Archive for April, 2007|Monthly archive page


Order now (or soon) and get a $10 six-month membership to the National Arbor Day Foundation, and with your order receive your choice of a mix (or the same kind) of TEN FREE TREES!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Choose from the “Autumn Classics” collection, Ten White Dogwoods, Ten Oaks (2 each of 5 varieties) and many other exciting options.  Great for the whole family!  (Also note that if you do not wish to receive these TEN FREE TREES, you can choose membership without the trees.  But come on.  Only $10 to receive your TEN FREE TREES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

And just in case you were wondering – I totally took up this offer and sent TEN FREE TREES to my parents – I was going to just prank them, i.e. order without telling them so they would get “prank trees” in the mail, but I figured that wasn’t fair to the trees.  So I called them and asked which TEN FREE TREES they wanted.  Dad went for the oaks but Mom wanted a dogwood, so I went with the Tree Mix.  I think my favorite part was where they started arguing over the phone over which trees to get… then I reminded them that they were arguing over FREE TREES.

In conclusion, TEN FREE TREES!!!  And if you spend over $25 in the Tree Store, you get two free forsythias as well!

TEN FREE TREES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  Tell your friends!  (Especially the landowning ones)

Prank trees… the perfect gift.

* Note:  I’m not being sarcastic about this… I just freakin’ love the idea of FREE TREES.  Come on… FREE TREES… hilarious AND Earth-friendly.


On Philosophizing

Note that this is distinct (in my mind at least) from the actual study and formal practice of philosophy as an academic/intellectual enterprise. I’m talking about the “What’s the meaning of life” kind of idle questions philosophizing.

Anyway, this is kind of how school makes me feel sometimes:

“A Wider Perspective on Flavor” from Penny Arcade

(Sorry, I tried to directly embed the image but it was either too large and didn’t fit in the formatted space, or shrunk down too small to be intelligible.)

On a Scholar’s Office

So at work today I was charged with the task of packing up the decorative/non-book objects in Iris Young‘s office in Pick Hall (briefly – she was a professor of political theory at Chicago and passed away in August).  As I don’t do political theory, I wasn’t familiar with her name/work prior to coming here, and the timing was such that I didn’t get to meet her in person, which made the experience probably easier, but no less thought-provoking.

For one thing, it reminded me of a Laurie Anderson quote (as thought-provoking things tend to do):

“When my father died, it was like a whole library had burned down.”  ~ from “World Without End”

The shelves full of books, the now-empty cabinets once full of unpublished manuscripts and notes and other papers, and the piles of unopened journal issues drove this point home.

For another thing, it was an interesting but odd experience of trying to maintain some degree of reverence (at least respect – reverence is probably too strong a word) when handling this person’s clearly treasured objects – photo frames and souvenirs from travels and gifts, probably a combination of those things.  Of course the issue of handling the objects themselves with care involving packing them away so they wouldn’t break in transit; but in a less physical way, “handling them with care” meant wondering what significance they had, who the people in the photographs were, how she had acquired them.

Then there was the odd feeling of being an intruder in another person’s space – particularly a respected professor in a space, the professor’s office, where usually the student/visitor has very little freedom to explore (other than glancing at the book walls perhaps searching for familiar or interesting titles).  I sat at her desk and threw out bent paperclips and a plastic spoon; I organized her business cards and bound them in a rubber band, giving the desk more order than it had likely had during her tenure in the office; I moved around papers and books at will into piles organized only by general categories of “printed and published matter” and “printed Emails or handwritten matter”; I carefully pulled down comics cut from newspapers and put them in an envelope with loose photographs and a house key and a button.  And it wasn’t so much that my odd feeling of being an intruder came from, say, reading all the Emails or somehow delving into the contents of all the papers, which I did not do, not having the time – and much more importantly, the authority – to do that.  It was more the fact that I was there at all, moving these things that weren’t mine, boxing up souvenirs of someone else’s past.  And I thought, “Well, this must happen whenever someone in a company dies and therefore can’t clean out their own workspace.”  But for some reason I thought that the scholar’s office, such as hers, was a more personal space than, say, a cubicle with a few picture frames and a Dilbert here and there.  (And anyone who actually has an academic position and an office can certainly correct me if this isn’t true – but I’m thinking of the professors with walls of books and have been installed there for 10-20-more years).  The number of books, set up like a haphazard personal library, and all the other mementos around made it feel – not like home, but like more than just an office.  A space where someone thinks meaningful thoughts.  And surely that’s got to be kind of a special place for someone.

Anyway, I guess that’s all I have to say on that – especially since, as I mentioned, I have/had no personal connection to Young and therefore the task offered a chance for intellectual, but not really emotional, reflection.  But I had to wonder, was handling these objects anything like trying to read personal papers/content, as if I had started reading all the Emails and letters on her desk?  I suppose not really, since I can’t recover any information or meaning from them, but still.  An odd experience.

On Providence and Wrath

Okay, I was watching CNN today and a mental tangent brought me to the following question:

This is for a contingent of (NOT all) Christians out there. You bring in the idea of Providence (and specifically wrath) in response to tragedies or significant events – let’s say, 9/11, Katrina, and most recently the Virginia Tech shooting (see my friend’s blog for another gloss on a certain church’s response to the event). And it seems (maybe I’m caricaturing this position) that you basically say, “God did this to you, you horrible sinners, you are all going to Hell and we told you so.” And you cite the Sodom and Gomorrah story, and you go on and on about homosexuality, which in a curious way seems to be a particular fixation in your minds, and occasionally protest somewhere. Furthermore – and this is perhaps a more general characteristic of Christian Providence than is the wrath part – you take instances of good things which happen in your own lives, or to the life of your community in general, and attribute them to God’s goodness/generosity/favor toward you because you are right.

However: as shown on CNN, there are a number of brush fires going on in the southeast; tornadoes are currently ripping through Texas, and one recently flattened a high school in (either Mississippi or Alabama, I forget); and I’m pretty sure there were also a lot of Christians, and not just godless whores and alcoholics, in New Orleans. Now maybe I’m generalizing about the religious demography of these regions, but I’m fairly confident that these places have been listed as being in the so-called “Bible Belt,” in which not everyone shares this mindset, but certainly it’s more common there than in, say, that den of homosexual iniquity (apparently) that is either coast in the country.

So my question is, what do you do with these disasters that happen to you, and not the people you condemn? A few possibilities suggest themselves:

1) These are just crosses to bear, and the fact that you (but not everyone) survive indicates that God has chosen you to continue whatever mission you believe he has charged you with;

2) God is trying to tell you something about the choices and beliefs you adhere to, and you’re not listening;

3) You simply pick and choose which events and interpretations suit your purposes, without regard to the possibility that while God’s will may not be understood by humans, it may be that his directing events which seem good or bad are only perceived as such by you, and you are misinterpreting them;

4) All of these events are arbitrary and not part of some divine mechanical toy that is the universe dictated by Providence, and your constructions of meaning about these are not only inherently self-created, but are not even a consistent application of the principles of Providence and wrath, or a cause-and-effect of your action and God’s approval or disapproval.

Now someone more familiar with these ideas (e.g. Providence) may correct me on the interpretations I’ve offered, and of course this post is targeted particularly at those who insist on calling human (or natural) tragedies manifestations of divine justice – not the entire Christian community whose beliefs necessarily include the idea that if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, events on earth are not arbitrary even if they may appear to us to be, and we could never “decipher” them as it were.

But seriously, I don’t understand it. Using this model that some people have apparently adopted, why does God only punish other people and not them, and why can they rule out anything bad that happens which doesn’t fit in this model of punishing the wicked? I’m just saying – maybe things *don’t* happen for a reason, and certainly not for that reason. Sure, it’s a belief which has more uncertainty and a lot less ego-stroking to it than the belief that you have been chosen as a messenger of divine will, but it’s worth considering before you rule it out.

… Or maybe I’ll just get struck down right now. Silence, ye question-asker, lest ye be smited!

On Having and Knowing

 I was reading about the First World War the other day (as usual) and came across a fact of which I had been vaguely aware but had forgotten:

“Among American soldiers there were very few who did not go into battle with a Bible in their pocket, particularly since they were supplied free of charge by various Protestant or Catholic charitable organizations. Some soldiers read them, but most did not feel the need to do so. The presence of the sacred book on their bodies, the physical contact with the object rather than the spiritual contact with its contents, was what gave reassurance. The entire Bible was thus utilized as an amulet. (quoting a chaplain) ‘Perhaps they carried them as a charm, a sort of magic, perhaps because they felt more than they know that “such things” contained the secret of life and death and immortality, perhaps because they had a deep love for them. None can say.’ ” (A. Becker, War and Faith: the Religious Imagination in France, 1914-1930, Berg 1998, p. 99).

And I’ve run into similar stories about British soldiers – objects carried as amulets, photographs, Bibles with bullets lodged in them that had protected the carrier from harm, etc. I’m pretty sure this isn’t something specific to the First World War (no doubt today’s soldiers carry items of significance), but it got me thinking about having and knowing something.

The soldiers’ uses of the Bible shows that faith (and I use the term broadly here, not just Christian faith) can’t be understood in epistemological or rational terms alone. This is not a new claim, of course, but it seems to me worth asking what roles objects play in our lives, particularly as they connect to some part of our beliefs and memories and understanding of self. And re-reading this post after finishing it, it definitely steers toward memory – be warned!

But first, let’s flesh out the example: the soldiers carried the Bible and had a particular faith that it would keep them from harm. What the book said, however, effectively didn’t matter – it was the book itself, the material object called “The Bible,” not the text and/or teachings of the book, from which they drew comfort. I wouldn’t wonder if a soldier drew the same comfort from having only the cover of the book, say, and had lost the pages inside (even if it would offer less “protection” as armor). While the lack of Christian feeling confounded priests and chaplains at the time (particularly in Britain), they were perhaps actually responding to a model of faith which resting on having, in this case the Bible, rather than knowing about the religion on which it was based. Like any other amulet of superstition, the “Good Book” became a good luck charm.

This seems to me a classic case of “high” (church) versus “low” (popular, folk) religion, in which the former advocates knowledge while the latter insists on relating to the objects as objects. (This would apply most to Protestant Christian churches, as the symbolic objects and images of Catholicism offer a more complicated story).

But anyway, to (hopefully) be less pedantic, let’s come back to having and knowing in a more general sense. And I’ll take “knowing” in a very general sense, which includes knowledge of facts, ideas, etc. but also of memories and mental representations of things. Owning a copy of your favorite novel or remembering what your childhood bedroom looked like, for example.

If we could know or remember everything we have experienced – or at the very least, be satisfied with what we have retained – it seems we wouldn’t have much need for objects which we might call “sentimental” (old photographs and letters, childhood toys, etc.) Or conversely, if we perceived no need or desire to store our knowledge or experiences, we wouldn’t bother to even invest meaning in objects, let alone go out of our way to produce or keep them. Theorists of individual and cultural memory suggest that in the last several decades we as a society have increasingly valued the archive, not sure what to save about our past so we just save everything, often with the vague hope that we (or someone) will sort through it later. We make vain attempts to keep things and have things – home movies (now DVDs), scrapbooks, old clothes, receipts from twenty years ago, things we inherit from dead relatives. Why do people tape their weddings? They were there – such an important event should stick pretty clearly – do they ever watch them again? Will we start taping funerals soon? Or maybe people already do… I wouldn’t be too surprised.

This doesn’t mean we save literally everything. Aside from the pack-rat contingent of the population (no doubt larger than anyone would like to believe), we throw away items as they have no use – the old toothbrush, the broken plate, the spent lightbulb. But for things to which we attach meaning – whether decorative or once useful or simply for its own sake – we store away, or even put on display. Do we not trust ourselves to remember what things were important to us? When we take photographs of our family and friends, are we afraid we’ll forget what they look like? Why are people so devastated when they lose their “sentimental” possessions in, say, a flood or fire? Could we really do without these objects? A few possible answers suggest themselves.

First, keeping objects in order to bridge a sense of past (or possible future) loss. We may keep our ancestors’ heirlooms in absence of having them with us, or take photographs of our friends to remind us of when they are not around. And, of course, objects of memory of the dead – we may not save things with the conscious thought of losing the person with whom we associate them, but they become very important the moment we do.

Second, in a more strict sense of the word “knowledge,” as references. Regardless of the size of one’s vocabulary, for example, a dictionary is always a useful thing to have. We keep old bank records or resumes or other records around to verify what becomes at best faulty memory, at worst financial or other crisis requiring evidence of “what really happened.” We know we can’t keep everything in our heads; we can store them in physical spaces in our lives; sometimes it’s more useful to know how to find out something than to remember the something itself.

Third, maybe we get a sense of comfort from having these objects, like the soldiers protected by their Bible-amulets. Perhaps our memory even relies on having these objects around, that without referring back to them we don’t trust ourselves enough to remember what’s important, to remember in the right way, to verify what we believe or remember or know against something outside ourselves. And maybe this relates back to the first idea – that having a meaningful object which stands for a past, now lost, relationship can give us some small sense of connection to what otherwise only exists in our heads.

And I’d love to hear more ideas on this.

As a grad student and general bookworm, I then thought more specifically about the idea of the library – and here I mean the individual’s collection of books, not a public or archival library. Professors’ offices are marked first and foremost by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed with volumes and usually with a few books lying horizontally across the rows (and second by piles of unread articles and students’ papers). Some of these books they have read once and might refer to at most once every five years; others they might have read so many times that the only reason they would look at them again is for a page number reference. And similarly, a professor recently recommended a reading list to us (the class) because “these are books it would be really good to have.” Not just have read, but actually own. And as I look at my shelves, I see reference books, academic books, travel books, and my favorite novels and comic strip collections – I knew I wouldn’t have time to read any of the fiction books on my shelf when I moved this year. Why did I bring them anyway? I guess because they serve as a sort of intellectual decoration (and certainly for some, status symbol), but more because they have become objects of comfort for me. I know (roughly) the content of Coupland’s Generation X, but having it on the shelf makes it not only readily available for reference, but also a comfort object, and a reminder that I like that particular book and what it has to say. For the same reason, I’ve held onto a number of my children’s books (currently not with me, but on a safe shelf) – I read them once in a while, but they are more important to me simply because they’re still there.

So if we like having things, and “knowing” (or remembering) a thing or event or place or person isn’t always enough, are we – like the soldiers and their Bibles – protecting ourselves from something? Maybe it’s not a perfect parallel, but if we can be said to be protecting ourselves, I’d have to say it’s from our own forgetfulness and the reality of an intangible and completely inaccessible past. Forgetting is of course a part of memory, as others have said, and why we also choose what to keep and discard. But to want to have reminders around us suggests to me that in this case, forgetting is seen as the problem more than as part of the process.

In myself, at least, this impulse toward having rather than simply knowing has been made more complicated, but no less strong, by digital storage and availability over the Internet. I don’t always print my digital photos, but I diligently save them in subcategories of folders; I build up a music collection, even when I could easily stream the song via video or audio or Internet radio; I even create a screen shot of my desktop now and again to remember where the icons are supposed to go, if they ever get rearranged. On the one hand, digital information and communications make duplicate storage unnecessary – in theory one with consistent computer access wouldn’t need to buy a dictionary, for example, because is always there (not to mention the OED, the Wiktionary, and a number of others). But on the other hand, somehow I still feel the need to create my personal “archive” – Dilbert comics, funny or striking photographs I didn’t take of things I’ve never actually seen, quotes from books I already own, on the off chance I might ever want to refer to that specific item again. Which isn’t often. Not all of these things could be called “sentimental” objects of memory, of course, but the basic principle remains the same: we protect ourselves from time and our own weakness by archiving bits of ourselves – who we are, what we remember, what we know, our past experiences and relationships – in the things around us.

Umm… that got really long.  Sorry!

On the Ethics of Bad News

I didn’t really hear about this until late tonight, partly because all the people working out around me at the gym with TVs had them on stupid MTV the whole time.

Anyway, I just wanted to share with you all two remarkable (for very different reasons) things I found online when doing a search for some overview of the shooting.  I send them in particular because they are both temporary postings but say an awful lot:

First, a striking example of a good use of the Internet, not only to share information but as a sense of non-physical community.  I found this blog (probably just set up today, for this purpose only, so not actually a blog per se) on WordPress – it’s just a list of names and people asking for information on whether the individuals listed are okay.

Scroll down to read the progression of the information gathering and messages left.  Also note the amount of information gleaned from Facebook.

Second, a striking example of outright voyeurism disguised as comprehensive journalistic coverage.  In browsing CNN’s coverage of the story, I was disgusted by the amount of video – not of interviews and re-runs of news stories, but the amount of direct footage of the shootings/events themselves;

There is no clear line between information and too much information, but that might be close.  Thank goodness I wasn’t watching CNN today, or I probably would have got pissed off at them a lot sooner than now (not that it’s just them… but if they bill themselves as the world’s #1 news source I hope it’s not too much to ask to hold them to some minimum standard).

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got.  And get ready to hear about this one for weeks (not from me – from “The Media.”)

On podcasts



Quote page

I added a quote page (next to the “Blog” and “About Zozer” tabs).  Feel free to post additions!

On Realigning Reading

So the job search.  Searching for a job.  Helps to know what you’re looking for.

Anyway, I had this thought about reading (especially reading and responding to said readings in graduate school).  Think of it this way:

First, that in graduate school (and here I mean a program, possibly a PhD but also a master’s, in the humanities or social sciences.  I can’t speak to law school or med school or the sciences or maybe even business school because in theory they work differently.  Maybe law school is the closest) you lean to be a professional reader.  That is, you learn how to process and understand text and make meaningful criticisms of, supplements for, and syntheses from what other people have said.  You also learn how to conduct research/etc. but often this also involves careful reading.  But original research aside, part of the task is making sense of the field itself, recent developments, the major questions, what and who is “in” and why.

And second, that you have to stop reading books for information alone (at least, books with arguments to which you have to have meaningful responses).  At a certain point it doesn’t matter what the details are, more what the overall argument is:  the questions they are asking and answering,  who they are responding to, what they haven’t sufficiently said or accounted for.  Getting used to this is difficult, and it’s something like this:

Imagine you’re standing on the ground.  This is where the average intelligent adult reader would begin from (including, say, where you are in college).  Above you is a jungle-gym type structure, just barely graspable above your head (although it’s a stretch).  You can only see the underside – this is the book’s information and basic narrative.  When you read on this level, you get a pretty good picture of what it is, but it’s hard to do anything with it.   So you try to grasp the structure itself – literally and through careful reading of the text.  It’s a struggle pulling yourself up out of the information, but you get better at figuring out which bits give you the leg up, so to speak.  And maybe for awhile you’re content to just hang onto the bars/text itself, peering just over the top of the structure to see what you should be doing, but still struggling to get off the ground.  Eventually, though, you can pull yourself up on top of the structure and see the other side of the text, the underlying assumptions, the engagement with others’ arguments (often in the footnotes), and with the grounding of the text itself you can go on to move the ideas around in your head, see where to go with it, and (if you like) see that each book, each structure, is connected from above by these arguments and assumptions and disagreements.

Then, apparently, they give you your comprehensive oral exam in your field (that is, if you are on the doctoral track).

Having written this out, the metaphor seems a little more problematic than it did in my head – and I’m certainly at best still hanging onto the monkey bars, myself, just starting to see over the top.  But whatever analogy works best, it’s definitely a struggle to realign your reading method.