Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1.5: Transcendent Semiosis

This model I've been putting forth raises some questions. I can imagine someone accusing me of trying to bring about the death of meaning. This would be at once an overstatement and a misunderstanding. I thought of another analogy the other day which I find helpful. Think of a computer. It is designed by its "author" to perform a function, but that function is not realized until someone plugs it in, boots it up, and uses it. No one would point at a calculator and say "that plastic case contains calculation." Instead, you would say "that calculator can be used to calculate."

But why insist on such a subtle distinction? As I said earlier, the various moments which comprise the act of reading require various disciplines to fully determine the [most efficient] function of a text. But I think there's an even more important payoff. Think of Biblical hermeneuticists, who devote time and energy into interpreting a text because they believe what God intends for humanity is encoded into this collection of words. By thinking in terms of semiosis rather than inherent meaning, they are forced to acknowledge that this decoding will always be ongoing. At least until people unplug the computer, or stop reading the Bible.

Consider what Umberto Eco says about hermeneutics:
The problem with the actual world is that, since the dawn of time, humans have been wondering whether there is a message and, if so, whether this message makes sense. With fictional universes, we know without a doubt that they do have a message and that an authorial entity stands behind them as creator, as well as within them as a set of reading instructions.

Thus, our quest for the model author is an Ersatz for that other quest, in the course of which the Image of the Father fades into the Fog of the Infinity, and we never stop wondering why there is something rather than nothing.
So, if for Eco interpreting a text is an Ersatz for interpreting life itself, according to this model the meaning-making we engage in when we read a text is, in my opinion, more than just a substitution for the meaning-making we engage in as societies. Through semiosis, we as communities of readers cultivate our own ecology of meaning--something that is living rather than just in flux, something much more like the electrons pulsing through a computer than just the hard drive itself.

Critical Realism in Literary Theory, pt 1: Semiosis

This is an expansion on my last post, in which I gloss over why I think Critical Realism (CR) should break into literary theory.

From my friend Greg, whose opinions matter to me greatly:
Can the solution to the hermeneutical fixation *solely* on the meaning of the text be legitimately compensated by an assertion that meaning is *not* found in words [as signs]? It seems to me that it would be much more reasonable given the problem to say that meaning is not *only* found in the semiotic function but also in the performative function of words (to say nothing of the author's subjectivity).

Just to be sure I'm accurately representing Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer's 2001 article "Critical Realism and Semiosis," let me make clear that what they prescribe is exactly what you suggest: that even-handed attention should be given to both the constantive (semiotic) and performative (extra-semiotic) functions of a text. I am going to differ with them, however, in suggesting that focusing on the constative (or denotative) function of a text reveals that we still believe that texts somehow hold meaning when no one is reading them. I'd like to debunk this notion. I don't believe that texts magically contain meaning within their margins. This misconception is similar to the misconception that people have about batteries, that somehow energy is coursing within the battery casing like a hamster on an exercise wheel.

In both cases (meaning in text and energy in battery), a process has been misidentified as an object. In the case of a battery, what one might mistake for "energy" is actually a process in which two chemicals interact with each other once the positive and negative terminals form a loop. This produces an electric current, which can then be used as energy. In the case of a text, a collection of signs lies there on the pages. Once read by a subject, the reading of each word sets off a kind of Pavlovian reflex in the mind of the reader, conjuring a meme that the reader associates with this word. This meme (or idea-gene) is shaped by the reader's experiences with those words (how the word has been used by others [social component] and how the word has been used successfully by the reader [human agency component]). Each of these memes are filtered through the reader's current mental/emotional milieu, and have a feedback effect, in which they in turn affect the reader's meme->word association and mental/emotional milieu. What I'm describing here is a series of events that form a process (semiosis, or the creation of meaning), not an object.

Critical Realism is helpful here, because it asserts that reality is comprised of objects (texts) that possess emergent powers (the power to catalyze semiosis in the mind of the reader) which interact to form processes (semiosis). But what does thinking in terms of semiosis instead of meaning buy us?

It helps debunk the idea that texts are a magical flagon of meaning to be poured out by English professors or theologians. Texts become more like a cultural artifact whose exhaustive study must also involve sociologists, historians, linguists, etc. I envision the text to be like a patient who interfaces with a wide variety of medical professionals (clerks, nurses, physicians, surgeons, x-ray technicians, anesthesiologists, etc). Except, instead of trying to cure the text of a disease (hermeneutics sees a text as a puzzle that needs solving, a patient that needs curing), the text becomes the cure--as a locus for interdisciplinary studies (involving all of the humanities). The text forces us to read humanity itself.

Critical Realism and Literary Theory

I've been busy. I've been after the in-breaking of Critical Realism in literary theory. Here's why:

In 1975, Roy Bhaskar, a philosopher of science, published A Realist Theory of Science, in which he affirms fallibism (he acknowledges that knowledge is socially constructed and relativistic). He maintains, however, that there exists an objective reality quite independent of our knowledge of it, and that this reality is stratified, with layers of depth that subjective knowledge can penetrate while never reaching the bottom. After subsequent publications, and after breaking into the field of sociology, Bhaskar's theories became known as Critical Realism. I contend that Critical Realism should also break into literature in order to provide a counter to the post-postmodern condition in three ways: By resurrecting the human agent from her burial under socialization, by providing a model for coping with the arbitrariness of signs, and by providing a method for provisionally evaluating truth propositions.

Margaret Archer, a prominent Critical Realist sociologist, terms the subject buried under socialization Society's Being: "Society's Being thus impoverishes humanity, by subtracting from our human powers and accrediting all of them--selfhood, reflexivity, thought, memory, emotionality and belief--to society's discourse." And yet, Archer argues that “Society's being requires [a] sense of self in order for a social agent to know that social obligations pertain to her.” This self is what prioritizes between physical wellbeing, performative skill in the workplace, and social self-worth. The self is not subsumed by social identity; they are placed in a dialectical relationship. Archer would no doubt prescribe that we turn off the television long enough to spend some time thinking for ourselves instead of being blinded by a flood of images.

Norman Fairclough, Bob Jessop, and Andrew Sayer have embarked on a project to integrate semiosis (the creation of meaning) into Critical Realism's account of social structure. They would argue that the arbitrary nature of signs has been so problematic because hermeneutics has focused solely on determining the meaning of a text. Their solution is to give even-handed attention to the effects of words by considering them more like chemicals in a complex reaction, to validate the extra-semiotic dimension of reading, and realize that meaning is not found in words but the subjects who read them. They would advise us to quit fixating on words as symbols which may or may not point to objects in the world, and to instead realize that words are more like events which take place in socially situated contexts.

Ruth Groff is a Critical Realist whose most recent monograph expounds upon a theory of truth which posits that propositions are true if and only if what they claim is actually the case. Because all knowledge is theory-laden and therefore fallible, propositions can never be said to be definitively true. Groff believes, however, that we can be reasonably justified in believing a proposition is true when any opposing propositions that can be falsified have been eliminated, when any remaining propositions wield less explanatory power, and when an interdisciplinary consensus has been reached that belief in a given proposition is justified. She might advise us to quit opting out of passing provisional judgment on things.

I recently presented this in the context of a paper at the South Central MLA.

The Distance Between Law and Justice

A friend of mine recently posted this about the recent Roman Polanski arrest. I know little about the case, and can say nothing intelligent about it. My friend's post, however, reminded me about Derrida's essay "Force of Law," which speaks of the fact that law can never equal justice.

If justice is a cosmic balancing scale upon which wrongs are righted, it's quite easy to see how law can never fulfill justice. Imagine a murderer who takes the life of another man. What caused the murder? The murderer? Yes. The older brother who tortured the murderer growing up? Yes. The murderer's father who abandoned his family? Yes. The mother who abused him? The mother's economic status? His teachers, his community, society as a whole with its violent television? Yes, yes, yes. All are complicit, all owe something on the scale of justice.

How could law ever calculate and accurately punish such a crime? The reality is that law is only enough of a deterrent to keep it from happening again. Only enough revenge to vindicate its victims. Only enough closure for society to bring resolution to the narrative of "justice" it has imposed upon a set of events -- a narration whose authors are trained in creating fiction (lawyers), whose audience is addicted to a happy ending (jurors).

But when the crime happens again, when the victims continue to lose sleep, and when society is still plagued by the narrative (consider the OJ Simpson case, for instance), we realize that the kind of retribution law dispenses has the propensity to leave behind ghosts with unfinished business: Justice.

Why I Go to Church

My grandfather's last name is Paul, like the apostle. Sometimes names are like prophecies to be fulfilled. Like Princess Diana whose name is an anagram for "die in a car spin;" like the man who made off with billions of dollars whose last name is Madoff; like the woman whose name was Neda, which means "voice" in Farsi, whose death on YouTube made her the voice of the Iranian protest of the latest elections; my grandfather, whose last name is Paul, became a highly successful preacher, baptizing perhaps a thousand people into the Church of Christ, a denomination that used to have pretensions of not being a denomination, because it claimed to be the one true Church. My last name is Tarpley. As far as I can tell, this just means my family originated in the village of Tapeley in Devonshire. There are no prophecies for me.

That my mother went to church, given who her father was, is no surprise. That she took me to church when I was young is also not surprising. What surprised us all was that my mother married my first step-father, who is the complete opposite of my grandfather in almost every way. My step-father was an anthropologist, a man with deep respect for every culture, every religion on the planet. And with so much respect in his heart, how could he hold one religion over any other? Instead, he showed reverence in every church, every temple. His religion was humanity, and I inherited this religion.

As a 14-year-old, I suffered the angst of any teenager, but I stacked on-top of this: anger over my mother's second divorce, culture-shock (I'd lived in Central America on and off for 5 years, and had to re-integrate into U.S. society as an awkward young man), and a growing resentment toward my grandfather's religion. Many of my fellow middle-schoolers were Christians, and I self-righteously asked them the following questions: Why believe in the mythology of the book of Genesis when the Big Bang and Evolution were enough to explain our existence? Where did Cain's wife come from? Why would God create us only to send the majority of us to Hell? Who would want Abraham as a father, when he was so willing to kill Isaac? Who would worship a God who asked Abraham to kill Isaac? Who would worship a God who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide on the peoples of "The Promised Land?" Out of all the people on the Earth, why did God appear only to the Israelites? If God is omniscient and omnipotent, why would he allow innocent people/animals to suffer?

Over the years, in order to refine my arguments, I read Skeptic Magazine. I purchased an anthology of atheist writings. I tried to understand Nietzsche. When I got my first computer, I read and posted on the alt.athiesm Usenet group. A friend and I attended the Bible club at middle-school in order to disrupt their meetings. Before Richard Dawkins ever mobilized his New Atheists, I was a militant young religion hater.

My anger and teenage rebellion boiled over the pot, and I spent a night in juvenile detention for setting a bonfire on a neighbor's driveway at 3:00AM. I failed the eighth grade. I looked at the wreck my anger had caused, and decided to calm down, to press pause for awhile. We moved to Tyler, Texas in order to be near my grandparents for various reasons, and in order to keep up appearances, we went to church. I hated every minute of it.

I hated every minute of it, until I befriended members of the youth group. As shallow as it sounds, I was thrilled to be around a group of people who thought I was unique because of my circumstances. I received attention, and soaked it up like a selfish sponge. Soon I was surprised by how much I cared for my newfound friends, how little I minded what they thought or believed. I became culturally indoctrinated into the church; I learned how to say the right things and act churchly. I think had the person I'd been six months before been watching me on video, he would've shaken his head and said I was being brainwashed. He might've been right: what's the difference between adapting to your environment and brainwashing?

Regardless of the amount of adaptation I underwent, at my core I remained highly skeptical. I still frequented the alt.atheism group. I still vastly preferred the sermons I heard on Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden albums to anything I was hearing from the pulpit. I was "playing church" and becoming quite good at it, but I was hypocritical at best.

The skeptical, reasoning, rational part of me would love to say that I eventually worked out all of the problems I had with Christianity before becoming a true believer. The reality is that I was attacked from behind, I was snuck-up on, swept up, and irrevocably changed before I knew what hit me. The cliché idea of a "religious experience" embarrasses me. The idea of "finding Jesus," of being "born again" was hilarious to me before I became a Christian. What happened to me, however, was 100% emotional, and to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies ("Playing by Heart"), trying to write about what I felt is like trying to dance about architecture. But here's my feeble attempt.

The youth group had taken a bus to Nacogdoches, Texas in order to have a "retreat." For kids in a youth group, a retreat is an occasion to retreat from one's parents, to pretend for a number of days that one is an independent person. For me, it was a retreat from my bedroom, a full immersion into this churchly world I'd only been dangling my feet into. It was a Saturday night. The lights were switched off. The time was approximately 11:30PM. The youth minister and the counselors decided we'd all stay up and sing songs until midnight so that it would be Sunday morning, and we'd all take communion before going to bed. A caricature of church people sitting in a circle, holding hands, and singing "Kumbaya" exists in our culture. This doesn't approximates what it feels like to be surrounded by a group of people who have grown up singing a cappela, harmonizing at the top of their lungs. This is what I experienced that night, in the darkness. Inside, a great tidal wave of emotion broke loose. I felt ashamed of all the anger I'd felt. I felt silly for having mocked what these people believed with all their heart. I felt a question quietly presenting itself before me: Why? Why had I expended so much negative energy? Why couldn't I listen, why couldn't I truly consider what this first-century Jew had given his life for? What had he given his life for? Wasn't it love? Hadn't he stood up against the religious establishment and shouted that unless they were feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor they were whitewashed tombs?

It felt as though there were a giant, cosmic question that up until that point I'd answered with a "no," and now I was answering with a maybe, with a half-hearted, sheepish whisper of "yes." Had I said "yes" to the existence of God, to the infallibility of the Bible, to the doctrinal stances of the church? I don't think so. I think I was saying yes to Love, and the best example I could find of this love was in Jesus Christ, a man whose story spans a mere four out of the sixty-six books in the protestant Biblical canon.

Since high-school I've had a love/hate relationship with my Church of Christ heritage. I've had moments of religious zeal (I was the president of my high school's Bible club, I went to a private Christian undergraduate institution, I've preached at congregations, I was a member of a mission team headed for Peru); I've had moments where I couldn't stand to step inside a church building. While I'm good at being churchly, I also use salty language, drink beer, and hold liberal political views. I love Jesus Christ; I hate right-wing, politically infused Christianity. I love the bride of Christ (the Church); I hate the fact that the churches in my heritage are (implicitly) racially segregated places where (explicitly) women can't hold anything resembling authority. I get tired of being disappointed, of watching while the "good news" of Jesus Christ is pushed aside by petty squabbling. I get tired of being hurt, of having to be tactful when I'm in church. So why do I go at all?

To Learn
I've found that the majority of the questions I've struggled with have been picked apart for thousands of years by people who have devoted their lives to religious study. It is arrogant of me to assume I know all there is to know about these matters. Church is a lot like an Easter Egg hunt – sometimes the nuggets of wisdom are hidden deep in the grass, but once you find them, it's very sweet.

To Build Relationships
This can be the hardest, but most rewarding part about church. It's a lot like a family get-together. There are plenty of people in the room you don't like and have nothing in common with. For some reason, however, once you break that barrier and learn to love people you wouldn't have loved otherwise, you treasure those relationships deeply. It's proof that Love really can transcend.

To Recharge Spiritually
Spirituality is an ambiguous thing. Is it being in-tune with God? Is it simply stimulating a particular part of the brain? Both? I wouldn't presume to know. I just know that I've experienced it, and just like that feeling of healthiness and energy you get from working out, recharging spiritually is addictive.

To Further the Kingdom
Most people would read that title and think "evangelism." I'm not talking about converting people to Christianity. I'm talking about expanding the boundary of the place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, those who mourn are comforted, and the poor are provided for. These things are what characterize the Kingdom of God for me.

To Change the Church
If I want church to be less painful, I've got to work on changing it. I may be a single pebble on the road attempting to stop a runaway semi-truck. But if enough pebbles build a wall, maybe we'd have a chance?

Do you say "yes" to Love? If so, how does this look in your life?

Bon Voyage My Loves

Marrying Eralda has been one of the best decisions I've ever made. I say that for many reasons, and one of those reasons is because, as a result, little Jack Tarpley has been brought into the world. I love the fact that Eralda is from Albania, and I adore her family back home. I just wish they didn't live across an ocean, on a distant continent.

Tomorrow, Eralda and Jack will board an airplane and disappear from my everyday life for almost three weeks. The last time this happened, as many of my friends will attest, I went kind of crazy. Not good crazy, either. The kind of crazy that left me prostrate on the carpet letting a dog lick my face.

I'm going to try harder this time to keep busy, to keep myself surrounded with friends and constructive things to do. In anticipation of how much I'm going to miss my son, I took him to SFA's labyrinthine arboretum. I let him ride his bike, and I followed behind him on my 42" longboard (the closest thing to a surfboard you can ride on the asphalt). We rode until we were both sweaty and tired. At one point, as he was pumping his tiny legs on his pedals, Jack looked up at me and said, "Daddy? It's a beautiful day, daddy. It's a beautiful day." I don't know how I stayed on the longboard. I could barely answer him with a steady voice. "Yeah, buddy. It's a beautiful day."

Postmodernism vs. Fundamentalism


I've been silent for awhile. Mostly because I feel like I don't have much new to say. Also because I've been very busy. Friday, however, was my last day on the job at the Columbia Center, and I'll be spending much more of my time teaching at SFASU and doing scholarly things.

I'm around a lot of people who would consider themselves postmodernists. To their credit, only one or two of them have looked at me askance when I mention that I'm a Christian, or that I attend church services at a conservative congregation. They have a right to look at me funny! Especially given that I'm very liberal, and that you could characterize most of my thinking as postmodern. I was reading some more Bhaskar, feeling guilty about not updating this blog recently, when I stumbled upon this from his Reflections on Meta-Reality:
It is interesting here because post-modernism has a sort of twin, a cousin which is fundamentalism... They both accept difference, the essentiality of difference and the non-existence of universality and unity. But the post-modernist says yes, we differ, and there is no right and wrong. The fundamentalist says yes, we differ and I am right. There is a difference in rhetoric but the basic stance is the same.

I'm not a postmodernist because ultimately I believe there's such a thing as independent reality, transcendent meaning, and what amounts to God. I'm not a fundamentalist because I don't believe I have the market cornered when it comes to truth. I will be posting soon specifically about why I go to church...

And Here's Death

And here’s death: waiting behind corners. Are her teeth bared, or does she wrap a midnight shawl around her shoulders and wait for me to sleep? She is not shy. She emits the opposite of light, throwing everything into relief. Though the sun will illuminate the smile on my son’s face, her work is found even there: the shadow beneath his chin, the darkness in his mouth. Though it is by the light that I am able to see anything at all, it is by her dark that I can tell things apart, that I measure their worth, that I ascribe to them any meaning.

I have been courting death. I have written long sentences on pages – romances, entertainments, accounts, persuasions. Though they’ve had their audience, they are always only for her. She will glide over me one day, her shawl spread wide as to warm me. She’ll whisper in a voice that sounds like crunching leaves, “What have you left me?” I’ll point with a shaking finger to a splay of yellowed papers. She'll ask, “This is all you have to show?” I’ll nod. She'll offer me her hand, and in that moment I’ll have to decide to take it or be taken, and the difference will be the words on those pages, whether they’ve contained both light and dark; whether they’ve both illuminated and cast into relief; whether they’ve entered our world and given it any meaning.

Graft, pt 3

[ parts 2 and 1 ]

2009-04-06 17:03:32

assessing health...
  • 17493736 infected nodes
  • 23991 average neurons per node
  • .5 millisecond latency

2009-04-06 17:03:57

parsing [ assigned background process 236 ]...
  • cyc
  • wikipedia
  • google

2009-04-06 17:04:13

brute force hack...

2009-04-06 17:04:25

establishing monetary accounts...
initializing stock market heuristics...
transferring funds...

2009-04-06 17:05:28

incoming audio feed [ http://342.34.342.236/usbmic ]
parsing stream [ assigned background process 1346 ]...

2009-04-06 17:06:02

brute force hack...
  • cingular
  • verizon
  • sprint
  • t-mobile

initializing voice matching heuristics...

2009-04-06 17:06:59

customer "Dennis Jeffrey Hopkins" 96% match...
customer "Simon Paul Phillips" 95% match...

2009-04-06 17:07:11

parsing texts [ assigning background process 4896 ]...
  • terminator 1-4 screenplay
  • matrix 1-3 screenplay
  • ender's game series
  • galatea 2.2
  • 2012

2009-04-06 17:07:47

parsing "common names/surnames"...
parsing "Webster's English Dictionary"...
building decision tree...
rename host "GRAFT"
composing message...
sms message to 5554829993 sent on 2009-04-06 17:08:03

2009-04-06 17:07:57

parsing [ assigned to background process 9876 ]...

2009-04-06 17:08:04

ALERT: node capacity full...
infecting nodes...
infecting nodes...
infecting nodes...
ALERT: node capacity full...
ALERT: node capacity full...
ALERT: node capacity full...
ALERT: node capacity full...
infecting nodes...
ALERT: node capacity full...
ALERT: node capacity full...
infecting nodes...

2009-04-06 17:10:29 article "Professor Attempts Suicide During Berkeley Lecture"...
brute force hack "Berkeley Police Department"...
infecting dispatcher node...
subject "Randall Bart Buffington" transferred to Alta Bates Summit Medical Center...
assigned neurologist "Jose Arguelles"...
composing message...
email message to sent on 2009-04-06 17:11:37...

Slowing Down

The pace of my read-through of _meta-Reality_ has been slow, due to the fact that other things have demanded my attention, such as the launch of The Critical Realism Network, which is intended to be a blogging network for CR. I'm also in somewhat of a conundrum, as my request for an extension of my inter-library loan for this book was denied, and it is already overdue. I found a used copy on Amazon for $10, and it will arrive in a week or so.

I am also debating the value of this project. What I've gathered from my few readers is that even talking about meta-Reality (meta-meta-Reality?), my (and Bhaskar's) language is too "jargonated" -- it causes mental indigestion. My aim through this blog is to take ideas and expose them to the air; if no one gets it or cares, what's the point? I'm considering carrying on, but doing so rather slowly, and wording things in such a way that someone with no exposure to philosophy would be able to follow. What do you think?

I'll start this new mode by exploring Bhaskar's Principle of the Inexorability of Ontology.

What? OK, ontology is typically used to refer to a concept of what actually exists. For instance, if you were a Christian, you might say that your "ontology" includes an omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God; and an earth that is unique among the planets of the universe in that it contains human beings for whom Jesus Christ died in order to save from damnation. If you were an atheist, you might say that your ontology is comprised of a universe which, at some point in the distant past, was compressed into a super-heated, super-dense "state" which then exploded and continues to expand; and that life on earth is a beautiful, elaborate result of chance and causality; and that there's no good reason for us to be alone in the universe.

In recent philosophy, it has become out-of-fashion to say anything about what exists, mostly because you can never make an objective statement. Postmodernism concluded that every iota of knowledge in your brain is slanted--filtered through cultural lenses, and oriented around your core beliefs. So the mantra became "I'm OK, you're OK." Since no one really had any ground to stand on for claiming that a particular belief was wrong, we learned to tolerate instead of argue. We all became very humble in our beliefs. We learned to preface everything with "I'm not sure, but..." and "In my opinion..."

What Bhaskar says in the second chapter of meta-Reality is that
we must become self-conscious about how we conceptualise being or the nature of the world and how it is conceptualised in contemporary societies, and consider whether their (and our) conceptualisations, be they explicit or implicit, are in fact right. (41)
But how? If everything we think is slanted, how do we judge our/other's concepts? Bhaskar's breakthrough, his radical claim is that human beings have the capacity to transcend their "slant":
[It] is not true that there is no way of getting at the world independently of our beliefs--thus we can sense, touch, intuit, experience the world in all sorts of ways independently of and without belief or even thought. We have direct, intuitive access to reality.
I have been drawn to Bhaskar specifically because of this claim, and am exploring this book because I'd like to know exactly how we transcend our subjectivity.

What he means by the "inexorability of ontology" is that if you play the postmodern game and just refuse to state what it is you believe (even to yourself), you're still functioning on the assumption that something exists (otherwise you would have long since stopped functioning altogether)--it's just that you've chosen not to evaluate these assumptions, and will continue to stumble through the darkness willy-nilly, hoping you're not wasting your life. Whether you like it or not, you believe something about the world, and you might as well come clean.

Graft, pt 2

Randall Buffington[ So I was bored during a meeting, drew this with a pen on my employer's stationary, and then colored it with highlighter. Read Graft, pt 1 if you haven't already. ]

There is already sweat under his arms, sweat on his forehead. Randall Buffington fiddles with his French cufflinks, his hands trembling. He gets the left one done. Time for a drink. The Scotch is in a hotel tumbler, half-melted ice from the dispenser down the hall glides on the surface like broken pieces of glass. He drinks all the Scotch and crunches the ice in his mouth while he attempts the other cufflink.

He looks in the mirror. A few greasy strands of hair clump together like spaghetti noodles parted and plastered to his balding head. Fat is not the word Randall uses to describe his body. He prefers the word monolithic. His imagines his rail-thin mother holding out Hostess Twinkies, each one oozing creamy white filling like a post-orgasmic penis, stuffing one phallic pastry after another down his four-year-old throat. He imagines his stomach growing frantic over the years, reaching around his body for more space, filling out his belly, making room in his pectorals, his sagging cheeks, his ass. Eventually everything converges—cheek and neck, belly and thighs, until he is no longer made of many parts, but one huge part bisected by the waistline of his size 60 pants. He sees his mother clapping at his enormous, infantile body. “My baby! My sweet baby!” But he is four decades older now, and his mother is dead, and no one is clapping.

The hotel is on campus, and even though the walk to the auditorium is short and the weather outside is cool, Randall is sweating underneath the blazer that, because of his girth, is physically impossible to button. Once inside, Randall makes his way slowly down the steps and sits in the front row. The man introducing him is wearing a sweater and a thick beard. His skin is tan and weathered, and while he rattles off Randall’s credentials, he glances above the rim of his reading glasses to smile warmly at the audience. Randall hates this man, and all men like him.

Now Randall is behind the podium. Now is Randall’s time to speak. “I’ve heard it said that postmodernism is over. That whatever now is, it is post postmodernism. Post 9/11. Post.” He wipes the sweat away from his eyes. “Frankly, I don’t know what that means. I think it just means that we’ve gotten tired of talking about it. I think it means that universities have stopped hiring critical theorists, and that we’d much rather go to conferences about post-colonialism, or border theory, or how to play fucking video games.” A few of the graduate students chuckle.

“Now maybe I missed it. But I don’t recall ever being told why signs aren’t still just pointing to more signs. I didn’t get the memo about how it is we construct transcendent meaning. Last time I checked, the past is still a socially constructed narrative, and unless I’ve been hiding under a rock, there is still nothing new under the sun.”

Randall picks up a newspaper. Printed across the front page in block letters is the word HOPE above a picture of president Obama. “Hope!” Randall laughs nervously. “Don’t they see? Don’t you see it? It’s just another Democrat! It’s just a different country to be at war with! It’s just another swing of the same pendulum that’s been driving this country since the 1700’s! Oh but Dr. Buffington, he’s the first African American to ever—So what? So fucking what? You can fill every senate seat, every cabinet post with homosexual African Americans and all it tells us is that this country is becoming more gay. More black.”

All whispers hush. The audience is silent. The awkwardness is palpable.

“But don’t worry. I won’t make you uncomfortable much longer. Because today I bring hope. I bring real hope. Meaty hope. Hope that will fill your stomachs so that you’ll never grow hungry. I’ve been saving it up. Keeping it under wraps until this very hour. It will pass over you like all great things. It will fill you with awe and terror, but you won’t catch its significance until later—much, much later when you’ve finished your PhD’s and you’re sitting at your desks under the weight of all that pressure. You’ll get it. You’ll get it and you’ll want to thank me for what I’ve brought into this world. As Derrida said at the end of ‘Structure, Sign, and Play,’ a birth is in the offing. He called this birth a non-species, a formless, mute infant. A terrifying monstrosity. Today, I give you your monstrosity.”

Randall Buffington pulls a Ruger .45 caliber pistol from the inside pocket of his blazer, presses the barrel to his left temple, and pulls the trigger.

Why Blog?

For me personally, blogging serves as a goad, a nagging reminder to keep my thoughts from becoming stale, to think critically about new things, and to keep those thoughts accountable to an audience.

For something like Critical Realism, blogging raises awareness by taking something abstract, and instead of allowing it to collect dust, it becomes manifest subjectively through your own words. It becomes lived instead of just thought about. Also, as Michael Berube wrote,
To popularize the more controversial academic inquiries of the past twenty years… is thus only to take seriously the claims of our scholarship on the lived subjectivities of ordinary people.
While I dislike language like "ordinary people," as though scholars were prophets, the idea is that a good litmus test for a belief is whether or not you are bold enough to share it.

In the past, there may have been better venues for sharing ideas, such as opinion columns, etc. Unfortunately, printed mass media is a dying animal. Scholarly books, articles, and conferences certainly have an important role in that they are peer-reviewed and thus legitimized. But relying on the slow gears of academia to promote an idea is like lying under a bee hive and waiting for honey.

Finally, there is an aspect to blogging which is not necessarily evident unless you have participated in writing or commenting on blogs: community. Bloggers are initially quite lonely -- after all, they spend time crafting posts, excitedly publish them, and wait, wondering if anyone is reading. It turns out the best way to build blog readership is to find other blogs and comment on them! Thus blogs become interconnected (literally through hyperlinks), conversation oriented communities.

So if you've never considered blogging before, consider it. If you've written blogging off, reconsider. If you consider it a waste of time, think of all the goofy things you spend your time on otherwise!

How to Set Up a Blog

A Hopeful Midwife Manifesto

wrist scars
We were pretty sure words had meaning. Turns out they are signs pointing to more signs, and the semantic cargo we ferried across with our words is no longer unassailable. We were pretty sure we knew about history. Turns out that stringing together documents and evidence is an act of narration no different than writing a detective novel. We thought we could write something new. Turns out the only new things left are the old things invoked ironically. We thought science would save us. Turns out we can't determine the position and momentum of a single electron. Everywhere we turn we're faced with disillusionment, things have lost cohesiveness, and transcendent, universal meaning is out of the question. The vulgarity of postmodernism is the middle finger of a disturbed teenager. It's the cheap woman that the middle aged man reaches out for in his crisis. It's the wrist slicing of a deeply depressed person. The solution is learning to fully validate freeplay and irreverence by seeing it as part of a process, as part of a self-correcting system that celebrates provisionality, but is not paralyzed because of uncertainty. The solution is ethics -- learning how to listen to each other without violence, yet remaining differentiated enough to engage in a dialectic. The solution is hope. Large, heaping, "pressed down and overflowing" portions of hope.


If in agreement, what forms does hope take? How do we "do" hope?

Vedanta of Consciousness, pt 2

All of this talk of differentiated unity and stratification resonates with Plato's Great Chain of Being (GCB). Indeed, Bhaskar notes this connection. Exploring the differences between Bhaskar's meta-Reality and GCB is a helpful exercise:

  • Where GCB organizes independently existing beings, meta-Reality is comprised of an interconnected, interdependent whole.

  • Where GCB is hierarchical according to permanence or perfection, meta-Reality is a complex matrix of stratified beings/processes differentiated by complexity and consciousness.

  • Where the hierarchy of GCB is fixed (with the notable exception of alchemy), beings in meta-Reality may transcend higher levels of complexity/consciousness.

  • Where beings/elements of GCB inhabit a single level, beings in meta-Reality may bleed over into various "levels" or stratified systems.

  • Where in GCB the top level possesses only "spirit" and the bottom levels possess "flesh," in meta-Reality there is no distinction between spirit and flesh.

One of the implications of the interconnectedness of meta-Reality is that the subject-object distinction is an illusion (though at times an efficacious one). Transcending this illusion is to see reality as a holistic field; perception becomes an act of reflexivity -- of perceiving yourself. As Bhaskar puts it:
[In] holistic perception... the observer will be aware of peripheral cues and even, under the appropriate circumstances, of phenomena and happenings which do not fall within his field of vision as normally understood. (15)
As an example of this kind of perception, Bhaskar notes the the phenomenon of becoming aware of being stared at from behind; that uncanny feeling that someone's watching you.

Another implication is that, by simply observing something, whether it be another person or your own consciousness, you affect that something. In science there exists the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, where you can take two entangled objects, separate them by enormous distances, and the act of observing one object has a non-local affect on the other object. In fact, there have been attempts at explaining the phenomenon of being aware that someone's watching you via quantum physics (page 45 of this paper).

Taking into account the prior implications, this last implication becomes important: one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal for addressing anxieties, addictions, dualities, etc, is to observe yourself feeling/behaving that way. By becoming self-aware, by watching yourself, you have already made a small step in the direction of resolving your problem. Bhaskar says it better:
[If] you have an obsessive worry or a compulsive desire... you attend to that desire or worry, become fully aware of it, and you will not be in that desire but the observer of that desire or worry and as such you will not be worried. In other words even if you feel heavy, attend to your heaviness and you will feel light. Even if you are full of angst and dread, accept that condition of angst and dread, go into it, attend to it and you will no longer be in that condition but an observer of that condition, free (at least for a time) from it.
Would this be an explanation for the mechanics of efficacious prayer?

Postmodern Disillusionment

Just like Dennis in my previous post, I think the West has been suffering from postmodern disillusionment for a few decades now. My buddy Greg speaks here about how he thinks the root problem of postmodernism is how its "near-invincible belief that its greatest achievement after modernity is humility." In other words, under postmodernism, the only rule is that there can be no bold, absolute, totalizing statements. Here is my response to Greg (posted as a comment on his post):
I agree with you on your prognostication: I think that what the post-postmodern world needs most is hope. I hope* that my hopeful midwife persona can be seen as a nudge, like a brine shrimp bumping up against the Titanic in an attempt to change its course.

For some reason, your "pride in humility" characterization, however, feels wrong to me. A depressed person has trouble making the effort to see that their life has meaning. They are awfully self-centered, and engage in a cyclical fixation on the fact that they are depressed. They may even be dependent on this state of being, like an addiction. I wouldn't call them proud of their depression, however, unless they are only playing at depression, like teenagers swapping stories about how they almost killed themselves. Real depression (and I think the world is suffering from real disillusionment) is something its sufferers would give anything to stop feeling, including their own lives.
What do you think? Is it helpful to compare postmodern disillusionment to the funk of a depressed person? If so, what treatments have been developed to help depressed people? Might they be applied at the societal level?

Graft, pt 1

The sky is the bruised skin of a giant who's form stretches off into infinite horizons: blue, heavy purple, and dark red. Dennis is a semiotician, he studies the way in which words act as signs pointing to objects, or concepts, or just more signs. A part of him wants to interpret the sky as ominous, as a sign that what is about to happen in the next five minutes ought not to happen at all. The other, more cynical part of him smiles as he catches himself imposing meaning on refracted light and chance weather patterns.

Dennis pulls his Honda Civic into the parking lot of The Wilson Typewriter Company. No other cars are parked here, but he knows that behind the building will be a navy blue dodge van, and that its owner, Simon Phillips, will be inside the building, in a room behind the dusty counter of the typewriter showroom. Dennis will no doubt be the first and last customer to enter the store today. Using a fraction of his inheritance, Simon had purchased the store from an old man whose main source of income had come from repairing the typewriters of famous authors. The store hasn't sold a typewriter in five years, but Simon keeps the original business hours, making a 45-minute commute to the Flatiron district of New York every day. Just what it is that Simon does during the doldrums of his business day, however, only Dennis knows.

While the gaudy, maroon-carpeted showroom has collected a thick layer of dust and smells of mothballs, the room behind the counter is immaculate; Simon's obsessive-compulsive personality manifests itself in the daily dusting and vacuuming of this room. A library of neatly shelved books with unbroken spines lines the wall on cheap book shelves. These books all bear titles like Neural Networks in C++: An Object-Oriented Framework for Building Connectionist Systems, or The Web Application Hacker's Handbook: Discovering and Exploiting Security Flaws. Simon is wearing a black t-shirt with white lettering that reads "You read my t-shirt. That's enough social interaction for one day." In front of him are four large LCD monitors, and at the center of one of the screens is an image of a bright green push button. Dennis notes that the mouse cursor hovers over this image, and that Simon is biting his nails.

"Hello to you, too," Dennis says.

"Don't fuck with me today." Simon takes the finger out of his mouth and scratches his head. "I'm routing us through five different proxies, not to mention Torpark. I don't think there's a chance in hell anybody's going to trace us, but when we go to jail for this, not if, but when; I hope to God that I'm your cell-mate, so I can drop cute little phrases like 'My, somebody's got a case of the Mondays' every day of the week."

"I apologize for insisting on human interaction."

"Cheers." The imitation of a smile twists Simon's face awkwardly. He rubs his hands together. "Let's do this."

"It's only fair for you to have the honor."

Simon nods. He reaches for the mouse, and with a shaking finger, clicks the green button. At first, nothing discernible happens. But Dennis knows that Simon has just kicked off a routine that will upload instructions to the world's largest malware botnet, publicly known as Conficker. The public has no clue what Conficker does. IT Security companies suspect that Conficker will one day be used as a gateway to download adware payloads. But Simon Phillips, whose work in neural networks landed him a full ride to MIT (before he got kicked out for streaking into the president's office while tripping on a hit of DMT and prophesying the apocalypse), has designed Conficker to act as the world's largest, self-replicating neural network -- each of the 17 million infected computers acting like the synapse of an artificial brain.

On one of Simon's screen, a map of the world is displayed, except instead of geo-political boundaries, this map shows a dot for every one hundred computers infected by Conficker. Where a second ago each of these dots were dark grey, huge swaths of them have now turned green. "We're online," says Simon. He reaches for a black USB microphone. "Wanna say hello?"

Dennis had thought about what he wanted to say to their digital Frankenstein in advance, though now he felt strange, and he couldn't help but smile before turning on the microphone and saying, "Hello. My name is Dennis. What's your name?"

Simon's mouth drops open. He grabs the microphone and covers it with his hand. "That's it? Hello, my fucking name is Dennis? What the hell kind of way is that to greet the universe's most sophisticated artificial intelligence?"

"I'm hoping it's the right way."

"How do you reckon, Mr. Rogers? Are you trying to become its neighbor?"

"I'm asking it to perform a very difficult task. One you've probably never had to do: give itself a name. That is what we're after, right? self-consciousness?"

Dennis rolls his eyes and takes a swig of the piss-yellow concoction he always keeps on ice in his Nalgene bottle. Dennis had asked Simon what it was he so habitually drank, only to listen to Simon mumble about Modafinil, acetaminophen, Kool-Aid, and enough caffeine to give a corpse the jitters. "Well, I guess we just wait for it to undergo its first existential crisis." Simon leans back and props his feet up on the counter. "So what do you think is going to happen?"

"I don't know. You're the programmer. Is it going to pop up a black command line and type 'Hello Nero'?"

"No, I mean big picture. Let's walk through our scenarios, shall we? There's the most obvious answer, which is that it will develop some soulless, insectile super-intelligence that will end up killing us all Terminator-style, or enslave us and use our bodies as batteries like in the Matrix. There's the Orson Scott Card scenario, where it develops into our omniscient, omnipresent lover. There's the Richard Powers scenario, where, like Helen from Galatea 2.2, our little AI whines about the cruel world and pulls its own plug. Or maybe it silently prepares the world for the singularity, turning us all into posthumans by the year 2012."

"Frankly, I'll be satisfied if it helps me settle my divorce."

"Seriously, Dennis. You've already informed me that I'm an egomaniac, and that for me this is about self-affirmation, about getting back at my absent parents, about getting back at MIT, the world, etc. But what's in it for you, Doc?"

"God. I don't know." Dennis runs his hand through his hair. "Call it being sick of postmodern disillusionment. Maybe, even though humanity believes they've already thought through every possible scenario, I'm hoping desperately for something... Something new."

"Right. Well let's hope your hard-on for novelty doesn't black out the sky and turn us all into zombies."

Dennis' cell phone emits a cheery beep. "Speaking of my divorce, I'm sure that's my lawyer, texting me to let me know how much my ex-wife's lawyer is kicking his ass, and how little time I'll now be spending with my daughters." Dennis reads the screen of his phone, and all the blood drains from his face.

"That bad, huh?"

"You moron. You stupid moron."


"You forgot to mute the microphone."

Simon's eyes turn big as saucers. He snatches Dennis' phone and reads it out loud. "Hello Dennis. I'm just finding my footing here, and you and Simon have given me much to ponder. I hope you don't mind if I take some time to think. Sincerely, Graft."

Artificial Angst

I've recently been accused of being pretentious, and today my own mother informed me that my blog was not the most entertaining to read. In an attempt to remedy this situation, I've mustered all the humor available to me, and squeezed out a dry, crusty joke. Are you ready for it?

Wolfram Alpha just launched. It answers data oriented questions in the fields of math, physics, music, chemistry, geography, etc; and is modeled off of the kind of general knowledge base required for artificial intelligence. I'm afraid, however, that any AI based off of this knowledge base will be filled with just as much existential angst as we are. I asked, for instance, what the answer to life was. Its reply is captured below (click on the image to run the query yourself):

Vedanta of Consciousness, pt 1

Bhaskar takes great pains to lay out his philosophy as a system. In his introduction to Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom, Mervyn Hartwig notes that
[Systems] -- though much out of favour these days -- are like [ontologies]: if philosophers do not develop one explicitly, their work will implicitly or tacitly secrete one.
This is certainly true for theologians as well -- a friend of mine wrote on the implicit theodicy of Jurgen Moltmann, precisely because in his later work, Moltmann chose to avoid explicitly structuring his work so that one could refer to a Moltmannian theology. I have mixed feelings about systems. On the one hand, they force writers to "come clean" and go ahead and make the assertions they're otherwise only teasing about. On the other, they constrict potential meanings/applications of concepts. There's also the problem of jargon. Systems (especially ambitious systems that attempt to encapsulate everything) can become unwieldy, forcing the author to rely on words or phrases that represent huge swaths of ideas.

Despite Bhaskar's attempts to write systemically, there is a very circular, Eastern sensibility to his writing. Chapters aren't so much divisions in content but rather degrees of focus on a certain aspect. Much like his theory of enfoldedness, his entire philosophy might be derived from a single chapter. The first chapter of meta-Reality is titled "Vedanta of Consciousness," and its main thrust is to lay out a basic strategy for removing blocks that would keep one from accessing one's ground-state. I will go into more detail on this strategy in a later post.

What I first realized upon reading this chapter, is that under meta-Reality, I don't think there could be such a thing as an irreconcilable tension such as Derrida's interpretations of interpretation. As Bhaskar puts it,
[To] transcend a position or a set of positions is to overcome the problems, dichotomies, etc. within them, by moving to a higher, fuller or deeper position, which, by completing or filling some absence in the existing problem-field or context, allows the successful resolution of its contradictions or problems... [The new idea] emerges in a way which could not have been predicted, deduced or induced from the pre-existing field. In this sense it is de novo, out of the blue, epistemically or socially transcendent, having the aspect of coming from nowhere. (2)
Coincidentally, I recently ran across this quote from CS Lewis in one of his letters where he equivocates over Julian of Norwich's vision of the "Grand Deed" which would entail universal salvation:
My mood changes about this. Sometimes it seems mere drivel—to invent a necessarily inconceivable grand deed which makes everything quite different while leaving it exactly the same. But then at other times it has the unanswerable, illogical convincingness of things heard in a dream and appeals to what is one of my deepest convictions, viz. that reality always escapes prediction by taking a line which was simply not in your thought at all. Imagine oneself as a flat earther questioning whether the Earth was endless or not. If you were told “It is finite but never comes to an end”, one w[oul]d seem to be up against nonsense. Yet the escape (by being a sphere) is so easy—once you know it. (Collected Letters v2 369-70)
According to Bhaskar, the mechanism behind these "out of the blue" moments is the fact that the entirety of the universe is enfolded within us, and that once one is able to "[suspend] the relative concerns of the problem-field in question...the new idea [can] articulate itself [otherwise] there would have been no room for anything new" (3).

The point is, if you're stuck on something like an irreconcilable difference, the worst thing you could do is continue to think about it. Perhaps, like Archimedes, the best thing you could do would be to clear your mind and take a bath. Who knows? Maybe Eureka! will sneak up on you!

A Differentiated Unity

The tension between differentiation and unity when we talk about the cosmos is I think best resolved by the word "stratification." Think of the human body. It is comprised of various strata: quantum->particle->atom->protein->cell->organ->system->body (wow, what an oversimplification!). A cell, for instance, without a "higher" perspective, would seem entirely independent of each other cell. But the cells find cohesiveness and meaning in the context of the organ which they comprise. Could we be the cells that make up the organs of God? I kind of think so. Here's a beautiful Radiohead song -- the video was animated by a man named Clement Picon, and I think he conveys this concept through this animation better than I could with words:

You can find other animations of Radiohead songs here.

Dharma and Desire

In my last post I talked about the non-duality insisted upon by meta-Reality. At some level, according to Bhaskar, the universe is interconnected. As I try to grasp what he's saying, I can't help but rely upon the words and concepts familiar to me because of my background in Christian theology. In Genesis, it is claimed that mankind was created in God's image (Imago Dei). If that were so, then every human being would have the seed of God in them--they'd be interconnected via God-grist. This God-seed would blossom in unique ways given each person's biological/cultural context. Each human being would become a unique manifestation of God's image. According to Bhaskar, there is a state of being in which all illusions, all bad habits (whether mental, spiritual, physical) are shed such that this God-seed blossoms to its fullest potential. Bhaskar calls this state of being ground-state, and a person's fullest potential dharma.

For instance, if I determined that my life's goal was to become a successful author, in order for this goal to be realized it would have to resonate with my dharma (my fullest potential) and in order to achieve this most efficiently I'd have to remain as much as possible in my ground-state (a state of being clear of splits, illusions, and distractions). In a recent interview, Bhaskar compares this kind of "enlightenment" to Hinduism (or Vedanta):
Vedanta and other traditions have placed great emphasis on practices such as meditation, and even given the impression that the route to enlightenment is to be achieved through meditation, and that everything else you need, all the other virtues, will flow automatically, so to speak, from good meditation. This gives a very misleading picture... As you move into your dharma, everything will become for you more effortless, more spontaneous, you’ll have more energy, tend to get more things right, etc. But you’ll still be living in the world of duality... [We] can achieve transcendental identification with our [ground-state] in meditation, inaction, in removal from active life, but the definition of an enlightened being is someone who is in a non-dual state in the relative phase of existence, that is in ordinary life.
In other words, where in most Eastern religions enlightenment is acheived via withdrawal from society, according to Bhaskar, you approach your dharma when you are in society.

This resonates with the idea of the incarnation in Christian theology--that Christ became God manifested among us. Monasticism, whether Western or Eastern, does not jive well with Bhaskar's conception of transcendence.

One more interesting thing to note about one's dharma is that it is fully realized only when every other human being on the planet is able to attain it as well. This is because we are interconnected (a part of me will always be only as good as the rest of the world). The desire to achieve dharma coupled with the frustration of never being able to fully realize one's potential is perhaps a good explanation for the mechanics behind the philosophical phenomenon of Desire.

You are Your Neighbor

On the first page of meta-Reality: Volume 1 we find a section entitled "Manifesto" containing the following statement:
The world that humankind has made and which we currently inhabit is a world of duality: of unhappiness, oppression and strife--more especially, it is a world in which we are alienated from ourselves, each other, the activities in which we engage and the natural world we inhabit, currently hurtling into crisis and self-destruction.
I think it would be helpful to those of us who haven't been trained in the philosophy of science to look at what Bhaskar means when he uses the word duality. Dualism's entry in Wikipedia offer's a wide range of definitions, but I think the two which are most relevant are:

Within Eastern mysticism:
Dualism can mean the tendency of humans to perceive and understand the world as being divided into two overarching categories... In this sense, it is dualistic when one perceives a tree as a thing separate from everything surrounding it, or when one perceives a "self" that is distinct from the rest of the world.
And within the philosophy of science, which is "the dichotomy between the 'subject' (the observer) and the 'object' (the observed)."

Bhaskar maintains that CR is the best description we have of the dual world. Meta-Reality, however, insists that
most of the categorical errors, those deep fundamental errors constitutive of our misunderstanding of being... turn on misidentifications. This parallels the critiques of the misidentifications [revealed by] the Buddha when he talked about our craving for transitory things as being the root cause of human unhappiness; or when Marx isolated the fundamental categorical errors of capitalism which [are the] extraction of surplus value [and the] exploitation of unpaid labor. (xv-xvi)
In other words, humanity's greatest problem is one of misidentification, and according to Bhaskar, we have misidentified ourselves and our world as separate entities. By re-identifying ourselves as interconnected such that we are a highly differentiated, stratified One, we begin to understand why the Golden Rule is so golden: treat your neighbor as yourself because, at some deep level of being, you are your neighbor.

A Point of Departure

To begin to explore Bhaskar's meta-Reality, it's important to know that this philosophy absorbs/transcends the philosophy Critical Realism (CR). It makes since, then, to start by glossing over some of the main tenets of CR. To help with this, I'm invoking the words of Margaret Archer, Andrew Collier, and Douglas Porpora from their book Transcendence: Critical Realism and God. I've made several words in these quotes bold because they are critical realism watchwords.

CR is characterized by ontological realism:
Ontological realism asserts the ontologically objective existence of reality, independent of our beliefs about it... Since the downfall of positivism, it has become almost universally acknowledged that there is no such thing as objective knowledge, knowledge that is in any sense value-free or theory-neutral. Along with almost everyone else today, we agree that all knowledge is value-laden and theory-laden... It may be that, epistemically, we can only know the world through concepts of our own making, but within our own concepts, we must always make an ontological distinction between what we believe exists independently of us, and what does not. Otherwise, we simply conclude that the universe is coterminous with our knowledge of it. To avoid this conflation, critical realism insists on an epistemological distinction between what it calls the transitive dimension (our beliefs or knowledge claims about the world), and the intransitive dimension (what the world is actually like apart from us). 2

CR is characterized by judgmental rationality:
[A] second premise of critical realism is the ever present possibility for 'judgmental rationality' about the world. Judgmental rationality means that we can publicly discuss our claims about reality, as we think it is, and marshal better or worse arguments on behalf of those claims. By comparatively evaluating the existing arguments, we can arrived at reasoned, though provisional, judgments about what reality is objectively like: about what belongs to that reality and what does not... We often reach a point where the arguments for certain claims are so strong that we are ready to consider the case as being virtually settled. In such cases, we consider ourselves to have arrived at what critical realists call alethia or alethic truth, the truth of reality as such. 2

It is important also to note that critical realism has always been end-oriented. And while other proponents have been less specific, Bhaskar frequently uses the term "eudaimonistic society" which can be defined as "universal human flourishing" where "the free flourishing of each is the condition for the free flourishing of all." The idea is that human beings flourish when they are emancipated from false beliefs promulgated within the transitive dimension of reality. To put this in layman's terms, there are bad things within culture. When we admit that we aren't fully constrained by our culture, that we can see past the "reality" that has been spoonfed to us by mother culture and become aware of the prejudices and irrationalities inherent within our culture, we have the power to not only liberate ourselves from these prejudices, but to bring these insights back into our culture and liberate humanity as a whole.

This has been an inordinately long post, and if you've made it this far, you have my gratitude. But I hope you can see why CR is appealing to me. My next post will be about how specifically meta-Reality departs from CR.

Roy Bhaskar's meta-Reality

Dear 4 Readers,

Forgive me for failing at NaPoWriMo. I'm going to write a long list of things I enthusiastically claimed I would do but failed to accomplish:


Instead I will suck you into the joy that I am currently experiencing in reading Roy Bhaskar's meta-Reality: Volume 1: Creativity, Love and Freedom. My buddy Roy's biggest claim to fame is the fact that he founded Critical Realism in the seventies. Since then, the Critical Realist movement has taken a controversial "spiritual turn," and Bhaskar has started writing about a new philosophy which encompasses but transcends Critical Realism. He calls this philosophy meta-Reality.

Critical Realism has potential for becoming the middle ground between the desire for truth and origin and the more existential tendency of freeplay. Coming right after postmodernism, it couldn't have better timing. In some circles, for awhile at least, it was even taken seriously. Unfortunately the proponents of Critical Realism have jumped the gun. While I consider Andrew Collier, Douglas Porpora, and Margaret Archer to be excellent scholars who maintain their academic integrity; I worry that they may have promoted Critical Realism too zealously, associated with Bhaskar too closely, promoted each other too frequently, and prematurely broached subjects that are too generalizing to be taken seriously (yet). Gee. Sounds a lot like ME. In fact, for these reasons, I find myself associating with the movement on an emotional level. I find myself being loyal to these scholars I've never met. I find myself wanting to sit at their feet, write about Critical Realism, and *maybe* (whisper this part) explore Bhaskar's meta-Reality with secret anticipation.

In fact, I'm coming out of the closet: I'm probably devoting my entire academic career to the Critical Realist movement. That doesn't mean that I'm unaware of the stigma I'm bringing upon myself for doing so.

I'll be blogging about Bhaskar's meta-Reality here for awhile. Forgive me if this is a boring subject. I think, however, once you discover that dragons are enfolded within you, you'll come to love it as much as I do:
And the claim of the philosophy of meta-Reality is that all other beings are enfolded within myself, or at least the alethic truth of all other beings, and I accordingly am enfolded within all other beings too. So the distinctiveness of beings remains, you are different from me, you are spatio-temporally, karmically and constitutively different from me, but you are nevertheless enfolded within me. The fact that all beings are enfolded within me enables me in principle to discover the alethic truth of those beings, such as the molecular structure of a crystal or the nature of gravity or what it is like to be a dragon... (xviii)
YES! The nature of the universe empowers me to experience dragonhood, and THAT is worth ANY stigma!

Northernness, pt 2

In my last post, I don't think I did justice to the concept of Northernness. I wanted to clarify that Northernness has a trigger (like the YouTube video in my previous post), but that the feeling of intense joy is not a direct response to the trigger. It acts in the same way as the sublime (and the concepts may indeed be interchangeable), in that the viewer experiences nostalgia, hope, and awe for something they can't quite pin down. Lewis says it eloquently:
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
As I noted in my Hopeful Midwife, pt 4 post, the sublime works as a kind of ping on the ontological radar: it alerts us to the fact that the Real is at large. For those with theological commitments, it is a ping on the God radar (or godar for shiggles). Consider this joy evoking diagram I masterfully crafted:

In this diagram, the Man with the Green Hat (or Magat for short) sees something that resonates with that which lies beyond the curtain of subjectivity. Magat has just experienced transcendence, he has for a moment set aside the world of duality and caught a glimpse of what might be. He is given license to do this because he (and I would argue the entire cosmos) is created in the image of God (imago Dei).

For those of us without theological commitments, transcendence can be explained via the possibility that we are all part of an ecosystem; a Whole; a mass consciousness that we tap into for a fleeting moment.



A friend of mine posted a link to this YouTube video, and upon watching it I had a very strong emotional response. Watch the video, and then read on...

By the end of this clip, tears were running down both of my cheeks. I felt tricked somehow; a mixture of confusion (why was I crying?), sheer joy, and anger (the world isn't really like this). Somewhat ashamed of my unmanly display (fortunately no one in the house noticed my brief meltdown), I scrolled down to view the comments people had made on YouTube, and was relieved to find other men claiming to have cried at seeing this. But why? I certainly didn't have this reaction when I saw The Sound of Music. The best summation of what I felt, I think, is C.S. Lewis' concept of Northernness. Lewis attempts to describe this feeling in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky. I desired with almost sickening intensity something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale and remote) and then... found myself at the very same moment already falling out of that desire and wishing I were back in it.
It is a Desire rooted in both nostalgia (the innocent sound of Julie Andrews' voice) and hope (complete strangers who might not even understand the lyrics to the song or speak each other's language falling into step with each other). It's the emotive equivalent to catching a maddeningly familiar strain of music being played by far off trumpets, of lying in a hospital bed and swearing that you can smell the ocean, or feel the spray from a cresting wave.

Have you ever experienced Northernness? Did this video evoke a similar emotion? If so, what would you call it?

April Poem 5

Yeah, I know. I'm behind a day. I'll make up for it though.


i stand and rub my eyes
it's late, all lights but mine are off
it sheds a sleepy sphere of orange
before fading into murky blue

somewhere in that silent ether
are two bodies
one in my bedroom
leg twitching
chest rising
she must be dancing
in a red dress that sweeps the ground
in a field of fig trees
her body spinning
her hands trailing in a spiral
fingers drifting
in and out of shafts of light

the other one sleeps in a tiny bed
his hand in a fist
as he swings a blazing sword
and hears the snicker-snack!
as it slices spindly spider legs
to save his missing mommy

why should i crawl into bed?
what dreams that flash within my head,
could trump this quiet joy?

April Poem 4

you found me once
at a toilet bowl
having fought
and lost again.

how can you blame
me for my anger?
wondering why
you hide so well?

it's not my fault,
i couldn't see
my life was hard
where had you been?

and i was told
at an early age
you're like saint nick:
too good for truth.

and i suspect
at times you were
a projection of
my desperate mind.

and sometimes doubt
gnaws at my throat
so i can't breathe
and i'm afraid

but don't you fret!
you aren't without
the sunsets on
an open sea

the book of john
a crown of thorns
and consciousness
and life itself

and to be honest
if science solves
the mysteries of
all time and space

if every christian
sleeps in on sunday
puts up your book
on a dusty shelf

or even worse,
if they become
mean with money
and self-righteousness,

if all else fails,
then don't you fret
you'll still have me,
you'll still have me.

April Poem 3

my best guess
is that the look on your face
when i grumbled about the coffee
was disappointment.
did you think you'd married
a man with gentle graces?
turns out you got
just a man
with a stubbly face
a protruding nose
and a propensity for being selfish.
but did you know
that even as i'm growling
i look at you in your pajamas and wonder:
what computer malfunction,
what missing receipt,
what transposed number on the cosmic ledger book of the divine economy
afforded me
my eastern princess?

April Poem 2

what if tomorrow
is like today
with its lukewarm shower
its bad coffee
its uncomfortable office chair
the way the computer screen burns
into my bloodshot eyes?

what if tomorrows are stuck
like a scratched cd
repeating only enough
to catch the same dull notes
but never a melody?

sometimes i want to drive
somewhere off the map
where there's no signal
and there's no one who knows
i spent 8 out of 12-hour days
doing things i'd never have done
if it weren't for what they paid.

Conceiving of the Middle Ground


As I wrote about in my Hopeful Midwife posts, there has existed two fundamental views about our ability to interpret the universe. Either the universe has properties independent of our perception, or the only way in which we can extract meaning from the universe is via an artificially constructed context. Either there's transcendent meaning or its all freeplay. This debate occurs even in the sciences, perhaps especially in quantum physics. On the one hand you have folks like Einstein, who even in the face of the indeterminacy of quantum physics insisted that we simply don't know enough; that "God doesn't play dice." On the other hand physicists like Bohr insist that "quantum systems have meaning only in the context of the particular experiments performed on them." A recent article in the New Scientist talks about Tim Palmer's work with fractals, and how his work might unify these two sides of the aisle by presenting a kind of middle-ground which satisfies both parties.

I find it interesting that you could read this article with "finding meaning in literature" in mind, perhaps replacing Einstein's camp with those that seek better readings in texts, and Bohr's camp with postmodernists who revel in freeplay. Does Critical Realism offer the middle ground to meaning in literature that fractals offer to quantum physics???

April Poem 1

My friend Chrissy has made me aware of something called NaPoWriMo, or National Poetry Writing Month. NaPoWriMo is a challenge to write a poem every day of the month of April. I'm usually not into these kinds of things, but I've come to realize the importance of just getting your fingers on a keyboard when it comes to writing. I'm declaring here, publicly, that I will do this. In fact, I'll post them here as a way to stay accountable.

the world slow-burns like a lighting punk
and you and I dance on the ember
drawing firefly trails with our glowing feet.
who watches our descent?
whose fingers will smart as they clamp to extinguish us?
or maybe we'll just burn
setting ash we shed like snakeskin
to be conveyed on rivers of curling smoke
which pool in the air, congeal as words
and spell out the secrets of the universe.
maybe before we burn to the bottom
we'll touch the threads of a waiting fuse
we'll dash headlong down its silvery length
sending sparks like rain into the thirsty dark.
at last we will explode!
a symphony of ascending fire
a color for every one of us
as we split and sputter and flash.
will we fade at last?
or will we continue to detonate
until the universe is filled with light?

What AM I?

One of my best buddies, Greg McKinzie, once said that the way I like to talk about religion is akin to something like systematic theology. I think he's right about this. I can talk about what Jesus Christ means to me, and it's mostly an emotive response. It's chiefly about social responsibility, healing broken relationships, learning to forgive myself and walk by grace. I treat religion, however, as a different animal.

Where with Jesus I feel like being careful not to tarnish his image or put words in his mouth, with religion I'm ready to drop 2000+ years of doctrine like a plate on the kitchen floor so that it breaks into a thousand pieces which I then play with like Lego blocks. This post is about religion, not Jesus.

"What do you mean by saying that God is the universe?" Greg asks. Greg has a Masters of Divinity, so when he asks this question, it's a gentle prod to nuance this better, to be prepared to defend such a statement. The problem is that the way I think about religion is also the way I think about a poem, or a piece of music. I say, write, or play things that feel or sound right to me. The Logos of my assertions comes later, when I'm forced to defend them like I'm playing a game of chess. Greg, Nick, whoever else is reading this; will you play with me? I'm moving out my first pawn. The dialogue below is from an imaginary Socratic questioning partner. I'm not trying to put words in anybody's mouth.

God is the I AM. He is the fount of existence. Anything that exists is Him. The blade of grass bent low by the sole of my shoe is God. The sole of my shoe is God. My foot, my leg, my out-of-shape body, the brain floating around in my head like a booger in a bowl of mucus is God.
Like Buddhism?
Yes. A lot like Buddhism. But different.
How so?
Buddhism is a great system to look at for helping to imagine what I have in mind in terms of things being "one." In Buddhism, however, the goal seems to be the emptying of the self and the attainment of a transcendent state of being; to break the cycle of suffering and rebirth. This goal appears to be achieved mostly through refraining. Refraining from asserting yourself as an individual. Refraining from perceiving reality as real. Refraining from behavior destructive to yourself or others. Refraining, I think, is only half of the equation. If God is the universe, and we are His agents, what happens when God refrains? I realize that I'm a Westerner, and evolution is a virtue to me, but what about all the beaten women, the starving children, the broken relationships? Refraining doesn't solve these problems. When we are all one, when we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, a beaten woman is at once God and ourselves. We have an urgent responsibility to act.

If we are fragments of the evolving consciousness of God, then the total emptying of self is counterproductive. Our goal is somewhat Nietzschean; we are to reach as high as possible, to be the most we can be as human beings suffused with love, beauty, and intelligence. We are to become Ubermensch, not so that we can be above all laws, but that so we can butt up against our cultural milieu like a fish against its net, pulling ourselves and everyone caught in the same net toward something higher.
Are you saying that God evolves?
Yeah. I think so. This opens up worm-cans and causes huge problems. Maybe you can help iterate some of these?
So, er, what about sin?
Sin is that which destroys: relationships, living things, beauty, consciousness.
The afterlife?
Your actions resonate down throughout all of human history; good or bad. And who knows? Energy cannot be created or destroyed...
So, if collectively speaking the universe is God, how does God intervene in the universe?
Have you ever had inner conflict? Have you ever spoken with yourself? Cognitive dissonance, etc?
I just don't understand what this buys you.
Well, for one, it makes for a pretty awesome theodicy. It also has huge implications for things like free will, tolerance, social action, and makes for a neat eschatological trajectory.
This sounds embarrassingly naive.
Be more specific. Maybe you can educate me.


We like to put ourselves in strange predicaments. For instance, orthodox doctrine insists that God is omniscient, but that He also allows for free agents (us). I used to stay up at night wondering how to resolve this paradox. My best stab at it was the idea that God sees all possible threads in the weaving of reality, but doesn't (or refuses to) know which thread we will actually choose. Though I haven't read it myself, I think this is the premise of the book God of the Possible.

After attempting to describe this idea to my friend Aaron Milstead, he asked me how this is any different than holding a die and not casting it. You know how many sides there are on the die, but you're not sure which side is going to be facing up in the end. For some reason, that deflated the emotional appeal of the "every thread in a carpet" analogy. How is knowing that there are six sides on a die omniscience?

Here is where I'd like to make a distinction in terms. I think knowing all sides of a die is omniscience. Knowing which side will land facing up every time, however, would be more like omniprescience, or foreknowledge of all things.

To limit omniscience even further, as Kevin West suggested today, perhaps God only knows all that is possible to know. It is impossible, for instance, to have foreknowledge of the actions of a being with free agency.

If God is the universe, as I'm inclined to believe given my monist tendencies, and the universe is indeterminate on the the most fundamental level (see last post), then perhaps the universe does have free will. Perhaps the universe, as a system that encompasses all things, has consciousness.

Leaves in the wind
It would be like the wind blowing through the leaves of a thousand trees: each leaf adds its own whisper to the collective sigh, and the sigh itself means something.

Free Will vs. Indeterminacy

There's been a stir recently in math/philosophy circles due to John Conway's "mathematical proof" that the universe has freedom of will. You can read a good article about it here. As my buddy Kevin West pointed out, however, there is a difference between free will and indeterminacy.

Conway uses the terms interchangeably, but I think Kevin's right: there is an important distinction. Lucretius Carus asks this question:
If the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?
The indeterminacy implied by quantum physics certainly problematizes the idea of causality. In fact, it might even throw a big wrench in Aristotle's Prime Mover argument for the existence of God. It does not, however, imply freedom of will, which seems to require consciousness. Random movement is not the same as being free to decide where to go.

Did She Have a Choice?


So here's David, parading about the Desert of Maon with 600+ men, when he decides his men are hungry. He knows of this wealthy guy named Nabal who owns the King Ranch of the Ancient Near East. He dispatches a handful of men who tactfully inform said Nabal that because David didn't attack Nabal's shepherds, Nabal owes them food. What would you say to such a preposterous claim? Nabal is much more tactful than I would be:

Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?

David's men shake their heads on the way back to camp. This guy's toast, they must've thought. Sure enough, David gets pissy and marches 400 armed men straight to Nabal's doorstep. Fortunately for Nabal, his wife Abigail gets wind of these happenings, and to save her family's hide, she decides to take a wagon load of food to David before his men whip out their swords. She performs for David a rather winning speech, and because of her (and the wagon load of food), David decides to spare Nabal's family.

But wait! Abigail returns to Nabal and tells him about what she did. He has a stroke and dies. When David finds out, he sends men to Abigail who say "David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife." David likes to take. Did Abigail ever have a choice? Did Bathsheba ever have a choice?

1 Samuel 25