Monday, October 31, 2011

Attempted Witty Title: A Reply To Jerry Coyne

Obligatory cat picture because this post mentions Jerry Coyne.
Jerry Coyne slams a recent academic conference that focused on the TV series Jersey Shore. He mentions that he popped in on two lectures and heard bits of other talks. The conference took place at the University of Chicago, where Coyne is a biologist.

His offers a scathing assessment of the event:
Waste of time and the money used to fund it.  I know readers will contest this, and I did go to only two talks, but both were dire, boring, and completely unenlightening.  It was a deadly combination of postmodern theory and pop culture.  It’s harmless to talk about this, I suppose, but it’s a question of how to prioritize academic funds—and scholarship
Wait a minute, Jerry. You posted the program of the event, and the broad topics seem worthwhile:
  • The Construction of Guido Identity: I don't know much about Jersey Shore in particular, but a session that looks at the show's representations of masculinity, race, sexuality, and identity seems pretty interesting. What makes someone manly in that world? What importance is placed on identifying as an Italian American?
  • Morality and Ethics: Again, the general topic seems worthy of the humanities. Why not use a popular TV show to explore moral behavior and ethical dilemmas faced by the characters (albeit as edited by the show's producers)? 
  • Affect, Honor, and Desire: This is one session I would have liked to attend, especially the paper involving medieval Iceland. Ultimately, this session appears to want to understand how the characters of the show view their world. This understanding is the bread and butter of the humanities. We want to know the world just as Hamlet did, or just as Beowulf did, or just as Guinevere did. We want to capture the cultural perspectives that audiences in the past brought to their lives and to the artworks presented to them.
  • Guido Cultural Signifiers: Another good session, if the paper titles are any indication. Surely, the people on the show have personalities and behaviors that appeal to viewers. Asking why this is so and looking for answers that go beyond pat stereotypes--well, these seem like good things to me.
I don't see why Coyne judges these topics to be "shallow." I have some sympathy with the rest of his complaint, that academic pop-culture studies are "too infested with postmodern obscurantism, and ... replace more substantive material that can actually make students think deeply about things"--but focusing on Jersey Shore and the like can indeed generate substantive material that helps students think deeply about lots of things, not least about the things all around them on campus, in the clubs, and on their computers.

Coyne's final comment (or is it a caption to the picture of the Jersey Shore cast?) registers as the most unfortunate:
Guidos and guidetttes: many think they’re as educationally important as Shakespeare. They’re wrong.
Jerry, you don't have to like the show or think it offers anything of importance. But the quality of the show is almost irrelevant because what these scholars are doing is not praising Jersey Shore. They are not comparing the show to any of Shakespeare's works.

Yet there is an education an American co-ed can gain from humanities scholarship on a show like Jersey Shore. Issues of identity come up in Shakespeare. So do issues of morality, sexuality, race, power, and history. When we talk about Shakespeare, we can talk about these issues in the context of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This discussion has immeasurable value for a twenty-first century reader.

When applied to culture as it is happening before our eyes, these discussions can also have an enormous impact on students. Their favorite show actually isn't a joke, even if its characters act like buffoons. That show they watch reinforces stereotypes, or changes them, or questions them. Humanities scholarship give students the tools to see that culture is everywhere, not just in England from 1564-1616.

Jerry's point on reading papers as opposed to giving talks is well-taken. I think most humanities scholars are taught, at least through imitation, to present the paper first and foremost, and worry very much less about connecting with an audience. This is unfortunate, especially since in our classrooms we are talking to our students and seeking to engage them as best we can.

The best parts of any conference happen when scholars receive questions and address challenges. It's an important skill, if frightening to acquire.

    Season of the Kvetch

    New posts here have been sparse lately because life has been hectic!
    • My dissertation prospectus went in last week. My director was pretty happy with it, so I have high hopes that it will get signed off. This will leave only the writing to be done for my doctoral degree.
    • Work has been a roller coaster. I've had plenty of tasks on my plate. Our company also recently had layoffs, which has most everyone here angry and nervous. Unfortunately, the situation in my company is not unlike that of many US defense contractors. We're all shrinking, as must happen when war draws down.
    • Teaching has kept me pretty busy also. I've taught pretty much the same course for 10 years (16 if you count my earlier experiences as a TA), yet I still have to work at it.
    • I saw The Bad Plus on Friday night. The show was truly excellent. The trio sounded great and they were right in front of me! My brothers enjoyed the performance, but my father did not, as expected. Dad likes standards. I'm glad he came, though, and I think he was glad too.

    Saturday, October 15, 2011

    Enjoy Your Freedom? Thank a Protester

    In America, we are constantly asked to bow our heads in reverence for agents of the state. Thank a veteran, thank a police officer, thank the fallen. They have sacrificed for our freedom.

    Well, thank the protester too. Thank those who speak publicly and assemble in non-violent protest against state-enabled injustices. Appreciate those who walk and those who rally. Salute those who stand up against ignorance, inequity, and hypocrisy. Applaud those who call attention to the failings of economic and political systems. Understand the many sacrifices entailed by questioning and challenging both the state and the status quo.

    Know the issues. Thank the protesters. And pass this message on.

    Richard Carrier on Ancient Judaism's Suicide Messiahs

    I am Joshua. I shall redeem you through terrible films.
    Do not despair ye, for each movie will offer my hot-hot young wife
    being all kinds of naked.
    I recommend everyone to Richard Carrier's recent post, "The Dying Messiah." Carrier here lays out a case some Jews in pre-Christian times held beliefs that the messiah would come and be killed. It's an interesting and important case because the popular wisdom holds that Jews expected the messiah to come and liberate Israel from the yoke, thereby ushering in a new and perhaps final world era. They did not expect the messiah to be tortured and executed, a la Jesus of Nazareth, as a low criminal; indeed, their expectation later blinded them to the "truth" of Jesus's messiahship.

    Carrier argues the popular wisdom is inaccurate. In the time of Christianity's beginnings, he says,
    Jewish beliefs were remarkably diverse, open to innovation, and not as conservative as later Rabbinical Judaism would become. In fact many an expert on ancient Judaism has called attention to the repeated mistake of assuming first century Judaism was "just like" medieval Rabbinical Judaism. So it would be more than safe to propose as a hypothesis for the origin of Christianity that some Jews did see these connections and did expect a dying messiah and that it is from their movement (or its influence) that Christianity arose.
    Feeling "safe" enough, Carrier hypothesizes that one possible explanation for the emergence of Christian beliefs is that they had already been formulated to some degree within Judaism. Carrier concludes:
    Seen in its actual context, there really isn't anything all that novel about Christianity's basic claims. The way it assembled the parts is unique, as every religion was and is, but the parts were already there for the taking.
    Carrier leads us through the evidence very well. See, for example, how he introduces a key passage from the Dead Sea Scrolls:
    A fragmentary pesher among the Dead Sea Scrolls explicitly identifies the servant of Isaiah 52-53 with the messiah of Daniel 9. This decisively confirms that this specific equation had already been made by pre-Christian Jews, as it exists not just in a pre-Christian text, but in this case a pre-Christian manuscript. The passage in question is in 11QMelch ii.18 (aka 11Q13). A pesher is an interpretive commentary on the OT that operates on the assumption that the OT text has hidden, second-level meanings (a view Christians shared, e.g. Rom. 16:25-26). Thus some pre-Christian Jews were already finding hidden "secrets" in the OT that basically are the Christian gospel: that Isaiah 52-53 is about the messiah whom Daniel 9 predicted will be killed (this same pesher also identifies Isaiah 61 as being about this same messiah, thus proving again that the Christians did not come to this conclusion post hoc either).
    Carrier links to, but does not give, the passage in question. So, I offer the text here:
    (...) And concerning what Scripture says, "In this year of Jubilee you shall return, everyone of you, to your property" (Lev. 25;13) And what is also written; "And this is the manner of the remission; every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because God's remission has been proclaimed" (Deut.15;2) the interpretation is that it applies to the Last Days and concerns the captives, just as Isaiah said: "To proclaim the Jubilee to the captives" (Isa. 61;1) (...) just as (...) and from the inheritance of Melchizedek, for (... Melchizedek), who will return them to what is rightfully theirs. He will proclaim to them the Jubilee, thereby releasing them from the debt of all their sins. He shall proclaim this decree in the first week of the jubilee period that follows nine jubilee periods.

    Then the "Day of Atonement" shall follow after the tenth jubilee period, when he shall atone for all the Sons of Light, and the people who are predestined to Melchizedek. (...) upon them (...) For this is the time decreed for the "Year of Melchizedek`s favor", and by his might he will judge God's holy ones and so establish a righteous kingdom, as it is written about him in the Songs of David; "A godlike being has taken his place in the council of God; in the midst of divine beings he holds judgement"

    (Ps. 82;1). Scripture also says about him; "Over it take your seat in the highest heaven; A divine being will judge the peoples" (Ps. 7;7-8) Concerning what scripture says; "How long will you judge unjustly, and show partiality with the wicked? Selah" (Ps. 82;2), the interpretation applies to Belial and the spirits predestined to him, because all of them have rebelled, turning from God's precepts and so becoming utterly wicked. Therefore Melchizedek will thoroughly prosecute the vengeance required by God's statutes. Also, he will deliver all the captives from the power of Belial, and from the power of all the spirits destined to him. Allied with him will be all the "righteous divine beings"(Isa. 61;3).

    (The ...) is that whi(ch ...all) the divine beings. The visitation is the Day of Salvation that He has decreed through Isaiah the prophet concerning all the captives, inasmuch as Scripture says, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion "Your divine being reigns"." (Isa. 52;7) This scriptures interpretation: "the mountains" are the prophets, they who were sent to proclaim God's truth and to prophesy to all Israel. "The messengers" is the Anointed of the spirit, of whom Daniel spoke; "After the sixty-two weeks, an Anointed shall be cut off" (Dan. 9;26) The "messenger who brings good news, who announces Salvation" is the one of whom it is written; "to proclaim the year of the LORD`s favor, the day of the vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn" (Isa. 61;2)

    This scripture's interpretation: he is to instruct them about all the periods of history for eternity (... and in the statutes) of the truth. (...) (.... dominion) that passes from Belial and returns to the Sons of Light (....) (...) by the judgment of God, just as t is written concerning him; "who says to Zion "Your divine being reigns" (Isa. 52;7) "Zion" is the congregation of all the sons of righteousness, who uphold the covenant and turn from walking in the way of the people. "Your divine being" is Melchizedek, who will deliver them from the  power of Belial. Concerning what scripture says, "Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; in the seventh month . . . " (Lev. 25;9)
    For Carrier, the text's connection between Isaiah 52-53 and Daniel 9 is particularly important:
    Connecting Isaiah 53 with Daniel 9 proves that some Jews were already thinking this before Christianity even began. In fact Daniel 9:24 also says the messiah's death would atone for the sins of Israel and thereby bring about the end of the world (9:27), and this after a long preface complaining that those sins had been getting in the way. Should we be surprised that some Jews would come to believe that this had at last happened? For them, the death of the messiah, setting up the subsequent end of the world, was expected. That Christians taught all these things (their messiah had died, his death atoned for all sins, and the end was therefore nigh) is unlikely to be a coincidental reinvention of ideas the Jews were already getting on board with. No, the first Christians most likely came from these very Jews, or were directly inspired by their teachings.
    Carrier makes an impressive and persuasive case, although I have only presented the first part of it. Why, though, is it important that specifically Christian beliefs emerged more or less directly from Jewish ancestors?

    Wisely, he avoids trying to use his one case as the basis making another, different case. In a comment, he addresses whether the dying messiah in pre-Christian Judaism sheds light on one or more historical Jesuses/Joshuas:
    This blog post takes no position on that and makes no argument either way. It is solely about this one fact, which can fit both mythicist and historicist hypotheses of the origins of Christianity. Indeed, in isolation, one could use what I establish here to argue in favor of historicity, since the other Jesus Christs were historical (Jesus is then just another historical figure posing as the Joshuan Messiah and trying to get himself killed). But one cannot argue from isolated items of evidence. A conclusion must come from a survey of all the evidence together.
    I am not so wise as Dr. Carrier, so I'll take his case to make another of my own.

    We make so much of religious beliefs, political beliefs, social beliefs, and beliefs generally. We take them as monolithic things. We discuss them and examine them as themselves and for themselves.

    This is often how literature is taught and studied.

    We cannot forget, however, that beliefs are like everything else: they have precedents and antecedents. They are real and palpable as subjects of discussion, writing, and dispute.

    We therefore err to talk about beliefs--be they modern or ancient--only in terms of their content and personal use. If we only focus on beliefs in this or that god, and about how we should apply beliefs to our daily lives, we miss the most interesting stuff: the origins and development of the beliefs themselves.

    We don't fully understand something if we only interpret what it is and what we can do with it. To understand, we must also pursue material origins.

    I should footnote that Carrier's argument does not necessarily affect the point I make in a previous post, namely that the Christian understanding of Jesus's sacrifice appears to many of Jewish background--like me--as a "left turn" from Judaism. The Jewish dying messiah and the Christian dying messiah remain leagues apart, and they presuppose two very different gods.

    Friday, October 14, 2011

    Rabbi Itzalok Predicts Week 6 NFL Winners (2011)

    I predict which team will win the spiritual battle. And when I pick, it's a lock.

    Rabbi Itzalok huddles with the Divine One to predict the outcome of each week's National Football League games.

    To make matters even more interesting, the ever-sharp Rabbi I. tests his prophetic mettle against a computer picker and a fantasy league.

    Here are this week's predicted winners:

    Rabbi Itzalok Accuscore Pick 'em

    How to Piss Off Your Professor

    You may know that I teach a class in introduction to literature. I enjoy the class, and it's going well this semester.

    In addition to frequent reading assignments, the class has gone through two cycles for short essays. Normally, essay assignments are handed out about a week or more in advance of the deadline. Plus, every student is required to show me a working paragraph at least two days before the deadline. The requirement helps me guide students and give them feedback. It also helps students start their papers earlier, which can only help them hand in a better product.

    This morning, the third short essay was due in class. One student, however, came to class but did not turn in a paper. In fact, this student received the assignment on Wednesday--the due date for the working paragraph requirement--because he had been absent from earlier classes.

    He approached me after class to tell me he couldn't complete the paper because "the assignment was unclear." Also unclear, he said, was a long illustration I had written out showing how to properly quote literature and then explain to a reader what was just quoted. That illustration was given to students along with the essay assignment itself, and I had explained both and offered to answer student questions on them.

    They were unclear, he asserted. Unclear.

    I was pretty pissed at the deliberate phrasing he used. Essentially, he was saying he could have completed the assignment if it had been more explicit about what he was supposed to do. It was my fault, in other words.

    I let him know, I hope clearly, that even if the assignment was unclear to him, he had let plenty of opportunities slip to get help. After talking more with him, he showed that he really did know exactly what to do: a literary analysis, just like we had done two times before. Just like everyone else in class was able to do for the assignment.

    The student should have simply mentioned that he was unable to complete his paper on time. He should have stated what he understood the assignment to be for his chosen topic, and then he should have let me either confirm or correct his understanding.

    He made a really bad move telling me the assignment was unclear.

    I worked to develop that assignment. I worked to make it clear. I worked in class to explain it. I solicited questions from students. I required a mini-review two days before deadline to address any questions. I did my job.

    That motherfucker's on my shit list now.

    Friday, October 07, 2011

    Rabbi Itzalok Predicts Week 5 NFL Winners (2011)

    I predict which team will win the spiritual battle. And when I pick, it's a lock.

    Rabbi Itzalok huddles with the Divine One to predict the outcome of each week's National Football League games.

    To make matters even more interesting, the ever-sharp Rabbi I. tests his prophetic mettle against a computer picker and a fantasy league.

    Here are this week's predicted winners:

    Rabbi Itzalok Accuscore Pick 'em

    Wednesday, October 05, 2011

    The Sacrifice of Jesus as a Left Turn from Judaism

    The scenario below illustrates why the execution of Jesus by the Romans is not quite the great sacrifice Christians say it is, and why Jewish believers see the whole fetishization of the sacrifice both strange and abhorrent:
    There is a great empire ruled absolutely by a man named El. In this empire, every person has an obligation to pay a sum of $100 to the empire, and this sum must be paid at one time, in full, on the person's 30th birthday. If the sum is not paid at that time, the person will be sent permanently to jail for hard labor.

    The people of the empire are very poor, and $100 dollars is more than most anyone is able to pay by themselves. You are one of the inhabitants of the empire, you are far short of the required $100, and your 30th birthday is fast approaching.

    But then: the son of the king pays your full $100 for you. You don't know the son. You didn't ask him to make your payment, and you had no idea that he existed, let alone that he would make this payment on your behalf. In fact, you didn't even know it was permissible for someone to make your payment for you. Nevertheless, you are now square with the empire.

    There is a catch, however. The son later says that he made your $100 dollar payment at the request of his father the king. Now the king and the son demand that you vote for the son to be prime minister in the upcoming election. Your vote is the price of the son's having paid your obligation. If you refuse to vote for him, then you will be sent permanently to jail for hard labor.

    You discover that the son has paid the obligations of many others, too. All are imposed with the same condition. Cast your vote in favor of the son or go to jail. Everyone who learns that her or his obligation has been paid by the son must choose.

    Representatives of the son come to your door frequently. They ask you whether you will vote for the son or not. So far you have delayed them, but you must make a decision soon.
    This scenario captures what I think are essential difficulties with the doctrine of sacrifice that Jesus personifies for Christians.
    • Where does the obligation come from and on what authority?
    • How can it be that the son pays someone else's obligation without asking permission from that person?
    • By what right does the son coerce allegiance?
    • Isn't validation of the son, as opposed to straight gratitude for his having made a payment, superfluous? Why does he need to be recognized?

    For someone from a Jewish background, like myself, it's hard to convey how strange the sacrifice of Jesus appears. To me, Christianity takes a complete left turn from Judaism and makes God a very different being than in Jewish doctrine.

    More importantly, the sacrifice of Jesus is not really a sacrifice but a buy out. It kicks people from being ransomed to God to being ransomed to Jesus, and it does so without people's knowledge. In both the Jewish and Christian world orders, people are chattel. The only question is who you think is your master, El or his son.

    Wednesday Comedy: Occupy Wall Street

    Go protestors! Get action!

    The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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    Monday, October 03, 2011

    I Do Not Fear the Time

    My mother and father are married 47 years today.

    In their honor, and in honor of the occasion, I have two mournful yet appropriate songs for them. This is, of course, a day to celebrate and be extremely joyful--partly because we know that it won't last forever. And so the celebration and joy includes mourning over the sweet receding past and the inevitable parting yet to come.

    Here's a beautiful song written by Sandy Denny.

    And here's a lovely one by Richard and Linda Thompson.