September 19, 2007

The immensely influential humanist Edward Said wrote:

There is nothing mysterious or neutral about authority.  It is formed, irradiated, disseminated; it is instrumental, it is persuasive; it has status, it establishes canons of taste and value; it is virtually indistinguishable from certain ideas it dignifies as true, and from traditions, perceptions, and judgments it forms, transmits, reproduces.  Above all, authority can, indeed must, be analyzed (Orientalism, p. 19-20, 1978).

Something to consider.  I’m currently teaching Sunday School class on the religions of the world; we have begun our study with Hinduism, a “religion” completely constructed by authority.  It is hard and not natural for us, but we are trying to analyze this.  Maybe by the end of the year we *might* be ready to do the same for our own dear Christianity.


Smallpox vaccinations

September 14, 2007

A couple of days ago, I had to go to the doctor for a routine check-up. The nurse and I determined that I had not had a tetanus shot since 1991, so she rolled up her sleeves, I lowered my pants, and I got it right in the behind. It’s good for ten years, which is to say, I am basically immune from lockjaw for a decade. The little things she injected me with are starting off their ten-year plan of defense against rusty nails and other mishaps.

While I was in the waiting room before the vaccination, I had been studying for my comps. I’m reading a book of essays by various anthropologists and ethnographers about the Huichol people of northwestern Mexico. Unlike many of their indigenous neighbors, the Huichol are famous for maintaining their cultural lifeways in the face of colonialism and the steamrolling external forces of assimilation. They are also famous for the peyote they eat as part of their ritual life. The so-called “Huichol trinity” is peyote, corn, and the deer.

Smallpox, known as etsá in Huichol, was a terrible assassin throughout the Americas in the years after the arrival of the Spaniard colonizers. One of the reasons for the Huichols’ amazing cultural resilience is that they were less affected than some by smallpox because their native medicine discovered vaccination. Allow me to quote at length an essay by Armando Casillas Romo, MD, who did a study of the various diseases and remedies known to the Huichol:

…the dreaded smallpox. The people of San Andrés Cohamiata say that no one in this area has had this disease for a long time, as long as fifty years.

The extraordinary thing is that to ward off this scourge in the absence of medical help from the outside, Huichol shamans developed their own technique of immunization. We were told that the mara’akáte (pl. of mara’akáme) would use the thorns of the plant known as huizache, a thorny shrub found over much of Mexico, to pierce the skin eruptions of people already suffering from smallpox and extract the liquid from them. With the permission of the parents, they would then inoculate the arms of healthy children with this liquid. The cure also involved the same “confessions” rite as that prescribed for rubella.

Several Huichols told us that etsá disappeared from their community thanks to a famous mara’akáme named Carrillo, who died several decades ago. It is said that to “cover up”–that is, calm–the disease he made a pilgrimage to Haixáripá, a sacred place on the slopes of Popocatépetl, the great snow-covered dormant volcano near Mexico City, where Huichol mythology says smallpox made its first appearance. His efforts were successful and small pox never again bothered the people of San Andrés.

All this has left me a little interested in the history of tetanus in our own world. I got a shot without clear understanding of what tetanus even is, why the shot lasts only ten years, and who discovered the inoculation. I also am clear that I have confidence in the shot without any confession or pilgrimage narrative as supplemental community participation in my wellness. So, my vaccination was effective but also socially impoverished.

One or Many

September 4, 2007

In the Intro. to Philosophy class I’m teaching, we’ve been covering the pre-Socratics.  Starting with Thales and moving on up to Democritus, these ancient people were fascinated by the fabric of being.  Many of them were quite clear that all things were made of some specific substance or other:  for Thales all things could be reduced to water, for Anaximenes it was air, Pythagoras saw numbers in everything, and for Heraclitus, perhaps fire was the base of all.

Others doubted this oneness.  Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Leucippus, and Democritus thought the universe to be far more fractured in essence, and more process-oriented.

Last Thursday I polled the class to find out how many of them were modern-day monists and how many accepted the other side of the debate, that being is in no sense unified in one reductive substance.  30% monists, 70% pluralists.  The pluralists cited mythic “science” as the reason for their notion that our being is made of discrete and differentiated motes.  The few monists foresaw Aristotle (he’s next week) and named the necessity of some sort of unifying first cause that was also the stuff of existence.

How about you?  Do you think the universe is made up of one thing or many?  Why?

What Is Diet Coke?

August 21, 2007

I started my teaching gig this afternoon with a session in my Intro. to Philosophy course. We did all the normal things like making introductions and going over the syllabus and the books we are going to use, but I also had the students read a blogpost by the Freakonomics author Steven Levitt over at the New York Times. The post is about a new ad campaign by the Coca-Cola company that promotes the fact that Diet Coke is 99% water. Since water is now a good thing to buy and to drink, this is used as proof that Diet Coke is likewise healthy, refreshing, and fashionable. We searched out (with much prodding from Herr Professor) the philosophical debates that might be underpinning this blogpost and its arguments.

  1. perception and value. Why do I like or dislike Diet Coke? How do I know that I like or dislike Diet Coke?
  2. ethics. Is it right to sell something that is 99% water at such inflated prices? Is advertising Diet Coke–a luxury item–convincing people to buy Diet Coke when they should be buying milk for their baby?
  3. political philosophy. Why does our government regulate the ingredients of Diet Coke? Is this for our benefit, and how?
  4. free will vs. determinism. Am I free to choose not to drink Diet Coke? How does my culture dictate my supposedly free decisions?
  5. ontology. What is Diet Coke?

This last question freaked them out pretty bad. They had a hell of a time answering the question. Answers:

  • a carbonated beverage with no calories (me: sounds like Diet 7Up)
  • something with a Diet Coke label (me: we can move the label to a different product)
  • the 1% of flavor (me: so the water in the can is not part of the beverage?)

I haven’t told them yet that there is an ideal place where the form of Diet Coke exists in all its glorious ding an sich.

(Image is a collage of canvases painted by David Payton.)

New job

July 28, 2007

I just got a new job.  I’m the newest adjunct professor in the philosophy department at the local community college.  For now, I’ll be teaching two classes:  Intro. to Philosophy and Non-Western Philosophy.  The rest of the time, I’ll keep studying for my oral exams and preparing to write my dissertation.

So, any pointers?  What sort of philosophy would you want to cover in an introductory class?  What answers do you need questioned?

World Wonders

July 12, 2007

I’m sure you’ve heard that there is a new complement of world wonders.  The  new Seven Wonders of the World are:

  1. the Great Wall of China;
  2. the pyramids of Chichen Itza;
  3. Petra;
  4. the Taj Mahal;
  5. Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio;
  6. the Colosseum; and
  7. Machu Picchu.

These new wonders were chosen by a global internet-based vote.  People from around the world could vote for wonders near and far–this is why a relatively new statue of Jesus Christ stands among relatively ancient architectural wonders.  Jesus can obviously win an election, as long as he doesn’t speak or move.

The only remaining wonder of the old Seven Wonders are the pyramids at Giza.  The Egyptian minister in charge of antiquities, Zahi “Sour Grapes” Hawass, said that the new competition had no value, and then he said this:


What’s shocking about this statement is not its content–it is undoubtedly true–but rather that Mr. Hawass said it with no irony.  He means it, he supports it, he revels in the patrician comfort of these words.

Of course, this means that history is not actually a faithful record of the past (as the foolish masses assume).  Instead it is the carefully scripted and coercive “memory” of the powerful.

What better metaphor for this than the pyramids themselves, like fascist monuments rising from the desert.