Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Demise of the Mid-range Product

I've kept plugging away at The Wal-mart Effect, mostly on my weekly trips down to Charlotte. Since I'm not the one doing most of the shopping for our family, I was somewhat dissociated from some of the factors that the book discusses. It had been at least a year and a half since I had even stepped foot inside a Wal-mart. But as Christmas shopping pulled me in for a quick look in a Sam's Club, I could see the Wal-mart Effect everywhere I looked.

The most noticable difference I've seen in the last few years is the drying up of the mid-market. Just look at coffee makers. Five years ago, it was possible to buy a cheap Mr. Coffee for $20, or a really solid Krups for $100. Now, the downward price pressure from Wal-mart has created a huge gap in the middle of the market. The brands like Krups or Hamilton-Beach that used to make solid last-you-a-decade products are now fielding items made a cheap and cheap-looking plastic. And if you thought you could spend $150 to find a really good coffee maker . . . forget it. You are either buying a $60 shadow, or spending $2,000 on a gleaming contraption that could stand in for a time machine on the Sci-Fi channel. When the hell did people start spending thousands of dollars on a coffee machine? But that, also, is the Wal-mart Effect; manufacturers must either play their game and make cheaper and cheaper products, or they have to boldly differentiate themselves on quality and put a bolder price tag on it to show you that you are not going to find it cheaper down at Target.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Language Games

Towards the end of James Hall's philosophy of religion class, he makes a subtle shift in focus. Most of the class has been concerned with establishing the truth about religion -- arguments for (or against) the existence of God, and the rebuttals to those proofs. But as the proofs keep running out of steam, scholarship backs up a step and tries to evaluate the whole game. Kuhn gave us the notion of paradigms, but even before that Wittgenstein had deconstructed philosophy, science, and religion into separate "language games," or what he called "forms of life." He said, in effect: "Look, science is all about the objective description of the world -- but describing the world is not the only thing we do as human beings. It may not even be the most important thing we do. There are other things we do with language." Those different "language games" had their own rules (or felicity conditions) that governed them, but they were different enterprises altogether. While Wittgenstein did not explicitly apply these notions to religion, the religious scholars quickly picked up a convenient shield; none of the skeptics could touch religion, because "we're playing a different game." It's not even a question of competing paradigms, different approaches to explaining the appearances; it's a truly incommeasurate activity. From the skeptics' point of view, the theists have stopped arguing and starting dancing a jig.

Professor Hall's tone is skeptical here; he makes haste to point out that just because you're playing a different game doesn't mean that your game doesn't have rules, nor does it immediately imply that your game is worth playing. Nonetheless, he seems to accept it, because for the rest of the course Hall no longer talks about the relative truth of religious discourse, but rather the role religion plays as a social and moral phenomena. Suddenly, we're playing a new game.

Fundamentally, I know this is the only sensible approach one can take. Lots of scholars, especially Ken Wilber, have demonstrated that spirituality can only be understood correctly as a process of transcending problems rather than solving them. But it still feels a little bit like, literally, "changing the subject." "I can't show you that God exists, but I can make a pretty good case for religion being a positive force in the world." Nor does such a redefinition of language necessarily solve any of the questions that drove us here in the first place; redefining religion as a social phenomena or moral imperative does not bring us one step closer to knowing whether we ought to do it.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

All I want for Christmas

Every year I have to face the challenge of my Christmas gift list. No, not the list of gifts I need to give. It's my wish list -- the things I would like to receive -- that is always a challenge. I am lucky to be able to list half a dozen things at most that I really would like to have. My friends and relatives must think I'm just being difficult, because I am not able to drop hints as to what would be good gifts. I am a failure as a consumer.

Most of the time, I take pride in this. I am relatively unplugged from the mass-marketing culture, since I hardly watch any TV, so I do not have an army of marketers telling me all the things that I ought to wanting for Christmas. So, like all insufferably smug people who can't resist telling you that they "don't watch TV," I believe I'm a better human being for that.

But occasionally a product comes along that is so good that it really alters my quality of life. My Treo 650 smartphone, which I expected to be a marginally useful item, has turned out to be a godsend. Carrying around my contact data made it extraordinarily easy for me to respond to customers and, better yet, proactively touch them when I was away from the office. I read a lot more books this year as a result of having downloadable audiobooks from Audible. I probably exercised more than I would have, because I had those audiobooks to look forward to. I played an embarrassing amount of Scrabble on that phone, to the point that my kids called it "Daddy's Scrabble phone". I eventually learned to take notes on it, which helped me harvest blog fodder throughout the day.

When a consumer product makes that big a difference in your life, you start to wonder what else you're missing. Perhaps being "unplugged," while sparing me the drone of prosthetic urgency, also deprives me of genuinely useful information about useful things.


Holiday dread

I've come to recognize a certain form of dread that comes along with the holidays. If I manage to get into the spirit of the holidays, then I might feel, for brief periods, a certain wamth and comfort and good cheer. Driving along the highway, I might see a little constellation of Christmas lights hanging amidst a dark backdrop of trees, and I feel a sense of pervading hope . . . a glimmer that there is Good News to be heard, that everything is not so bad after all, that on top of all our wealth we even have something eternal to look forward to.

But that sense of hope in darkness, which is the proper and appointed mood for the holidays, will quickly get pushed aside by a dark brooding, which I can only describe as the anxiety of freedom. All through the year, when I am heads-down and working and constantly reacting to one urgent matter after another, I look forward to the holidays as the time when I will be able to do something. "I'll get all those photos sorted out over the holidays," I might say. "I'll read that book over the holidays."

But then, the holidays come, and what seemed in my hopeful mind to be a vast expanse of time and freedom turns out to be just a week or two of pretty much the same thing: minding the kids, travelling to family, fulfilling of obligations. "My time! My precious time! It's slipping away!" And, in the moments in which I do really have that "free" time I was looking forward to, I can't settle into it. I am beset by all the things I "ought" to be doing, plans I should be making for next year.

All this is just an extension of "ordinary" existential angst. We believe, habitually, erroneously, that some set of relative circumstances will make us happy. "If only . . . then I would be happy." And that is an illusion. No relative experience can give absolute peace. The holidays, a time when all attention is on everything good, only reminds us that all the good experiences in the world cannot make us whole. For that, we have to go Someplace Else.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Intentionalist paradigms

The philosophy of religion turns almost entirely on the question of intentionalism; that is, whether things can be understood primarily as events that just happen through a chain of causation, or whether they can be understood according to the intentions that precipitated them.
This may seem really obstruse, but it's fundamental to how we understand the world. It is a more fundamental question than even the existence of God. In fact, most of the proofs of the existence of God seem to run into more trouble with intentionalism than with anything else. Most people do not have a hard time conceiving of an omnipotent, omniscient being that could create an entire world. What bugs them is the notion that such a Being could have deliberately, intentionally created this world, with all its flaws and evils and shortcomings. Because, if you believe in God, you have to believe that everything that happens is happening according to God's intent, which means you have to believe God allows all kinds of deplorable, unspeakable horrors to happen. The whole "problem of evil," as it is called, turns on the problem of intentionalism. It's bad enough that bad things happen; but if they happen because someone intended them to happen, then you "take it personally."

I think most people, if they think deeply on the matter, will find absolute intentionalism to be unacceptable. It is inconceivable to me that absolutely everything that happens is happening to an exact, calculated end. You have to go through some pretty extravagant apologetics to make everything part of a master plan. It does not, as philosophers say, "save the appearances" -- it simply doesn't jive with our most basic perceptions of the world.

What makes the matter more perplexing is that the opposite of absolute intentionalism -- rank materialism, and with it, Skinnerian behaviorism -- does not save the appearances, either. Every rock and tree may not be the result of someone's intent, but we certainly believe that we have intentions. Consciousness and awareness are phenomena that materialism struggles to contain and inevitably fails. And that mystery that defies explanation is sitting right in the middle of all of existence -- even right in the middle of the materialist's attempt to explain it away.

Is it possible to have a theology that can believe in God and spirit, and yet not believe in absolute intentionalism? I think it is, but it's more of an intuition than a firm conception for me right now. It would mean questioning our very conceptions of what it would mean for God to be God.

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Self-delusion or racism?

NPR did an informal poll to see whether people thought America is ready to have a black President of the United States. The results were interesting: a majority of whites thought the country was ready, but a majority of blacks thought it was not.

There are a number of possible ways to interpret these results:
  1. Whites are hopelessly self-deluded about their collective ability to accept leadership from a black person. They like to think that they aren't guided by prejudice, but when push comes to shove they really are.
  2. Whites are outright duplicitous about their ability to accept black leadership, because who wants to admit on National Public Radio that they doubt a black candidate could win, and risk being branded a racist by all their NPR-listening friends?
  3. Whites are generally over racism, but the blacks are not. Whites listen to Barack Obama and hear a genuine centrist candidate they like. Blacks listen to Barack Obama and all they can think is, "He's not black enough, and can I trust a black candidate who is so well liked by the whites?" MLK's vision of a truly color-blind society may not be what they really hoped for.
  4. Blacks are self-deluded or duplicitous about how much racism exists in America, or at least by how much effect it has on their lives. If a black man does win the presidency, how will they ever be able to claim victim status again?

Or, maybe, all of the above.


Monday, December 18, 2006

This way of life

Last week I heard no less than three news stories that cited people mourning the loss of "their way of life":
  • Aging residents of Shanghai lamented the tearing down of their old neighborhoods, with houses designed with communal kitchens and tight-knit communities
  • Farm-Aid organizers, including Willie Nelson, bemoaned that the independent American farmer was becoming a thing of the past
  • Bushmen who had been expelled from their native lands in the Kalahari Desert were allowed to return to continue their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

(And let's not pile on every administration press release and stump speech that reminds us that we have to defeat radical fundamentalist terrorism because "they hate our way of life and want to destroy it.")

I have always been a little perplexed by the glorification of "the way of life." Obviously it means a lot of different things to different people, and its broad sweep tends to allow for all kinds of equivocation. It conflates sacred ideals and beliefs with the accidental characteristics of daily life.

When I hear stories about an economic displacement -- family farmers or Maine lobstermen no longer able to make a living -- I feel bad for the people who are displaced, but it doesn't really inspire an genuine mourning in me. What, exactly, was lost? People used to have a certain job, and do it a certain way, and it was fun. Now that way is gone, and everyone who used to do it will do something else. Did you think that "way of life" would last forever? Do you think the Neanderthals grieved for the passing of their "way of life" as youngsters started getting into agriculture instead of hunting all the time, and building huts instead of living in caves? Such attachments to livelihood, while undeniably real, are purely personal and sentimental. It feels like the world is ending . . . but it's not.

Cultural displacements -- the loss of a native language, the dying of old traditions -- fare a little better in my mind . . . but only a little. People who love the stories and songs in an old language will mourn their passing. But just like the passing of an individual person, it is a death that is inevitable, a loss that is strictly personal. No language, story, or song will live forever, any more than a human being. And while it may be a tragedy for the native Urkuskian, that his traditional stories will no more be told, I don't feel all that deprived. It is someone else's loss, not mine.

So what, if anything, does matter in the "way of life" that everyone is so eager to preserve? The only thing that really matters to me is philosophic principles, ethical ideals and cultivated character traits. If, when you say that "the terrorists want to end our way of life," you mean, "they want to destroy personal freedom, democratic government, capitalist free markets, and respect for the individual," well, then I guess I'm on board to fight them. But if you mean, "they want to take away our shopping malls and 200 channels of television and internet porn and cubicle jobs" . . . um, well, if they wipe that out I won't mourn too much. Some "ways of life" deserve to die.

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