Humanities Center Blog

Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Posted by on May 6, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Transcendence, Presence, Blackberry

Last month on this blog, I remarked on the cognitively dissonant revelations that sometimes break into our daily quotidian lives regarding collective, global, or cosmic concerns. I described in that post how some scholars view our efforts to manage this dissonance through personal meaning absolutely absurd, while others offer ways of countering it through personal conviction and familial relationships. This month, as my final contribution as an intern for the Humanities Center, I would like to take a different tack on the issue—this month, I would like to consider not how texts remark on this divide, but rather how media can present experiences that initially  increase this dissonance yet simultaneously function as tools to help us to manage it. Looking back over my undergraduate experience, I can pinpoint specific personal instances of literary and artistic transcendence—situations in which my experience with media has been wholly indescribable in words—untranslatable. I use the word transcendent here not only in a strictly religious sense (although those experiences are completely valid), but instead in a mode of taking me out of myself, reminding me of the world outside of my mind, connecting me to spheres that seem greater than my own life and even greater than my own language. In doing so, I realize the complicated position in which I’ve placed myself: language isn’t enough to describe these experiences, and yet in order to evidence my own interactions in this vein, I will have to attempt that very thing. I beg your patience as I do so, drawing upon your own personal experiences to supplement my inadequate renderings. I also recognize that scripture is explicitly meant for these very transcendent purposes; in this post, however, I hope to focus on how my humanities education has provided a fitting companion to those experiences, functioning in a slightly different, while still compatible, way. Perhaps the first of these experiences occurred when I was a freshman. While having no idea what “The Humanities” were as a discipline, I opted for IHUM 101 to fulfill a required general credit (it fit my schedule the best, if I remember correctly). At the time, I had no idea that the humanities would become so important to me—had no inkling about the Humanities Center, for instance, and my eventual role in its functioning. And the course itself didn’t actually lead me here; many other intermediary steps were needed. Regardless, the course did become quite meaningful to me. One class in particular stands out. It was towards the end of the course, as we were culminating our education about many of the art forms we had learned through opera. Our instructor, a dedicated graduate student, played for us a clip of the “Queen of the Night Aria” from The Magic Flute. Something about the intersection of malicious intent and beautiful, light, high notes transfixed me. It all seemed grander than my own personal life, something of great importance that I was normally too busy to attend to. I felt myself changed, transformed, in a way that no one else in the class was (I looked around to see if anyone else felt the same way, to no avail). Over the course of the next several years, I would come to experience this same feeling multiple times: a performance of Symphonie du Hanneton in a course on theater history; William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” in a British Literature class; Sergei Polunin’s routine set to Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”; Marcel Dupré’s “Prelude and Fugue in B Major, Op 7 No 1”; Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day; Viriginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Each of these...

Read More

The Power of Re-Reading

Posted by on Apr 8, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Power of Re-Reading

As the end of the school year approaches, I typically look forward to having more free time, and, after two busy semesters, look forward to reading things of my own choosing. While I enjoy reading student papers and perusing research materials, there is something refreshing about reading things I choose to read. I may pick up a new book, but I often find myself turning to something I have read before, an old favorite text I want to read yet again. I do this, I think, because of the comfort of reading something I have read and enjoyed before, such as classic mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle, John Mortimer, or Agatha Christie, or popular works like the Harry Potter books. I know how they turn out, and somehow knowing they will resolve most of their plot threads and not leave me hanging (and thinking) satisfies me, perhaps because so much of life doesn’t lend itself to such immediate or neat resolution. The experience of re-reading these texts brings me a sense of pleasure and fulfillment so central to pleasure reading. But there are many other texts I find myself rereading on a regular basis because I teach them each year. The texts are familiar, but the experience of working my way through them changes as new groups of students read them and discover and then share in class the insights they have uncovered. While some observations come up time and again, each year new ideas enter into the conversations of learning we have, and each class responds with fresh energy and newfound enthusiasm for texts that are new to them, though familiar to me. I find myself energized by the ideas they broach and the epiphanies they experience. From time to time I have moments of discovery myself as I happen upon a previously unnoticed truth or insight. Then the reading (and teaching) experience becomes transformative for me as well as the students. One text I teach in my modern Chinese literature in Chinese course each fall is a short story by Lu Xun (1881-1936), the pioneer writer of modern vernacular fiction. Entitled “Kong Yiji,” the story focuses on the life of a traditional intellectual, the eponymous Kong, as in Kong Fuzi or Confucius, who struggled to survive in an era of modernization and change in China. Kong failed to pass any of the civil service examinations, and thus failed to qualify for even the lowest government post or a private teaching position. A good calligrapher, Kong is reduced to work copying books and documents for wealthy gentry families. Unfortunately Kong is lazy, fails to complete his work assignments, and has a penchant for wandering off with the books, brushes, ink, and paper that his employers have provided to him to complete his various jobs. When found, Kong is often beaten, and as the story closes, after a particularly severe thrashing, we find him unable to use his legs and forced to scoot along the ground on a reed matt. I first read Lu Xun’s story in a second-year Chinese language class at the University of California at Berkeley. A newly-returned missionary fleeing a failed freshman year as a chemistry major, I enrolled in the class when I took refuge in Berkeley’s temporary home for the undecided student, the “undeclared” major. Not knowing what I wanted to study, much less do for the rest of my life, I knew I wanted to retain, but also to develop my Chinese language skills, and I opted to enroll in a class that would help me build on my then-meager reading and...

Read More

Pleasure, Transcendence, and the Problem of Beauty

Posted by on Apr 1, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

Pleasure, Transcendence, and the Problem of Beauty

“Beauty” is an unusual term. According to Webster dictionary, beauty is defined as “the qualities of a person or a thing that give pleasure to the senses or to the mind.”1 However, pleasure is also a problematic term. Eating a tub of ice cream might bring someone pleasure, but is it beautiful? Perhaps so. Serial killers might also find pleasure from murder, but most reasonable people certainly wouldn’t define that as a form of “beauty.” If it’s simply a matter of positive sensory experiences, the term beauty becomes void and meaningless due to the endless variability of taste, opinion, experience and perspective. If it’s only about pleasure, “beauty” becomes an ideal that is neither distinguishable nor reasonably sought after. There’s a popular idea that art, therefore, is an avenue towards the ideal or transcendent, intended to be beautiful or masterfully executed. The English philosopher, Sir Roger Scruton, created a documentary in 2009 called Why Beauty Matters, which proclaims his own stance on the topic. According to Scruton, since the twentieth century, art has become degenerate, degraded from the likes of Michelangelo or Rembrandt into art that is meaningless, unnecessarily crude or outrageous. He cites modern art examples such as Marcel Duchamp, who presented a urinal in an art exhibition in 1917, or Piero Manzoni, who submitted a can of his own feces to a similar venue. Scruton demands a call back towards art that exemplifies the human form in its full, representational glory. He insists that art’s truest form is art that is pure, Christian, inspiring and wholesome.2 The problem with this frame of thought centers around the same issue that made modernism flop and postmodernism take root. Call it Satan’s wiles as much as you like, but postmodernism called attention to the fact that the utopias modernism obsessed so much over were determined by white and privileged men. Their concepts of the ideal or of perfection failed to consider the views of the marginalized. Those of a different gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status, nationality or religion would have had a far more different picture of “beautiful” that, unfortunately, is not found in the history books. What is considered pure and inspiring does not take the same visible or audible form as westernized tradition might suggest. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the old saying goes, but if one eye is doing all the beholding, then I’m not so sure who would like to stay a part of that convention. Therein lies my issue with critics such as Scruton who continually insist on a singular mode of thought and goes so far to authoritatively assume criticism over such a broad issue as what art should and shouldn’t be. As any art student soon learns a few weeks into art theory, nearly everything has been done within the art world and nearly everything can be considered “art” if done with the appropriate context and intent. There’s a myriad of different forms, shapes, colors and sizes that has been labeled as art and rightly so. Conceptual art, minimalism, performance art, installation work, afrofuturism, land art, bio art, digital art—the list goes on and on. You don’t even need to get that contemporary to realize that art, or creative expression, never can stay in its patterns for too long. Nineteenth-century realism put critics on their toes by depicting ordinary workers instead of the aristocratic or wealthy. Fast forward a few years, and Monet is lighting fuses when he dares to leave visible brush strokes in his paintings. Of course, some still consider impressionism (and the more radical might even include...

Read More

“Beauty is Almost Too Common”: Professor David Laraway and Outsider Art

Posted by on Mar 25, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

“Beauty is Almost Too Common”: Professor David Laraway and Outsider Art

During the summer of 2012, shortly after Professor David Laraway had begun his doctoral coursework in Philosophy at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, he came across popular press reports featuring a botched attempt to restore a religious fresco in Spain. A well-meaning parishioner, Cecilia Giménez, had attempted to restore the painting in a village church. It had not gone well. The new painting—according to Dr. Laraway’s newest book, American Idiots: Outsider Music, Outsider Art, and the Philosophy of Incompetence—“was noteworthy precisely because of its stunning incompetence” (1). Rather than dwelling in ironic relish over the fresco’s failure, however, Dr. Laraway began to consider the philosophical implications of the fresco’s fame. What does our reaction to incompetence—especially “stunning incompetence”—suggest about our collective relation to defective or “failed” creative works? Why are we drawn to art that falls so completely short of its aspirations? In short, what happens when art goes wrong? In my interview with Dr. Laraway this past week, he was quick to clarify that the art he addresses in American Idiots “is not just poorly executed [art], but in some works, there is something going on that is of philosophical importance.” The difference between incompetent art and interestingly incompetent art, then, is that in the latter, “artists and musicians are totally faithful to their own muse even if they’re the only one that can hear the voice of that muse.” A focus on these artists and musicians can therefore help to answer a deeply philosophical problem: what can bad art teach us, in terms of ethics as well as aesthetics, about the gap we experience between a call that appears to us as infinite in its demands as the paucity of the resources that we can offer in response to that call? The book’s first chapter attempts to provide a philosophical basis for the study of incompetence in the realms of music and art. Dr. Laraway notes that philosophers have increasingly begun to devote attention to the structure of not just propositional knowledge but to embodied, practical forms of knowledge as well: that is, not just “knowing that” but also “knowing how.” Contributing to this discussion, his book explores the significance of those occasions when an artist or musician inadvertently displays a stunning lack of “know-how.” While some philosophers have recently focused on describing our most primordial relationship to the world as one of “skillful coping,” Dr. Laraway is interested in the converse: the artist or musician whose works provide evidence of a total inability to cope skillfully with what the world appears to demand of them. And he claims that that inability actually demonstrates a deep philosophical puzzle, one that becomes visible in the context of bad art. The artists that Dr. Laraway chooses to engage in his book are consequently multi-layered, from the hermit-type epic-writer Henry Darger, to indie rock darling Daniel Johnston, to the Louisiana-born artist/prophet Royal Robertson, to the New Hampshirite sixties band “The Shaggs” (if you haven’t before, you need to listen to the Shaggs). Each of these artists exemplifies the disparity between what they seem to experience as an infinite call to create and the insufficiencies of their art to respond to that call appropriately. Consideration of these artists is especially important because, according to Dr. Laraway, “artists who are more competent than they are often able to conceal, through their skillfulness and talent, the infinite demand of the call to which their work is a response. But the artists I study leave us nowhere to hide.” American Idiots, then, directs our attention to the infinite demand which somehow shines through the material product,...

Read More

The Ice is Melting

Posted by on Mar 18, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 0 comments

The Ice is Melting

For some, the college admissions scandal that proliferated headlines last week was revelatory; in an unprecedented move, Federal prosecutors charged 50 people with the “largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Justice Department.”1 Included among the accused are actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, with the details of the scandal encompassing direct cheating, bribery, and fraud. Many of the people that I encountered following the scandal seemed caught off guard by the exposure of corruption, of a broken system laid bare. Yet for others (apparently many others2), the scandal was anything but surprising. So the rich and powerful act in ways to guarantee those same privileges for their children, and they get away with it? Isn’t this an accepted fact of American life? It seems like this has been the sad reality, the fabric underlying conversations, jokes, and real-life decisions regarding school choice for years. What’s new here? I remember a similar sentiment expressed at the height of the #MeToo movement. A popular SNL sketch around that time depicted women welcoming men to the world in which they have lived their entire lives—a world full of violent men and constant vigilance.3 “This is the water we swim in,” they seem to say, “Where have you been?” Indeed, an article in USA Today ties these two phenomena together—the college admissions scandal and the Me Too movement (along with recent revelations concerning the Catholic Church, which has been in the spotlight since at least 2002)—by positing, “In some ways, the only thing shocking about these events is that they’re shocking at all.”4 Yet I consider many of these measures of pushback a bit of a strawman, at least in some ways. “Surprise” when scandals like these come to light may not be indicative of ignorance, nor of denial (as the USA Today article suggests).  Rather, they reveal the complexity of priorities. Living my daily life certainly includes assumptions about the world and how it functions, but I also have to worry about how I’m going to feed myself tomorrow, and that much more than I have to worry about the rich nefariously getting their children into top-tier schools. When large collective and political concerns become explicit, undeniable by the perpetrators, then—as they did in the college admissions scandal, the Me Too movement, and at other notable times—these larger-scale concerns take priority in quotidian life for just a moment. In this moment, people express outrage (what else are they supposed to do?) before returning to their daily duties. What looks like surprise may just be an attempt to negotiate personal, daily concerns with those of a more collective, permanent nature. I recently read an article in Victorian Studies by Allen MacDuffie that deals with some of these same frameworks, but perhaps in more expansive terms—in the realms of climate change and spirituality.5 In the article, MacDuffie quotes the anthropologist Kari Marie Norgaard as describing “a double reality,” in which there exists on the one hand “the collectively constructed sense of normal everyday life” and on the other “the troubling knowledge of increasing automobile use, polar ice caps melting, and the predictions of future [extreme] weather scenarios.” A cognitive dissonance arises wherein we struggle through the contradictions of living our fossil-fuel driven lives while every once in a while being hit by the grandeur of the concerns we face as a civilization. MacDuffie’s choice to include an epigraph from William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, in this context, is striking. For, as Janis Dickinson has recently argued, “such soft denial of climate change is really a version of an age-old problem: the denial of mortality.”6 James’s quote from Varieties is so...

Read More

A Bridge Over the Abyss

Posted by on Mar 11, 2019 in Homepage Features, Humanities Center Blog | 1 comment

A Bridge Over the Abyss

Two of my teenage son’s friends committed suicide this winter. Their situations were different, their challenges particular to their lives, but their deaths both came as a profound shock to me and my son. I found myself weeping for days, mourning the loss of the light that these young men took with them out of the world, aching for the pain of their friends and family, wondering what could have led them to the point that ending their lives seemed like their only option.  Since I’m a scholar of literature, I turned to books to try to make sense of these tragedies. In his 1980 sci-fi novel, Se dagens lys [See the light of day], the Danish author Svend Aage Madsen describes a society that institutes a nationwide system of rotation—in which people wake up every day in a new home, with a new family situation and a new job—as a means of combatting a global suicide epidemic. An older woman named Varinka, who lived through that era and helped shape the rotation system, describes how the crisis developed:  It started very quietly. A young man jumped from the tower of City Hall. No one paid that much attention, that sort of thing happened now and then. A young couple was found dead in the forest, in a tight embrace. An older woman set herself on fire, apparently intentionally. People began talking about it. It was still just a faint rise in comparison to the things people had become accustomed to. Somewhat later, a book became popular, in which the young protagonists killed themselves, not because of unhappy love—that was nothing new—but because of boredom or powerlessness. Several couples imitated the book and were found with it in their arms. “We have finally found a purpose: death,” one of the couples wrote. Someone made a film that magnified the situation even more. The tendency toward suicide spread. It wasn’t just in this country. New reports came in every day, especially from large cities, but also from the countryside. It became —I hate to use the expression, but it is the most fitting term—fantastically fashionable. Serious newspapers were shocked, distanced themselves from it, analyzed it, and sought its cause. But it didn’t change anything. Popular rags promoted suicide, worshipped it almost, and it became even more popular. Every day, the papers were full of famous, touching, or clever goodbye notes. Articles about the most inventive, beautiful, or grotesque methods.1 Looking back years later, Varinka tries to make sense of the collapse of her society. She concludes, “It was as if humanity had reached a natural ending. The final goal of development, it was called. There had been wars and periods of violence, there had just been a wave of violence and criminality, naturally as a consequence of anger, envy, and a sense of injustice. But even those things were understandable and even acceptable, in comparison with … the mental plague. It was so incapacitating and at the same time so predictable, because it was the logical consequence of the meaninglessness.” That last line really struck me, that hopelessness is the logical consequence of meaninglessness. I look around at our society’s obsession with money, the love of money, if you will, that seems to inform the priorities of our political leaders and to motivate people in their choice of studies, their professions, their voting, their life choices, and so on and I see the same kind of creeping meaninglessness that Varinka describes.  Although the author couldn’t remember, when I asked him a few years ago, if this was the case, I see a...

Read More