Sunday, April 9, 2017

That Sweater is a Part of You

You're in Georgia. This means that the weather is can do 30 degree swings from the morning to the afternoon, and then be freezing the next day. You being you, however, have forgotten a jacket, and it's quite chilly today. In order to simulate a jacket, you stand, quickly rubbing your hands up and down your arms. It kind of works, and you're okay until you get back inside.

You're back at home, sleeping. You have that nightmare, where you are completely naked at school. Seeing as you aren't an exhibitionist, this is quite traumatizing. But why? Is your body really that different from the machinery of other skeletons around you?

That's where clothes come in. At some point along the way, someone became ashamed of their nakedness. The Bible tells us that it was Adam and Eve who first looked in to covering up, but this phenomenon seems to have happened at some point in almost all cultures.

I don't think this was done just because sweaters are cute. And French philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour would likely agree with me, as his pseudonymously published 1988 article "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door Closer" argues for the inclusion of nonhumans into the sociological discussion. Throughout the article, Latour suggests words that one should use when including nonhumans into sociological discussion, with the majority of them focusing on the idea of "delegation", in which a human delegates an action or some degree of work to a nonhuman. His introductory example of this is a door and door-closer (that little metal thing that uses hydraulics to close the door (hopefully) gently behind you). The door itself is delegated the action of breaking a hole in a wall a la a prison escape, and then painstakingly building the wall back up with bricks and mortar. The door-closer, on the other hand, is delegated the actions of either teaching all people to be considerate and close doors behind them, paying someone to close the door behind others, or letting the doors stay open as people pass through, which is at best a nuisance and at worst a grievous security problem.

This idea enters into sociology when we consider what the objects in turn tell us to do, or "prescribes", in Latour's parlance. We as humans delegate actions to nonhumans, and they in turn prescribe actions for us to take because of them. The door-closer prescribes that you walk through the door quickly, lest you get hit in the face. The nonhuman actors we delegate action to shape our behavior, and should therefore be included in sociological discussion.

But back to clothes, which are nonhumans that we delegate a startling amount of actions to. Without clothes, our best-case scenario is that humans would have to somehow find a way to love their nude bodies and the nude bodies of others, or at least tolerate them at all times. However, the more likely and sad option would be that humans would spend their entire days covering themselves with their arms and hands while avoiding looking at others, making all human interaction as awkward as a locker room and turning all the world into a nude beach. Those of us who a bit more reserved about our bodies would find themselves as shut-ins who can barely sprint outside to get the mail, and all contact sports would be incredibly awkward. But, thanks to clothes, humans can walk about without worrying about stretchmarks and lovehandles, that are now discreetly hidden (and are, whether you realize it or not, a beautiful part of you).

Alongside the ability to hide the majority of your body, clothes can keep us safe from the elements. Imagine being outside in the Swiss Alps in nothing but your birthday suit! Without clothes, you would either have to rapidly rub your extremities to keep the frostbite at bay for a few more minutes, make a small igloo to stay inside, run screaming to shelter, or die. Clothes do all that work so you don't have to. Layers of clothes, a heavy ski jacket, and warm waterproof boots let you go out and enjoy the Alps instead of forcing you inside with some hot chocolate that you could potentially spill on your naked body. Not fun.

And while those are just some of the numerous practical functions clothes serve, clothes can be an expansion of cognition and of human minds. Clark and Chalmers write in "The Extended Mind" about how the mind does not stop at the skin, and extends outward into the objects we use every day to aid in or work with our cognition. Clothes work in this regard as well. For instance, I usually wear black on Valentine's Day to outwardly express how I feel about being single. On a happier note, people often come in beaming when wearing a new outfit, or wear clothes they feel that they look good in in order to brighten their mood. Clothing can often be the outward expression of inward thoughts.

This, of course, does have its limits, as many lower income people cannot always afford the luxury of an outfit to express every mood, so it is not always accurate to judge one's emotional state by their clothing. Here is where the danger of clothing comes into play: clothing can be delegated the work of presenting social class. Unfortunately, clothing can be very expensive, and this expense can be shown just by having the label of the clothing. Clothing can become a stand-in for a sign with your income on it. The expression clothing can do is limited by the fact that not everyone has equal opportunity to it. And as clothing is something that is work every day, one's identity can be shaped by the clothes they wear and the reaction of others to those clothes. Look no further than any public high school to see this in action. Some schools can attempt to mitigate this with uniforms, but those are more often used in private schools where few are affected by the stratification and stigmatization that comes from the varying clothes people wear, and uniforms limit the variety of expression that anyone wearing them can utilize.

Even with this caveat, clothing and fashion are forms of expression by many people, and can even shape their sense of identity. Clothing is a remarkable invention that we would not be able to function without in our current state, and the way that we shape it and the way it is shaped by us is incredibly important to consider in sociology.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek Response

Annie Dillard's 1974 memoir Pilgrim at Tinker Creek follows her time at Tinker Creek, going deep into nature to try and get closer to God. As Dillard is an incredibly well read woman, the memoir is littered with various allusions to biblical stories, theologians, mystics, and esoterica alongside quotes and blurbs from books detailing biology and or anthropology. The memoir has bilateral symmetry, and each chapter focuses on a specific theme, introducing the concept through an anecdote she saw in nature or during her time at Pilgrim Creek, and then relating that to some kind of theological discussion. During the first half, these chapters follow via positiva, an interpretation of God as omniscient and all powerful, while the latter half follows via negativa, the belief that God is unknowable and beyond human understanding. The memoir ends up being (to the dismay of Dillard) something like a collection of essays, linked by general theme rather than narrative cohesion or plot.

Dillard's narration is characterized by gratuitous, even redundant, descriptions of the natural world around her in conjunction with some almost obtusely poetic and philosophical musings in the latter portions of each chapter. While each chapter generally focuses on one image to extrapolate into a musing on God, like the empty frog or goldfish, the chapters occasionally give similar examples ad nauseum. This, of course, is not necessarily a criticism of the text; the gratuity of the description reflects the horrifying gratuity of nature that the via negativa chapters focus on.

These via negativa chapters compose the latter half of the novel, leaving this via negativa theology as Dillard's last word on the subject. However, even with this in mind, to consider this belief as the text's thesis is ignorant of the intentional bifurcation and symmetry of the novel. Dillard pits positiva and negativa chapters against each other, creating a sense of crisis that gets to what is very likely the thesis of the novel: a dialectical synthesis of via positiva and via negativa.

The text pits specific ideas against each other, which would, in many other instances, suggest a correction or change in belief. However, the organization and style of the chapters seems more indicative of the doublethink, contractions, and doubt that exist in the mind of a religious person. For instance, the first half works very hard to establish a sense of wonder and hope at the beauty of nature, while the second half works directly against that: "You wait in all naturalness without expectation or hope, emptied, translucent, and that which comes rocks and topples you; it will shear, loose, launch, winnow, grind" (Dillard 298). This doesn't necessarily discredit or undermine the first half's beliefs, it just shows that at any time, Dillard or any person of faith can oscillate between subscribing to via positiva, via negativa, or some kind of synthesis of the two.

Additionally, the text uses the form of a novel to convey this. Dillard writes that "Divinity is not playful", but a text and the language that composes it is all about play (Dillard 312). Unlike a film or a normal novel, this memoir can be read in any order and make some kind of sense. This means that reading the book backwards, starting with negativa and approaching positiva, is just as valid as reading it forwards to backwards, as the bilateral symmetry is preserved and the thematic organization is intact. The ability of a text is even hinted at directly when describing time: "Time itself was a scroll unraveled, curved and still quivering on a table or altar stone" (Dillard 295). While a small detail, texts are one of the only things the text describes aside from nature, so an interest in the form of texts and how their organization is shaped by this form is likely. The bilateral symmetry is even reflective of nature, such as the symmetry of butterflies or leaves, which show up throughout the novel.

Unlike most other texts, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek's conclusion seems to take place more towards the center of the book rather than the end. To box God into either via positiva or via negativa is a gross simplification, and the reality of one's beliefs is much more complex, much more intricate than that. In nature, simplicity is almost always eschewed for intricacy, and the text posits that God is similar. In that way, God made nature in God's image, and then Dillard made Pilgrim in God's image as well.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Riverdale: More than a Twin Peaks clone

The CW's Riverdale is quickly becoming one of my favorite shows currently on TV. This is not something I thought I'd ever be saying, let alone dedicating a blog post to, but I really believe this is something that needs to be said. In many ways, it's a show I should hate. At its worst, it's another Twin Peaks clone (complete with Twin Peaks alum Mädchen Amick) with heavy-handed pop music plugs and formulaic cinematography, all from the CW of all networks). But all of these potential criticisms fall by the wayside for the show's biggest strength: its characters.

A show about a small town rocked by the death of golden boy Jason Blossom, the premise sounds almost exactly like that of Twin Peaks. And while David Lynch and Mark Frost's shadows cast heavily on the show, Riverdale eschews the police procedural half of Twin Peaks and, to its advantage, sticks to high school drama instead. This moves the exploration of characters and family dynamics to the center of the show, where the parents are characterized by structuralism and their children by post-structuralism. Each of the parents are presented as a sort of archetype, especially evident in Alice Cooper's role as a controlling mother, Hermione Lodge as a wealthy woman with ulterior motives, and Fred Andrews as a caring but oblivious father. For the most part, what you see is what you get with these characters. Their children however, exist entirely to subvert the expectations set for them by their familial background, first impressions, and even their clothing and color schemes. Take, for instance, Veronica Lodge, the daughter of the wealthy Hermione and the recently incarcerated Hiram Lodge. Relocated from New York back to her family's hometown of Riverdale, she arrives on the scene with a strong will and stunning clothes. She arrives setting up the expectation that she will be entitled and catty, as all rich daughters in film are. And yet, she immediately works against this perception, being warm, friendly, and diplomatic in response to Sheryl Blossom's "stock character from a 90's teen movie". Veronica ends up being one of the most morally upstanding characters in the show, in stark contrast to the audience's expectations. Sheryl Blossom, on the other hand, begins the series as the Regina George of Riverdale, even more cutthroat after her twin brother's death. Yet as the series progresses, she shows vulnerability and desperation that makes her more endearing and human. Her actions are fully a product of the tragedy in her life and her horrifying family. The majority if not entirety of the main characters subvert the expectations created for them like this. And the wardrobe and color schemes of each character are consistent, extending this subversion throughout each and every episode.

The show is not without its faults, but these faults aren't unique to Riverdale. Good TV outside of HBO is rare, and even more rare coming from the CW. The flaws in Riverdale are the same flaws with other shows on cable. Good TV is rare on this side of HBO, so seeing a show that takes a risk and actively works against the archetypes set by Mean Girls and the like is a refreshing and welcome change.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are

"Knowledge gives us a sense of who we are." To what extent is this true in the human sciences and one other area of knowledge?

In order to answer this question, it is important to first agree upon some terms from the quote. When considering "knowledge", we have the option of viewing the question through personal knowledge and/or shared knowledge. As human sciences lend themselves to shared knowledge, as well as personal knowledge, both of these systems as well as the places where they intersect are important. Alongside this, "us" is the next word to unpack in the question. Would "us" mean those in academia? All of humankind? To attempt to figure out what is exactly intended would prove fruitless, so a safe bet would be to assume that "us" would mean learners. Key ways of knowing for this include emotion, reason, and memory. This is because all three are integral to personal knowledge, and yet can all be impacted by shared knowledge. Additionally, all people are just aggregates of their experiences and their genetics, so the memory that shapes emotion and reason is key to the formation of a person and their self-image. Lastly, the title looks for comparisons between human sciences and one other area of knowledge. I suggest that this other area of knowledge be ethics, as this relates to the aforementioned ways of knowing while also lending itself to the play between personal and shared knowledge. With those concepts in mind, the prompt can now be addressed.

Knowledge most definitely gives us a sense of who we are, and this is especially true in the human sciences and ethics. The human sciences are geared almost solely for this, as they study the behavior and actions of humans and the systems they create. Psychology allows for a learner to get a better sense of who they are on a personal level: what behaviors they are hardwired to do, what makes them feel depressed or anxious, and how they can cope with this. Emotions are fully ingrained into this discipline, and memory and reason can be affected as a result. Take, for instance, people with schizophrenia. These people have emotions, memories, and reason that deeply affect who they are. However, their emotions, memory, and reasoning are all filtered through the lens of their schizophrenia. Sociology is similar, except that it deals more with the way groups work, and how they affect the individual. The existence of privilege is something that has been personally eye opening. Learning about and acknowledging the privileges that I have has helped me see how the groups I belong to have put others down. This has helped cultivate my desire for social justice, giving me a better sense of who I am by showing me what I am.

From here, the questions of knowledge and ethics arise. In knowing about my privilege, my ethics were challenged, and later changed. With this change in ethics, I started to feel a more full emotional response to issues concerning privilege and social justice. Ethical changes can come from any number of revelations and the increase of knowledge. Learning about psychology and depression can change one's ethical beliefs on suicide, while learning about geography can make one more empathetic to those in countries one has only heard about. I experienced this when Dr. Neema Noori came into our class and spoke about his time in Uzbekistan. Putting a face with a name, so to speak, allowed me to bridge a gap between myself and the Uzbek people that I hadn't even realized was there. I realized how wrong I had been to completely ignore all of those people, lumping their culture into the image I held of what their culture was. Similarly, what I viewed as ethical in terms of foreign policy changed after I met a Palestinian refugee and heard her experience firsthand. Knowledge is able to change our ethics because of how knowledge can expand our worldview, allowing us to better empathize with others and briefly move outside ourselves. This touches the parts of us that had previously been uncultivated, making us grow and change into the fullest versions of ourselves.

Knowledge always carries an ethical question of what to do with it. Like in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, knowledge can be painful to experience. All knowledge we acquire shifts our worldview, alters our perspective, and this course-correction can be difficult to handle. Even with this, we cannot abdicate our responsibility as learners to constantly expand our perspective, and help do our best to expand the worldviews of others. I used to be a bit of a hoarder, gathering knowledge for myself, but not doing anything to share that knowledge or use it for the betterment of humankind. Now, I've learned that knowledge must be shared to benefit those around me and give all learners a better, more full sense of who they are. Knowledge activates parts of ourselves that have been long dormant, making each of us the richest versions of ourselves we can be.

Monday, February 20, 2017

In Response to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I saw God this weekend in decaying leaves beside Lake Wedowee. It was completely silent, as no one really wants to go to the lake in February. I brought Pilgrim outside and sat down on a wooden step outside our family's lake house and began to read. Dillard's prose was incredibly verbose, describing each small action and natural occurrence in minute, almost excruciating detail. Part of me enjoyed this, part of me hated it, but more than anything it made me want to sit down and do the same with what was around me. I closed the book, then my eyes, and just sat, listening to the rustling of dead leaves, the gentle breeze that persuaded a motherly "shh..." out of the trees, and the deafening silence that followed. Silence makes me uncomfortable; I don't like the thoughts that populate it.

I opened my eyes and, like Dillard, observed. Quiet waves invaded the cove, alternately presenting the dark water from the lake and the homogeneous gray of the overcast sky. Chipmunks and birds faded into their surroundings, but made themselves known through meek crunches and pops. Leaves in front of me wore winter's faded shades, turning the brilliant colors of fall into food for the worms and fungi that lie beneath. I would have given anything to be like those leaves. Not dead, but in quiet submission to the holy system. The leaves didn't have homework. The leaves didn't have to apply to college. They just lived and died and fed their ecosystem and were reincarnated as a part of a chipmunk or a tree, where the cycle began anew. I envied their certainty, their definitive purpose.

I am not a leaf, and that's how I saw God. Being a human who has to make decisions is tough. It means I can make the wrong choice, ruin my life, say the wrong thing in a conversation, or hurt someone else. I believe that God endowed humans with free will as a gift and as a responsibility. The choice to be a good person, to commit to agape and altruism, isn't part of the natural cycle. Darwinism rules the animal world, and very rarely does natural selection favor those who care for the most vulnerable of their species. And while I believe that there isn't much separating me from the leaves on the ground or the trees they fell from, I do know that they don't have to try to be moral leaves. To be moral is to deny many of our natural human tendencies, to rid systematically purge hate and apathy from our hearts and try to acknowledge the divinity within all people and all living things. It's hard, and a lot of times I'd much rather go lie outside in the yard and let the worms create a Pate-shaped flowerbed in my place. But that can wait until I die. Right now, I'm called to keep rolling the boulder up the mountain, even when it falls all the way back down. I'm called to put up a fight, and I can rest when I'm dead. Until then, I'll thank God for naps.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"The Middle East" -- A Geopolitical Hotdog

This Friday, my Theory of Knowledge class was fortunate enough to have a sociologist and visiting professor at West Georgia, come talk about his experience, what lead him to sociology, and the benefits of studying abroad, especially for learning a new language.

His presentation focused mainly on the Middle East, specifically Iran and Uzbekistan. This was really interesting for me, because aside from a few foggy facts from AP World History, I knew next to nothing about these countries. All I knew up to that point was that we previously had problems of a nuclear variety with Iran, and Uzbekistan was near Kazakhstan, which is, according to Borat, the number 1 producer of potassium.

These things, of course, were nowhere near the truth of those places. The professor is half Iranian, and described his family fleeing to the United States after the Iranian Revolution. Later on, he continued to be interested in Middle Eastern studies, and learned several different languages from the region. He traveled to Uzbekistan in order to learn Uzbek, but was shocked to find that the majority of the people in the city spoke Russian, and looked upon Uzbek with contempt. This came from the fact that the Soviet Union had only just collapsed at this point, and gerrymandering of the country was done in order to push ethnic tension and keep those countries dependent on Soviet leadership from Moscow. He said that his year in Uzbekistan was the best year of his life, and he has spent a large portion of his life devoted to a region I can hardly label on a map.

For all my time in debate, and all of my strong feelings about U.S. foreign policy and social issues, the speaker's presentation very clearly showed me how little I know about the Middle East. From the myriad languages spoken there, to the history that made those nations who they are, to their status in the world today, my knowledge is severely limited. I hold strong beliefs about what the U.S. should do in that area, and while I still feel that my beliefs are correct, I feel uncomfortable passing judgments about the area. For me, the Middle East has been a lot like a hot dog: something I see and consume often but know very little about what comprises it. The speaker's presentation pushes me to be more informed about the region and its diversity.

I acknowledge my limited perspective, but a lot of those in our government don't seem to do the same. How can someone with limited perspective make a decision for the best of others? With recent executive orders halting the entrance of Muslim refugees and blocking the entry of people from majority Muslim countries, our government seems to be doing a lot to keep Muslim and Middle Eastern people out of our country. I haven't looked into it, but I'd venture to say that Donald Trump and Steve Bannon know a lot less about the Middle East than the speaker does. The problem with limited representation in legislation is that you've got very few white men who are aware, or even realize they are unaware, of the perspectives of other groups of people. The speaker was the first Iranian person I've ever met but I've still talked about the country as if I know everything, and I cannot possibly know what it's like to be a Middle Eastern person in our current Islamophobic climate.

Experiences like the presentation are the reason why I loved going to New York so much this previous weekend. Diversity was everywhere, celebrated and normal. Seeing hijabs and yarmulkes beside giant cathedrals was a much more accurate cross-section of the world than Carrollton, Georgia. Even as I approach my eighteenth birthday, I have yet to actually meet and talk with a Muslim person. Going to a place where a group of hijabi school girls walks across the street with the same feelings and thoughts and hopes as me was truly humbling, and gave me a much needed reminder of my tiny place in this big, beautiful world of ours.

The speaker ended his presentation by advocating for a year abroad, saying that "the world is much safer than a lot of people would have you believe." I don't doubt this in the slightest, and with God willing and my bank account able, I'd like to try and study abroad in college. I wish for my standpoint to be ever expanding, and there is no better way to do that than to step outside of this American milieu. I believe that for some people, myself included, the best way to make America great is to take a break from it, and view it from the outside.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

You're in Mexico. Speak English? Please tour responsibly.

This past week, my family and I went on vacation to Cabos San Lucas, Mexico. While I knew the city was a haven for tourists, I was hoping to be able to try out some of my four years of Spanish (before we left, Maria had told me and Chase that we'd better be speaking fluent Spanish when we got back). We made our way through customs and TSA for an early flight to Houston and, from there, Cabo.

Arriving at the airport, I immediately noticed the signs throughout the airport. Each one contained English first and in larger print with Spanish smaller below. I was surprised, but it made sense: Cabo's an incredibly popular spot for tourism. After we got our bags and I almost unknowingly drank a sample of tequila (which I assumed was some kind of juice) that a very nice woman gave to me in front of my parents, we were greeted by a swarm of taxi drivers eager to attract passengers. We approached one, loaded our bags, and made our way to hotel as beautiful mountains whirred by.

In between the airport and our hotel was a small town filled with shops and beset on either side of the road by buildings that sat in an uncanny state between appearing to be under construction or partially demolished. Beautiful candy-colored buildings paved the way to our hotel, and I noticed the property values seemed to increase as we grew closer to the hotel.

As I suspected, the area was heavily gentrified by the lavish hotels on the shore. I had heard about the poverty and lack of economic opportunity found in places with heavy tourism before, as Mr. Hawig had explained that during his time in Hawaii, many of the local folks had told him that many of the people there grew up and worked at the hotels on the island. This fact had made me somewhat uncomfortable throughout the trip and I decided that the literal least I could do was be as nice as possible to all of the staff there and try to speak Spanish to them when I could, as they had fluently learned English to accommodate me.

But speaking Spanish turned out to be much harder than I had been expecting. I'm at a point in my language acquisition where I have to flip a mental switch in order to speak and understand Spanish, or at least anything more complicated than what was learned in Spanish 1. Often times when we were at one of the resort's numerous restaurants, I would plan out how to say what I would like to eat and any little bits of casual conversation, but when the time came, I froze and reverted back to my native English. The only Spanish I spoke that same level one Spanish. My grammar had gotten better when it came to conjugation, but in essence, my Spanish was no better than my eighth-grade sister's.

In the age of Trump it is more important than ever to learn another language, especially Spanish. And yet, I knew that before this trip and still didn't show it. What good is learning a language when you never use it? Language is a way of knowing, but it is also a form of knowledge. To learn something without ever putting it to use is no different than never having learned it at all, and that's what I did this week.

Traveling is interesting. To be in a completely different country that speaks another language is a remarkable experience. It humbles you, lets you know that people and places outside of your country exist, and, in theory, lets me know what it's like to be a global student and citizen. However, tourism has changed this, especially when it comes to the relationship between the U.S./Europe and poorer countries. The world has become the West's theme park, where poorer countries learn English and dilute their cultures down into easily-identifying souvenirs. But who can blame them? A high demand to enjoy their beautiful locales and is economically beneficial.

So how can we tour responsibly? How can other cultures be respected, appreciated, and enjoyed without being turned into cheap imitations? Is this a condition we can reverse? I don't really know any of the answers, but these questions are often on my mind because of my desire to travel.

Pero ahora, voy a trataré de hablar español un poquito mas en mi vida.