Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Right Question

Some books cut to the quick, and get the question on the table in a matter of paragraphs. Philip Goodchild's Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety is one such book. I will have more to say about this tomorrow, when I have more internet access than I do today; but, this is just great stuff.

A society which recognizes the claims of property, contract and debt, but does not recognize the claims of need and distress, is fundamentally unjust and immoral. The responsible distribution of [such] attention is particularly difficult in a democracy. For a democracy is founded on the assumption that the commonwealth is composed of a collection of individual rational subjects, unities of thought and existence, whose interests may be served by representation. . . . If [democratic] consensus is formed as the lowest common denominator of collective, conscious interests -- those interests that attract attention because they motivate the buying of self-gratification and self-justification -- then it may fail to represent the true interests of the majority. Moreover, the weakness of democracy is the disenfranchisement of many of the 'stakeholders', especially those of the past and the future, as well as those who participate in circuits of trade without participating in the benefits of the state because they dwell elsewhere. For a polity also includes the claims of 'land' as that which has no say in the property relation, of children, of past and future members, and of those outside in networks opf interdependence through trade and ecology. In an age of the global market and mass media, democracy inevitably degenerates into populism which, intent on short-term interests, has brutally destructive consequences elsewhere, and is incapable of prudent government.

In the second place, democracy cedes its sovereignty to forces from without. Since all democratic relations are mediated through signs, then the self-positing logic of signs may come ot take precedence over the wishes of those represented. Such external forces are evident above all in capital investment. A nation can become enslaved in a form of the debt bondage: while opening a nation to capital investment may be in the short-term interest of the people, the long-term consequences is that economic policy, and any additional policy which may have an impact on the economy, is ultimately controlled by the needs of capital to maximize return on investment. In a global market, the threat of capital flight resulting in economic meltdown is sufficient to direct national policy on the basis of the needs of capital. Such a political reality is not a democracy, neither is it even an oligarchy of transnational corporations, financial speculators and capital investors; it is direct rule by the impersonal forces of the market itself. . . .

In the third place, democracy is subverted by its own logic of representation. For the interests of the representatives, who may be motivated by ambition, financial interest, desire for fame or dogmatic attachment to certain policy objectives, may not correspond with the interests of the people. Moreover, the capacities which lead to political advancement, including appearance, personality, rhetoric, wealth and debating skills, do not correspond to the capacities which contribute to prudent government, including a thorough of international history, politics, economics, law, sociology and philosophy, as well as a powerful ethical sensibility. Ideological commitment to the views of a dominant party does not make for prudent government. Furthermore, the representation of representatives to the people is mediated by the interests of the media, where misinformation, caricature and simplification appeal more directly to the emotions and sell more effectively than faithful representation or intelligent analysis. Representation, being mediated, is overtaken by external interests.

Democracy has no adequate defence against the sacrifice of responsibilities in favour of opportunities, the sacrifice of present demands in favour of future expectations. Alongside the vast amounts of significant need, there are also vast resources of human creativity and human labour which are wasted in a market economy. The problem lies in bringing them together. The mediation of the market is irrational, leading to the creation of artificial needs alongside ignoring many important needs; it leads to many working in pointless occupations which contribute little if any good directly to human society. By contrast, the mediation of reason is unproductive, for planned economies can make gross errors and lead to a fundamental problem in motivation for production.

Goodchild offers some tentative answers to the questions he raises, which are spoken in the most general of terms. But the task of a good philosopher is that of asking the the right question, for it directs our attention to that which matters ... and, to that end, he has knocked it out of the park.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Checking In

Huzzah! My month of unmitigated hell is very nearly complete. Well, okay, I'm being a bit dramatic -- but what would blogs be without hyperbole? I recently had a conference in reference to my wife: 'How is she liking America?' 'She likes it well enough. Working quite a bit.' 'Ah, good. She's keeping busy.' It should not surprise you to learn that I am not especially keen on this notion that busy-ness is, by default, a good thing. If anything, in my mind, it is by default a bad thing. But, whatever.

'Where ya been?' Such has been the question of some commenters and emailers. To those who ask such a question, or inquire about my blogging laziness, I direct their attention here, where I think I explain myself ahead of time.

As it goes, the thesis is, I'm not going to say 'finished', doing rather well. While I likely was not as productive as I would have wished, I'm on the verge of beginning May with renewed excitement that it may very well be done soon. (Which is another way of saying, it won't be finished in May, but I'll feel really good about the prospect of it not being finished in June because surely it won't be long after that!) I realized sometime this past month something I had sort of sensed not too long ago but had not truly understood, that the key to writing an academic monograph is no different than that of many other non-academic writing projects: keep it simple. The meaning, of course, of simple may be a bit different, but functionally, the cliché remains the same: i.e., find a central point or argument, argue / present it, and rinse and repeat with each successive chapter. Few are the books or authors who do anything at all different, save for those study history, not to mention the occasional 'primary source', who by virtue of their primacy can do whatever the fuck they want how they want -- as well as the occasional secondary source writer who regards himself / herself as a primary source, and thus churns out secondary source material in really of shitty primary source form.

All this, as you may well know, is a very obvious thing. Indeed, perhaps a little too simple for my sophisticated readers: 'Bully for you, Brad, you figured that out on your own ... and it took you three years!'

What other explanations? I've also be travelling a bit. After spending a weekend in Syracuse a couple of weeks ago (for an account of my misadventures, see here and here), I frantically readied myself for two weeks back in Scotland, where I am currently writing this post now. Very little to report at the moment, I'm afraid. A couple of days of general surliness, due to an inability to get enough rest, delivered a ninety-minute lecture yesterday on Buddhism, met with the advisor, and drank the ales that I'd forgotten tasted so good when so damn fresh .... that's been about it, in a nutshell. Now that I'm rested, and I have no intention of working on the thesis at all, in spite of the fact I brought half of my research library with me, I should be more fully alert to make the necessary mental notes and syntheses to formulate the laugh-out-loud funny posts that you've never been accustomed to experiencing here at Silentio. Best of luck to us all.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Say It Ain't So!

As mentioned in another post, I've been playing the role of a diligent PhD student lately. During the month of April, When I'm not earning my keep at one of the best libraries in the country, or boozing it up at conferences or Glasgow, I'm pouring through old notes and manuscripts, cobbling together the remaining one-third of a thesis. A couple of interesting discoveries this week, in the course of said cobbling:

(1) One of the first books I read about Early German Romanticism was The Romantic Theory of the Novel: Genre and Reflection in Cervantes, Melville, Flaubert, Joyce and Kafka, by a Polish scholar named Piotr Parlej. Back in 2001, I had no clue what the hell he was talking about. Ignorance of course, did not stop me from writing a conference paper about it all, which incited the following conversation that became emblematic of my short academic career:



After a long day of papers at a postgraduate conference, the Divinity faculty building of the University of Edinburgh is nearly emptied, with its exhausted participants fleeing for the earliest train or bus home, so that they might eagerly add their twenty-minutes of bewilderment to their CVs, which are are of course already bulging with seminars and conferences attended by the two people scheduled to speak. A few linger inside, mostly looking for sundry 'Church of Scotland' apparel to steal, but two wait outside. One, a doe-eyed girl, in a beret smoking a noxious cigarette; the other, a guy with a curious constipatedly confused expression. It is obvious from body expressions and their seeming inability to look in the other's direction, that the two do not know one another, have no desire to know one another, and/or want to rut like animals but think better of it.

(politely, recognizing that the guy is a putz and will not speak first)

So ... your paper ... the one on Romanticism, right? ... where you cursed a lot, lots of fucks in that paper, and the odd bit about Tristram Shandy, not sure where you were going with that ... your paper, it went pretty well, don't you think?

(obviously completely unaware of the social protocol this conversation requires)

Yeah, I guess, so. I don't know. I never know how these things go, you know. There's a pub around here, right?


I thought it was interesting.


Yeah, the silence afterward was probably just people processing it, you know. And that guy who had the inexplicable coughing fit, and, um, wandered out five minutes into the paper and never returned, he probably had to catch the train or something.


Oh, Tim? No, he lives just around the corner. Huh. Yeah ... well, you know, twenty minutes, that's a hard time to work with, especially doing what you were trying to do and all, so, it's a tough call. Do you find that your advisors like your work, that's all that matters, right.



(with all the enthusiasm that her confusion-surprise can muster)


I read a similar paper, maybe even just an edited version, a year later. The ensuing silence was similar, and expected; but, oddly enough, was broken by the chair of the section, who asked: 'So, what was going through your head when you wrote that paper?'

Anyway. I did not begin this post with any of that in mind. The focus is, or should be, on the plight of Piotr! Upon re-reading his book this week, and I'm happy to announce that I think I understand what the hell it's all about now, I'm convinced all the more that it is a really good book, in spite of its flaccid title, and will prove invaluable as I construct some reflections on, as we say in the field, Frühromantik. Ah ... but, it seems that poor Piotr, or at least someone who shares his name and credentials with the U.S. State Dept., has come on some very hard times since working as an adjunct English professor at Russell Sage College in 1997 (so says the book jacket), because he was recently arrested for illegally peddling U.S. visas while working at the Embassy in Armenia. I really hope this is a different Piotr Parlej, because the whole story -- esp. the one about a bright guy who can only apparently land an adjunct post and ends up resorting to federal crimes -- seems a little too (potentially) close to home. Say it ain't so, Piotr!

(2) Also this week, I've been getting back into my old writings and notes about Herman Melville. Every time I do this, i.e. about once a year, I am reminded why I chose the topic that I did. There is just some flat-out good shit in Melville. To wit:

'There is a singular infatuation in most men, which leands them in odd moments, intermitting between their regular occupations, and when they find themselves all alone in some quiet corner or nook, to fasten with unaccountable fondness upon the merest rag of old printed paper -- some shred of a long-exploded advertisement perhaps -- and read it, and study it, and reread it, and pore over it, and fairly agonize themselves over this miserable, sleazy paper-rag.' (206-07)

'That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitve elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, has upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre's own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is write down in his soul. . . . Thus Pierre is fastned on by two leeches. . . . he is learning how to live, by rehearsing the part of death.' (304-05)

Passages like these speak to me in ways more profound than even I realize most of the time, and have the tendency to make me talk to no one in particular -- i.e., myself -- without realizing it. Such was the case last night when I exclaimed, while reading the cheap copy I'd found earlier of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree: 'Dammit, Man, you just were not meant to teach theology.' Apropos of the anguish of the passages, though, and (cue the violin) my own fear remains, looming, that it is all I appear qualified to teach. Sadder still, with two degrees from an evangelical bible college / seminary under my belt, the only places that might let me teach anything at all are other such evangelical bible colleges / seminaries. Those of you who know me, or who have used to read Silentio when it was a fairly interesting blog, will know why this is a bit problematic.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

On Communication

In my ongoing bid to increase the popularity of the American author William Gaddis, who I quote at length elsewhere, I thought I'd quote something here, too. This time from his second novel, JR.

Whole God damned problem tastes like apricots, whole God damned problem listen whole God damned problem read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex messages going both ways can't get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on say good morning and she's god a Goddamned headache thinks you don't give a God damn how she feels.

I suspect many of you can relate.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A New Month, A New Man;

April slipped in unannounced it, didn't it? Wasn't I just yesterday re-learning how to drive on ice? Pining for the Glasweigan greyness that is winter? Being insufferably unproductive, and claiming seasonal fatigue as my excuse for doing nothing but hanging out with the wife and wandering around obscure sculpture parks?

Ah, but no more. I now must learn how to drive, look at pretty girls in all manner of skimpy attire, and make sure K. does not catch me. As for Glasgow, to be realistic, things are only really nice there around June. And productivity ... well, rain or shine, I simply must get cracking on the final 20,000 or so words of my thesis. To that end, I've committed myself, beginning tomorrow (of course), after the Opening Day parade, to writing at least 750 words, but ideally 1,000, per day, five days a week, until the end of the month (or, should I get a head of steam and crack out a prodigous amount of work in one day, as I used to be capable of doing in years past, or not being a lazy son of a bitch, as I'm accustomed to being as of late, averaging 750-1000 words p/day); and, relatedly, to going through the thesis as it exists today, a 50,000+ word monster, and make it a bit (okay, a lot) less unwieldy. Right now, in addition to a 100-page 'chapter' on Melville, which has about as little rhyme as it does it reason, I have an 80-page introduction that doesn't even mention Herman Melville at all until page twenty. This, I'm inclined to think, is a problem, since his fiction is the engine that makes my thesis run. Or, so I thought prior to writing it, and before I found myself increasingly wanting to move in a slightly different direction -- that is to say, different enough that I find myself wanting to conclude something entirely different. Take, for instance, the book I'm currently reviewing for Literature and Theology, Mark C. Tayor's, Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption. Taylor's topic for a good 80% of the book has very little to do w/ 'Literature & Theology' as such; and yet, as with my project, which kind of pisses me off because now everybody is going to think I got the idea from him, he uses Melville and another American author I really like, William Gaddis, as inspirational jumping-off points for his discussion of the interweaving of religion, culture and economics (or, more precisely, network capitalism). In addition to my desire to highlight my methodological and ideological differences from that of Taylor, considering our uses of Melville (and, in part, Gaddis), the real desire I pitched it to the review editor is that I'm really quite bored with the standard, Glasgow-led dupoly of 'Literature and Theology', and think it is high time we reimagine it -- with a politico-ethical twist.

So, to review my month, because I know you care: a book review, which if custom holds, I'll post here ... 10,000-15,000 words, which I will not post here ... surrepticiously laying eyes on pretty girls in skimpy clothes, who I will likely discuss here since K. doesn't read my blog ... oh yes, and unmentioned thus far, one trip to Syracuse for a conference whose topic does not interest me as much as the speakers and some of the potential attendees, and another longer trip to Glasgow, where I am supposed to meet and greet the philosopher-theologian John Caputo (via Villanova via Syracuse) and drink a ridiculous amount of whisky. It's gonna be a helluva month.