Political Myth, but in trying to put together a research proposal for the Kierkegaard library and reading for literary theory, I will probably stick to the first two areas in early 2010.


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I’m looking for some quick assistance from someone who has a copy of Schmitt’s Political Theology, or at the very least, more knowledge of Agamben that I have. At the beginning of Homo Sacer, Agamben quotes a lengthy passage from Schmitt, and within this quote, Schmitt quotes a “protestant theologian” who refers to the general and the exception. It’s clear that this person is Kierkegaard, but there is no citation for it other than his name in the index. Here is the Kierkegaard quote:

The exception explains the general and itself. And when one really wants to study the general, one need only look around for a real exception. It brings everything to light more clearly than the general itself. After a while, one becomes disgusted with the endless talk about the general – there are exceptions. If they cannot be explained, then neither can the general be explained. Usually the difficulty is not noticed, since the general is thought about not with passion but only with comfortable superficiality. The exception, on the other hand, thinks the general with intense passion.

The citation for the Schmitt quote is pages 19-22 from Political Theology, but I think it might be Agamben’s own translation of the 1922 Duncker & Humbolt version, so the pages might not match up. I’m guessing that the quotation might be from Sickness Unto Death or the notebooks, but I cannot even explore my guess because my Kierkegaard books are at school.

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The following is simply a list of my favorite albums from the past year. I thought 2009 was a great year for music. There were a lot of solid albums and a handful of spectacular ones. This list does not pretend to be comprehensive, and no list really would want that title. Still, even within the limited scope of what could make it onto this list, I’m playing catchup. Off the top of my head, a couple of albums that might have made it onto the list if I had the time to listen to them are Dan Deacon – Bromst and Neko Case – Middle Cyclone. Adopting a method used by Ben, but slightly altering it, I’m going to try to post links to youtube videos of my favorite songs from each album.

15. The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

Favorite Song: I Can Be A Frog.

Simply put, I haven’t listened to this enough to put it higher on my list. I’ve enjoyed the few listens that I’ve given this album so far.

14. The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love

Favorite song: Won’t Want for Love (Margaret in the Taiga)

This a very good album, and clocks in at around an hour in length. A lot of the tracks on the album are short filler between songs, which is kind of a nitpick, because the album’s narrative arch is nicely different than a lot of other stuff out there. I don’t have a standout song favorite, but that’s almost as much due to the consistency of good tracks on this one, as well as the style of the album. Not to be missed.

13. M Ward – Hold Time

Favorite song: Epistemology

M. Ward, now featuring more Zooey Deschanel! This is a good thing; unfortunately, what is a possible highlight duet with Lucinda Williams is the worst song on the album. This is one of my most played albums of the year, and features several other catchy songs.

12. Harlem Shakes – Technicolor Health

Favorite song: Sunlight

This album kind of came out of nowhere for me, but it was one of my anthem albums when I drove across the country and back over the summer. I haven’t listened to it for a while, but it also features some excellent individual songs. My only gripe is with the latter half of the album, save for the title song. It’s an excellent debut effort, in any event.

11. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears – Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is

Favorite song: I’m Broke

That song is pretty much the anthem of my financial life, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The only gripe with this album is that this song is such a standout from the rest of them. Word on the street is that they are amazing live, and I’m working on my lack of ground to weigh in on here.

10. Wilco – The Album

Favorite song: You and I

Wilco’s newest was somewhat maligned by the more elitist review places that I frequent, and such terms as “dadrock” were being thrown around, suggesting that Wilco’s lost an edge. While this is certainly much different than Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, if this is dadrock, then it’s damn good. Wilco will probably never put another album out like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost Is Born, but that’s ok. They are evolving a very good sound, and the addition of Nels Cline has been a coup for the band. I like this significantly more than Sky Blue Sky, which has it’s moments. It’s pretty much a simple, straightforward rock n’ roll album.

9. Rodrigo y Gabriela – 11:11

Favorite song: Hanuman

To put it bluntly, if you are a guitar player or enjoy extremely good guitar, you won’t be able to listen to the first 10 or 15 minutes of this album without immediately buying it. One of my best impulse buys in a long time, and a creative and talented due.

8. The Mountain Goats – The Life of the World to Come

Favorite song: Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace

This album is beautiful, and John Darnielle is the best songwriter of our generation. This is a much more recent addition than a lot of the albums on the list, but I’ve been playing the heck out of it lately.

7. Passion Pit – Manners

Favorite song: To Kingdom Come

It’s pretty difficult to pick a favorite song from this one, because most of them are really, really good. This year’s indie sensation really lives up to the hype, and then some. In a different year, it’s an easy top five album.

6. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

Favorite song: The Privateers

It takes some restraint for me to have Andrew Bird this low, since he’s my favorite artist and a master live performer. As with Wilco, it seems like some critics were underwhelmed, but I hold the pretty unorthodox opinion that this is a step up from Armchair Apocrypha, which is still a phenomenal album in its own right. Here, Bird returns to some earlier influences musically. This is about as good as he has done in terms of lyrics and wordplay.

5. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Favorite song: While You Wait for the Others

I declared this album to be the best of the year – prematurely, it seems – several months ago. Still, it’s a testament to how good the remaining four albums are that this one sits at number 5. I think a friend on a forum put it best when he said that, even though he loves 2006s Yellow House, after listening to Veckatimest, it’s almost difficult to return to the first album. I feel the same way, and have little difficulty saying that Grizzly Bear is one of the best bands in the world right now.

4. The Avett Brothers – I and Love and You

Favorite song: I and Love and You

I was anticipating this album this year, but I did not expect it to blow me away, or blow everything else the Avett Brothers have done away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a pretty big fan, although I know my hyperbolic claim is probably a little offensive to die-hard fans. This album is a leap forward, however. Bringing on Rick Rubin has been great for the band.

3. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

Favorite song: My Girls

“My Girls” is easily the song of the year, and maybe the decade. Animal Collective comes back in force, and apparently the recently released EP is almost as good as this album, which came out very early in 2009 and has pretty much been at the top of everyone’s list ever since then. I don’t put them third simply to buck convention, although it’s perhaps true that this is the best album of the year, and among the best of the 00s.

2. Joshua James – Build Me This

Favorite song: Lawn Full of Marigolds

I was floored when I first heard this album. It’s difficult for me to describe, but this has been a very important album for me. Musically, it’s beautiful – soothing. The major negative is the cover, which is among the worst I’ve ever seen for really good albums. This album is emotionally heavy, and everything speaks to the authenticity of James. The song I mention, the opening “Coal War” and the closing “Benediction” are especially moving. Strangely, this album is absent on pretty much every best-of list I’ve seen. This needs to be fixed, because I’m certain that we will be hearing more from James in the future, who is only 25 (this is his second release).

1. St. Vincent – Actor

Favorite song: Marrow

First, a confession: part of the reason this is ranked #1 is because of the live performance. This album has grown on me quite a bit in the past three months, to the point where I’m willing to say it’s being pretty underrated in all of the places I’ve looked at so far. The contrast between the violent discordance of the guitars and Annie Clark’s voice is really something to see/hear, and it’s even more intense live. It’s a little unfortunate to always associate her with Sufjan Stevens, but the touring band from Illinoise is absolutely incredible. If only Sufjan would get back to making albums.

Well, there it is. If you have other favorites or criticisms/comments, I’d love to hear them. I usually end up leeching off of other people’s year-end lists, because I don’t dedicate a lot of energy to finding new music. This year has been slightly different, and I’m confident that that was because I spent more time in independent record stores this year than ever before. I’m hoping that wherever I end up for grad school will have at least one decent place, which is more than I can say for the current one.

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A giant passes

Via Michael Iafrate, the Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx has died at the age of 95. As the story reports, he died of natural causes. Fr. Schillebeeckx continued to write into his nineties – a tremendous and humbling accomplishment. May he rest in peace.

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Grad school update

I’ve been putting off posting about this for some time. I don’t really have a reason, other than perhaps because my procrastination in posting falls in line with my procrastination in completing applications. Nevertheless, except for one outstanding transcript issue (edit-no more, apparently it’s fixed!), everything is submitted, paid, or in the mail for the following six schools:

  • Fordham University
  • Duquesne University
  • Villanova University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Boston College
  • Purdue University

All of the applications aim high – PhD in philosophy. A few of them have options for consideration of the MA if not admitted into the PhD.  I’m not sure how much I should/want to comment on the schools, given that I have pending applications at all of them, but it should suffice to say that they are all fine schools. Each school has one or two or several people working out of the continental tradition, which was obviously a big focus in choosing schools to apply to. Purdue is probably the school that ‘leans’ analytical the most, but I really like the department and the course offerings. They have a joint Philosophy & Literature program, which is very appealing to me, but you need a Masters-level degree in a related field to apply.

Speaking of MA degrees, I’m currently in the process of figuring out what other schools I will apply to. At this stage, a lot is hinging on what I can afford: it costs at least seventy dollars to pick a new school after application fees and GRE scores are sent. I’m definitely going to apply to Loyola Marymount University, as I’ve already started an application and sent them my scores (they’ve been a target school during the entire process). I’m also certain about applying to the MtS program at Duke Divinity School. Beyond these schools, I’m looking at American University, University of Dallas, and assorted others. I really need to stop looking, because I can’t afford to do much more. I’ll probably end up applying to LMU, Duke, and American and then call it quits.

I don’t really have a favorite school, and I’m not saying this just to say it. Each program has different strengths, but I’d jump at the opportunity to go to any of them. I’m trying to avoid falling into overly optimistic or pessimistic thoughts about the whole thing, and it’s been a strange ride so far. I have actually swung to both extremes, and was especially pessimistic while I was in the process of coordinating them (this happened to occur during finals week, which may or may not have had anything to do with the pessimism). My thinking is that I did the best I could do on the applications, worked hard on the statement of purpose(s) and the writing sample, so now I just have to play the waiting game. I’m thankful for the advice, well-wishes, and most of all patience of all those various collaborators I’ve talked to about the process (you all know who you are).

I don’t think it’s too pessimistic to assume that I might get a few offers to do an MA somewhere, and then have to arrange finances and figure out how to do it. If I get immediately accepted into a PhD program, I’ll be a little surprised and extremely excited. I think I’m prepared to start, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a lot of good people out there who are applying for what amounts to a small number of positions. I’m sure I’ll post updates as they come about this, but that is where things stand right now. To be clear, everything besides Duke is a philosophy program.

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A minor linguistic conundrum

A few weeks ago, I asked for recommendations concerning Sandberg’s French for Reading. Well, I ended up purchasing the book, and was all set to begin working towards reading comprehension in French during my spring semester, which will hopefully prove to be less taxing in terms of credits (I am stuck finishing out general education requirements, so I can only take two classes that interest me: Theory of Literature and a philosophy seminar on Marcel and Camus). In addition to working on a language, I hope this will give me some time to interlibrary loan books on my reading list, which may lead to more frequent posts.

I had basically decided to start with French, even though my long-term goals are French, German, and Danish at least. I already have a little familiarity with French because I took a pretty good introductory class last Spring. However, the other day I happened across a copy of Wilson’s German Quickly on the cheap (and it was in perfect condition to boot!), so now I’m reconsidering a little bit. I’ve always assumed that French would be a little easier than German, but I’m thinking that German might give me a better ground to transition to Danish. I’d appreciate any advice before I really dig in.

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I’ll admit that some of the prose in Part 2 of Goodchild’s Theology of Money is a bit difficult for me to follow. This was especially true in Ch 4 “Ecology of Money.” But, Goodchild’s prose is generally so concise and direct that, when I’m really following the argument and need to make notes, I typically just end up transcribing direct quotes from the book. When he’s on, he’s really on, such as in this passage from Ch 6 “Theology of Money” where he exposes the moral and religious underpinnings and attitudes of capitalism, as well as the logic and accompanying eschatology that allows those religious adherents of capitalism to make the arguments that they do.

The culture of modernity is one of universal threat. Since freedom is claimed by right, then any obligations are perceived as an encroachment on that freedom. Such threats may be averted by a sacrificial practice that transfers liabilities onto others. Any moral discourse that threatens the rights of the sovereign individual by restoring permanent reciprocal obligations must therefore be opposed. Far from accounting being morally and politically neutral, then, it calls into being a culture of individualism, of threat, and of righteous revenge. Such an eschatology is not a mere addition to economic practices. It is the very foundation on which credit is based. Money holds value because liabilities can be enforced on others. Money holds value because it remains scarce. Strong currencies hold value because other currencies are weak. The wealthy must be rewarded so that the poor are constrained to work; the poor are constrained to work so that the wealthy may be rewarded. The illusion of universal wealth and freedom requires a fundamental operation of splitting, of distinguishing between us and them, the saved and the damned. Such splitting is required because of its bad conscience, because threats of encroachment on freedom never truly subside. In the last analysis, money holds value because its value is enforced. Its morals are underpinned by a theology of sovereign, eschatological judgment.

Philip Goodchild, Theology of Money Durham: Duke UP, 2009. pg 180.

One question that this passage brings up for me is the implied truth claim(s) here, especially as they might (or might not) relate to Pragmatism. I’ve brought this up before, but didn’t get much in the way of responses, and didn’t go very far myself other than a vague suggestion. I still don’t have much more to offer, other than I rampantly suspect that there might be something there.

Second, and possibly related, is the issue of the certainty that this sort of logic engenders in its religious adherents. I think this is especially interesting in relation to the concept of faith in Christianity, and I think that the understanding of faith in the works of Kierkegaard might actually be helpful here in subverting the undergirding certainty (which Goodchild exposes as a tacit faith, but I think in practice it shows itself as something closer to certainty) of capitalism. I realize that the traditional understanding of theology is not exactly in play here (in Theology of Money), but nonetheless I think a more robust account of faith that is offered to us by Kierkegaard (and others, Bonhoeffer? I haven’t read much theology) can help undo some strings.

I think that this is also an area where contemporary continental philosophy of religion (which is, broadly construed, probably a good description of the book) might find some convergence with the themes here. I’m trying to resist bringing up Kearney’s Anatheism, for fear that I might just be forcing connections with the books that are sitting on my desk, but there you have it.

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