Monthly Archives: October 2008

I have to confess that I have no regular walk.

I do walk, of course, almost everywhere, so there are many places where I walk regularly, paths that connect my house to the local farmer’s market, to the little grocery store down the street, to my church a few blocks in the other direction, to the several parks that distract my children most mornings. and to the many other places that I inhabit frequently. None of these constitute a regular walk, however, not in the sense that I have found to be so important to others over the years.

For example, my favourite books as a child were C. S. Lewis’ Narnian books, and when I had exhausted them, I went looking for everything else that Lewis had written.  I started reading vast quantities of literary criticism, theology, and apologetics, all well before I could know what any of it might actually mean.  In the midst of all this, I also read Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, and a volume of his collected letters.  In both of these books, he talks about his regular walks.  Often taken with others for company, these walks did not necessarily have a set route, and they rarely had a destination as such.  Their purpose was not to arrive anywhere in particular, but to provide the opportunity for thinking and for conversation.  They were less exercise or transportation than a unique space where the life of the mind could be practiced.

Though this was the first time I had heard of walking in such a way, I have found similar practices among many others of the authors whom I enjoy and respect, and my imagination has joined these figures together into some sort of ideal figure of the walker: part G. K Chesterton, idly slashing at trees with his swordstick; part George Grant, finding religious epiphany while passing through a farm gate; part Ernest Hemingway, tramping country roads and forests; part Hugh Latimer, discussing theology while climbing Heretics’ Hill; and, most recently, part Henry Koch, collecting seeds from the trees along his path.  The regular walk, as practiced by this ideal walker, becomes a kind of intellectual and spiritual discipline, a kind of devotion.

Certain aspects of this walking do come to me naturally.  I have no trouble undertaking a walk without any particular destination in mind, and my walking is not often tempted by anything resembling urgency.  I do not jog.  I do not stride.  I do not hike.  I hardly even walk.  I amble.  I stroll.  I saunter.  I ramble.  I perambulate.  Yet, I do not walk in this way as a regularity, as a part of how I am.  I do it only on occasion, usually at someone else’s suggestion.  Though my wife has something like a regular walk in this sense, I do not.  This is my confession, and it is a confession, I think, that is a symptom of my larger discomfort with a certain kind of reflection and meditation and solitude.  I am not one to make resolutions, but I feel the need for a regular walk, to be regularly apart and reflective, to recapitulate the discipline of the walkers who have preceded me.  I desire this devotion as my own.

Dave Humphrey recently responded to my post on defining a philosophy of the table, a subject that we have since discussed in person also, and he raises some points on which I would like to expand.

First, he rightly notes that I fail to recognize how a philosophy of the table always remains opened to a possible future because it always remains unfinished.  Perhaps there is something about the nature of my own habitual concerns that I too often neglect this future moment, even as I attend insistently to the occasion of the present moment and to the memorial of the past moment.  I do agree with Dave, however, despite my negligence, that it is essential to a philosophy of the table that it be turned toward the future, in the expectation that the conversation will not ever have been completed, in the anticipation that there will always remain more that will need saying.  If it is necessary to honour a present and to memorialise a past, it is also necessary, as an essential correlate of these activities, to anticipate a future.

This anticipation is not for the next instalment or for the next issue of a discrete philosophical event, but for the continuation, always desired and always uncertain, that I will speak with you again.  It is an anticipation that says, even before our present conversation has ended, even before we have parted, “I miss you and what you have to say to me and what we are together.”  It says, “Let us come together again soon, though I know it is always possible that we may never be able to come together again.”  It has something of Levinas’ “adieu” to it.  It says, “Go with God, and may God return you to me.”  Just as in a memorial of the past or in an honouring of the present, it refuses to understand itself as a philosophy that is distinguishable from those who share in it.

Dave is also right, therefore, to see this mode of philosophy as a gift, with all of the implications and the questions and the problems that this word bears and has borne as a subject of theory and philosophy over the centuries.  There is too much that could be said about this gift and this giving, and I would say it more poorly than others have done before, so I will only avow that we know, you and I, what this giving is, not to theory, not to philosophy, not to ethics, not to theology, but to us.  As I find myself saying continually, it cannot be separated from us.

This is why I do not believe, as some of my acquaintances have argued, that my definition of a table philosophy functions to privilege orality over textuality, or presence over deference.  Quite the opposite, a philosophy of the table sees no difference between the spoken and the written, so long as the are exchanged as gifts according to the bond that is between us.  It takes no interest in how the other is as such, only how the other is for me, as a gift, according to that bond.  It privileges not the spoken or the present, but the shared.  It insists only that our speaking and our being be between us, that this sharing be what defines it, that this giving be both what closes it as a protection around those who are gathered in it and opens it continually to the approach of others who wish to gather also.  It says both, “Let us remember and celebrate and anticipate what we share here,” and also, “Come, join in our sharing.  There is room for you here also.”

I had a student submit an assignment on Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales the other day that is among the most original submissions that I have ever received.  It takes “The Knight’s Tale” for its topic, the story of Arcite and Palamon that Chaucer retells from Boccaccio’s Teseide.  Rather than assuming the form of a linear text, the assignment is presented through Facebook, each of the various characters having a profile, and it uses the program’s various functions to relate the events of the story.

In the capacity of a teacher of English Literature, I am mostly concerned, of course, with whether this approach to the assignment is effective in saying something useful about Chaucer’s text, but as a observer of contemporary media practises, I am far more interested in its implicit comparison between two modes of textual interaction.  There are some obvious differences between the two that are mostly consistent with a shift from an early-modern cultural aesthetic to a postmodern one: the displacement of a unified  narrator with multiple narrative voices; the rejection of a reliable narrative position in favour of unreliable narrative perspectives; and the shift from an external narrative position to internal ones.  The result of these shifts, according to standard postmodern theory, is a story that is necessarily less unified and less coherent but also more reflective of the multiple ways in which a story is lived and told and experienced, because they replace a single subjective voice with a multiplicity of voices that puts in question the stability of the subject as such.

These kinds of observations have often been made before, and I feel no desire to recapitulate them any further, because the distinction that interests me most between the two stories does not lie in this postmodern shift in cultural and aesthetic sensibility.  Rather, it lies in the technologically driven shift in how the reader is constructed.  The knight, as the narrator of the story in Chaucer’s text, is ostensibly performing for other characters who are as much literary creations as he is, but his performance is also a part of a larger performance by the anonymous narrator of the whole text and of an even larger performance by Chaucer himself, both of whom are in fact literary creations as well.  These performances assume readers who are apart from the text, an audience that certainly performs the text for themselves, but who cannot stage these performances for the literary creations of the text.

The Facebook adaptation of the story, however, constructs its readers, not as an audience apart from the text, but as fellow performers able to participate in the text directly in ways that are not distinguishable from the rest of the performance.  It opens the possibility that readers might interact with my student’s characters in a mode that my student could not control and that either readers could not distinguish from his text.  These additions to my student’s text would not function as commentaries or supplements, but would become an essential part of the story being performed.

These kinds of additions have always been possible, of course, through multiple authorships and other authorial complexities, and they might even be said to be unavoidable, through the essential indeterminacy of the authorial function, but it has never before been possible for a story to incorporate its readers essentially and indefinitely into its own text.  Though the reader always played a performative function in relation to the text, it has never before been possible for the text to be structurally inclusive of this function in an essential way.

The implication is that the reader is, in fact, no longer a reader, but is only another literary creation who can participate indistinguishably in the performance of the story itself.  The reader is no longer separable from the author, even if the reader does not in fact add anything visibly to the story, because the reader must have a profile to read another profile, must actually be inscribed into the other profile in order to be a reader of it.  To read the profile, the reader must already be written into it, must already have contributed to the authorship of the story.  There are no readers, on Facebook, only authors, only literary creations who perform a story that they can never comprehend in its entirety.

This conclusion accords well with my intuitive sense of how new media is functioning.  I suspect that it offers the unprecedented opportunity to be writers of ourselves only at the cost of discouraging our opportunity to be readers of others.  They make imperative the development of reading practices that choose to read as such, for the sake of reading, in order to honour the act of reading, though these practices will almost certainly take the form of a discipline that cannot avoid being called religious.

I had a chance to screen three documentaries in three very different settings last week.  On Monday, I showed Heidi Ewing’s Jesus Camp to my Survey of Literature I class, comparing its ironic portrayal of religious practises to that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  On Saturday evening, at my monthly Dinner and a Doc event, I showed With God on Our Side: George Bush and the Rise of the Religious Right as a supplement to the discussion group that my wife will be running later this month on the role that religion is playing in the current political environment.  On Sunday morning, for my Senior High group, I showed Jehane Noujaim’s The Control Room, as an introduction to the problem of bias in the media. I like all three of these films very much, and they are certainly relevant to one another, so there are likely things that could be said about the experience of watching them in so c lose a proximity, but I think that I will just share a moment from each and leave the analysis for another day.

My favourite scene from Jesus Camp is also one of the most surreal moments in any documentary I have ever seen.  It takes place during a worship session at the camp.  All the children are assembled in the auditorium, when one of the leaders enters the stage with a life-sized cardboard cutout of George W. Bush.  The cutout is placed on the stage and introduced as if it is the President himself, and the children are invited to come forward, lay their hands on it, and pray for the leader of their country.  The resulting scene resembles nothing more than the kind of stereotype of idol worship that one finds in a Hollywood film.  It is, though it certainly does not intend to be, a pointed parody, not only of how many Americans worship the president, not only of how many American Christians have come to conflate politics for religion, but also of how American Christians have often depicted other religions as idolatrous.

There are actually several related moments that I like in With God on Our Side.  The first is a scene of Billy Graham telling a crowd that, contrary to the communists, Christ taught the value of private property.  The second is of an evangelical leader telling the interviewer that getting registered to vote is the most important thing that a person can do besides attaining to eternal salvation. The third is of Jerry Falwell saying that the three main purposes of evangelicalism are to get people saved, get them baptised, and get them registered to vote.  The three scenes together illustrate so perfectly the ways that Christianity in the United States has become conflated with a certain kind of capitalist economics and a certain kind of democratic politics, to the point where they have become three inseparable tenets of some uniquely American religion that is as much economic and political as it is theological.

The part of The Control Room that I enjoy most is also a series of scenes, functioning as a kind of personal narrative that ties the film together.  They are the scenes of the young United States Army Captain, a communications liaison at the army’s Central Command.  Though the Captain initially defends the party line very closely, the images he sees begin to disrupt the certainty of his thinking, and he eventually admits that he has come to hate war, even if he does not think the world can do without it yet.  The interviews of the Captain by various other media representatives and by the filmmakers themselves are among the most interesting in the film.  They feel very personal at times, and yet they are filmed in ways and in places that constantly remind the viewer of the Captain’s public location and official position. The effect is interestingly conflicted.

All three films are worth seeing, and they inform each other in strange ways.  There is an argument to be made from them on the interrelation of politics, economics, religion, and nationalism in the United States, and also on the way that the media functions to reinforce the conflation of these elements, but, as I said earlier, I will leave the analysis for another day.

I should preface this post by saying that I am mostly ambivalent about the graphic novel as a genre. I am certainly not one of those who regard it as entirely devoid of artistic value, but I also fall significantly short of the opposite position that wants to characterize it as rejuvenating a too often stagnant and elitist literary culture. My admittedly limited experience with the graphic novel has not persuaded me that it is any different from other art forms as they are practised in our culture: capable of making significant artistic statements, certainly, but most often productive of mere amusement. Art Spiegelman’s Maus books are an example of graphic novels of the first sort. I also find most of Neil Gaimon’s books interesting, with a particular fondness for The Dream Hunters, a retelling of a Japanese myth that is illustrated by Yoshikata Amano. Beyond these, however, I have not usually been impressed by the narratives that form graphic novels, even if they are visually interesting at times.

Yesterday afternoon, however, I stumbled upon a graphic novel that is beautiful both visually and narratively, despite having no text at all. I was at the library with my two sons, and I happened to see Shaun Tan’s The Arrival out on a table as I was following my youngest on his energetically random path. I read as I followed, and I was soon utterly immersed in the story, in its blending of the fantastic and the familiar, in its almost tactile sense of intimacy.

The narrative is very simple. It follows a man who flees his country, leaving behind his wife and daughter, to begin a new life for them in a foreign land. Its simplicity is made compelling, however, by the beautiful way that the art attends to the smallest gestures of face and hand. A page often holds many small and discrete images that differ from each other only in subtle ways, and yet their progression forms a clear, intimate, and therefore powerful narration. In one very early sequence, for example, the daughter is shown in three stages of waking, then eating, then turning her head toward the next frame, which holds only the suitcase that her father has packed for his trip. There is then a frame of her father donning his hat and looking away from his daughter, followed by one of her mother tying her shawl and looking away from her husband. The next three frames are of the mother’s hands buttoning her daughters coat, the daughter’s hands pulling on her own boots, and the daughter lifting the suitcase to a father who is absent from the shot. The final frame is of the father from the perspective of his daughter, looking down at her, his hand extended to take the suitcase.

This sequence is a masterfully constructed narrative. The everyday activities of the girl’s morning interrupted by the glance at the suitcase. The characters isolated in their individual frames, never joining each other, almost always looking away from each other. The girl handing the suitcase to the already absent father. The father receiving it from the already absent daughter. The whole sequence emphasizes the aloneness of the characters in the face of the coming departure, a departure that has separated them before it has even occurred. This sort of pictorial narrative is made effective by a relentless attention to the intimate details of faces and hands. Each expression and gesture is made to speak a visual language that is almost evocative of a choreography. The characters seem less to move from frame to frame than to shift from pose to pose, telling a story in a kind of lived dance. The effect is beautiful and compelling.

Tan also changes the depth of field in ways that are very effective and that function as a kind of narration in their own right. The sequence in which we discover that the man is aboard a ship to the new land, for example, opens with a close frame of the family photo that the man has packed. The next frame broadens to include the hand of the man as he eats his soup. The next broadens further to show the whole of the man and the gaze that he has fixed on the photo as it sits atop his suitcase. The fourth recedes through the porthole window, through which the man is looking. The frames then continue to recede: the porthole becoming smaller as the ship becomes larger, until the man’s one window is lost among the many windows in the massiveness of the steamer’s side. The sequence is effective enough on its own, but Tan follows this series of smaller images with a huge picture that includes both of the following pages, representing the ship, which had grown massive in comparison to the porthole, as small in itself against the hugeness of the sea and of the sky and of a cloud that fills most of the picture. The effect is powerful. I almost exclaimed aloud in the library as I was reading, so completely does the shift from the smaller images to the much larger one accomplish the diminishment of the one solitary man into the hugeness of the vessel and, in turn, into the hugeness of nature itself. This effect is then further heightened by the following two pages, which are filled entirely with sixty small, tile-like pictures of clouds, where the ship and everything else disappears altogether, and then is reversed by the next two images, which recede to a single page of the ship at sea and a single page of passengers on the ship’s deck. The focus continues to narrow on the next pages, through several smaller frames of individual passenger groups, then to the man himself, and finally to his hands as they write to his absent family.

Again, the narrative here is accomplished beautifully. It establishes an effective frame, beginning and ending with the man’s only connections to his absent family: the photo and the letter. Between these markers it stretches his loneliness through the vastness of the ship, of the sea, of the clouds, and of the huddled and anonymous mass of his fellow passengers. His smallness and isolation are made almost palpable, as are the tenuous threads that hold him to himself. There is nothing, the sequence makes clear, that keeps him from disappearing entirely into the massiveness of the unknown world except the family who exists for him now only through the fragility of pictures and letters. These kinds of sequences drive the book narratively despite or even because there is no textual narrative at all.

However effective the art is narratively, however, it would be unfair of me if I were not to comment also on its visual beauty as well. The images are all distinct and framed, like old pictures in an album, an effect heightened by the black and white and sepia tones, by the kinds of creases and blurring that can be found in many old photos, and, in some places, by borders that are meant to portray the frames explicitly as photos. This photographic quality is further reinforced by a beautifully realistic style and by the costumes and culture of the man’s homeland, which look very much like those of England in the early 1900’s. These elements all contribute to the sense that the reader is following the history of some family member as told through an old picture album. The effect is disarmingly intimate.

However, all of this familiarity is contrasted by many elements that are entirely fantastical. The man is driven from his home by long, spiky tentacles, for example. He meets those who have fled colossal giants that suck people into barrels of flame through huge vacuums. The new country to which he flees is itself an eerily beautiful fantasy, entirely original and different from his own. On a certain level, these fantasy elements function to represent the strangeness that any immigrant feels when arriving in a new culture, but they have a larger effect also. They make the story surreal enough to surprise its readers in a culture that is so saturated by knowledge that it is often incapable of surprise any longer. No foreign culture would be foreign enough to surprise us, but Tan’s fantastical foreignness forces us to see and experience apart from our expectations. We find ourselves surprised in the midst of what had seemed to be a familiarity.

There is, of course, no way that my writing can hope to do justice to what Tan has done visually. The Arrival, like any literature worth reading, needs to be read on its own terms. Even so, I hope that I have at least succeeded in making Tan’s book intriguing enough that others will go and read it themselves. It is well worth a place in any library.

If I have in some of my posts given the impression that I am in any way an accomplished gardener, let this post serve to dispel it.  While I can recall our family having a vegetable garden when I was very young, gardening was not something that my family did.  When I moved out, I lived solely in apartments that had no dirt at all and then in a little bungalow that had a garden fairly well begun before I even I arrived.  It is only in the past year, since we moved into our new place, that I have had a substantial amount of space to garden and the growing desire to do something with it.  Though I do love to garden, though I do want to become a better gardener, I am, at the moment, almost completely incompetent.

For example, I wrote a month or so ago that I was trying to grow sancherry bushes from seed.  Having no idea how to go about this properly, I did what I usually do.  I made a completely uninformed attempt to do things on my own, planted the seeds immediately and without any preparation, waited impatiently for them to sprout, and was horribly disappointed when they did nothing of the sort.  I could have researched the process online, of course, and there are probably many books available at my local library just down the street, but I have a fundamental antipathy to the usual kind of approach to instructional material.  They are either impersonal and dull in the extreme, or they are personal and insipid in the extreme.  I have encountered only very few exceptions, and I treasure them very highly.

Fortuitously, I have just discovered a book that is just such an exception, one that serves both my purposes and my tastes entirely. My mother happened to leave it on the dining room table, a book called Growing Trees from Seed, by a man named Henry Kock, who was an Interpretive Horticulturalist at the University of Guelph’s Arboretum and the founder of the Elm Recovery Project.  My mother, who worked with him at the arboretum, describes him as probably the most amazing man she has ever met, and his book is equally remarkable.

Its appeal is not in the information it provides, though it covers its subject exhaustively.  Its appeal is in the way that he tells the story of growing trees from seed precisely as a story.  There are some writers who introduce anecdotes in order to make a text less dull, but often in ways that seem forced and unnatural.  Kock’s anecdotes are less an insertion into a broader textual structure than they are the structure itself.  He writes as if he is sitting with his reader in the garden, pointing out this or the other detail of a specimen, demonstrating a particular technique, or relating the story of when he first saw a certain variety of tree.  He does not lecture on the subject of trees.  He narrates a passion for them, a life of dedication to them.

This sense of being alongside Kock as he works in the nursery makes the book much more than a reference volume.  While it would certainly serve this purpose, it deserves to be read whole, quite apart from any immediate need for the information it conveys.  It deserves to be read with the spirit that it was written, with a passion for seeing native plants conserved and reintroduced in their former habitats, with a passion that never fails to see something mystical in a tree emerging from a seed, with a passion that understand planting native species as “a nearly sacred act.”  It is written by someone who knew how to honour the uniqueness of his immediate environment, and he inspires his readers to discover how to honour in this way also.

I have been reflecting on whether there is anything definitively different in the kind of philosophy that I have been advocating in this space and in others, the kind of philosophy that finds its place at the table and over the stove and in the garden and on the front porch, the kind of philosophy that does not artificially separate itself from the rest of everyday living. While it is obvious that this kind of thinking occurs differently, I wonder whether it proceeds differently, whether the difference in its practice results in a difference in its conclusions. In other words, does the rhythm of the household and the neighbourhood produce a philosophy that is different in substance from the philosophy that is produced by the rhythm of the academic institution and the professional thinker?

The following are some ideas that might contribute to a discussion of this question.

1. The questions posed by a philosophy of the table are always undertaken in the context of relationship if not of friendship. While neither relationship nor friendship is foreign between professional philosophers, of course, institutional philosophy rarely appears in these contexts. Except for the kinds of exchanges that sometimes occur in an interview or in a discussion session, the relationships that might exist between professional thinkers are most often obscured in what these thinkers produce. A table philosophy, however, simply cannot exist apart from the relationship that defines it. Apart from this relationship. it ceases to be what it is. It proceeds solely from the space created by crossing of our gazes.

This does not mean that the product of professional philosophy does have among its sources the conversations of friendship. It merely means that these conversations are most often covered over when professional philosophy produces itself as such. Where a table philosophy need have no product beyond what is produced in the relationship between the thinkers themselves, a professional philosophy appears only in a product that always distances itself from the relationship and usually marks this distance deliberately.

2. A philosophy of the table, as the preceding distinction indicates, also differs from a professional philosophy in what it produces. Where the aim of professional philosophy is almost always contribution to a body of knowledge that is supposed to be held in common, a table philosophy has as its aim only to produce change in those who are gathered around the question. Its product is a different thinking and a different acting in its participants, and the body of knowledge to which it contributes is only the shared memory of the conversation, always ongoing, among them.

The product of an institutional philosophy almost always appears in a form that is defined and reproducible: a book, an article, a paper, and interview. It almost always has the appearance of a finality. It appears as definitive. The product of a relational philosophy, however, never appears in this kind of form. It appears only in its multiple and provisional and undefinable influences on those who share in it. Accept that it causes people to think and be differently, it has no product of any kind. It can never be reproduced. It can never be published. To try and reproduce it in these ways would only be to remove it from its context and submit it to the structures and conventions of the institution.

3. An institutional philosophy also gestures differently from a philosophy of the table. The characteristic gesture of a professional philosophy is the citation: a reference to the established body of reproducible knowledge, appearing always in a present tense. “Kant writes,” or “Heidegger argues,” or “Derrida demonstrates.” A philosophy of the table, however, has as its characteristic gesture the shared memorial: a reference to the undefinable and unreproducible history that lies between the participants, appearing always in a past tense. It says, “Do you remember when we were talking on your porch last fall?”, or “This topic has always preoccupied you ever since that first discussion group, hasn’t it?”, or “We’ve always agreed on that point.” This gesture to a shared past is not just a remembering. It is a memorial. It does not merely recall the ideas that were shared. It also celebrates the relationships and the times and the places and the activities that defined these ideas. It refuses to make the ideas separate from the relational contexts that produced them.

These kinds of memorial do appear in a professional philosophy at times, of course, and I count some of them among my favourite philosophical writings. However, even in these cases, institutional philosophy does not produce the effect of a memorial, at least not to me, who did not experience the people and the occasions being memorialised. Jacques Derrida’s memorial in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas moves me very much, both intellectually and emotionally, and it may even function as a memorial for those who knew them both and shared with them, but it can never be for me a memorial in the sense that I am describing. A philosophy of the table, however, cannot help but be such a memorial. It proceeds solely by means of these gestures to its own shared past, recalling and celebrating and mourning what has passed before, becoming ever more complex as the conversation winds through the years.

4. An institutional philosophy also differs from a table philosophy in that it is to a much greater degree produced for the occasion rather than by it. In almost every case, a professional philosophy is produced in advance to be delivered as a polished discourse for a particular occasion. Even in those instances that have the appearance of being improvised, like an interview or a question period, it is always the case that what is produced on these occasions is produced largely for rather than by the purposes of these very occasions. In contrast, a philosophy of the garden and the kitchen is produced largely by the occasion and by the season and by the task being accomplished and by the people present and by the weather and by the topic that circumstances have suggested and by what is being eaten and by everything else that makes that moment irreplaceable. This kind of philosophy takes the moment into account in order to honour the moment, not in advance of it, but in the midst of it. It does not permit itself to be abstracted from the occasion on which it finds itself.

I could perhaps say more, and I am tempted to do so, but I wonder how others might respond to what I have said so far. I am aware that the distinctions I have made cannot be maintained absolutely in every case, that institutional philosophies do include and have the apperance of including elements of a table philosophy, and that table philosophies are constantly situated within contexts that are at least partially produced by institutional and professional philosophies. Though I think there is a useful distinction here, I am interested to see whether others think so as well.