Thursday, September 25, 2008

No Man's Land

We've tossed around word like "neutrality" and "arbitrariness" and "objectivity" on this blog a fair amount. I've been arguing that the value of "the Grid," the "neutral" framework on which we compile common knowledge of the world, is that it provides a pidgin, a non-native language of commerce. It provides common ground, so to speak.

The phrase "no man's land" popped into my head this morning, and I find it resonating.

What the phrase evokes most of all to me is the dreadful no-man's-lands of World War I, the muddy, bloody plains of death. No man's land is not a place to live in, it's a place to separate peoples who cannot live together. Instead of creating a shared space, it creates an unclaimed space. To be blunt, there is no love there.

I was trying to conjure up an alternative to the scientific, objectivist way of finding common ground, asking "what other common grounds are there?" The obvious one is personal contact. The way you make the stranger into a non-stranger is to spend time with him/her. Host and guest. Or neighbor and neighbor. Not that I really know my neighbors all that well, but communion can be achieved through common work, even among strangers.

The opposite of no man's land then is "the commons" where we all graze our livestock— "we" in this case meaning the shareholders of the commons. Not everyone everywhere, but everyone in the village, everyone working on the same project.

How does a no man's land become a commons? I think of this literally happening in the story of Christmas 1914 in the trenches of World War I, where the guns stopped and soldiers from opposite trenches met, traded songs and cigarettes and played soccer. The story brings tears to my eyes still, like the hopeful/exhausted refrain of the Decemberists' "Sons and Daughters": "here all the bombs fade away..." [actually the lyrics sheet says "Hear all the bombs, they fade away," but I hear otherwise] but that's another blog entry.

But to think of it, Christmas 1914 depended on the majority of soldiers sharing a common religion. They both celebrated Christmas, neither side wanted to be shooting when they would rather have been home with family. I'm guessing things would have been different if the Gallipoli campaign had happened in 1914. But no, a truce to allow clearing of bodies did happen. So sometimes you can appeal to commonality as a species.

No-man's-land implies the opposite of itself—territory. I need to do some studying about the evolution of modern ideas of property and territory, because they clearly aren't universal. Nomadic tribal societies, while they wanted to keep their own hunting grounds for themselves, did not allocate land to individual "owners." And many settled societies have had owners as equivalent to rulers (see lords and serfs). As small freeholdings became more common in Europe, how did the idea of territory change, and when did "commons" arise as an alternative to private property (or is that how it worked at all)? Like I said, I need to learn more. (I note with interest a reference in the wikipedia discussion page on the article Property to "Richard Schlatter's by now classic Private Property: The History of an Idea. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1951, or for a more current perspective Laura Brace's The Politics of Property. Edinburgh University Press, 2004")

So how do you get from no man's land to commons? And (to get back to the general theme of things here), where does the cool light of "objectivity" fit in? The question, I think is to what end neutrality is invoked. By itself, "neutral territory" can mean the no-man's land of World War I; or its cold modern alternative, the DMZ; or Switzerland, or the town common. Is the difference a matter of scale and dispute, or is there something else going on in the range of possibilities?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Selective memory

I've been involved in a debate on wikipedia recently (Avoid Academic Boosterism), and it raised to me a longer-standing question about the nature of reference materials (including maps). As I said on the wiki,

I've been trying to figure out what's really going on here, and not just here but in general in the whole "selectivity" business in college guides and so on. Here's what I think: It is not seemly and polite to talk about a college's "mythos," but that's what's going on. One of the important things about Harvard is that "Harvard Aura" and the same is true of other "selective" institutions. You go there, you know you're hanging out with future Nobel Prize winners, or at least with people who can plausibly sound like future Nobel Prize winners. And this is known in the public at large.

So my question is, how can we talk about this in wikipedia? Some colleges have "Wobegon University in popular culture" sections,but these are mostly lists of mentions on TV. Seems to me this is the place to mention "aura", and in some cases there's specific examples to bring up: Robert Pirsig and the University of Chicago, Paper Chase and Yale. For smaller schools, not so much. I went to Carleton College, which has the reputation as the highest-caliber college in Minnesota. But there's no movie or popular book that backs this up, and no news outlet wants to tick off alumni of other places unnecessarily by saying things like "Minnesota's top college". Maybe reference here to less-rigorous college guides (like College Prowler or The Insider's Guide to the Colleges) is in order, under the rubric of "How Carleton College is talked about," separate from verifiable stats.

The point is, if we can find some way to talk about reputation that isn't the article defining that reputation, I think that will get at a lot of the underlying issues here.

Which gets us right back to "what kinds of things can you put in encyclopedias" or maps or other reference works? By classifying things and then only accepting those classes of information that can be part of a communication pidgin (verifiable, supportable, can-be-agreed upon), we leave out a whole lot. But by including those things, we lose the cross-community communication that reference material allows.

It's a dilemma. Well, its the same damned dilemma I keep talking about here, from another angle.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Soon I Will Be Invincible... and all alone

I finished Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, last night. It's the first time in quite a while I've been hooked by a book jacket, but it turned out to be a fun read. It's essentially Wicked, but with the world of comic-book superheroes instead of the world of the Wizard of Oz.

Grossman's take on the whole thing is centered on Dr. Impossible, a beat-up-as-a-kid, misunderstood-genius, superiority-complex/inferiority-complex supervillain...the characters are all familiar, but vaguely familiar. Grossman has done a bang-up job of creating a parallel superhero-infested universe to D.C. and Marvel's trademarked and copyrighted realms.

Anyway, putting it down I was reminded of a pretty much universal theme of modern fiction, how we are all alone. Alienation. Overindividuation. Separation. And so on. It's honestly been a while since I even thought much about it. It's old hat, this alienation thing. It's so, like, 1960.

But, ya know, just be cause it's a cliché doesn't mean it isn't true. Superheroes, or Wicked's witch, just weren't on the cultural radar when Baum's original Wizard of Oz came out. Not that people weren't desperately lonely 100 years ago, but as a cultural theme, it kind of took World War I and the Lost Generation to make alienation interesting. Or normal.

It feels to me like there's a bunch of themes I've been carrying around for long time, some of them for decades even, that come together oddly in the Grossman novel. It's odd to me because, honestly, I've never gotten the appeal of superhero comics. I'm an arty-comic kind of person. Neil Gaiman all the way.
  • DIY alienation: I think I've mentioned this before on the blog, how it drives me crazy when people figure they have to "do it themselves" if they are to feel justified in the world. People make fun of Academy Award winners who go on and on thanking everyone, but really they're being realistic. No-one does it alone, and anyone who starts to believe the publicity saying he or she does, is setting themselves for a repeat of Lightning McQueen's situation in Cars. But, of course, we are set up to look at single operators. Soloists are heroes, orchestras are like cabals or gangs. Superheroes are like that false value, magnified.
  • Alienation and scale: Superheroes are urban. So are most of us who read this kind of blog-stuff. We have a peer group made up of people "like us" in some respect, rather than family or neighborhood. I know my neighbors, but not well. We don't hang out. My family lives in Maine and New Jersey; my wife's in Colorado and Utah. You get a different story when the characters all have lived in the same town for a long time (you get Garrison Keillor or Louise Erdrich), or if family is what they know and do mainly. And even these non-urban writers can't help but write from a viewpoint where most of the world is urban.
  • Alienation, science and universalism: Look, what I'm seeing from where I sit is: there are people for whom God is a person. An all-knowing, all-powerful person, like superheroes are imitations of. And there are others (I'm on this side of the argument), for whom God, or the idea of God, is a map-maker, looking down equally at all points. This point of view does not lend itself to a cozy relationship to the divine, because it includes necessarily the idea that God didn't choose you; you aren't on the "cool" side of God's red velvet rope, because there is no rope. God doesn't choose anyone.
Up up and away. Or something.

Stray bit: In looking at others' comments tot he book, I really like burritoboy's notes on supervillians as stand-ins for Hitler. Makes a ton of sense; as in so many things, most of the second half of the 20th century is backwash from The War.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


The last full post from my Quaker blog, from July 8, 2008:

So I've been spending some time working through Jeanne's Social Class and Quakers blog. Not every entry, but trying to get a feeling of where she's coming from.

And I keep getting really ticked off.

Now I like Jeanne, from what I know of her. I like the idea of confronting the cultural claptrap that has nothing to do with the central messages of Quakerism, but which tags along when a group of people from a similar background get together...

No, what gets me specifically is class. I feel like I've specifically tried for much of my life to simultaneously be true to what I am (overeducated, wordy, stuck-in-my-head) and to not get stuck in any class. And not to do the same to other folks. And here I am being labeled "owner class."

I fit the image. I shop at the co-op, read the NY Times, listen to NPR, vote the Democratic ticket... I remember after a long season hopping around doing this and that after moving back to the cities, walking with Ingrid into the Wedge Co-op and breathing in. "Ahh, my people!" I think I said to Ingrid at the time.

But I still rebel at the idea of class. I hate it because it's not a choice. It's like caste in its implications: you were born into it and you will be it until you die. I reject that. I want what I am not to be somehow "symptomatic."

I don't want to be a "type."

Class as such seems too simple. Talking about "owner class" feels like talking about "Black Americans" as if all people descended from African slaves have some gene that makes them all think alike, or for that matter about "Quakerly behavior." Jeanne posed the query of what exactly we mean by that in her latest post.

When I think about "people like me" I think a lot more specifically than "raised with family funds to support me." Specifically, I find myself alienated from people who don't like questions, or who only like safe, cute, or banal expression, or for whom bigger is better. It is a smallish subset of owner class folk who meet that description, and indeed there are plenty of well-educated poor folk who also meet that description.

I clearly need to write up the story of the Tattoo-Rhumba Man. Soon.

Hyphenated Morris Dancers

The next entry from my old Quaker blog, from June 25, 2008:

On Liz Oppenheimer's The Good Raised Up blog, she recently discussed the nature of "hyphenated Quakers" like Buddhist Quakers, pagan Quakers, etc. One of the comments in the thread was Liz's:
The thing I still wrestle with, though, is what to make of--and how to labor with--Friends who are actively engaged in another tradition and who draw on language from or actively request inclusion from a practice other than Quakerism and think nothing of it.
In talking about bringing in outside influences, a decidedly non-religious context occurs to me. I'm a morris dancer. We perform dances that were part of specific village traditions. And yet, each team develops specific distinctive stylistic variations based on who the team is. So there's a mixture of "we do it this way because that's how morris dancers do it" and "how about we try this," and thus teams both have a link to tradition and a freshness. In the folk community, the phrase "living tradition" I think sums it up nicely.

The question I ask seeing different morris teams, is are they changing things for the sake of novelty and cleverness, or are they looking for the best dancing they can do? That cleverness is like the "outward forms" that Friends have generally sought to avoid, but as Liz points out throughout her blog and other ministry, this too often been taken as a total abolition of forms, which it is not. Quakers have had a lot of forms, but they were taken up in aid of true connection with Spirit.

There is some of both among formally hyphenated Friends, as well as among those of us who do not have a named second religious tradition to hyphenate to, but who come from outside Quakerism. Some things we hang on to for form's sake or traditions sake, and some things we do because they allow us to come closer to the light.

The question remains from Liz's original question, how do we then apply corporate discernment to practices from outside Quaker practice? For me, one part of that is to encourage more Friends to "own" all their practices, and not let us get away with categorizing things as "our Quaker practices" and "our non-Quaker practices." But the counter to that is to avoid the temptation of too quickly condemning a practice as "unQuakerly" because it falls outside Quaker tradition.

Discernment, discernment, discernment.

The Blind Men, the Elephant and the Narrator.

The next entry from my Quaker blog, from June 15, 2008:

It’s an old story, much beloved by unviersalists. Some say it’s originally Buddhist, some say it originated with the Jains of India. In any case, it entered western consciousness mainly through a poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

Five (or six, or three) blind men go to see an elephant and decide what it is. One feels the leg and proclaims the elephant a great tree. Another feels the trunk and declares it must be a great serpent. On they go: the ear is like a fan, the tusks like spears, the rail like a rope. The blind men fall into a terrible argument. The moral is clearly drawn: when people talk about the divine, they argue because they all generalize from incomplete information.

The problem with the story is that we all know what an elephant is. The storyteller isn’t blind. Someone is enlightened enough to tell us the whole truth. And that right there is the crux of a big cultural divide: some people believe there really is a storyteller like that, and some believe that all storytellers are just as blind as the blind men.

What makes us “blind” in the metaphorical language of the tale? I think we can divide them into three categories: mortality, individuality, and limited senses.

Our mortality is the great delimiter: we can only learn so much, we can only live so long. There’s a reason immortality is pretty much guaranteed to deities: any being that is immortal, we believe, would have the time to learn everything.

But that assumes truth is separate from point of view. The fact of my independent consciousness, my individuality, means that no matter how long I live, I will not be able to understand all that goes on even for one instant of time. I cannot fully and completely understand my neighbor, let alone all five billion other humans, let alone the points of view of every other being in the universe.

And even if we did see from every other person’s point of view, that point of view only hears and sees certain wavelengths, has a limited sense of smell and taste, and our brain tends to to do a constant filtering job on what sensory input receive, focusing on what we deem “important.” Even if we focus our attention on hearing and seeing more, both important and not, we then lose time to process and understand that input.

All of which leads to a cold, inhospitable sense: we will never really understand the divine. It will always be beyond our reach.

Our religious traditions say otherwise. And that, as I said, is the crux of a conflict.

Religious traditions propose that our soul, our consciousness, is separate from our body; it is immortal, and its limitations are bound up in our physicality. We can free ourselves of that physicality now or after death, and thus be reunited with a more transcendent point of view.
Religious traditions often propose prophets or siddhas or shamans who are like the storyteller. They may or may not transcend death, but they do transcend their mortal bodies to achieve a higher understanding.

And, as the old story goes, if you put enough of them together, they sound like a bunch of blind men arguing about an elephant.

I guess I don't buy it. Some people my develop (or be born with) a longer vision than others, but I can't get myself behind anyone truly developing transcendent consciousness. I think what we see is not a whole elephant, but at most part of one arm. The left elbow of God. The great visionaries may see a shoulder or a wrist, but I think our limitations as mortal, individuated beings with limited senses, bound to our bodies, pretty much mean we can't ever see the whole thing. We can't know how many arms there are, or it there's one head or ten heads or no head.

That's where I am now anyway.

Lone Star Ma commented on June 16:

I am also very universalist and I guess I don't really see it as a conflict so much. I'm happy enough with the elbow and excited about the journey to the shoulder. I think it's more about touching the elephant and trying to understand what the elephant wants of me...

intro to my old Quaker blog

I decided a little while ago to lay down my blog on Quaker topics and just blog one place, here. Just to make things smoother, I'm going to bring over the few posts from the old blog. Here's the first one, from June 12, 2008:

I've been meaning to join the Quaker Blogging rounds for a while now. I mostly have lurked, and mostly at blogs by folks from my home meeting like Jeanne and Liz and James. I've been blogging for a couple years at, which is fun but I feel an urge more and more to drift away from the cartographic focus there, and go on about Quakerly stuff. So, with the miracles of modern technology, here I am.

And here goes.

The biggest thing I've felt myself wrestling with over the last few years on a spiritual level is the apparent divide between universalist and what I'll call specificist ways of approaching spiritual matters. To me these feel like approaching the same point from different directions, and I have spent some time trying to wrap myself around the problem, to find a point of view from which the two can be reconciled.

I grew up unchurched, and with a frankly dismissive attitude towards religion. My high school days at George School were a kind of opening for me; I got to talk about ideas and the shapes of things, in a more-or-less Quaker context. But I ended up deciding I was not with the Quakers because of what I called the Quaker paradox: how do you show tolerance and understanding for those whose explicit message is that you are not legitimate. How should an FGC Quaker deal with a foaming-at-the-mouth millenarian Baptist? What I saw a lot of at George was a dodging of the question... foaming at the mouth got you laughed out of town, and if there was a hint of threat, it got you ridden out of town. I had friends who, well, they didn't foam, but they did dribble, and they were not treated with peace love and understanding by my fellow right-thinking classmates. Who were high school students after all.

Anyway, I wandered hither and yon in college and after, ended up settling with the Unitarians in Excelsior, MN for a few years... a really lovely group, but I found myself missing the sense of a spiritual center.

Four years in Vermont and a marriage that wasn't going so well, and I was asked by a friend to "go do something for myself." Well, I liked Quaker meeting, even if I didn't feel especially Quaker myself, so I started going to Hanover Friends Meeting. After a year I decided I had in fact found my home, and I joined. Moved to the Twin Cities as part of my remarriage, and joined Twin Cities Friends Meeting.

And the Quaker paradox keeps coming back in different forms: how do you reconcile a notion of universal love and tolerance—of eight blind men making their way around an elephant—with the undeniable need of individuals to recognize specific experiences, and to form groups based on common identity.

So that's what I plan on writing about here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

identity grid

I was walking around our building's First Thursday open studio, and in the back of my mind, as I chatted with artists of all stripes, was the question, "How and why do they call themselves artists?" Not in an insulting way, but honestly what makes them different? And the best answer I could come up with, is marketing. People generally buy art from artists, so if you want to make your living drrawing, painting, sculpting, ceramicizing, etc., then you need to call yourself an artist.

I think it's interesting how in the world of people who make things for money, you can divide their self-definitions two ways: definition by what sort of subject-matter they choose, and definition by what sort of medium they work in. In the arts, this means you're a portraitist or a painter; in graphic design it means you're a cartographer or a book designer; in writing it means you're a financial writer or a journalist.

In any of these examples, there are conventions, there is a sense of commonality of language and understanding when two or more people of like self-identity meet. The narrower the common self-definition (financial ceramicisists working in terracotta mergers and acquisitions), the more they will share a network of shared experience and understanding. And the closer they get to having the same experiences in their work, the better the chance that their conversation will move from "isn't that interesting what you're doing over there" to "don't poach my turf." When two people interested in the same things realize they're fighting for work the same clients. Or the same tenure committee. When one or both of them decide the town ain't big enough for both of them.

I'm trying out the thesis developed in the discussion over the Grid (in cartographic terms), that the problem isn't in the gridding per se, its in the reimposition of that grid back on the subject. Does that apply to identity? I'm thinking of ongoing discussions in meeting about Quaker identity, but I think it applies to all identity groups: Is the problem less with the identity group and more with when the code which binds us is then reimposed back on us?

We human beings come up with structures, codes, grids, networks, any numbers of systems we lay our understandings of the world over the top of. Saying we shouldn't do that because systems end up dividing us is like saying we should stop using language because we'll be misunderstood.

We also like to form community (or better yet find community, because its easier) around identity, to be able to say "these are my people." And it seems sensible then to put these two together, and to codify what it is that brings us together. Maybe it's a hierarchy (I'm with you because of a feudal system, or because we're part of this family tree). Maybe it's a creed (I agree with enough of the planks in your platform, I'm in). Maybe it's just cultural clues (You like chicken? I like chicken!). Maybe it's a bunch of people who all know the same songs (I know I'm not the only one who had a near-religious experience at a Pete Seeger concert).


The problem arises (I would submit) when we then look at the "official" set of common-identity markers, and judge ourselves (or worse, allow others in the group to judge us) based on our adherence to those markers. To make the Grid the marker of value, not the thing itself.