An earnest, plaintive piano melody opens as desperate figures stare out into the middle distance. A woman drops in on an old flame, using some flimsy pretext neither of them believe for a moment. What follows is a terse, tense, and incredibly human exchange as our two protagonists verbally fence over decaf and destiny.
And it’s good.
It’s really, really good.
Two individuals of differing (but equally compelling) perspectives clash over tea. It’s as simple a set-up as you can imagine, but director Mark J. Blackman manages to wring both depth and emotion from it. Sienna (Katie Goldfinch of Crucible of the Vampire, Genie in the House) and Elliot (Johnny Sachon of Cloud 9, Late Shift) examine each others’ lives, what they themselves have become in their time apart, and what they could have become. It’s a beautifully ****ed-up My Dinner With Andre, keeping in mind that I’ve never seen My Dinner With Andre and all I have to go on is Wallace Shawn’s showdown in The Princess Bride. Continue reading →
This week I finished The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal, a book whose subject matter should be self-evident. Shortly afterwards I was given the opportunity to talk to Daniel Cloud, the author of said work and professor of philosophy at Princeton University.
To summarize it very briefly the book is a thorough and eye-opening examination of language as a piece of culture that has been grown and thus evolved due to choices and actions we’ve made as human beings. While our discussion of his work was incredibly thorough and actually exceeded an hour I’ve managed to cut it down to something that closely approximates a conversation, and one that I hope will convince you to pick up a copy for yourselves.
Evan: Now I will of course be putting together some form of introduction to preface this interview, but I thought it would be good for our readers to hear you describe yourself in your own words-
Cloud: I would say that I am an American philosopher carrying on the American philosophical tradition. I worked in science for a while in Russia and China which gave me some some experience with socioeconomic change; I was in those places during a period of upheaval. Research as a philosopher most interested me when I decided to quit and go back to school. Biology and evolution in particular stood out as I already knew a lot about the social sciences.
Evan: As far as The Domestication of Language: Cultural Evolution and the Uniqueness of the Human Animal is concerned I would describe your primary goal as breaking down the origin of human language. Would you agree with that?
Cloud: My goal was and is to explain where language comes from, yes, but specifically the theory of cultural evolution and if it works relative to language. Language is one type of culture, and the specific type of culture I chose to focus on in this book was words as they’re discrete identities that are easy to identify and track throughout history.
The larger project is actually to track humans as being distinct from other types of living things. To return to language I present it as a tool for exploring the way cultural evolution works. It’s the application of the word “domestication” as seen in the title, the theory that just like animals and plants what we have in the present day is very different from how it began. Words are only the first thing I’ve tried to identify in this way. I could just as easily have turned to fashion or clothes or any other kind of culture. Continue reading →
It’s 2015, readers, and what better way to start off the year that’s just beginning than by railing on an idea that need to end? Yup, we’re talking Postmodernism here.
Not too long ago, I wrote an article giving an overview of Postmodernism, and it nearly killed me. Yours truly tries to make a point of not including my own judgments in these posts and just let folks draw their own conclusions, but this one- gah. Took every ounce of my (limited) restraint not to rip it to pieces and cackle victoriously as I squat over the grave of Jacques Derrida and…
I’m currently in the last year of my English undergraduate degree. Well, kinda. I will probably have to do an extra semester to finish off my credits completely, but after next semester I will have finally finished all my English requirements.
Like many students, I kind of fell into my major. In my first year of full time studies I was seriously considering a degree in economics, or anthropology. Until I took a class in those subjects and quickly changed my mind. Once I started figuring out what kind of classes I actually liked, I started talking about doing my degree in Sociology, Political Science, or Environmental Ethics. Then, when I transferred to UVic, I decided I would take their writing program. Well I thought I was decided, until I was invited to join the English Honours program. That invitation totally went to my head and I dropped everything in order to pursue that (very structured) program.
Because of the number of required English classes (and because I blew many of my elective classes during first year), I’ve been taking pretty-well only English classes for the last two years. During that time, I began to ask myself if I had made the best choice. After all, English is really just reading books, isn’t it? Couldn’t I do that in my own time?
Ah, reading for fun/relaxation. Can’t wait until I get to do that again.
Now that I’m getting close to the end of my degree, I’m able to look back and be thankful for (almost) all of the English classes I needed to take. Yes, I still feel like there are a million others I wish I could have taken, but I think I would have felt that way regardless of my major. There are more fantastic courses out there than what you can possibly fit into one undergraduate degree.
Getting close to the end has also allowed me to reflect on the many English courses I have taken and realize just how broad a range of subjects they actually address. I’ve included a few examples below.
One of the texts we are translating for our final project.
I’m currently finishing off a class on Middle English that I did not want to take. Not at all. I’m required to take a class in early English literature, so I chose this class after a friend recommended the professor. I was then pleasantly surprised to find that it was a fantastic class. It was also not at all what I was expecting.
English has evolved considerably since the 12th century, so it’s hardly surprising that trying to read Middle English texts is like reading an entirely different language.
At the beginning of the class our professor touched on many of the other languages that have influenced the formation of the English language. Then, as the class progressed, a lot of the work we did in class involved translating various works. The translation process required a basic understanding of how to parse language, something I had almost no experience with. Like many English speakers, sentence structure is something I know intuitively, not something I’ve intentionally learned. However, if my experience in Quebec this summer taught me anything, it’s that knowing how to break down language is key to learning a new one. So I’m hopeful that the linguistic skills I’ve been struggling to learn in this class will help me with my future language learning goals. Continue reading →
GORDON: Ladies, gentlemen, voices I hear in my head during the dark, long hours of the night, we’re going to deviate from our past record of discussing television to talk about creating a new literary genre.
EVAN: Which is a daunting task, to say the least. I mean, genres have gotten ridiculously specific as of late. There’s a “gay horror” genre now. It’s not something to spook homophobes, it’s literally horror fiction for homosexuals.
GORDON: There are so many terrible, ignorant jokes I wanna make right now, but I’m not going to. But I agree- we can’t just slap two genres together. Poe is credited with inventing the deective novel- is there a particular profession that hasn’t really been explored much?
EVAN: Hm . . . Everything dramatic and even slightly connected to death is out. That includes forensic scientists, doctors or any sort, lawyers, etc. And the thing is, a genre that revolves around a profession requires an exciting one.
GORDON: Would it count if we revived the explorer/exploration novel?
EVAN: Not if the title of this post is “Evan and Gordon Talk: New Lit. Genre.”
GORDON: Touché. Here’s an idea: a “Nietzschean” novel.
EVAN: Go on-
GORDON: Well, to brutally simplify the philosophy, the only “bad guys” are the people who aren’t doing anything. Otherwise it’s more like an epic tale of colliding forces all of whom technically could be the protagonists and antagonists.
EVAN: That’s an interesting direction, but I suppose my issue is how alternatingly broad and specific it is- So in these novels you’re proposing, the only villains are the idle?
GORDON: the idle, the apathetic, those trapped by their antiquated sense of morality, and those enslaved to their brute instincts and empty rationality.
EVAN: I suppose it works, but have difficulty seeing it as the header to a shelf in a bookstore. Which is sort of what I was envisioning we would do in creating our new genre.
GORDON: Huh. What’s your idea?
EVAN: Well, this isn’t my idea, but I recently came across this brilliant new novel put together by Ryan North, creator of the webcomic Quantz.
GORDON: Huh. If we’re going down that track, how about a novel written in such a way where you can rip out certain sections, rearrange ’em, and wind up with a completely different story?
EVAN: It would work, but sounds exceedingly difficult to pull off. I’m trying to think of how exactly one would go about writing one . . .
I think, keeping in discussing literature, we could devise a new medium of sorts- it would be a marriage of the graphic novel and the traditional novel. Heavy on both text and imagery, a seamless integration that showcases both the artist and the author.
GORDON: That’s sounds like your average Alan Moore book.
EVAN:The Watchmen comes close to it, but it’s ultimately still a graphic novel which prioritizes that sort of storytelling over the bits of prose sandwiched in between the panels.
How about we look at steampunk, and see if we can branch out from it? That seems to be the newest sort of genre out there nowadays.
GORDON: Fair enough. I’m just struggling to figure out an era of technology to “punk.” After all, steam power was really the first major leap in technology.
EVAN: And “cyberpunk” is already a thing as well.
GORDON: This is true. But what else is there? Modern tech? “Modpunk”?
EVAN: Well, we don’t necessarily need to “punk” something. We just need to look at what makes/made steampunk so popular and work off of that-
GORDON: It’s the art, the world, the fancy suits. But yeah, it’s the rich world that’s created; it appeals to us.
EVAN: It’s also a union of history junkies and the sci-fi/fantasy crowd, I think that’s a pretty large aspect of it.
Are there two sort of interest groups that we can intertwine? I mean, it’s already been done with horror and romance, long before Stephenie Meyers ever came along.
GORDON: Huh. I’ll admit, I’m having trouble trying to think of one that hasn’t already been covered. As of yet, I think my Nietzschean idea was the strongest lead we yet have.
What if went down that route? Trying to twist philosophies into narratives- the allegory of the cave would make a good story.
EVAN: I think the main issue is how broad it could get- though I suppose it could just be “Philosophical Fiction.” That I could see in a bookstore.
GORDON: That’d be cool. I mean, it all appeals to the questions and struggles we already have. Yet barring Rand (may raccoons urinate on her grave) and LeGuin, I can’t think of any explicitly “philosophical” novels.
EVAN: That may speak for their effectiveness/popularity.
I was thinking about taking a genre that’s immensely popular to this day, and smashing it together with another one. Self-help books.
EVAN: People eat ’em up.
GORDON: I’m just imagining a really sarcastic self-help book.
EVAN: Comedy and self-help has probably been done . . . hm . . . I would love to see a whole line of books that masqueraded as self-help books that you could gift to the naive.
GORDON: Heh, that’d be cool.
EVAN: They’d be excessively over the top, but just believable enough for people to [literally] buy them.
GORDON: That’d be funny, but it’s really not a genre.
EVAN: I think if self-help books are a genre then fake self-help books would be as well.
GORDON: It’s really more of a gag.
EVAN: Yeah, I suppose you really couldn’t have that many of them.
How about an exaggeration of the choose your own adventure book?
GORDON: Like forcing you to branch out into multiple novels?
EVAN: Ooh, that’s an idea! So your choices would determine what novels you get next; that’s brilliant.
GORDON: Ain’t it? You’re welcome, America.
EVAN: And Canada. And the world. Let’s open up our borders here.
GORDON: Except Luxembourg. **** you guys.
EVAN: You don’t even know anyone from Luxembourg.
GORDON: Exactly- what makes ’em think they’re so good they don’t talk to me?
EVAN: We are going to lose the viewership of an entire country because of you.
GORDON: Boo hoo.
EVAN: All . . . possibly one of them.
GORDON: Hey, Luxembourg! Andorra called, they want their quaint charm and history back!
EVAN: And with the slamming of an entire nation done, and with a few very decent ideas about exciting places literature could go, we should look forward to what we talk about next-
GORDON: New film style?
EVAN: Seems like we’d be following very closely the same sort of conversation. Not to mention really most of what can be done has been done.
GORDON: This is true.
EVAN: Hm . . . How about . . . nerd culture, just in general- The Big Bang Theory, the current conversation about “nerd girls,” the whole shebang.
GORDON: Sure thing.
EVAN: Okay, that fully wraps up our time. Say good-bye to the nice people, Gordon.
I did something bad for my health that I do not recommend. I watched “180”, a half-hour documentary made by Ray Comfort.
It is a bastardization of discourse from all sides. In an interview with Steve, a neo-Nazi punk type of young man, Steve says that he’s certain of his opinions about the falsehood of the Holocaust and other offensive things. To combat this, Comfort asks Steve to spell shop (Steve does) and then asks: “what do you do at a green light?” The question is a trick to get the mind to quickly respond “stop”, which is semi-associated with green lights and rhymes with “shop”, and the person answering looks silly. Sure enough, Steve responded “Stop” and looked silly. And then – well, then Comfort treated that like an actual argument for something.
The documentary was dipped in dramatic music, photos of piles of dead bodies, and use of gratuitously violent photographs. What is most interesting to me, however, is the use of what seems to be the universal argument-ender: comparisons of things to Hitler.
Hitler, the Nazis, and Lazy Discussion
Hitler and the Holocaust have become mythic elements of American culture, I think, and to the detriment of the truth of the actual historical events. I was recently visiting a small church where the members, after the service, started (sort of randomly) to wax poetic about the horrors of Hitler and the Nazis. They weren’t saying anything new – everyone was just affirming that Hitler was inhuman and the Nazis were too. It was the fervent insistence that “real humans could never do that sort of thing” that struck me – I thought of all of the other genocides and massacres of the past century alone, of the killing of civilians in wars by troops of every nationality, of atomic bombs. But even in light of all of these things, current conversation about Hitler seems to serve contrast to our new, very human, very un-barbaric society. We talk about Hitler basically like Satan – an ultimate evil; a rhetorical catch-all.
Ray Comfort and 180: Unethical Discourse
Steve, in the movie "180" by Ray Comfort
Comfort’s specific use of the Hitler argument is reductive and tired. It is, if anything, an exploration of how charged and empty rhetoric in the realm of politics is being mirrored in general culture. His interviewees are inconsistent, and seem to know very little about philosophy, theology, or basic logic. Comfort’s questions are also always precisely and pseudo-cleverly leading, and it doesn’t seem that he wants to engage with the interviewees at all: “Does this mean you’ve changed your mind about abortion?”, he asks. “Are you going to vote differently in the future?” It is not a conversation, is the point: it is a poorly executed set of rhetorical acrobatics. Is this the way to foster discourse and an informed public? Probably not. Arguments depending on rhetorical cleverness are insulting to both parties.
Comfort’s series of interviews are not only annoyingly inconsistent and poorly constructed, however: the movie is also a manipulative presentation of complex issues and events, presented crassly and with a smugly triumphant attitude. One of the less graceful moments was when Comfort asked a woman if she’d had an abortion; she said that she had. He then immediately asked: “Do you feel guilty about it?”
As the big finish, Comfort sets up a game-show setup of moral responsibility and the afterlife, and awkwards them into admissions of fright and death anxiety:
Comfort asks people if they have lied/stolen/been lustful: most of them say that they have.
Comfort then gets them to admit that this makes them liars/thieves/adulterers.
Comfort gets them to admit that liars/thieves/adulterers go to hell.
Comfort elicits from the interviewees an understandable anxiety about the prospect of hell.
Comfort asks them if they are going to go read their Bibles.
Some of them say yes.
Alesia, from Ray Comfort's movie "180"
Theologically, morally, rhetorically, and logically, this is one of the most horrible things ever. Comfort’s quick-talking way of “tricking” people into professing a fright of punishment does very little for the moral health of humanity or the search for truth within rhetoric and theology. The triumphant music and photos of bloody sheets are no help for the legitimacy of the movie.
There are also 40 thousand comments. I do not recommend those either. They are not a happy picture of humanity.
It makes sense to protest the legalization of abortion and to be horrified at the amount of deaths occurring if one believes that life begins before birth. Comfort’s smugness and “gotcha” questions, however, lack earnestness, humility. The whole thing turns a serious situation into an awkward and unproductive onslaught of unhelpful rhetorical inconsistencies, devoid of integrity and, therefore, real efficacy.
In sum, the movie is a disjointed account of unproductive discussions with unproductive people with vague and uninformed opinions. It’s a disheartening representation of the state of discourse on American sidewalks.