Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan's "plan your own pizza party."

The XY Factor: NBC’s “The New Normal” and the Nature/Culture Dichotomy

Within the last couple of months, I’ve been watching a sitcom on NBC titled The New Normal, which offers a fresh and daring reconfiguration of the traditional family. The show centers on Bryan and David, a committed gay couple, and Goldie, a single mother who decides to become David and Bryan’s gestational surrogate. In every episode, we see not only the trials and tribulations of surrogacy, but we also come to understand how the notion of family is rapidly changing in our present day and age.

Cast of "The New Normal"

Main cast of NBC’s “The New Normal”

There is one episode of this show titled “The XY Factor” that made me think deeply about the issue of the cultural and natural “split” that exists between women and men, and the implications of this split when it comes to gay couples who desire to expand their families. In this particular episode, Bryan and David find out that they are expecting to have a boy. This discovery deeply upsets Bryan because he does not engage in practices that reflect traditional masculinity. Bryan, who works as a television producer, tends to express characteristics that are typically feminine, such as a penchant for fashion, interior design, and pop culture. Bryan’s partner David, on the other hand, tends to engage in activities that are deemed more masculine: he watches sports, he coaches a junior football team, and unlike Bryan, his sense of style style is plain and subtle. Bryan’s desire for a girl rather than a boy stems from the fact that he believes that it will be more difficult for him to connect to a boy due to his so-called deviance from traditional masculinity. This fear of a possible lack of connection also stems from the fact that Bryan is not the child’s biological father since David is the sperm donor.

This episode instantly came to mind when reading Sherry B. Ortner’s discussion titled Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture, in which she posits that women are universally assumed to be more aligned to nature than men are. Due to the fact that culture is generally deemed superior to the nature in the sense that it tries to control and manipulate the natural, it comes to no surprise that women, and all expressions associated with the feminine, are seen as inferior.

Ortner’s ideas allude to theories postulated by Simone de Beauvoir and within the realm of  anthropology in order to highlight women’s association with the natural rather than the cultural. Among these ideas, Ortner points out that woman’s body and its functions (menstruation, childbirth, etc.) manifest women’s “animality” and align them to the natural, while men usually engage in practices that drift away from the domestic sphere and into the cultural sphere. Ortner furthermore posits that even when women tend to engage in cultural practices such as cooking, these practices are limited to the domestic sphere and they don’t extend to the realm of high culture. Ortner exemplifies this notion by illustrating how many women are the cooks within the home, but that men are mostly dominant when it comes to haute cuisine or avant guarde cooking.

Ortner also views woman’s ties with the domestic circle as a factor that associates her with nature. The constant association of women with children is part of the reason why, due to the fact that “infants are barely human and utterly unsocialized” (215), and are thus viewed as natural or animalistic beings. Ortner points out that woman’s association with the domestic context increases their association with a lower order of social organization, while men are free to pursue cultural endeavors because they lack a natural basis for “familial orientation”:

the family (and hence woman) represents lower-level, socially fragmenting, particularistic sort of concerns, as opposed to interfamilial relations representing higher-level, integrative, universalistic sorts of concerns. Since men lack a “natural” basis (nursing, generalized to child care) for a familial orientation, their sphere of activity is defined at the level of interfamilial relations. And hence, so the cultural reasoning seems to go, men are the “natural” proprietors of religion, ritual, politics, and other realms of cultural thought and action in which universalistic statements of spiritual and social synthesis are made. (216)

I was curious as to how the interdependent dichotomies of woman/man and nature/culture manifest in the case of a gay couple trying to start a family via surrogacy. Interestingly, the tensions depicted in this episode offered some very interesting insights when juxtaposed with Ortner’s perspectives. I noticed that the notion of having a boy was threatening to Bryan because he deemed that it would hinder his chances at connecting with his child, especially since he shares no biological connection to the child. Notice that if Bryan were a woman within a heteronormative relationship, this threat would be virtually non-existent, for regardless of the child’s gender, the fact that the woman gives birth automatically triggers a natural connection between the mother and the child.

Bryan takes over David's position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan takes over David’s position as junior football coach in order to align himself towards the male end of the female/male spectrum.

Bryan assumes that if the child were a girl, he would have no trouble connecting with her because he exhibits tendencies and affinities that are traditionally viewed as feminine. However, the fact that he is expecting a boy induces him to believe that he must align himself with the male part of the spectrum in order for his child to love him. In the episode, Bryan tries to achieve this alignment by taking over David’s position as a junior football coach, and he fails miserably. Thus, Bryan finds himself unable to comply with neither the cultural nor the natural demands that are expected from him as a parent.

We may perceive that Ortner’s dichotomies still sustain when applied to a gay relationship, which is why it is difficult to situate Bryan as a man and as a character. But, something very interesting occurs near the end of the episode. One of David’s football practices is cancelled due to bad weather, and he ends up bringing all of the boys to his home. Bryan then prepares a “make your own pizza party,” in which every kid cooks and prepare their own meal (wearing their very own chef’s hats). The party is a success, and Bryan realizes that even though he is expecting a boy, he can still find ways to establish a connection with the child–regardless of whether or not they share a “natural” connection.

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan's "plan your own pizza party."

Bryan and David watch as the junior football team enjoys Bryan’s “plan your own pizza party.”

This conclusion to the episode offers some very tantalizing ideas and suggestions. First and foremost, we see boys becoming active agents within the realm of the domestic, and in tandem, we seem them cross into the realm of the feminine and the natural. Secondly, we see that Bryan, rather than “succumbing” to the demands of his alignment between culture and the natural, acts as a mediator within this spectrum, highlighting the ultimate collapse and futility of this divide. By bringing cultural agents into the realm of the domestic, and by at least trying to break ground in the masculine practice of football, we see how a man is able to take part in the project of “creativity and transcendence” that is so important in the feminist movement.

Ultimately, this show offers a lot of food for thought when it comes to issues of gender and family. I shall continue to follow its development closely!

Source:

Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture?” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 211 – 220

The Marble Faun

The Last of the Hybrids: The Marble Faun

I am a huge fan of breaking binaries. I think this comes to no surprise when taking into account that my interests lie primarily in areas that refuse to be categorized as either X or Y: young adult fiction, graphic novels, queerness, and digital humanities, among others. Perhaps this is why I got awfully excited when encountering Bruno Latour’s work titled We Have Never Been Modern last semester, because in essence, it strives to highlight the fact that the binaries imposed by the advent of modernity fail to endure within a world based on hybridity.

An example of this notion is the supposed division between human and machine: although culture teaches us that there is an obvious separation between organic/sentient human beings and the synthetic machine, note that there are instances in which both categories merge—thus, the distinction between what’s human and what’s a machine becomes increasingly difficult to discern. Touchscreens, for instance, depend on an organic touch. Amputees are experimenting with mechanic and bionic prosthetic limbs. The computer has even shifted the way we manage and process information (after all, why bother remembering when Google can do all the heavy work for you?).

With this in mind, when reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, I was quite struck and captivated with the eponymous statue depicted within the novel’s title. The novel makes specific reference to Praxiteles’ Resting Satyr, a sculpture that portrays a representation of the Greek human/animal hybrid, albeit one that tends to lean more towards the human side of the spectrum. In other words, the subject of Praxiteles’ sculpture does not represent a traditional satyr with a body that is half goat and half human, but rather, it portrays a nude man with pointed ears, wild hair, and a pelt made with a feline skin draping over his chest (see the image above). I thought it was particularly interesting that Hawthorne’s novel puts so much emphasis on the sense of hybridity that the faun embraces. For instance, when the artists—the main characters of the novel—first approach the marble faun, Kenyon remarks on the beauty of the statue in a fashion that verges on the realm of idolatry:

“Nature needed, and still needs, this beautiful creature; standing betwixt man and animal, sympathizing with each, comprehending the speech of either race, and interpreting the whole existence of one to the other. What a pity that he has forever vanished from the hard and dusty paths of life—unless,” added the sculptor, in a sportive whisper, “Donatello be actually he!” (Hawthorne 6)

Notice that the faun inspires awe and admiration not only because it is aesthetically impressive, but also because it embraces a moralistic and thematic idealism that Kenyon in particular is drawn to. The faun refuses to be categorized either as human or animal, and he is depicted as arbitrator between the social and the natural world. However, by pointing out that the figure of the faun has vanished from the social sphere, there is an implication that humans have lost the ability to bridge the opposing spectrums of humanity and naturalism. Kenyon proceeds to draw parallels between the marble faun and Donatello, seeing as the latter’s sense of innocence and naiveté give him an aura of purity that has yet to be tainted by the stain of human experience.

It does not take a genius to realize that Donatello is indeed the organic parallel to the marble faun. Yes, Donatello is explicitly referred to as a faun, particularly during the final chapter of the novel, in which Kenyon refers to him as “our poor Faun” (Hawthorne 291). But the parallels between Donatello and the mythical creature are deeper than we may initially deem. First and foremost, Miriam, one of Donatello’s fellow artists, makes no effort to hide the fact that she considers him to be dimwitted, naïve, and innocent. She even goes as far as to approach Donatello as an animal rather than a human being: “What a child, or what a simpleton, he is! I continually find myself treating Donatello as if he were the merest unfledged chicken” (Hawthorne 7). By approaching Donatello as an animal, he is being attributed a sense of hybridity similar to the one that the faun is known for embracing.

Donatello’s presumed innocence also depicts him as a blank canvas, to some extent. In this case, he is assumed to be no different from Praxiteles’ statue, in the sense that he deemed incapable of embracing darkness. As Miriam posits while scrutinizing the statue: “I suppose the Faun had no conscience, no remorse, no burden on the heart, no troublesome recollections of any sort; no dark future, either” (Hawthorne 6). However, it is obvious that the marble faun isn’t capable of human faculties because it is a non-living entity, which adds to the notion that Donatello isn’t a human in the traditional sense. The statue is free from darkness in both a figurative and a literal sense. It is incapable of suffering moral blemishes and it is also pristine and alabaster—free from markers of color. Note that this absence of color is also used to indicate neutrality in other 19th century American texts such as Melville’s Moby Dick, in which the whiteness of the whale reinforces its epistemological and ideological impartiality while also giving it a sense of visual salience.

I was personally drawn to the idea of Donatello/the faun as a non-modern symbol of the linkage between the natural world and the human world, but I also found it troubling that the only way to maintain a connection between these two worlds was through the embrace of innocence. Incorruptibility is paradoxical to humanity. Thus, if Donatello is the only person we encounter who has reached the age of twenty and still maintains the innocence of a child, and if he seems to be the last remaining member of “race” that has vanished, he certainly has a lot of weight on his shoulders. This, however, is what makes Donatello’s transformation in the novel’s climax so unexpected and slightly heartbreaking. He pushes the Model into the abyss, and this victim not only falls into a dark void of nothingness, but during his fall, he completely shatters the bridges of purity that were keeping the realm of the natural and the human associated.

Through the act of murder, Donatello is no longer a blank marble statue, but rather, he now carries the burden of guilt and experience—his being, or soul, is now daubed in scarlet. Donatello ostensibly comes of age with this murder, and this psychological transition into an “adult” realm carries both benefits and responsibilities. Note that this this transition is made quite vivid and overt in the novel, as evidenced by Miriam’s denotation of Donatello after his heinous deed:

She clasped her hands, and looked wildly at the young man, whose form seemed to have dilated, and whose eyes blazed with the fierce energy that had suddenly inspired him. It had kindled him into a man; it had developed within him an intelligence which was no native characteristic of the Donatello whom we have heretofore known. But that simple and joyous creature was gone forever. (Hawthorne 105).

Interestingly, although innocence is lost, intelligence is gained. Donatello is no longer the dimwitted creature that Miriam encounters at the beginning of the novel. Is Hawthorne approaching experience and intelligence as a rupturing force? Is he somehow implying that it is impossible to unite the estrangements that modernity has imposed upon us? Why did the last surviving unit of the symbolic race of fauns have to sacrifice itself? Furthermore, bear in mind that Donatello developed intelligence through sin. This then leads me to question the seemingly opposing nature of intelligence/experience and innocence. Is innocence tied with stupidity? Is it even possible to possess any degree of intellect while still holding onto goodness and virtue, particularly when innocence is so valued within society? Or does intelligence suggest the donning of our own personal scarlet letters?

Notice that despite his murderous act, Donatello very well has a piece of his “divinity” intact; however, the ending of this novel was extremely confusing and polemic because the original facilitator between the natural and human world is lost within the depths of the Castle of Saint Angelo. Perhaps humanity did lead the faun into a darker future. However, as readers, we are left to wonder whether or not Donatello had “pointed ears” or not. Was Donatello ever truly a faun, or was he approached as a non-modern mediator when he clearly didn’t possess the faculties to deal with this burden? Perhaps this is an inquiry towards the possibility of remnants of hybridity present within this modern world. I am not sure, but as always, the realm of possibility is indeed tantalizing.

– – –

Source:

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

Finding Meaning in a “Nihilistic” Ocean: A Brief Reflection on Thoreau’s “Cape Cod”

There is something about Thoreau that always pushes me to reflect deeply on my own set of experiences and memories. Reading Walden last semester was one of the highlights of my year, not only because his thoughts and opinions greatly resonate within my being, but also because this encounter with his work greatly highlighted the exciting and noteworthy results of combining empirical observations, philosophy, and the act of creative writing. Thoreau’s Cape Cod, a series of articles published posthumously (which in unison give it a novel-like quality), achieved a very similar effect to Walden despite of its so-called darker tone and seriousness. Although slightly somber and less “optimistic” (I’m not sure if this word is appropriate, but it’s the closest one I could come up with) than Walden, Cape Cod follows a similar format to the former, in which the exploration of a natural space leads to wonderful insights of the world and the human condition.

However, Cape Cod seems to delve deeper into the implications of the relationship between the human and the natural world, depicting it at times as a hybrid association, and other times as a hierarchical, power-driven liaison: humans are indeed powerless when compared to the scope and the sheer force of the natural world. This is perhaps exemplified best with the very opening of the novel, which discusses Thoreau’s encounter with the St. John shipwreck. The man-made vehicle was unable to withstand the power and impartiality of nature, and the humans who gathered around the scene in Cape Cod were helpless witnesses to this frigidity. It is in moments such as these that you truly understand the fragility and the complexities of living and thinking.

Jacinto's Well (Pozo de Jacinto) in Isabela, Puerto Rico

The chapters in Cape Cod that most stood out for me due to their discussion of the relationship between humanity and the natural world were the ones that discussed Thoreau’s experience at the beach. This, of course, is very subjective on my behalf, seeing as I grew up in an island. Beaches were consequently an integral part of my upbringing, and to be quite frank, being away from them for large periods of time while living in Indiana has affected me immensely. Above is a picture that I took of what is arguably my favorite place in the world: Jacinto’s Well, located in the town of Isabela in the island of Puerto Rico. The picture clearly doesn’t do justice to the sheer majesty and enchantment of the area: cliffs meet dunes of warm sand. Brutal waves roar and desperately try to climb the crevices within the mounds of rock. And yes, every once in a while, you may even see a sea turtle leaping from the waves into the vast blue aura of white and cerulean.

I would frequently visit this place during the night, where the majesty and grandeur of this place would increase tenfold… an open sea, an open sky, an open mind. Thoreau’s depictions of the beach vividly awakened my memories of the beach. I could smell the salt in the air. I felt the chill of encountering the blackness of the sea during a stormy night. I could feel the immense loneliness that manifests when confronting the sea one-on-one. And once again, as I recalled this set of experiences, I felt as if Thoreau were sitting right next to me, contemplating the exact same scenario, for his experiences of the beach were amazingly similar to my own. I guess that is indeed what makes good literature, is it not? Is not writing good literature the practice of aesthetically condensing experience and concatenating it with future generations?

I think I instantly connected with Thoreau when he described the opulence of the sea, especially when in contrast to the human body. The experience is almost paradoxical: as you stand in front of a stormy beach, or in front of a sea that is rough and poses the threat of danger, it is quite easy for you to feel lonely, terrified, insignificant, and impotent. Yet strangely, the combination of all of these ultimately makes you feel alive. Indeed, it is quite easy for you to delve into nihilistic thoughts and emotions during this experience, but there is an inevitable sense of connection with nature being fostered.

Indeed, we are nothing when compared to the scope of the sea, as Thoreau very well posits when he illustrates his first encounter with the Cape Cod beaches during stormy and unsettling weather: “A thousand men could not have seriously interrupted it, but would have been lost in the vastness of the scenery, as their footsteps in the sand” (28). How can this notion be comforting? How can we, as humans find comfort by feeling small and powerless? To make matters even more complicated, how about when we think of nature in an even greater scale? Are we nothing but an evanescent force within the grand scale of the universe, and have we all not sat down to contemplate that realistically speaking, we are nothing but a germ in the universal scale?

I am no psychoanalyst, but perhaps this joy, this contemplation, this awe, and this desire arises from a deep sense of wanting to belong to something bigger, to something grand. Confronting the ocean one-on-one, in this case, is no different to a religious experience or doctrine: we want to know that there is something bigger than us out there, and we want to believe that we ultimately can be part of it in one way or another. And notice that in order to achieve this union in most religious systems of belief, humans are required to die, or in more philosophical terms, the human must cease to exist. It is uncanny that in Cape Cod, Thoreau himself seems to indirectly discuss this aspect of transcendence through death via the encounter of a mangled pile of bones and flesh at the beach:

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them […]. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my sniveling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore, and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it. (47)

There are two brief comments I want to make of this passage. Note that Thoreau states that the dead body-parts have taken possession of the shore, meaning that these dead remnants were finally able to master or take control over the power of the ocean. However, this body is no longer a living agent, so rather than assuming control over nature through traditional means, the body took an almost Emersonian route of control in which power is obtained through submission. Thus, it is almost as if Thoreau were implying that power is obtained through yielding, a very different idea to what he posited in his discussion on civil disobedience (keep in mind, however, that in “Civil Disobedience” he deals with socio-political forces whereas in Cape Cod, he deals with natural ones). Secondly, note that this encounter with the dead body alludes to an argument that Thoreau posited in the first chapter of Cape Cod titled “The Shipwreck,” in which he posits that “It is the individual and private that demands our sympathy” (8).

Unsurprisingly, Thoreau’s encounter with a single body (or arguably, a bone) affected him more than his encounter with an entire group of people who passed away on the shipwreck. Although I am not entirely clear as to why the individual and the private invokes more sympathy, it can be argued that this sympathy alludes to the value of individualistic experience as a form of transcendence. Seeing as death is perhaps the loneliest of processes, and seeing as the ocean invokes individualistic musings, perhaps Thoreau is intentionally trying to bridge the similarities between a humanistic and a natural experience, therefore continuing to challenge and complicate the circulation of power and control between the human and the natural world.

– – –

Source:

Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (Digireads edition)

Earth

I Want to Believe: The Perpetual Circularity of Truth and Power

We are told that everything has a beginning and an end. This, of course, is due to the fact that the human mind is constructed to perceive the world through temporality and linearity. However, as Emerson posits, perhaps the reason why the human mind is unable to pinpoint the beginning and the end of the cosmos, or nature, is precisely because these entities refuse to fit within the conceptual framework of human time: “This knot of nature is so well tied, that nobody was ever cunning enough to find the two ends. Nature is intricate, overlapped, interweaved, and endless” (“Fate” 273). Within the concept of nature, everything and nothing is knotted into this “object.”

Everything is connected. Everything is infinite. What a beautifully tantalizing thought. Humans are nothing but a twisted node amassed within the universal rhizome (a la Deleuze and Guattari), which has no beginning and no end. The notion of the cosmos having no end may seem extremely questionable, especially since it is surprisingly easy for humans to envision the end of our contemporary world. Hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, doomsday predictions for December 2012—needless to say, we are obsessed with identifying the conclusion to anything that is introduced. But even if a doomsday were to arrive, and most of or all living creatures were wiped out from the face of the earth, “time” would continue to move on, and the factory of the world will continue its production: “Our Copernican globe is a great factory or shop of power, with its rotating constellations, times, and tides, bringing now the day of planting, then of reaping, then of curing and storing; bringing now water-force, then wind, then caloric, and such magazine of chemicals in its laboratory” (Emerson, “Perpetual Forces” 289).

Earth is a flawless machine and generator, capable of efficiently and effectively maintaining order, balance, and regeneration in the cosmos. And humans, although nothing but a node within this rhizome, have the power and the will to shift and readjust the roots within this metaphorical entanglement. Think about it. Every day, there is something threatening us. The world, although self-sufficient, is definitely not our friend—the elements of nature our constantly against us, and as seen with recent events such as hurricane Sandy, even the greatest of human powers, such as the social nexus of New York city, are impotent against the will of the world. But as Emerson posits, the will of humanity can be considered even stronger than the cold-hearted power of nature:

Now it is curious to see how a creature so feeble and vulnerable as a man, who unarmed, is no match for the wild beasts, crocodile or tiger—none for the frost, none for the sea, none for the fire, none for a fog, or a damp air, or the feeble fork of a poor worm […]—and yet this delicate frame is able to subdue to his will these terrific forces, and more than these. (“Perpetual Forces” 293)

Despite adversity, despite heartache, despite disaster, humanity continues to find a way to thrive in a universe that is designed to clash against us. The will of humanity is as infinite as the perpetual forces that shape and provide balance to this world.

These were the ideas that resonated within my mind when delving into Emerson’s essay titled “Fate” (from The Conduct of Life), his 1862 lecture “Perpetual Forces,” and a brief snippet of Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s discussion of “The Sympathy of Religions.” And to be honest, these discussions not only resonated within my own belief system, but they ultimately shifted my original views towards Emerson; better said, they absolutely saved Emerson. Within these two Emerson readings, we are able to appreciate the transformation of a man who believed in God and traditional religion as the center of the moral universe, into a being capable of practicing his own “true” religion based on the triumvirate of a self-sufficient cosmos (i.e. nature), the transformative power of human beings (i.e. will), and perpetual forces (i.e. God, or a supreme overseeing force). But even more so, we see the emergence of a man who bases his beliefs and morality on the virtues of optimism, righteousness, evidence, and circularity.

Emerson’s view of power as a circulatory force is what made his own transformation so impressionable. No longer is humanity portrayed as a powerless and indefensible entity that is completely subdued to higher forces, but rather, the collective human will is viewed as a perpetual force of its own, equal, if not superior, to the forces of nature itself: “No power, no persuasion, no bribe shall make him give up his point. A man ought to compare advantageously with a river, an oak, or a mountain. He shall have not less the flow, the expansion, and the resistance of these” (Emerson, “Fate” 269). However, we must keep in mind that Emerson is not naïve when approaching the power of will, for although it possesses the ability to perpetuate the survival of mankind, it also has the power to ultimately destroy us if contained. As he points out with his discussion of the human genius, true intellect “must not only receive all, but it must render all. And the health of man is an equality of inlet and outlet, gathering and giving. Any hoarding is tumor and disease” (“Perpetual Forces” 295).

Human will and virtue may be considered perpetual forces as long as they engage with the circuitous flow that nature itself follows. If knowledge and will is self-contained within the individual, then this knowledge will fade from the face of the earth with death. Indeed, water is “infinite,” but that’s because it aims at self-purification and it follows a cyclical process. If water refused to evaporate or precipitate, the world would in no way be as perpetual as we deem it to be. Circularity is necessary for survival and existence. An avoidance of circularity is simply an imposition of the linear ideologies that haunt the human mind.

When it comes down to it, the notion of earth, the cosmos, and humanity being endless is indeed ideological, and it may be a completely misconstrued set of ideas. Our ideas are based on what we feel and experience. David Hume once posited that just because the sun rises every day, it does not imply that it will rise tomorrow. However, based on Emerson’s musings, I would like to posit the following: is there any harm in believing that the sun will always rise? Is there any harm in believing in the infinite power of human will or the perpetual forces of the cosmos, even if one day they may fail?

As idealistic as it may sound, we need these beliefs. We need something to rely on, even if it may not be true. I need to believe in the circularity of human knowledge, and the naïve notion that human power has no end. I need to believe that there will be a tomorrow, even when I am not around, and even if there is no life left on earth. I need to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Yes, these notions are quite idealistic and almost Utopian, which gives reason enough to doubt them and ultimately discredit them. Despite their idealistic appeal, however, there is something completely comforting about the idea of a self-sustaining cosmos with meaning and purpose that can be transformed and metamorphosed with the enduring will of humanity.

True, this alludes to the false illusion that humans are in complete control of their destiny or their fate, while in turn eliminating the possibility for total predetermination. And although I can’t fully substantiate the reasons why these seemingly unsettling ideas provide comfort, and although I can’t offer evidence to back up these claims, I feel it to be true. Is this faith? Yes. It is belief without concrete evidence. Is this religion? Arguably so… it is a set of abstract principles based on my intuition of powers beyond my control. Perhaps, I am finding religion… a true religion, as Higginson would posit, unhinged from tradition or fact.

I want to believe. I need to believe.

– – –

Sources:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

The Later Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson – Volume 2

The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings

Image courtesy of xedos4 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

On “Forgetting” Rifles and Sacred Texts

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance” – Confucius

Dover Thrift Edition of the Novel

In James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, I was particularly interested in a debate that occurs between David Gamut and Hawkeye concerning religious belief versus pragmatic/empirical knowledge. David, extremely thankful that Hawkeye has just saved his life, praises the scout, claiming that his skills and his bravery prove that Hawkeye is indeed worthy of “Christian praise” (105). David then goes on to posit that divine providence played a role in the situation, and that in due course, some men are destined to be saved while others are destined to be damned. This assertion greatly discomforts Hawkeye, and he does nothing to conceal his disapproval of David’s claims.

Hawkeye asserts that the only reason he could credit himself with the murder of an enemy native was because he experienced the event firsthand, not because it was predestined to occur. What we are observing here is a clash between two different ideological views of the world: whereas David relies on faith, destiny, and the abstract to explain what happens in his surroundings, Hawkeye relies on evidence, experience, and empirical observation to deduce his claims (I killed the Huron native, therefore, I am responsible for what occurred).

Hawkeye assumes responsibility for his actions rather than attributing them to an unseen and unknowable force. Hawkeye’s reliance on personal experience triggers an interesting debate on the differences between textual evidence and experiential evidence: as soon as Hawkeye denies the plausibility of providence, David demands to know whether or not the scout’s claims can be supported by textual Biblical facts: “Name chapter and verse; in which of the holy books do you find language to support you?” (106).

Now, this is where the conversation gets extremely interesting. Hawkeye proceeds to denounce the value of books, stating that rather than relying on a set of words inscribed within a page, he has “forty long and hard-working years” (106) to back up his belief system and his pragmatic approach towards the world. He then mocks David’s views by asking whether his instruments and tools (his rifle, his bull horn, and his leather pouch) are being approached as if they were the passive instruments of a writer/scholar (the feather of a goose’s wing, a bottle of ink, a crossbarred handkercher)—implying that David is not viewing the scout as a rugged man of the wilderness. In a striking move, Hawkeye presents his disdain towards “men who read books to convince themselves there is a God” (106). I couldn’t help but recall Bruno Latour’s views of facts, fetishes, and “factishes” at this point, due to the importance of objects in this conversation, and their role in the construction of knowledge and belief.

Now, what may be noticeable in this conversation is that David definitely fetishizes (in a Latourian perspective) sacred texts and books, for although they are produced and crafted by a human being, the middle-man is forgotten and the object is approached as holy or divine. Belief and divine power are imbued within these textual objects, and their crafted nature is forgotten or simply ignored. Now, Hawkeye seems to be aware of this fetishization of the sacred texts (although he certainly wouldn’t use this term to describe his views), and thus, he deems David’s distorted view as silly or misconstrued. He doesn’t seem to project his belief on a certain object, but rather, his beliefs are projected from the self: something is only true if you are able to feel and experience it.

However, what Hawkeye is failing to see is the fact that his own experiences relied on a set of tools or instruments: without his rifle, Hawkeye wouldn’t have been able to undergo the particular experience of killing a Huron native (at least not in the way that it actually occurred). Without that object, it is questionable whether or not Hawkeye would’ve encountered the degree of success that he did in that moment. Thus, it can be argued that both David and Hawkeye are guilty of the same ‘sin’: David forgets the hand-crafted nature of the divine object, and Hawkeye forgets the role of the object in the definition of his experiences and perceptions.

The material and crafted nature of both the scriptures and the pistol are forgotten during the discussion between David and Hawkeye

What occurs in this situation is a failure to recognize that both figures see fault in the other’s beliefs, when objectively speaking, both systems beliefs are reliant on similar practices of fetishization and forgetting. This failure of recognition leads to a blocking of the communicative passage, and thus, both individuals decide to drop the conversation. What is interesting at this point is that after the debate ceases, both David and Hawkeye engage in the channeling of their belief systems through their fetishes/factishes, even though they are not explicitly aware of the implication of this practice: David places a pitch pipe on his lips and begins to belt out biblical verses in song (interpreting divinity in a material format), and Hawkeye adjusts the flint of his rifle and reloads it with ammo (preparing the instrument so it can help him experience another successful event).

I can’t help but wonder what role do factishes and fetishes play in the development of belief systems in the remainder of The Last of the Mohicans. Objects that certainly come into mind are the clothes that the characters don (compare, for instance, the attire worn by Hawkeye in comparison to the war paint worn by Chingachgook). I also am beginning to wonder whether more discreet “objects,” such as skin or hair color, go on to instill beliefs in a similar fashion to Hawkeye’s rifle or David’s knowledge of sacred texts. After all, hair and skin color can ostensibly be approached as a creation (via the mixing of two distinct human genetic codes), yet these creations instill attitudes and beliefs that transcend their physical properties (dark skin and light skin are fabricated though the same processes, yet the act of creation is forgotten, and perhaps overshadowed, by moral particularities correlated with skin pigmentation). Perhaps this is taking the implications of the fetish and the factish a step too far, but the possibilities are indeed seductive.

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Decoding the American Scholar: Towards a Distant Computational Reading of Emerson’s Prose

The following entry discusses some ideas that I plan to explore in a research paper that I will write for a course titled “Knowledge, Belief, and Science in Melville’s America,” which is being offered by Dr. Laura Dassow Walls at the University of Notre Dame during the fall semester of 2012.

During my last semester of school work, I became fascinated with the concept of hybridity. Something that became extremely apparent during my readings was the fact that the humanities and sciences are not as opposing as we may initially deem. Also, I became aware of the tantalizing possibilities of approaching humanistic studies in a scientific/quantitative fashion (and the extent of these possibilities is increasing tenfold with a course I am taking in Digital Humanities/Humanities Computing). This research project will be my first attempt to approach a collection of literary texts from a scientific and quantitative perspective using the tools that I’ve encountered in the area of humanities computing. My hope is that this approach will help me to understand the ever-elusive Ralph Waldo Emerson  and the overall patterns and systems that are implemented in his prose.

As readers of my website are well aware by now, Emerson has been an extremely difficult scholar to understand (at least in my opinion). I tend to develop a strange sense of fascination and utter confusion when I read his prose. I also find it tedious to delve into close readings of his essays mainly because he seems to posit ideas that are at times contradictory and difficult to conciliate (check out my past posts that discuss Emerson in order to understand this point). Of course, this is arguably because Emerson wrote in an extremely subjective point of view, but even more so, it is due to the fact that he was trying his best to grapple with notions that are both abstract and elusive: god, nature, humanity, science, religion, and methods. It can also be argued that Emerson had difficulties in terms of separating the objectivity of his idea(l)s from the subjectivity of his personal experiences. This notion is evidenced in essays such as “Experience,” in which he argues that grief is pointless and futile in the vast scope of the universe, yet it is blatantly obvious that the death of his child created an existential chasm within his life (check out his collection of letters that he sent after the death of his child if you don’t believe me).

How do we even begin to understand such a complex and obviously tormented individual? In order to hypothesize answers to these questions, I am going to suggest a rather Thoreauvian move: rather than trying to integrate myself with the text, and rather than trying to figure out Emerson through close readings, I am going to suggest that we should take a step back and try to piece together the mystery of Emerson through a distant reading.

What is distant reading? Franco Moretti greatly pushed forward this practice when he posited that the issue of close reading is that scholars only able to study a very select amount of texts, while virtually ignoring the influence of other texts within a collection or canon. Thus, textual readings are ignored, and instead, the scholar focuses on determining systems, patterns, themes, and tropes that exist within a collection of texts in order to understand a system in its entirety. Now, Moretti is quite aware that when conducting a distant reading, there are definitely particularities and ideas that are lost. This is an extremely pressing issue, especially when dealing with authors such as Emerson, whose prose and poetry were injected with countless political, religious, and social ideologies that are ostensibly lost when approaching the text from a distance. However, Moretti argues that this is perhaps the only way to make the unmanageable and invisible forces behind literature visible:

Distant reading: where distance, let me repeat it, is a condition of knowledge: it allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes—or genres and systems. And if, between the very small and the very large, the text itself disappears, well, it is one of those cases when one can justifiably say, Less is more. If we want to understand the system in its entirety, we must accept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge: reality is infinitely rich; concepts are abstract, are poor. But it’s precisely this ‘poverty’ that makes it possible to handle them, and therefore to know. This is why less is actually more. (Conjectures…)

How will this notion of distant reading take place within my research? Simple. I created a database of Emerson’s major prose works in digitalized format (using an archive of Emerson’s texts in HTML format), including a selection of his early addresses and lectures, his first series of essays, and his second series of essays. This database of works, adapted from the prose readings available in the Norton Critical edition of Emerson’s prose and poetry, was organized in chronological order and saved within the same archive.

I then used a series of online textual analysis applications known as “Voyant Tools” (which I discuss in length in this post), which use a series of algorithms that will allow me to approach Emerson’s works from a distant quantitative fashion: the program indicates the frequency and distribution of all of the words used within the inputted database, and it is even able to graphically illustrate the trend of each word within the entire scope of texts that I uploaded. Since the database contains the texts in chronological order, this will allow me to observe patterns of word usage from Emerson’s earlier works to his later ones.

I have already tested the program using a tentative collection of Emerson’s most famous prose works, and the results have indeed been interesting. I programmed Voyant Tools to remove stopwords from the database, meaning that all grammatical and non-content words were removed from the data that was provided. The application then produced a frequency list of the words available in the entire corpus. The most frequent words found within all of the words inputted into the database were as follows (keep in mind that this list was generated using Emerson’s early addresses and lectures, his first and second series of essays, and his essay on Nature):

WORD/UNIT

Frequency

MAN

966

NATURE

710

MEN

537

WORLD

402

LIFE

390

NEW

338

SOUL

316

THOUGHT

312

THINGS

306

GOOD

300

GREAT

297

MIND

275

LOVE

262

POWER

237

TIME

230

KNOW

224

TRUTH

217

GOD

198

BEAUTY

194

I think it is unsurprising to see that ‘man’ and ‘nature’ are the most common words found within Emerson’s prose, but something that did provoke a vast sense of curiosity was the abstract and conceptual nature of the words on this list. Not only does this provide evidence that Emerson was indeed an abstract writer, but it also highlights an important issue: most, if not all of these words, have various shades of meaning can alter immensely according to the context the word is being used in, and are extremely linked to subjective ideological views of the word. Also, note that most of the words in this list are concepts that tend to be associated with positive feelings and optimistic attitudes (god, truth, love, mind, great, good, new, life, world, nature, men, etc.). I think this says an awful lot about the rhetorical nature of Emerson’s prose, and how it is expected that the overabundance of these positive terms will serve as effective emotional rapport for an audience.

What was even more fascinating was the trend graphs that I was able to generate, which indicate the usage of words across Emerson’s texts in a chronological fashion. Here are a slideshow of the graphs that I generated:

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I think that the graphs tend to demonstrate some very insightful trends. For instance, Emerson’s use of the word ‘soul’ is particularly frequent during his earlier addresses and lectures (with the usually appearing on an average of over 50 times), whereas the use of the term begins to drop noticeably after the publication of his “Over-Soul” essay. Usage of the term ‘god’ starts off particularly strong in his earlier prose works, it drops continuously as he continues to publish essays, and suddenly, towards the publication of his essay on “Nature,” the use of the term sky-rockets. What promoted this sudden interest in god? What led to this dramatic spike in the data?

I thought the graph that illustrated the trend of the words ‘new’ and ‘old’ was very intriguing, for not only is the term ‘new’ being used much more frequently than the term ‘old,’ but both concepts tend to follow the same rises and falls throughout Emerson’s work, indicating that the concepts are frequently contrasted and are perhaps presented in a binary fashion. Notice how these words are consistently used throughout the entirety of the prose works inputted in the collection of Emerson’s prose. I never realized how consistent “newness” and “oldness” were in Emerson’s prose!

The graph that compares the use of ‘man’ versus ‘men’ is also intriguing to me, for not only do both terms tend to demonstrate the same degree of fluctuation throughout Emerson’s works, but there is a noticeable divergence between the lines when they approximate Emerson’s latter works: whereas the plural ‘men’ is being used around 40 times when approaching his essay on nature, the singular ‘man’ is used nearly 150 times (it surpasses the use of ‘men’ by a margin of nearly 300%). Perhaps this is in some way reflective of his increasing belief in the self-reliance of human beings, and his increasing concern with the perils of subjectivity.

I think there is something worthwhile to be studied here. The graphs have definitely opened up questions, but now the issue is to come up with some concrete answers and interpretations. I wonder how these graphs will change when I input more of Emerson’s prose work into the database. I am also concerned with whether or not I’ll be able to develop a full-fledged research project based on this quantitative data. My guess is that I will ultimately resort to close readings in order to better understand the trends and word frequencies produced by the program, but that in and of itself is an issue: I simply do not have the time to conduct close readings of every single one of the essays available in the database (especially considering that I am currently teaching, taking graduate courses, and working on annotations for a book series).

Do you have any thoughts or suggestions for this project? Does it seem somewhat feasible and worthwhile? Any and all feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Tomato

On Wisdom, Experience, and Self-Reliance

“Knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in your fruit salad.”

– Miles Kington

Knowledge, as can be deduced from the morphological composition of the word, entails knowing: an awareness that is developed empirically. Wisdom, on the other hand, is concerned with the judgment, assessment, and use of knowledge as applied to pragmatic situations, and it is developed through experience. But, what roles do knowledge and wisdom play in notions as intangible such as belief? My assessment of Emerson’s sermons, poems, and essays have led me to this question, particularly his essay on “Experience.” But before I delve into the discussion of his text, let me resort to invoking an experience of my own.

The notion of belief has always been one that has troubled me. It can’t be measured, there is no concrete indication of its source, and it has an immensely tight grip on our way of thinking. Now, when the discussion of belief enters the realm of the religious, the strength of this grip increases tenfold. Now, although I was raised Catholic, I started deviating from the church’s practices because they were inconsistent with my own affinities and actions. I say practices, because although I do not attend mass or pray, I still hold many of the values that the church fosters near and dear to my heart: I believe in charity, compassion, I believe in making the world a better place through words and actions, and I believe in a sense of greater good in all humans (yes, this is extremely idealistic… but it’s who I am). Thus, although I do not accept nor entirely reject the existence of a god created in our image, I am more than willing to embrace the moral implications behind the belief in a benevolent god. I am aware, yet I am informed enough to make a choice rather than to accept ideas that are spoon-fed to me… is this wisdom?

The reason I chose to abandon Catholicism had a lot to do with my increasing immersion into academia, but it is mostly attributed towards the church’s stances towards homosexuality. Despite my abandonment, the relationship and tension between religious belief and sexuality has always fascinated me, and it is a topic that I have explored in writing and in literature. The problem however is that although I am very aware of the tensions that exist between religious belief and sexuality, until this day, I do not understand it. This lack of understanding led me to attend a sensitivity “training seminar” on the discussion of gay and lesbian issues at Notre Dame, which in reality was mostly a discussion of the conciliation between sexual orientation and Catholic faith.

The message that they gave was mostly clear: you can be gay, but you can’t put your homosexuality into practice. But, isn’t the notion of “being” inseparable from practice? Don’t actions, rather than words and belief, tell us and the world who we are? The session then delved into a justification for this dogmatic system, arguing that in the Catholic Church, sex should only occur between married couples for purposes of reproduction. During the question and answer session, I openly expressed my doubts and concerns: if sex and marriage are “blessings” bestowed upon a man and woman who are able to reproduce, what occurs in the case of infertile couples? How about in the case of people who marry at an old age (an age in which they ostensibly cannot reproduce)? They are still able to marry, and yes, have sex as well.  When I posed these concerns, the presenters looked slightly stunned and awkward. After a few seconds of silence, they spoke about how a woman and a man have the potential to reproduce, whereas this is impossible for two men or two women. They also pointed out that my concerns are actually a matter of hot debate and disagreement within the church.

I continued to ask questions until the session was over. Afterwards, one of the women in charge of the event, while looking at me straight in the eyes, asked the audience to please refrain from asking questions that were out of the scope of the presentation. And here I thought we were here to be more sensitive… to prepare ourselves to answer questions that gay and lesbian students would have in terms of conciliating faith and sexuality. Luckily, towards the end of the session, one of the presenters (not the one who indirectly scolded me) said the following: “we were here to share a pastoral approach towards the issue of sexual orientation and the Catholic Church. The people you encounter will have diverging degrees of belief and practice. All we ask of you is that you walk next to them, put yourself in their shoes, and find a balance between the Church teachings and the particular situation of the person you are trying to guide.” It was with these words that ray of light shone into the dark room. She offered the facts, but she presented these facts as debatable and circumstantial. She gave us knowledge about the church’s teachings, but she also paved the way towards choice and self-reliance… something that I personally had not encountered in real life (although I have seen it in books).

I began with this personal experience in order to provide a threshold into my own understanding and struggles with Emerson’s ideas of belief, knowledge, and experience. I previously mentioned my hesitation towards Emerson’s belief and knowledge system, especially when concerning his earlier views as a Christian. However, with the development of a more cosmopolitan perspective towards religion, and with his approximation towards nature as a way of approaching god, Emerson has become a man that I deem fractured and damaged, but at the same time, complex, insightful, and approachable.

Indeed, in his essay “Experience,” he continues (in my opinion) to add tomatoes into fruit salads, but he also seems to be developing a sense that we all possess different types and kinds of tomatoes, and we are free to use them as we see fit. You want to put your tomatoes in a fruit salad? You want to prepare a marinara sauce with them? You want to throw said tomatoes on your enemies? Go ahead! You are self-reliant. Trust in yourself: “It is a main lesson of wisdom to know your own from another’s” (Emerson 211). And to some extent, I believe this is partially Emerson’s aim in his essay. He exposes an array of illuminating, and at times contradictory, ideas that in turn illustrate the difficulties of contemplating life while living it. When it comes down to it, we must rely on the self, on our own set of experiences, to obtain any valid knowledge in the world and process it into wisdom: “We never got it on any dated calendar day. Some heavenly days must have been intercalated somewhere, like those that Hermes won the dice of the Moon, that Osiris might be born” (Emerson 199). It is through life, and through action, that wisdom begins to define its edges.

I am not a huge fan of psychoanalysis, but I found it extremely interesting that Emerson approaches nature as Jacques Lacan or Slavoj Zizek would approach “the real.” Nature becomes that unattainable and incalculable force that can only be interpreted through an ideological prism or lens. In order to explain myself, let me use the example of the sun: it’s there, it’s natural, but we are unable to see it with our bare eyes. It is hot and blinding, and one glance is enough to welcome the sun’s barbs and stings. We then use shades or sunglasses to look at the sun… and although we are now able to look directly at it, it still isn’t a real and authentic view of the sun, but rather, a distorted or shadowed view of it. The darkened view is simply an interpretation of reality, and Emerson argues that belief and knowledge truly function through this sense of distortion: “Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus.” (Emerson 200). We have no other choice but to see the world through these beads.

But, is Nature, or the real… or better said, truth, something that can ever be seen for what it is? If not, what is the point of literature, philosophy, religion, and science? Is it merely a way of fooling ourselves into believing that the world can indeed be understood and explained? And if the concepts we use to understand and interpret the world are merely an illusion, what are we left with? Are we humans, as Emerson would posit, truly doomed? Are we unhappy because we discovered that we exist? (Emerson 209). Is the world truly this fatalistic and intangible? Perhaps self-reliance is the only thing that is certain in this world. I feel it, I detect it, and therefore it exists. It becomes valid. But, going back to one of the initial points I made, what happens when we can’t feel or concretize it in any way?  Do we simply except this as a manifestation of je ne sais quoi? Are we content with attributing belief and truth to a cause “which refuses to be named”? (Emerson 208). This does not have a concrete answer; Emerson himself couldn’t come up with one, as evidenced by his assertion of god and truth as a force that resists definition… how can one even place truth on something that can’t be defined? In this case, faith is the operative word. Call it faith or spirituality, Emerson asserts that it resists and hates calculation and measurement. But isn’t this, in due course, futile? Indeed, our greatest tragedy is that we are aware of our existence, and intertwined with that tragedy is a deep desire to know and understand everything else. We resort to myth and science to provide us with answers, but when it comes down to it, we are stuck in an ideological aporia. The question is: how do we escape it?

Perhaps there is no escape, but Emerson does provide us with a way of easing the tension of this inevitable cage: “I have learned that I cannot dispose of other people’s facts; but I possess such a key to my own, as persuades me against all their denials, that they also have a key to theirs” (Emerson 211). Our beliefs, or our facts, give us our own methods of approaching and understanding the world. Even if our methods are untrue or unreliable, we at least have something to lean and rely on. If these methods are unable to sustain us, there are plenty more that we can embrace. But the important thing is to have something… anything, to work from. The only other option would be to rely on nothing, and I am not ready or willing to take such a nihilistic leap. Something that I believe many people disregard when approaching “Experience” is Emerson’s confidence in the value of “multi-disciplinary” thought and the rejection of specialization, and how in due course, a problem may have more than one solution. Our problem is that most of us refuse to see life this way: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks form this one, and for another moment from that one” (Emerson 203).

It’s interesting how Emerson speaks of his views and his facts as a key. A key is a tool that is presumably used to unlock something, and in many cases, only one type of key can unlock a specific contraption. How is it then possible for different types of keys to unlock the same device? Perhaps what Emerson disregarded is that you don’t necessarily need keys to unlock a device: doors can be smashed down, door locks can be picked, locked computers can be hacked into, and even the narrowest of minds can be infiltrated. The key provides the illusion of absolute security. There are other solutions to a problem, and the solution towards ideological aporia is not a matter of being self-reliant, or even a matter of viewing life through a colored glass bead… it is a matter of doing something that hasn’t been done with the titular “tomato” of this discussion. Perhaps truth can only be achieved once we’ve tried to put tomato into the fruit salad… the taste might yield surprising results, as evidenced by Emerson’s words.

References:

Emerson’s Prose and Poetry

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net