Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Faith Seeking Understanding (Notes:45)

Sometimes it is super-obvious what image you should use.

Today marks the beginning of another series of lectures from the Great Courses catalog. This time we will be tackling Reason & Faith: Philosophy in the Middle Ages as narrated by professor Thomas Williams. The course focuses on how religious minds of the medieval period reacted to and contributed toward an understanding of philosophy as a means of understanding the world. Forming the whole of twenty-four (24) lectures, if you have difficulty in discerning what set of notes is associated with each lecture series, since I have multiple lecture notes all headed under the ‘Notes’ label, please also take note of each post’s accompanying labels in which I have the name of the course as a label.
After a brief introduction to why prof. Williams decided to specialize in medieval philosophy, he moves onto describing several different modus operand for medieval philosophers; his first point is the Constructive use of philosophy: medieval thinkers would use this form of reasoning when attempting to build proofs for the nature of God, argue for the immortality of the soul, or in any defense of Christian precepts—this often was based on Aristotelian constructions on physicality and presence; the second way medieval philosophers used philosophic reasoning Williams calls the ‘Taxonomic’ use of philosophy: here, this involved using philosophic doctrines about the scope and nature of human knowledge to distinguish between Christian doctrines which can be distinguished by reason alone and those which can be known only by faith; the third philosophic usage was the ‘Defensive’ use, which, of course, focused on defending Christian beliefs against secular objections but also attempts to prove aspects of Christian dogma as self-contradictory.

Christian thinkers during the Middle Ages were keenly aware of any and all difficulties in reconciling religion with reason but, as Williams remarks, they didn’t find refuge in claims of divine mystery and the unknowability of God; rather, they set out to methodically and pensively reconcile the human condition with their articles of faith. To this end, they even were not afraid to associate with pagan and non-Christian material, re-appropriating it for use in Christian providence.

Medieval philosophy, however, was hardly monolithic. Over the thousand-year period which comprises the medieval period, it would change and be practiced by varying hands in a multitude of ways. Some of these changes are, but not limited to: Plato dominating over Aristotle, the desire to construct grand visions of reality as a whole, the favoring of highly technical solutions to narrowly defined problems.

In terms of the course’s focus, the emphasizes will be on Christian doctrines as, although there was important work being done in the Islamic and Jewish traditions, each developed in a parallel fashion, so it is hard to do a comparative analysis. Professor Williams, focusing on European philosophy proper, decides as such to focus on Christianity due to its predominance in the European heartland.

To this end, Saint Augustine illustrates a number of features of early medieval philosophy. Heavily influenced by Platonism, which was the dominant philosophic outlook in his lifetime and well into the 12th century, Augustine would have, likely, considered the Reason part of ‘reason and faith’ to mean Platonism. Augustine took from Platonism a general outlook; he was concerned more with elaborating a vision than articulating exact reasons in support of a thesis (a typical approach of early medieval philosophy). About a century later, Boethius, would operate in much of the same tradition, though technically minded and providing more argumentative support for Augustinian theses. After Boethius’s death in 525 or 526, there was little philosophic thought for a long while as the main intellectual push then was in the writing of history and theology. When philosophy made a comeback in the 11th century, there was a shift away from the holistic, visionary articulation of philosophy to the formulation of developing careful argument: logic, in other words, would come to predominate how to protect Christian doctrine. Ansem, who defended Augustinian views, used a series of concise and careful arguments, wholly different from Augustinian him self’s preferred mode of thought. 

During the 12th century Peter Abalard conceived a project of reformulating Christian doctrine in a rationally coherent way. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, the focus on careful argument received another boost with the introduction of Aristotle’s complete works. In the late 14th century, the Aristotelian tradition would lose its predominance: some returned to Platonism, quasi-mystical formulations, or rejected the idea that philosophic argument, by itself, could establish much of anything. The unified conversation was broke up.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.21)

AS the ceremony for Kay’s initiation draws nearer, Wart becomes increasingly down. Sir Ector tries to rouse him from his sulking. Wart tries to argue, unconvincingly, that he is not sulking and that Kay is a good person, but we can totally tell that he is upset that his BFF no longer wants to hang out and get fucked up, ya know?

So he goes to Merlyn. Because if anyone knows how to have fun, it is eccentric wizards who used to live in forests.

’The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, ‘is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails’” (183).

Merlyn’s advice is pretty hackneyed but I can actually see his point: whenever I have been really sad, I have found that immersing myself in something tends to take the edge off, only because you are forcing your mind to focus on something else; for instance, one time, when I was a playful youth, and needed to get my mind off of a romantic infatuation, I played a video game on the hardest difficulty setting. That took my minds off my desire, if only because keeping my avatar alive was so hard.

But Merlyn suggests that Wart visit his old friend Badger, who is the most learned of his animal friends.

But then Merlyn drops the ball.

’there is one thing I ought to tell you. This is the last time I shall be able to turn you into anything. All the magic for that sort has been used up, and this will be the end of your education. When Kay has been knighted my labours will be over.’”

Merlyn really doesn’t know the proper way to cheer up sulky teens, but I guess he has to tell the truth at some point, so…

So Wart gets turned to a badger and promptly goes on an angry ‘I am animal let me kill you’ spree.

’Hedge-pig,’ said the Wart, peering up at his victim with blurred, short-sighted eyes, ‘I am going to munch you up’” (184).

Don’t mess with teen angst! But he is an animal… an anthropomorphized animal, so yeah, don’t mess with teen angst, since it turns murderous. What is fun is that instead of some love-interest bringing out Wart’s homicidal-angst, it is a friend. So it is closer to homosocial.

But the hedgehog placates Wart with some songs and his innate inferiority (appealing to Wart’s supremacy, like the Japanese in that episode of South Park). Additionally, Wart believes that he saw the baby version of this hedgehog years ago in Merlyn’s cottage, so he is feeling sentimental. Plus, the songs are a bit melodramatic, so they appeal to Wart’s ‘woe is me’ status. Once Wart strokes his ago enough, however, he moves on to his date with Badger.

’So Merlyn sent you to me,’ said the Badger, ‘to finish your education. Well, I can only teach you two things—to dig, and love your home. These are the true end of philosophy’” (186).

Is Badger and Anti-philosopher? Because that is a pretty sub-standard view of philosophy, even for bourgeois conservatives. Well, I guess you can have a philosophy of digging and home décor, but that doesn’t transfer too well to, you know, stuff like ontology and existentialism (unless you’re a postmodernist).

But, Badger shows Wart around his huge home. Wart muses on if it is like a college or a castle. Eventually, they settle in what appears to be Badger’s study and Badger reads to Wart the start of his doctoral dissertation; this is actually just White’s version of a creation myth which involves all the different embryos of all the different species asking God for different and unique attributes. That is, until one of the final eggs is asked and replies that they do not want any unique attributes and are pleased to make their way in the world with but the natural material which surrounds them. To this God is pleased and makes this embryo Man.

Then there is a debate about what animals wage war.

’True warfare is what happens between bands of the same species. Out of the hundreds of thousands of species, I can only thing of seven which are belligerent. Even Man has a few varieties like Esquimaux and the gypsies and the Lapps and certain nomads in Arabia, who do not do it, because they claim no boundaries. True warfare is rarer in nature than cannibalism’” (194).

This is an idea which White keeps returning to—remember the part when Wart was among the geese and the pseudo-love interest remarked how geese have no territory and if man took to the skies in the same way that geese did, then they would have to give up war.

On one hand, it is a nice sentiment, since it brings to light the fact that territory does have to do with how war transpires (but is only one factor next to imperialism and racial mythologies). But, on the other hand, it is very idealistic since White can only ever lament on this fact in comparison to animals, thus rendering a speciesist form of reaction where animals are the pure and mankind is doomed to their innate nature. Besides, I am also hung up on the ‘a few varieties’ comment which makes these aboriginal tribes almost sound like they are not quite pure-humans, like they are human but come from a different bloodline than other facets of humanity; if this is the case, then it marks White as a racialist. I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here and simply take White that he means that aboriginals lack the social structure which leads to modern warfare as practices by the contemporary—imperialist and anti-imperialist—world, but I am still weary of what lies behind the curtain.

After this exchange, the chapter ends with Badger asking Wart if he liked the geese or ants more; this appears to be of deeper significance since both of these animals are opposed—ants with their warfare and geese with their non-territorial peace. Especially since, as Wart is keen on reminding us, he would like to be a knight and to go to war so as to win glory and whatnot (typical depressed beta male psychopathy). So that eh chapter ends with such an oblique and unanswered inference, is typical of White’s style, but also says that White obviously wrote these animal sections as something forming a cohesive whole, if only you take the time to deconstruct those meanings.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

You are a Knight-Interpreter-- Lucky You! (Enchanted Assemblages)

During the middle ages, Arthurian literature was a way for the aristocratic elite to legitimate their rule. It posited a class of morally righteous, economically well off knight-errant who served a lord—a king whose lordship was directly tied to the land’s health. The fantastical inclusion of dragons, damsels in distress, and mysterious quests ordained by God, all served as the backdrop in which our upper-class heroes could ply their skills. In a way, it was a precursor to the Ideological State Apparatus (re: Althusser). After all, its purpose was to reinforce the image of an elite group of enforces who helped push the local law; of course, the violence of the text would be subsumed underneath the unreal.

                But since I loathe all things which support the status quo, this—obviously—had to go with the advent of my adaptation. I had to find a way to turn King Arthur’s roundtable from an aristocratic championing of Christianity, to a secular commonplace account of human interaction. Besides, on the surface, knights up taking quests for a maiden’s hand does not lend much credibility to interpretation.

                How I did this was easy. After all, at the end of the day, King Arthur’s court—whether it is an actual court or just a feasting hall—is a simple set-up: a leader and a group of people quest. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to re-orient things onto a specific path, one merely needs to project specific desires and objectives onto the quests and the character motivations for the quest.

                So my own projection was to turn the Roundtable into something of an icon instead of a place of paramount importance. Because the world of my adaptation is infused with magic granted to the environment by, literally, the bodies of dead gods, and interpretation has become a way to literally change the function and shape of the world around you, the natural question was how the interpreters would, you know, exist.

                Ultimately I had decided that anyone could change the world, but that doing so would require specific training if one wanted to do it on a large scale. From here it was the obvious leap to have that training be done in terms of knightly training; the focus not on combat but on interpretation. Being me, I made this training to be non-elitist: while in our real world, training to be a knight was a significant expense only open to those with considerable money and connections, in the world of my adaptation, knightly-training, because it is such a vital public service in maintaining order in the world, against the chaotic decay of literalism, would be a public post open to anyone who wanted to serve their community.

                Ergo, the roundtable itself is merely something of local importance due to the court’s natural proclivity as a public service. If it or its leaders have any renown outside of their village, it is only because they interpret so ably that word spreads of their deeds. So in this sense, the original idea of questing to gain fame has been transformed into something with less hero-worship since no danger is involved. Thankfully, the sexism of the original text has been eliminated.

                Presto! King Arthur’s court, formerly a bastion of elitist snobbery, has become an agrarian-proletarian hotbed! Spicy!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Let's Read: The Once and Future King (Ch.20)

Hay-making season again! Will there be any homoerotic moments between two young and naked lads? Nope, not this time! Why?

Six other years passed by” (177).

Puberty—oh no!!!!! Gotta get those “no homo”s out and about.

On a more serious note, I do not think I have ever seen a major fantasy novel pass by six whole years, in a single sentence. I still don’t know Wart’s exact age, but I am thinking mid-to-late teens. Maybe… seventeen? Perhaps as young as fifteen.

So White spends some time describing all of the changes which happened in this time. So I will lists them as well!

(1)    Cully lost his vertical stripes and has become grayer. No surprise there, though I am surprised that that bird is still alive; (2) Hob’s hair turned white; (3) the sergeant-at-arms developed a pot-belly; (4) Kay and Wart’s legs grew longer and they had many adventures; (5) Kay became sarcastic and overly hostile to everyone, picking fights which he really should not have picked (typically teen angst, then), while Wart “continued to be stupid, fond of Kay, and interested in birds” (178). Merlyn, meanwhile, looked younger every year, since he is moving backwards in time; (6) Oh, and Archy gets married, raising up an owl family, while every year William Twyti returns to do his annual hunt.

But not all is well.    
Proportionally as the day came nearer, the two boys drifted apart—for Kay did not care to associate with the Wart any longer on the same terms, because he would need to be more dignified as a knight, and could not afford to have his squire on intimate terms with him. The Wart, who would have to be the squire, followed him around disconsolately as long as he was allowed to do so, and then went off full miserably to amuse himself alone, as best he might” (179).

I want to make a teen angst joke but that would not be right since what Wart’s feeling is warranted and real, not some overly hyped up fantasy associated with adolescent emotional trouble.

Everyone reading this passage will know what Wart is feeling since it happens to just about everyone; the friends you had in elementary school change in middle school until you get to high school and the change happens all over again, until you graduate and lose all but the closest of compatriots. It is a sad affair. You realize that the real world is meant to keep people apart. Childhood is a fleeting place of peace, where relations are simplified, but adolescence and early adulthood, that is where reality comes crashing in. I feel quite strongly for Wart as we get sections like the following

And the Wart looked around the busy kitchen, which was coloured by the flames till it looked like hell, with sorrowful affection.”

And so here is Wart’s emotional state over losing his best friend—he feels highly conflicted, as though he has been transported to a hell on earth. Dramatic? Yes, so it’s a bit angsty, but it also displays his loneliness and lack of companionship and how he feels about that.

So Wart is in this kitchen musing on his serving duties, when Merlyn pops up and talks to him. We then have about a full page of Merlyn describing the various rituals which Kay will need to complete before his final certification as a knight. Merlyn calls these rituals “a lot of fuss” (180). You go Merlyn! End Knightley privilege!

’I should pray to God to let me encounter all the evil in the world in my own person, so that if I conquered there would be none left, if I were defeated, I would be the one to suffer for it’” (181).

It’s Wart who remarks on this and while it is clearly a piece of youthful idealism, it is also a suitable Jesus-metaphor. Praise him! (imagine me saying that in a Southern Preacher type of voice.)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Nifty Nodes: Decay and Deconstruction (Enchanted Assemblages)

I want you to deconstruct this moment of decay. Now!
Remember that post I wrote which I talked about how each Node was associated with a different critical theory? Well, I forgot to mention that each Node also is categorized by whether they are a ‘decay’ or ‘deconstruction’ Node. This doesn’t fundamentally alter how the Node is approached by the player (not really), but it does shift how the player interacts with the material.

                So, a ‘decay’ Node is the more straightforward Node. There is a scenario, people to interact with, and artifacts; the player is able to do different things which each post by using their interpretive abilities. Once they feel they have absorbed all that they can from a Node, they then submit an interpretation of that Node—if they want to do so on the macro-scale—on the designated post.

                The purpose of a decay Node is to acclimate players to investigation, i.e., close reading. This is where they are encouraged to build their own thesis to ‘ward off literalist decay’. Hence why I feel that it is the most straightforward Node, because in this Node is where they will engage most often with the sort of reading they are expected to do while an undergraduate.

                A ‘deconstruction Node,’ something being based in Derridean notions of the term, is a little more convoluted but not by much. Here, the player encounters a situation, but it is one which has already fended off, at least temporarily, the forces of literalism; so ‘decay’ is not an issue here thanks to the intrepid abilities of the Green Knight (who’s the one who provided the interpretation which brought a level of stability to the locale). In a certain sense, the player’s mission here is to unwind the knot.

                Deconstruction Nodes encourage the player to, yes, ultimately build a thesis on what they might want to change, what aspect of the existing interpretation may be altered or improved in some way, but it is more than that. These Nodes push the idea of finding the seams of existing interpretation: how did someone arrive at the interpretation that they did, what did they do with each aspect of the text, what were the short comings of their thesis, where do redundant and contradictory points emerge and overlap, in what sense does the ‘word-play’ of the situation deaden the interpretation making it open-ended (allowing decay to seep in), and so on.

                All this being said, only those Nodes outside of the story are relevant to issues of ‘decay’ or ‘deconstruction’. I do plan on giving the player the ability to submit an interpretation of each piece of the main narrative, but this does not extend to each narrative slice having a specific categorization.

Why this is, is because for a lot of the narrative, the player already is engaging in a low-key deconstruction as they stomp about the major castle; they just don’t know its significance until later. Also, the main story falls under its own kind of interpretative framework in that the player’s options in theoretically altering the text, increase dramatically in comparison to the simple two tool-kit framework which is at their disposal for the optional Nodes. In the main story, the idea is to give the players a wide exposure so they may return to the Nodes and apply the theory from the story. As such, the main narrative having a ‘decay’ or ‘deconstruction’ tag would be counter-productive to what I am trying to accomplish when both are already present, merely in a greatly lessened format.