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 M├Ądchen 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.