1.07.2005

Critical Evangelicalism

A good deal of attention has been paid to two recent columns by William J. Stuntz, a professor at Harvard Law School, in which he suggests some unusual similarities between intellectuals and evangelicals, or the "academic left" and the "Christian right." (Even Mr. Kotsko has linked to these articles, albeit with some reluctance.)

I have been thinking lately of another surprising "site" (to borrow an annoying term from sociology) where these polarized spheres might intersect: the area of critical scholarship.

Very generally, critical theorists seek to uncover oppressive power arrangements through a number of techniques, including the close reading of texts to reveal how the language of those in power is used to marginalize certain groups in society. Much of what falls into this loose category can be traced in one way or another back to Marx, who was basically interested in challenging the dominant order of society. (I realize there is much more to marxism than this, but I'm generalizing here.)

Of course, most marxist scholarship has no love for Christianity, since it has been the dominant order of Western society for so long. But is this really the case any more? The recent election and all the talk about "moral values" aside, it would seem that the materialist or naturalist worldview (sorry for using that word, but it seems appropriate) has gained considerable ground since the Enlightenment, at least among the educated class. And while the educated class may not run society in the same way the church once did, it certainly exerts considerable influence--especially through the media.

Jurgen Habermas was one of these theorists who was especially concerned with how the "technical interest" in contemporary capitalistic societies could lead to oppression. A biotech company, for example, is motivated by profit to create certain technical products, like genetically modified tomatoes. This motive could lead to the oppression of other members of society--say, a small farmer in Brazil who can't sell his tomatoes to supermarket chains because they aren't plump and juicy like the fake ones. I'm sure you can imagine any number of these scenarios.

The critical theorist's view of this situation might be that science is an inherently social enterprise, and therefore its power is just socially constructed. We shouldn't necessarily privilege scientific expertise over "lay expertise" (another annoying sociological term, but useful nonetheless), because scientists often have unsavory motives of their own.

Anyway, here's one example of how critical theory might apply to the Christian right: intelligent design, or the idea that complex biological systems cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Contrary to what you might read in the New York Times, this is not "creationism dressed up in a cheap tuxedo." I agree that it is not "science" in the normal sense of the word, because it doesn't seem to offer a competing theory--it just offers criticisms of Darwinian theory. But many scientists who are not identifiable Christians have challenged Darwinism, and it's not fair that challenges coming from anyone other than Stephen Jay Gould are dismissed as creationism.

A number of major media outlets (not all, to be fair) have treated ID condescendingly because some prominent scientists tell them to, and science reporters are influenced pretty heavily by the scientific establishment. These same scientists also control the peer review system, so they can effectively keep anything tainted with ID out of the best journals (and then say that ID scientists are not legitimate because they have no publications). It could easily be argued that these scientists are using their power structure to marginalize a particular group of people. And this happens all the time, to scientists of all stripes who are outside the accepted paradigm.

None of this is to say that I think ID is solid science. I have my reservations, but I'm not a biologist so I'll reserve judgment for now. I hope, however, that this illustrates the point. Christianity is certainly not the only ideological power structure in Western life, and the "technical interest" does not just oppress poor farmers.


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Rolling Your Eyes


I take no chances with my paintings. I stick to the basics. I try to capture a likeness, tight as hell, no strokes left unbrushed, same palette I've been using since college, no risks, same application. They're so freaking boring. And they're getting worse. I'm illustrating. I need to get into school.

I watched a special on WSKG, Public Access, about these 14 and 15-year-old Piano virtuosos. They were competing with each other. One of the master instructors was saying how some of the students are just machines, their little fingers hit the notes perfectly, in time and on pitch. Their expressions are frozen, like yours reading this. These are not the students they are looking for. It's the students who play the music that they watch for. It doesn’t sound very compelling to read this, I know, but I'm still feeling moved from this special so I can use words like "moved" and I can put play in italics.

Don't tell anyone, but I'm painting from photographs. It's a deadly sin for a painter. You end up painting colors in spots, painting what you know not what you see. You don't paint eyes. You don't see the two inches of visual space from the nose to the ear. You see a splotch of light pink next to a darker brown tone. It almost never translates into a face. And just when you think it has, you realize that the left eye is in F major and the right eye is in G minor and the face is expressionless. No one can look and wonder what this woman is yearning for or what she is expecting; you wonder why her right eye is on her forehead. It ruins all allegory. No narrative.

Today was a good day painting. I've captured a likeness, the eyes have slowly read the preface, realized they pronounced it wrong and are now comfortably resting where they belong. Tomorrow I begin painting a nest in my wife’s hair. I'm not ready to post a picture of it yet. Soon.

I picked the winner of the piano competition. I told my wife which prodigy was my favorite from the start. They would show each contestant's fingers hitting the keys. They were quick and impressive, but it was when they would show them from the back of the piano, from the chest up, that you could really get a sense of the music and how it was being played. The woman that won, I'd like to paint like her. Her eyes closed when appropriate for empathy, the open mouthed sensitivity for the piano de crescendos, as if they were first holding their new-born, as if the keys were made of eyelashes, each note a wink towards sleep...you see something in their shoulders, an anticipation...then.. DOOM--DA-DUM-DA DOOM -Ba DUM, the eyebrows flex like a diviner stick that has found water, and strands of hair and unravel themselves. You could swear someone has accidentally opened the fire escape door and a draft of wind has violently blown through the concert hall, top hats fly down the aisles and women adjust their hair. She actually looked relieved when she finished, like she had just shared a secret and realized it would be safe.

Painting is not like this for me. Not right now. My painting feels more like a secret, each stroke a more complicated lie that will not untangle itself with a bold red or knifed white.

Oh man, am I making a juxtaposition between painting and playing piano? There goes that frozen expression you were reading with.

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1.05.2005

Easy Trigger, Whoa Boy.

After reading The Brothers K I was stumped. I didn't know what to read next. It's like the all American Novel. *Gorss, don't read this part.* I even bought a copy for Coney Island's co-blogger. Maybe Rushdie, maybe Hopscotch again, maybe the Bible, I was stuck. I ended up picking The Autograph man by Zadie Smith.

She has a creative little way of writing. She does nice neat tricks like at the begining of each chapter she writes all of the names of the subchapters within it and they all have suggestive names like "Muhammed Ali was Jewish." But this wasn't enough.
So I picked up Joseph Albers Interaction of Color from the Ithaca public library. It's a must read for anyone interested in painting or design. I remember reading most of it in college but it's a book you can read over and over. This was more of a distraction than anything else. The main reason I went to the library was to check out a book about Southeast Asian Art. I'm applying for a job at Cornell that has to do with Southeast Asian Artwork so I thought I better bone up on my knowledge on the rare chance that there aren't ten people with Phd.'s in Southeast Asain Artwork applying for the job which is commonplace in this freaking Ivy league town.
I also checked out a book called "But is it Art?" This book focuses on Art as Activism. The title suggests whether it matters if it is art or not. Suzanne Lacy is the type of artist the book is focusing on.
For Christmas my father bought me Tiger Wood's "How I PLay Golf." I'm about half way through it but it's an interactive book because while he tells you the correct way to swing your irons you have to practice it. I've been putting non-stop with my new Odyssey Two Ball using Tiger's technique. Do not be surprised to find me on the Tour in a year...or so.
Sitting on top of Tiger is "How to Have A Smarter Baby." It's an older book with really fascinating graphics and ploys to activate your baby's brain. I think it was a gag gift but it's been extremely entertaining. It's says to pat the womb and holler, "PAT, I'm Patting, this is your father, Pat, RUB, I'm rubbing, this is your father, rub," and so on. On top of that is a really funny book written for men called "baby owners manual." It describes the baby as if it were a tool. The design of the book is wonderful. The illustrations are perfect. It says things like, "NECK: Upon arrival, this feature may appear 'useless.' This is not a defect. The neck will become more useful in two or three months."
My wife bought me an Odd Nerdrum book for Christmas. It arrived yesterday. Holy crap, this guy is amazing. He is the best living painter there is. You never wonder if his birth name is actually Odd.
So I came home tonight thinking about reading before I went to bed when it dawned on me. Dude, get a grip. Thats a lot of books and the range of topics is vast. I need to pull the reigns a bit, or pull the bit a bit or perhaps realize the carrot is just getting bigger, but no closer.

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1.03.2005

UnPresidented Belief


$15,000,000...$350,000,000. That’s a big number. Everyone jumped on Mr. Bush for not pledging enough aid to the disaster relief fund, or for waiting three days because it would have interrupted his vacation before making a public announcement about the disaster. Believers said to not be too hasty, wait for our fearless leader’s decision. He will make an announcement when he is good and ready. We mus' int be impatient with our democratic dictator, it is a complicated disaster.

But can you blame us?

The last time we waited for our commander in chief to react, we lost a tower, a plane in Pennsylvania, and 188 lives at the Pentagon. Has Bush earned our trust… in anything? Can we really sit back and hope the guy will act in a way that represents the American people?

I wonder if the Bush family video recordings of Christmas on the ranch will look anything like this video. I dare you to watch the entire thing. It will astound you.

I can see it now. The Bush daughters cozy around a fireplace, playing with their new Hess SUV trucks. Barb and George senior are watching the Christmas comedy American History X while Laura busies herself in the kitchen with a fresh batch of mini Pretzels. They seem to give her husband a sense of power when he eats them, like he has killed yet another enemy. Rumor has it, they taste like a Japanese Prime Minister's lap after a meeting with grandpa. George junior is nearly in tears. He's yelling to his mother that its "HIS DAMN TURN," to play with the new Hess trucks and that "JENNA HAS BEEN HOGGIN THE GOOD ONE ALL NIGHT!" He is interrupted be a Secret Service Agent who whispers in his ear that there has just been a Tsunami on the poverty stricken nations of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India. Casualties will be enormous. Silence hits the room. This is the wise man that breaks the camel's back. He grabs the Secret Service man by the eyelashes and drags him toward the fire. George Senior twists the man’s kneecaps while Barbara shoves a handful of Laura's mini pretzels (or as W. likes to call them, "mini terra-ist's with salt on them shaped like pretzels") into his mouth. This begins a peristaltic reaction. George senior tries the old teeth on the curb bit he has just learned but he is too frail to make it happen. Our benevolent leader yells, "DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, EVER DISRUPT-ITUTION MY FAMILY'S PARTY OF CHRISTMAS PARTY EVER AGAIN." He is released. The country offers a conservative amount of $15,000,000 in an attempt to avoid confrontation with his holiness, Mr. Bush. "You know how he is about money," they say. The president continues his vacation. People who actually care about this horrible accident are outraged by the president’s lackadaisical attitude. They clearly remember the president listening to a book story while our, Uhmm, His country was being attacked. If that was Mr. Bush's reaction to a catastrophe in his, Uhmm, His own country imagine what His reaction will be when it is another.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we should wait again, and know that the president's actions will be quick and to the point, just like last time.

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TAKE ME TO CONEY ISLAND