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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More considerations on YA lit

As promised, I read my former classmate's YA novel over Christmas. As a frequent browser of the Barnes and Noble YA section, I bring you this and other news from the trenches of market-researched girldom:

Vampire sex mush is still in, and now even has an entire sub-section of its own called "paranormal romance." Melodramatic amoral "realism" is also still in, despite having probably exhausted its credibility. You know, the books where an innocent, straight-laced girl drinks one beer at a party and then ends up pregnant, a heroin junkie, and DEAD IN A GUTTER? Do girls still like these books? The convention is already 40 years old--authors too timid to suggest that maybe some adolescent behaviors are bad in principle, that they reveal a lack of restraint and prudence, say that make you a bad person, so they invent incredible (and, needless to say, incredibly unlikely) consequences to warn girls away from them. If conscience doesn't punish you for drinking that beer because conscience is too moralistic and the author doesn't want to seem judgmental, then the wrath of nature must. It seems like this illusion should wear off once girls realize that ending up pregnant or dead from a couple of beers is not, in fact, "realistic." And most girls know this by, what, age 13? So who's left to read these books except 10-year-olds and emotional voyeurs? Which, come to think of it, really encompasses a lot of girls.

Anyway, Sales's book admirably avoids both vampires and melodramatic amoral realism. No one dies from beer or pot. It also avoids the vulgarity, hyperactive sexuality, and adulation of low culture of the other books it shares shelf-space with at Barnes. There is no product positioning and no female characters who are, at the age of 16, utterly consumed by their passion for some guy in the grade ahead. Instead, the characters spend a lot of time doing homework. And, as some of you know, one of my greatest media-related desires is to see intelligence established in some way other than the mere repeated assertion that Character X is really smart, even though she never goes to class, does any homework, reads any books, or otherwise demonstrates the slightest intellectual inclination. Often, such characters will out of nowhere ace their SATs as a convenient testament to their latent genius. Like the outsized lust that would fit better in a novel with a voluptuous woman in the arms of a man with hair that could plausibly be described as a "mane" on the cover, this characterization of adolescence is a fail. Smart girls do a lot of homework. The characters in Mostly Good Girls do too, so I approve of this, although it still isn't all that intelligence portrayed could be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Harvard's Heated Discussion Classroom"

A fellow grad student alerted me to the news that "Justice" is huge in Japan. This closely follows the trend of absurd things becoming huge in Asia. The best parts of the trend are the Japanese name of the class, and the following juxtaposition of sentiments:
“I am astonished and delighted by the popularity of ‘Justice’ in Japan,” Prof. Sandel told JRT by email. “There seems to be a great yearning, in Japan as in the U.S., for public discussion of big ideas, especially about ethics and values.”

One Japanese fan, self-identified as “Greenbellove,” tweeted: The show is “intellectually stimulating. Professor Sandel might be my ideal guy. I should seriously consider making him the wallpaper for my cell phone.”

UPDATE: "Justice" also huge in Korea. Maybe next year, I will be TAing sections of the "global community" instead of just Harvard children?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A post on reactionary Puritans for FLG

FLG and I have been having a two-year long back-and-forth on the merits of Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards (which, if you ever look at Puritan genealogies, will establish him as the descendant of Every Important New England Personality Evar), head of the Connecticut Federalists, and president of Yale, and so I finally decided to put the debate to rest by crushing FLG with sheer verbiage and writing a paper in defense of Dwight. The benefit of such an undertaking is that it gives one opportunity to read up on New England theology and arm oneself with such terms as free sovereign grace, immediate imputation, antinomianism, Arminianism, and the possibly sophistic distinction between regeneration and election, so that if FLG tries to dispute my conclusions, I can clobber him with mah newly-acquired fancypants theological vocabulary which I myself barely understand.

I promised this post to FLG a long time ago, and then I wrote a lot of it, and--like I do with all my grad school papers--gave up midway through and forgot about it. Now that it's been about eleventy years since I initially promised it and since I wrote the paper, I'm going to do a terrible, unforgivable thing and copy and paste vast swaths of the paper to my blog. You might notice a shift in tone where that occurs.

I think the main question in our dispute is whether Dwight is an extremist nutjob based on “The Duty of Americans at the Present Crisis,” his 1798 sermon arguing that the French Revolution was the seventh vial prophesied in Revelations, the millenium is nigh, and in the meantime, everyone should fight the forces of infidelity (those being, the French, the Enlightenment philosophes, and, most importantly, the Freemasons and the Illuminati) which are secretly trying to destroy America by de-Christianizing it and eventually turning it into revolutionary France. The best way to fight these evildoers is, it turns out, by going to church on Sundays. Readers of Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics will be familiar with this sermon since it is briefly noted in the beginning as an early example of the paranoid style. But Hofstadter was totally wrong and there is no such thing as an American paranoid style.

My view, after considered reading of some of Dwight's vast corpus is that, while Dwight was not a very good poet, he was definitely not crazy. The paranoia about the Masons and the Illuminati has been covered in a previous exchange, but even his skepticism about Enlightenment rationalism has roots in a conservative strain of Congregational theology of this period (the New Divinity, for anyone who cares) that saw the potential danger behind natural religion and rationalism, and watched them issue in the French Revolution.*

Some contemporary historians [and FLG], finding Dwight's style too inflammatory and his politics too reactionary for their tastes, have dismissed his argument against infidelity as mere Federalist opportunism, or as evidence of a fundamentalist impulse to turn New England into a Puritan theocracy. But Dwight’s sermons are a testament to the winding complexity and—-to modern eyes-—contradiction of Calvinist theological and political commitments in the early republic, which could not be classified either on the left or the right, even after their opposition to the French Revolution. Dwight’s sermons draw on a distinctly Calvinist logic of opposition the Revolution--one that is forward-looking, reformist, and ultimately millenarian--and illuminate the distance between European reaction to the Revolution, and the strangely un-reactionary resistance of American Puritans. [endpaperexcerpthere, sorry guys!]

The best way to read Dwight is, I think, to consider him in his theological context. (If he were a greater writer, this might not be necessary, but he was not.) His theology is the product of half a century of incessant and intense doctrinal contest in America, starting with the First Great Awakening. In fact, the contestants in these feuds mirrored with uncanny accuracy the arrangement of the parties in the French Revolution. The evangelicals of the Great Awakening fought with the orthodox Calvinist "Old Lights" over the legitimacy of their conversions, eventually won (in part because many of the Old Lights adopted versions of Deistic natural religion and rejected Calvinism altogether), then themselves split into two camps--the radicals (separatists and universalists on the frontiers of New England who became Baptists and Methodists) and the moderates (the New Divinity) who took over many of the pulpits in southern New England.

In other words, Dwight had seen the French Revolution and its disputes--over hypocrisy, antinomianism, subversion, etc--play out in advance in the realm of theology (and New England had established churches at this point so this was not an indifferent issue politically). But theology demands certain limits on these questions that are absent in the determinedly secular politics of the Revolution. You can't send a man to the guillotine for falsely believing he is saved--the state of his soul can only be known for certain by himself and by God, and other men can no more than suspect that he is lying, but they have no authority to go further. But the Committee on Public Safety could transform sin into political crime committed by enemies of the Revolution, whose “unconverted” souls found their correction not in God but in the guillotine. In secular politics, as Arendt points out, accusations of hypocrisy encounter no limits. Thus, for Dwight, that “Three millions of Frenchmen have perished in the Revolution…The siege of Lyons, and the judicial massacres at Nantes, stand, since the crucifixion, alone in the volume of human crimes.”

What is most interesting about his opposition to the Revolution is not that it's reactionary or conspiratorial or anything like that. It's rather how different it is from European opponents like Burke and de Maistre and Barruel, from whom he actually cribs much of his material on the Masons and the Illuminati. It is so intensely Protestant. The past has no authority for Dwight, and he does not want to go back to a more orderly, pre-Enlightenment epoch, but rather into a more orderly, post-Enlightenment millennium. Like Samuel Hopkins, who was a prolific anti-slavery writer in addition to writing some of the foundational systematic theology of the New Divinity, Dwight looks to social reform as the appropriate response to decaying faith. This seeming immunity to the traditionalist impulse runs through the most otherwise conservative of late 18th century Puritan divines, and while it is baffling to me, it is neither absurd nor delusional. And it seems in some way quite important to understanding contemporary American conservatism and its continuing distance from its European counterpart.

*I know that everyone and his brother will jump down my throat now to insist that the French Revolution was not Rousseau's fault, and Rousseau would even have condemned it and if only people had read Rousseau more carefully and reflected on it better and blah blah... I agree that all this is true and good, except that it hardly stopped anyone from misreading Rousseau and cutting off heads. In any case, Dwight's enemies were primarily second-rate English rationalists--Tyndal, Chubb, Shaftesbury, and also Hobbes. In earlier sermons on infidelity that were not targeted at the French Revolution, this is more clear.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Department of Bad Ideas: Emerging Adulthood

There is an interesting, possibly Hegelian, probably insane assumption underlying the NYT Mag piece on 20-somethings. It seems that in the very recent past, human life was inauthentic and un-free because it was constrained by necessity. People had to marry and bear children young, start working early and never stop, and otherwise do things that we now put off, because otherwise, they would starve to death or be eaten by bears. Now, however, we have "emerging adulthood," an indicator that we live in a blessed age when those necessities no longer apply, and the resulting lives we forge in their absence are therefore more authentically human and free.

The first evidence of this new freedom was adolescence, which was discovered when the necessity of child labor was peeled away to reveal the angsty, rebellious, hormonal but authentic 14-year-old within. This asshole of a creature demonstrated that the previous incarnation of the 14-year-old--the one who worked in the mines or the fields or the kitchens--was a product of necessity and not truth. The adolescent was now liberated. But necessity still bound everyone beyond adolescence. Now emerging adulthood is here to advance the upper limits of human freedom by a few more years by casting off later necessities: "fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years." Newly free from these externally applied burdens, we 20-somethings have more space to shape our lives according to our own arbitrary wills. We are free! We are authentic! And what have we made of ourselves in light of all this? Well, it seems that at present, the self-realization of the will manifests itself in...hipsters. But ok, no matter.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In search of zoon logon echon

Seb is studying for exams and asked me last night what the Greek term for "rational animal" is in Aristotle. Having never come across such a term in my admittedly quite sparse reading of Aristotle in Greek, I set out to find it. What I found was a load of crap academic studies referring to a "zoon logon echon" that is rumored to have appeared in Aristotle and even citing Bekker numbers (though wildly disparate ones) pointing to its alleged location, and NONE OF THEM WERE TRUE.

For example, this claims (along with pretty much every scholarly discussion that bothered to cite that I found on Google Books) that the phrase comes up in Ethics 1098a3-5. While there is certainly discussion of rationality there, there is no "zoon logon echon." Then there is this dude, who sends us to "the beginning of Book VI," which again tells us about the rational principle in the soul but never uses this mythical "zoon logon echon." There were also citations to the Metaphysics, where this phrase appears to be equally absent.

This is depressing. Can't these people just admit that Heidegger says this phrase exists but they don't know enough Greek to find it with the help of their Big Fucking Dictionaries? Why give fake citations?

Also, peeps, where is this phrase really?