Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Birthing the Selfie

In a moment of entirely unwarranted linguistic hubris and Internet narcissism, I am going to announce here that I am the doctor giving birth to the neologism selfie. The progressive mood ("giving") is important because in spite of what follows below it is not at all clear that this neologism will stick around (though I tend to think it will).

It is entirely unwarranted for me to declare myself the midwife of this (or probably any other) neologism because I am, I'm sure, quite late to the game. The word selfie first came to my attention just a few days ago, but it has since bombarded me with its annoying currency:

1) iPad "mirrors" allow celebrities to take selfies at various celebrity events.

2) President Obama, along with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, created a minor diplomatic hubbub with their selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. Their smiling faces seemed inappropriate to some, given the occasion (though would Mandela really mind if people smiled and chatted during his memorial service?). In addition, the First Lady seems a bit left out (her choice?) due to an unfortunate camera angle (oh, the travails of being bound in matrimony to the multimillionaire leader of the free world).

"Hi fans! Hanging with my peeps here in South Africa. And Michelle."
(Editor's note: This is clearly NOT the official White House caption.)

All right, so two examples are clearly sufficient to justify my use of the word "bombarded" as to the frequency with which I have stumbled across this new word. And now that I think of it, given the nature of the topic, I suppose my linguistic hubris and Internet narcissism are perfectly legitimate as well.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Faith and Myths: Activism and Illegal Immigration

Post subtitle: How Myths Are Made

Mexico-U.S. relations have been complicated for some time by a triplet of crippling problems: drug trafficking, economic recession, and illegal immigration.* These, in turn, are driven by the moral evils of greed and violence. The intellectual puzzle comes in trying to sort all of these out and pinpointing the one problem whose dissolution would largely do away with the other problems. I certainly have no solution, but I do have a modest, unoriginal recommendation for finding one: honesty. We cannot get murderes and traffickers of drugs and humans to be honest and own up to what they have done and that it is wrong. We can, however, try to be honest when discussing economic theory and immigration policy--their purposes, effects, and effectiveness.

Rubén Figueroa
I was reminded of how easy it is to slip into unintentional untruths and, from there, to quickly create myths that just fester and spawn more until we have a huge globbed-up issue. I interviewed Mexican activist Rubén Figueroa, and he made (at least) a couple of assertions that made me internally frown.

I should first give just a bit of Rubén's background. By his own admission, he is a "radical." This engenders both admirable engagements to help those in desperate need, as well as questionable rhetoric. The small movement of which he is a part, Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano, runs a shelter on the Guatemalan border of the Mexican state of Tabasco. The shelter, called La 72 in memory of 72 Central-American migrants who while passing illegally through Mexico to get to the U.S. were brutally murdered by drug thugs (Los Zetas). Rubén is inspired to help these people, in part, because he was an illegal in the U.S. for five years and experienced what it is like to be viewed as second-class/undocumented/marginalized.

For now, our interview is only in Spanish, though I hope to transcribe and translate it to English when I have time. The main claim that he made that made me question his credibility a little does not come out in the video. But in our continued discussion (of which I have an audio recording), he asserted that Wells Fargo runs prisons for illegals along the U.S.-Mexico border. This claim is not, in itself, necessarily very important. Its effect, however, is to produce shock that such a large, well-respected bank could be involved in something so questionable. The purpose of the claim is to make the listener question the morals of Wells Fargo and, by extension, broader Western, capitalistic, "neo-colonial" society. Now, though the U.S. is up to its neck in complicity with drug violence, it cannot be said that the whole American society or Mexican society is encouraging drug violence or violence against illegal immigrants.

Furthermore, the claim must be examined. In fact, Wells Fargo does no such thing. It does, as a huge bank, have shares in a company that administrates private prisons, some of which the U.S. government does lease for illegal detainees before deportation. Is that so bad? Of course not.

I am largely for what people like Rubén do. But I am also for honesty and myth-busting, not myth-creating. And while it's true that we all have to resort to faith on these issues at some point (I cannot know everything that's going on with every government that is being immoral and even breaking its own laws), we can maintain a continual progress towards the truth by being careful with the partial truth we already have.

*I use the phrase "illegal immigration" or "illegal immigrant" rather than other common terms such as "undocumented" or simply "migrants." I choose this not to stigmatize the over-stigmatized "illegal," but simply because it reflects reality as best as any phrase I am aware of. It does not mean I agree with the status quo that continues to criminalize certain immigrants (particuarly in the North- and Latin-American contexts, although I am also interested in the situations in East Asia and Western Europe that have a lot in common with the American problem). In fact, if I were dictator of the world I would probably make most of these people "legal" in some sense of the word. If that makes me ethically suspect in your book, then feel free not to write me in on the ballot in the next presidential election.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Faith and Myths: Reflections on JFK's Assassination

This post attempts to begin to bring together a few lines of thought from previous posts and current events. A couple of future posts will spend more time on some of those lines of thought, but this one focuses primarily on JFK's assassination, the 50th anniversary of which has just passed.

Apparently there is a huge intellectual community that vigorously explores myriad theories surrounding the events of that fateful day that saw the last successful assassination attempt of an American president. I know almost nothing of that community, much less the facts and theories of the JFK assassination. In the absence of knowledge, I ask myself, probably naively, why one man's death should so obsess us and whether it could ever have nearly as much significance and impact on the subsequent 50 (or more) years as we like to think. There are a lot of myths to unpack here, and of course the biggest obstacle is identifying what the myths are.

For example, 1) who really killed Kennedy and why (answers to both questions would explode all of the other well-documented theories as myths).

2) Also, is it a myth that Kennedy really would have had nearly as big an impact, positive or negative, on American history as people like to think had he survived November 22, 1963?

3) If the early 1960s were full of sociopolitical myths that had the standing of truth (the existential threat of communism, the accompanying omnipresence of covert communist agents, the existential threat of racial integration), what myths have become American truth in 2013?

In sorting out these questions, I stumbled across a profound reminder in an article by David von Drehle on the assassination, in this week's TIME magazine. Speaking of the bewildering (in number and content) conspiracy theories, he mentions the inevitability of faith, which he defines as "that set of beliefs that frames our approach to data and mystery. Each of us must have some sort of faith because we can never have perfect knowledge, no matter how much information we accumulate. Faith fills in the gaps" (emphasis added).

That reflection on faith brings to mind Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians that "knowledge puffs up" and yet how foolish that pride is, because that human knowledge is certainly never complete. In the pride-fraught endeavor of critiquing others' myths, and trying to tease out our own, then requires the constant recognition of those gaps in our own knowledge, and that they will always be filled with something until we have perfect knowledge one day.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A New Blog / Un Nuevo Blog

In my new job/studies at the University of South Carolina, I am taking my first graduate Spanish course with Dr. Raúl Diego Rivera Hernández. He has had some of us graduate students start a blog about the themes that we are interested in relating to the intersections of literature and current events, as well as announcements regarding events and conferences at USC.

The title of the blog is Información Artificial, a play on the title of the novel by Ricardo Piglia, Respiración Artificial. As we examine pressing issues from both the academic and popular perspectives, the title of the blog also reminds of our own vulnerability to giving a skewed perspective of the truth. I suppose it is in keeping with this that I should mention that the blog is not mine (though I will be posting to it fairly frequently), so not everything that appears on it represents my view of the issues.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Today in Language: Émile Nelligan

Le poète canadien Émile Nelligan est mort le 18 novembre 1941. Rue St.-Denis à Montréal dans le parc Saint-Louis.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Business Professor on Mexican Drug Violence

This is a very professional video, by a professor with first-hand knowledge of both Mexico and business culture--and he makes the case for reconsidering the general approach to drug violence (though he gives no specific plan). He also reminds us that Americans, as much as anyone else, are complicit in the drug trafficking and related violence. He also touches briefly on the plight of migrants in Mexico (in relation to the drug traffickers). All of this raises the problem of myths. What political myths do we believe? What myths may be inherent in his own approach to the issue? How do we go about untangling all of the issues in such a complicated problem?

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What Myths Do You Believe?

Because you most assuredly do believe some.

I have just started reading Subverting Global Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by blogger Vinoth Ramachandra. I am sure the book will alternatively annoy me, convict me, and educate me. I have recently thought about myths that even the most educated believe because of things I have heard and participated in this week in courses and conferences at the University of South Carolina (more on that later this week). But ultimately, we do believe and propagate certain myths (e.g., the earth is flat, many times in accord with society and its pressures, but other times against those pressures, forming our own countercultural tendencies. Getting out of our myths may be the most difficult undertaking.

This is not a quotation from the book itself (I don't think) but from a summary of the book on the Barnes & Noble website:

It is a myth that only the uninformed masses believe in myths and that power brokers, media moguls, leading scientists, financial tycoons, political luminaries and intellectual elites don't. The myths that the ruling classes believe may be more sophisticated, but they are myths nonetheless.

Friday, November 8, 2013

La Semana del Migrante

After Wednesday's post, I found out that this week was the "Semana del Migrante" in Mexico (perhaps other Latin- and Central-American countries as well?). I do not know exactly what that means, other than a week to focus attention on the plight of the immgrants (almost universally poor and illegal) who either cross Mexico to reach the U.S. and, they hope, a better life, or else who die/disappear in Mexico.

This interested me in particular because of some of my work related to a course on contemporary Spanish-American narrative. My classmates and I had the opportunity this week to meet with, interview, and attend a conference with a Mexican activist who works in a shelter on the Mexico-Guatemala border. I hope to post both video and transcript from the interview, as well as further reflections on the topic of immigration (from the perspective of the U.S., though this activist is primarily concerned with Mexican policy) and related political and philosophical issues.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Los Invisibles - The Invisibles

A course I am taking this semester has led me back to the immigration issue, although from a bit broader perspective than just U.S. immigration law to the situation in Mexico and the harrowing experiences of Central American immigrants (almost always illegal). I will soon be posting the text of an interview I have done with a Mexican activist but this documentary was drawn to my attention by a professor. Even if you don't know Spanish, you can still watch it and basically just understand everyone as saying, "We are living the American nightmare, not the American dream. In attempting to cross Mexico, I/we have been assaulted/tortured/mutilated/raped."

Monday, November 4, 2013

Language, a/the Bridge to Understanding

What do you think of this assertion: "El lenguaje constituye el único puente (aunque también un obstáculo) entre el hombre y el conocimiento" (Language constitutes the only bridge (although an obstacle as well) between man and understanding).

That comes from an article by Jimena Ugaz on a novel by Ricardo Piglia. I would certainly be inclined to agree with the staement, although the possibility of mentalese would make me back off a bit from the assertion (unless mentalese is understood as language in its own right). What really interests me in the statement, due to some of my recent work on postmodernism and poststructuralism (whatever you may take those terms to mean), is that language is also an obstacle to our understanding at times due to ubiquitous ambiguity. That truth is one of the greatest reminders given to philosophy and literary theory in the 20th century.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Poll: Halloween, or Something Else?

So today is Halloween, unless it isn't, unless it is El Día de Muertos or All Hallows' Eve or Reformation Day or someone's birthday or something else. I am not sure that it is terribly significant that Halloween could be traced to pagan festivals (or not), or whether that is a reason not to celebrate it. (In the interest of full disclosure, I don't celebrate it, but my reason is simply aesthetic, nothing deeply religious. My personal aesthetics also necessarily make it difficult for me to find an image that I am willing to put on today's blog post.) This poll, however, is not quite about your reason(s) for celebrating or not celebrating Halloween. It is actually about what you (don't) celebrate on October 31. So vote in the poll on the sidebar!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Alternative to Christ

An astounding summary of a certain worldview given in Miroslav Volf's Free of Charge. This is not his worldview, and he doesn't leave it at this, but this description really got me with the profound sadness of the human condition if Christ has not died and come back to life:
I do wake up sometimes in the middle of the night, surrounded by the darkness, and think, "We're all a bunch of egoists, some more pleasant than others, some smart enough to be short-term altruists, but we're just stuffing ourselves and puffing ourselves up. Maybe no love has created us, no love dwells in our deceitful hearts, and no world of love will ever be given to us. We come out of inchoate darkness, and we return to inchoate darkness, and in the brief period we are alive, we are black holes of self-absorption."

Friday, September 13, 2013

Horace on Writing Well

You've done it right, if a clever connection of phrases
Makes a good old word look new.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Today in Language: September 11

September 11, 911, 9/11, nueve-once, le 11 septembre. That date, those specific collocations have come to mean a lot to a majority of the world's population.

Since 2001, specifically, the phrase has taken on new meaning for many, especially Americans and their allies. Yet well before 2001 it was already a significant date, for at least the following two reasons:

September 11, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary since the University of South Carolina, my current employer and institution of higher education, matriculated its first black student in 1963, Henri Monteith. She helped bring desegregation to her state even as it was coming along, perhaps at a more national scale, elsewhere in the country.

September 11, 2013, also marks the 40th anniversary of the coup d'état in Chile that overthrew the government of the Marxist Salvador Allende and brought in the cruel dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Which was worse? This is one of those situations in life where humans simply have to throw up their hands and trust God. The powers that be were put there by him. So why two terrible governments back-to-back? How do we respond to state violence, especially when our own state (if we are Americans) was involved in the military coup?

Chileans have been commemorating September 11 longer than any other group of people probably, reliving the violence of September 11, 1973, and trying to wrestle with a twisted national history.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Aristotle on Defective Plots

From chapter 5 of Aristotle's poetics (5.6):
Of simple plots and actions the episodic are the worst. By an episodic plot I mean one in which the sequence of episodes is neither necessary nor probable. Second-rate poets compose this knd of their own accord; good poets do so on account of the actors. In writing pieces for competitive display they draw out the plot beyond its potential, and are often forced to distort the sequence.
Aristotle, of course, wrote this well before the time of Christ, meaning that critical taste in literature and drama (and, now, film) has not much changed. And yet, who doesn't appreciate a good ol' deus ex machina once in a while, or an implausibly fortunate character? Prescriptivism has its limits in literary theory as in linguistics.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Today in Language: 山田孝雄

The Japanese linguist Yoshio Yamada (of Yamada grammar fame) was born on August 20, 1875.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Today in Language: Aimé Césaire

Le martiniquais du 20ème siècle, Aimé Césaire, aurait eu 100 ans aujourd'hui. Il est né le 26 juin 1913. Dans Nègre je suis, nègre je resterai, un livre d'entretiens avec Françoise Vergès, il s'exprime le noyau de sa vue du monde et de sa philosophie, tout ce qui a informe et inspiré et sa politique et sa littérature : « Chaque partie du monde a droit à la solidarité universelle. Il s’agit de savoir si nous croyons à l’homme et si nous croyons à ce qu’on appelle les droits de l’homme. À liberté, égalité, fraternité, j’ajoute toujours identité. Car, oui, nous y avons droit » (69). Dans sa politique (appréciant mais dépassant le communisme et même le simple anticolonialisme), dans la littérature (appréciant mais dépassant le surréalisme et même le simple postcolonialisme) il a toujours songé à ce droit d'identité, revendiquant lui-même celle de la négritude.

The Martinican man of the 20th century, Aimé Césaire, would have been 100 years old today. He was born on June 26, 1913. He has left his mark not just on Martinique, or even just on France, but on the world--in politics, litterature, and philosophy. One of my favorite quotes of Césaire is from a collection of interviews he gave a few years before his death. Building on the famous French slogan, central to the country's republican, secular values, he said, "Every part of the world has a right to universal solidarity. Do we really believe in man and in human rights? To liberty, equality, fraternity, I always add identity." Questions of identity, particularly in relation to politics and literature, were always central to his thought. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

On Culture, Stereotypes, and the "French"

One of the simplest yet wisest statements I heard this year in Paris came from a professor in a course I took on literature and globalization. He said, "Je ne suis pas capable de vous dire ce que font les Français" (Translation: I am not capable of telling you what the French do). In other words, he didn't want to generalize and say "the French are like so," or "the French do so-and-so."

In fact, about all we can say generally of the French or the Serbs or Cubans or Americans and still speak the truth is that they are 1) human and 2) French, Serbs, Cubans, or Americans. That does not belittle the usefulness and place of generalizations and stereotypes in cultural studies, but it does remind us of how easily they can introduce intercultural misunderstanding.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Guide to Tourists for Parisians

As I am close to leaving Paris and moving back to the U.S., it is interesting that just now the tourist board and Chamber of Commerce of France's capital should come out with a guide for the capital's inhabitants to try to make the city more welcoming to tourists. A few observations about the "Do You Speak Touriste?" guidebook (or rather, a few observations about the idea because I haven't read the book itself):

1) In my now extended experience (at least by comparison to other tourists who come for just a few days), Parisians have not generally been "rude, overbearing, unpleasant [or] aggressive." I do think we almost have to resort to generalizations and stereotypes when discussing cultures and societies, but perhaps this is one that is changing.

2) There are general differences between being here and in, say, Japan. I do not know how helpful it is to discuss those generalized differences, though. Trying to teach those general differences in an informal way to one city's inhabitants could create as much confusion and misunderstanding as anything else.

3) According to American witnesses in The Greater Journey, the Parisian welcome was very warm and friendly for newcomers back in the 1800s. Interesting if, as a general rule, this was true as opposed to late-20th century Paris.

4) The guidebook idea is not a terrible idea. I would insist, however, that the burden should rather be on tourists to make an attempt to understand and adapt to the place where they want to practice their tourism. This should include adjustments in areas from eating times to personal salutations to public comportment to . My concern, of course, is related primarily to cultural studies and humans' undersanding of one another, while the Paris Chamber of Commerce is probably more focused on the economic considerations of being a welcoming tourist destination. (I am not obliquely criticizing that preoccupation.)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Modified Poll: Favorite Christ Figures

In light of one paper on the appropriation of the Christ figure in French literature that I will be presenting at a conference this week, I wanted to ask my hypothetical readers what some of their favorite Christ (or messianic) figures in literature are. This poll works by way of comment rather than clicking on a button in the sidebar. From the obvious to the obscure, from French literature to American literature (or even cinema, if you like), from obvious messianic figures to slightly less clear-cut instances of biblical imagery, if you have any favorite Christ figure(s), let us know.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Cours en anglais, or should I say, courses in English?

So there is this proposed law in France that won't pass but that is highly scandalous in a country that prides itself more than most on its language (which nonetheless we must remember is as "impure" as the next language, and, historically speaking, a creole of Latin in itself...whoops!). The law would promote the teaching of more university courses in English (and some other foreign languages). Whatever one thinks of this, it is a noteworthy point of linguistic history. English has never had the same political backing as French, even in the colonial era, yet it has become the lingua franca at least in North America and Europe if not the world. Sadly, then, the world most certainly does NOT speak French (at least in one sense).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Ten Statements Towards an Understanding of Post-Structuralism

Preparing for the conference next week on Language, Literature, and Religion, I have been spending a good bit of time preparing my presentation on Christian responses to post-structuralism and particuarly deconstruction. It is more complicated for me than my other presentation, which is direct literary analysis. So regarding post-structuralism, here are some guiding ideas I have been articulating for myself, advancing from the simple (and generally accepted) to the more complex (and perhaps more debatable):

1. Post-structuralism is not a critique of structure in itself (i.e., it is not anti-structure). It has its own conceptual structure(s) and one must not conflate structure with structuralism, thus creating a caricature of the latter. Even regarding deconstruction (even Derrida's), it is important to eschew the error of equating it with pure relativism and ultimate meaninglessness.
2. Post-structuralism is a critique of structuralism, which was first and foremost a set of linguistic theories (beginning with Ferdinand de Sassure) and became a literary theory applied to the interpretation of texts. Only after linguistics and literary theory was structuralism applied to a host of other disciplines. From the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss to French structuralist feminism to structuralism in biblical studies, it is a whole mindset that shapes how one thinks about the world. This means that it ultimately will become a sort of philosophy and respond to philosophical questions. The same is, naturally, true of post-structuralism. 
3. Post-structuralism, like structuralism, thus focuses primarily on language and by extension texts (though the definition of text is drastically broadened by most post-structural theorists). Post-structural thought tends to be either of a linguistic or a literary orientation, though again it is taken up in many other disciplines.
4. Post-structuralism is a useful label for an ensemble of overwhelmingly diverse theories and thinkers (a bit like the label of postmodernism, if not quite to the same extent). The extension of the term is so broad that it necessitates great precision when analysing post-structuralist writers and clarification regarding whom and what ideas we are agreeing or disagreeing with.
5. Post-structuralism is not, properly speaking, a philosophical or theological system, as already mentioned. 
6. Post-structuralism does interact significantly with the Western philosophical tradition. The preceding points are not meant to minimize the impact of post-structuralism on philosophy and vice versa, only to remind of the origins of structuralism and post-structuralism and their primary interest (language). Whatever one thinks of Derrida, for example, he was a philosopher by training and much of his own deconstructive analyses were of Western philosophers (Heidegger, Husserl).
7. Post-structuralism does interact significantly with the Western theological tradition.
8. Post-structuralism, because it focuses on language (point 3 above), relates to every academic discipline in some way. Its importance can be overblown in some fields, however, and attempts to wed it with other disciplines can be artificial and even anti-intellectual.
9. Post-structuralism is at times misunderstood and misapplied by Christian theorists. This point should not, however, be overblown. Some Christians (like some Muslims, atheists, pantheists, Buddhists . . . in short, humans) misunderstand different things to different extents.
10. Post-structuralism has significantly shaped the world we live in, and deserves to be fairly understood.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Conference on Language, Literature, and Religion

The Conference on Language, Literature, and Religion of Alfa University in Belgrade will take place next week, May 24-25. And Belgrade being only about two hours from Paris by plane, my wife and I will be attending and also presenting at the conference.

Miriam's presentation, "El sincretismo en la literatura latinoamericana," examines the presence and literary development of religious syncretism in the works authors from Latin America and the Caribbean.

I will be presenting two papers on French literature and theory. The first is titled "Christian (Mis)perceptions of and Responses to Post-structural Linguistics and Deconstructive Literary Theory," and the second is "Dechristianization in French literature: A Case Study of the Christ Image."

Friday, May 10, 2013

Houllebecq on Tourist Destinations, Sightseeing

I completely misplaced/lost/threw away a magazine that had an interview with the French writer Michel Houellebecq. I was going to share a quote, but a paraphrase will have to suffice since I cannot find the magazine anywhere, or the interview online.

The only part of the interview that really interested me was Houellebecq's take on tourist destinations. Because this year in France, more than usual, my family and I have had regular opportunities to visit such places. I am referring (as Houellebecq does in the interview) to the monuments, museums, and buildings that are "must-sees," such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona or the Manneken Pis in Brussels.

The problem, and the reason the interviewer asked Houellebecq what he thought about such places and the phenomenon that is "sightseeing," is that we all tend to have this nagging feeling that we are being extremely shallow to want to visit and take pictures only of the things that everyone else visits and takes pictures of.

Houellebecq, in his characteristic devil-may-care fashion, dismissed this idea altogether. He said, and to my chagrin I now paraphrase, that those destinations are famous for a reason, so it just makes sense to visit those places. There's no interest in visiting other places anyway.

Now Houellebecq was exaggerating a bit, as he did in pretty much all of his responses in the interview. In fact, if my memory serves me, he seemed to be answering the questions with whatever well-turned phrase just happened to fall out of his mind at the moment regardless of how obviously wrong it was or contradictory of something he had already said. A bit Wildesque. And that is certainly the prerogative of an atheist, amoral writer who is financially independent and doesn't have to answer to anyone, such as Houellebecq or Oscar Wilde.

Nonetheless, and to wrap up this winding blog post-like fragment of my thought, Houellebecq's evaluation of tourist destinations and sightseeing sat well with me. To understand a culture and its people, you need to visit places where everyday life is happening (grocery stores, markets, banks, bus stops, bus interiors, schools). But to understand cultural history, and to have memories that you want to share in photographic form, you need the (in)famous tourist traps.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

2013 Personal Update

I feel a little self-conscious with today's post title, not to say narcissistic. But it's as good as I could come up with, and I felt like writing this even if only for myself. So here is the point to which God has currently brought me in life, the year 2013 being an important transition point.

I can tell my life, or at least career, story in terms of four (or five) universities, and thus maybe give my readers (if I have any) an idea of where this blogger is coming from when he blogs (and why he blogs about languages, literature, linguistics, and God):

Bob Jones University I grew up in Japan (the son of a pastor) and returned to the U.S. to do an undergraduate degree in journalism and French at BJU. I never intended to stay in the U.S., but my sophomore year, a French teacher, and one of my best teachers ever whose blog you should check out, asked me to consider doing graduate studies in French to replace him at BJU. This was way out of my life plans, until God brought Miriam into my life. Love changes a whole lot of other emotions, and since she had been asked to stay and teach Spanish at BJU (she wanted to return to Mexico where she's from and her family lives), we figured we could stay at BJU together, teach, and take student groups abroad to the countries we loved. God knows how to change our heart's desires, eh? Thus began family (up to two sons now, but almost ready for more) and graduate studies (two graduate degrees down, two to go).

University of Portsmouth —After a master's degree in Counseling at BJU, I did an online master's in Translation Studies from the University of Portsmouth. This was great not only in preparing me for further graduate work in French, but also in introducing me to online degrees (I still have yet to visit Portsmouth, England) as well as opening the field of translation studies to me. This somewhat non-traditional route (the traditional route on a resume would be B.A., French; M.A., French; Ph.D., French) led me to my next university.

Middlebury College — In a biased and non-scientific way, I can affirm that Middlebury College has the best language program in the whole world. I am currently a candidate in the Doctor of Modern Languages program (unique to Middlebury), majoring in French and minoring in Spanish. That's why I'm in Paris, to finish coursework through Middlebury's exchange program with Université Sorbonne Nouvelle - Paris 3 (which would be the fifth institution in my academic parcours if counted separately). I take doctoral exams this summer in Vermont and should finish the dissertation in the next couple of years or so. With that, I will be set to teach French at BJU starting in 2015.

University of South Carolina — But since BJU does not need another French teacher until 2015, and I would still like more coursework and research opportunities, I applied and was accepted into the Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina - Columbia. I will be a senior teaching assistant as well as a presidential fellow. The STA part means that I will have the great opportunity to start teaching French before I'm on faculty at BJU. The presidential fellow part means I will have the (to me) awesome opportunity to continue focused research but in a reseach institution with professors and colleagues to collaborate with and guide me.

So we are in Paris for just two more months, but will continue living in Greenville from this July on, though I will be commuting to Columbia for the next four academic semesters. I love what I do, and am thankful for all the opportunities I have. I am also excited to start teaching full-time at BJU in just a couple more years. Though teaching in any university would be amazing, I particularly feel called to serve Christian students in their academic and philosophical formation, which obviously a Christian university like BJU is equipped to do best.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Comment lire Stello...ou n'importe quel autre livre

L'ironie de cette citation est qu'elle décrit exactement comment j'ai lu Stello (si vous n'avez jamais entendu de ce roman d'Alfred de Vigny, ce n'est pas grave !):
Si votre livre est écrit dans la solitude, l'étude et le recueillement, je souhaite qu'il soit lu dans le recueillement, l'étude et la solitude ; mais soyez à peu près certain qu'il sera lu à la promenade, au café, en calèche, entre les causeries, les disputes, les verres, les jeux et les éclats de rire, ou pas du tout.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Book Review: The Lost Art of Listening

The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve RelationshipsThe Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationships by Michael P. Nichols
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I only give this book three stars (I liked it) but would still say everyone should seriously consider reading it.

Reasons to read it:
1) It made me think hard about a huge part of my relationships, particularly family.
2) It contains a lot of wisdom about listening.

Reasons not to read it (and why I didn't REALLY like it):
1) Like a lot of psychology books, it could have been condensed to maybe half the length by cutting out generalized and extraneous case studies/examples. It is also very repetitive, again often the case for books on psychology.
2) It gets a few things dead wrong, because it approaches human nature and relationships from a general, contemporary Western, ultimately non-Christian viewpoint.

Great quotation (last line of the book): "Listening isn't a need we have; it's a gift we give."

View all my reviews

Saturday, March 23, 2013

An Eminently Usable Quote

In spite of the fact that some quotations are just too contextual to be used as brief texts of wisdom, many quotes remain, of course, highly usable. Such is this one from the book The Lost Art of Listening:
When you demonstrate a willingness to listen with a minimum of defensiveness, criticism, or impatience, you are giving the gift of understanding -- and earning the right to have it reciprocated.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Un homme de son temps

De l'édition parisienne du journal 20Minutes (jeudi 21 février 2013):

Parlant de l'intervention au Mali et la famille française kidnapée au Caméroun, Laurent Fabius, ministre des Affaires étrangères, se révèle tout à fait formé par son époque et toutes ses contradictions: "Leurs buts et leurs méthodes sont contraires aux droits humains élémentaires. Nous devons les combattre. Cela n'a rien à voir avec des questions de religion ou de civilisation."

Les droits humains n'ont rien à voir avec les questions de civilisation, voire de religion ? Ils viennent d'où exactement alors ?

Thursday, March 14, 2013


I hear a lot about globalization and its phenomena, but I read something a couple of weeks ago about deglobalization. In the French newspaper 20Minutes (free in the Paris metro), the the Arnaud Montebourg, the French Minister of Industrial Renewal, defended the "deglobalization of personal data."

The interview with Montebourg was about guidelines his ministry wants to put in place and promote at the national and EU levels of governance for Facebook and Google. According to him, the two Internet giants basically do whatever they want because they have no regulations. He defended the idea of personal data belonging to the individuals who use Facebook and Google.

When asked, "N'est-il pas normal que Facebook et Google puissent exploiter ces données? Ils ont inventé ce business" (Isn't it normal for Facebook and Google to exploit these data? They invented this business.), Montebourg replied, "On ne les empêchera pas de les exploiter. On va 'juste' leur demander d'investir et de payer des impôts en France. C'est la démondialisation des données personnelles" (We're not going to keep them from exploiting the data. We're "only" going to ask them to invest in and pay taxes in France. It's the deglobalization of personal data).

I'm not sure what I think about Montebourg's politico-economic position, though my gut feeling is that it sounds nice. When he talks of "souveraineté économique et numérique des Européens" (Europeans' economic and digital sovereignty), I am definitely reminded that I'm in Europe and not the U.S. But what interested me most was his use of the term deglobalization. It's natural, of course, to have to talk of that now, since we have so globalized the world through language, politics, entertainment, and industry, that particularities are bound to come surging back, which is the process of deglobalization.

Monday, March 11, 2013

An Impossible-to-Use Quotation

If there is a proper response, a truly wise response, to the narrative of this book, it surely begins with the recognition that if everyone is bad to the bone -- if all of us strut and fret our hour upon the stage, filled with the consciousness of our injured merit, fairly glowing with self-praise -- then our condition is, first and above all else, comical.
This is the last sentence of the last chapter of Alan Jacobs' book Original Sin. It is what I would call an (almost) impossible-to-use quotation, at least as I like to use short quotations (without their context and as little nuggets of wisdom).

You have to read almost the whole book, and definitely the last chapter, to appreciate the quotation. Jacobs is using the last word, "comical," in a technical sense related to theater and poetry. His evaluation of humanity's depraved condition, of the sin we all inherit and participate in, is profound. What else can I say? Read the whole book!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Impossible-to-Use Quotations

I am not sure whether it is profound or superficial to like pithy, sum-up-all-of-life-in-a-sentence-or-two quotations, but I like them. Sometimes I come across quotations so good that they almost take my breath away just like an awesome vista of nature; if they don't literally do that, they do stop me in my tracks and force me to meditate and re-read and marvel at them. Unfortunately, however, some of these quotations are very difficult to share because of their context. Without quoting almost a page or two, some of these quotations would not be understandable. Do you ever have that experience? I have one like that that I want to share in the next day or two. It's SO good, that I just have to share, even it means giving more context.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Une pensée saussurienne...

...le lendemain du centenaire de la mort de Ferdinand de Saussure.
Le rôle caractéristique de la langue vis-à-vis de la pensée n’est pas de créer un moyen phonique matériel pour l’expression des idées, mais de servir d’intermédiaire entre la pensée et le son, dans des conditions telles que leur union aboutit nécessairement à des délimitations réciproques d’unités. La pensée, chaotique de sa nature, est forcée de se préciser en se décomposant.
--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156                         

Friday, February 22, 2013

Today in Language: Ferdinand de Saussure

It is hardly exaggeration to call Ferdinand de Saussure the father of modern linguistics. He was influenced by many predecessors (i.e., he didn't invent linguistics, or even some of his key concepts). He was made known by his students (without whom he may not even have been published), chiefly Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye, important linguists in their own right. Yet Saussure serves well as both a marker in linguistic history as well as an original thinker.

The most significant aspect of Saussure's structuralism, as laid out in his Cours de linguistique générale, are the linguistic pairs he introduced. Study of language would focus on both diachronic and synchronic analyses. Significant layers of human language would begin to unfold with the differentiation between langue and parole. And the distinction between signifier and signified in the linguistic sign would enrich and nuance studies from morphology to phonology, not to mention open pathways to new linguistic subdisciplines.

All of these pairs (not strict either/or pairs, and definitely not dichotomies) opened up linguistic inquiry in directions researchers had not much thought of. In its turn, of course, Saussurean structuralism also incited much critique itself and led to a whole century of poststructuralism.

Saussure died exactly 100 years ago today, February 22, 1913.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Saussurean Thought...

...on the eve of the centennial of Ferdinand de Saussure's death.
The characteristic role of language in relation to thought is not to create a material phonic means for the expression of ideas, but to serve as an intermediary between thought and sound, in such conditions that their union necessarily leads to reciprocal delimitations of [linguistic] unities. Thought, chaotic in its nature, is forced to clarify itself in breaking itself down.
--Cours de linguistique générale, p. 156

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Today in Language: Molière

Un certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, ou Molière si vous voulez, est mort à Paris le 17 février 1673. La fontaine Molière, au carrefour de la Rue Molière et la Rue Richelieu, n'est qu'un de la multitude de souvenirs du dramaturge français le plus célèbre.

A certain Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, or Molière as you may have heard him called, died in Paris on February 17, 1673. The Fontaine Molière, right in the heart of Paris and a couple of blocks from the Coméide Française that owes much to France's most famous playwright, is just one of many historical traces of Molière in the City of Lights.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Book Review: The Greater Journey

A superb departure gift from a cousin as my family and I moved to France last year, The Greater Journey by David McCullough fulfills for me several roles:
  • pleasure reading (in the midst of an overwhelming amount of other reading in contemporary French literature, postcolonial theory, and linguistics and pedagogy)
  • information on historical Paris
  • information on my cultural past (both French and American), particularly in regard to influential Americans (Samuel Morse, Emma Willard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper) and how they benefited from time they spent living in Paris. (Hey, like me!)
I am thinking of writing an extended chapter-by-chapter review of this superb book by a superb storyteller of the past (he's not of the past, but recounts the past). In the meantime let me give two reasons to read this book (and none not to read, so far as I can tell):
  1. You are an American moving to Paris (or any nationality moving to any other country) for a time and will both discover more about the world and about yourself.
  2. It's simply a fascinating read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study in Academia

The previous two posts on linguistic kindness and sanity focused on case studies from politics. An area that, for its public nature and its public "wordiness" and its strong emotions, is highly susceptible to linguistic unkindness and linguistic insanity. Today we turn to a case study from a very different domain, one inhabited by folks who really should "know better": academia.

The Story
It is not exactly a story, more of an example. Alan Jacobs, who has written many fascinating books, is a professor of English. In December of last year, on his blog The American Conservative, he wrote the following regarding the word extrovert (or extravert, if you prefer): "FYI, [extravert is] the proper spelling: extrovert is common but wrong, because extra- is the proper Latin prefix."

Linguistic Sanity
Those of us who study and teach language have to call each other out at times: what Jacobs wrote is wrong. The only accurate part of the sentence is that "extrovert is common." So why is this our example of questionable linguistic sanity in academia?

  1. Often, though not always, what is common determines what is conventional (i.e., acceptable), whether the issue is one of grammar, spelling, or orthography. Very few English speakers use, or even know, the word extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually "proper."
  2. Calling any usage "wrong" is in itself problematic. If it's used, it's "right," though maybe not conventional or generally acceptable. Again, though, most English speakers use the word extrovert rather than extravert. Thus, extrovert is actually conventional.
  3. All English dictionaries [ALERT: unproven assertion [because I haven't actually bothered to check all English dictionaries]] list both extrovert and extravert as acceptable (usually in that order) or else list only extrovert. Thus, given that the standard of up-to-date dictionaries at the very least accepts the common usage, the usage extrovert is "proper."
  4. Since when was Latin etymology the standard for 21st-century English usage? Answer: never. Thus, extrovert is quite proper and acceptable.

Linguistic Kindness
All that said, it is totally fine for Jacobs himself to use the spelling extravert and even to alert us to the fact that it is an alternative to extrovert and perhaps a purer form. But telling us that extrovert is improper, particularly in a parenthetical introduced by a condescending "FYI" does not come across well. This attitude of your-usage-is-wrong-and-I'm-here-to-enlighten-you is what turns some students off when it comes to grammar and English in general.

At the same time, even when we see something we disagree with (in my case, Jacobs' questionable linguistic analysis/explanation), we must be gracious in our critique. Perhaps I have not been--you are the judge.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 2 in Politics

The last post discussed the urban legend surrounding President Kennedy's 1963 Berlin speech, a case study that revealed a potential lack of both linguistic kindness and sanity in the way it has been misused.

By contrast, the linguistic sanity of today's case study (i.e., the linguistic point that teachers and translators will draw from a mistake) is indisputable. We can learn much, however, about linguistic kindness.

The Story
At the beginning of the Obama administration, like at the beginning of every administration, everything was fresh and everyone was looking for change and renewal. Specifically in the area of foreign policy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Russia and conveyed to her Russian counterpart that the U.S. wanted to "reset" the relationship. She gave him a gift of a mock reset button that said "reset" in Russian. The problem, however, is that the Russian word chosen to print on the button actually means "overcharged."

Highly embarrassing, yes, and you can check out the story at BBC, because I can verify none of the details, 1) never having examined the button gift and 2) knowing absolutely no Russian anyway to be able to check the translation. But how should we respond, had this happened in 2013, our year of linguistic kindness and sanity?

Linguistic Sanity
Unfortunately, the linguistic sanity of the story and its humor are indisputable. It provides a good example of botched translations. It also raises the question of how extremely rich multinational corporations cannot get better translation services. (If the U.S. State Department is not technically a multinational corporation, it is arguably even richer and more powerful.)

Linguistic Kindness
In spite of the humor, however, linguistic mistakes should not, we repeat, become grounds to mock someone's character or politics. Whatever one thinks of the Obama administration's foreign policy, Hillary Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State, or even the success or failure of the so-called "Russian reset," the admittedly funny translation error should have no bearing whatsoever on those judgments.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity: Case Study 1 in Politics

If you know the following story, just pretend that you don't and that you are hearing a language teacher tell it for the first time to make a humorous point about mistakes we make when learning languages. We'll analyze the story and the humor afterwards.

The Story
President John F. Kennedy visited Berlin in 1963 and gave a speech to express solidarity with the people of West Berlin (and thus express America's foreign policy against the Soviet Union). He said one sentence in German because, of course, it always comes across well if you say a little something in your audience's natural language. He said, "Ich bin ein Berliner." Translation: I am a Berliner -- right? Well, actually, a Berliner is a specific type of German pastry, meaning that the president actually said, "I am a jelly donut." Whoops! Ha ha!

Analysis: The Story
I am no expert on this story, much less the Kennedy presidency or the Cold War. You can read a thorough account of the speech and context on Wikipedia. I don't think the facts are important to the linguistic point other than the use and meaning of the German phrase. What is significant, however, is the supposed humor of the story.

Analysis: The Humor
The humor is supposed to remind us of the fraughtness and dangerosity of using words we don't know or trying to make up words in our second language. And it comforts those of us who have made hilarious mistakes in other languages to know that even the most powerful and public figures have done the same.

The problem with this story, however, is that Kennedy simply did not say that he was a jelly donut. If he had, of course it would be hilarious. Even if he had, however, it would not be a good reason to ignore the politics of his speech or grounds for disagreeing with his politics and presidency (although other reasons there may be). Thus linguistic kindness, or fairness, is in order. Don't look for any old reason to attack someone whose politics you disagree with.

What Kennedy did say (in German) is "I am a Berliner." And he meant that he was a (West) Berliner ideologically speaking, as opposed to a Communist. A Berliner in German does refer to a type of jelly donut. And it is also refers to an occupant of the city of Berlin. Thus we have an example of a homograph/homonym, a word that has multiple (and sometimes quite disparate) meanings but all of which rely on the same orthographic and phonetic representation. Read more (and watch a video) on Wikipedia.

For example, have you ever said, "I'm dead"? If you have and no one laughed or at least looked at you with a weird look, why not? Because dead means "physically dead" as well as "physically tired."

To the Point: Linguistic Kindness and Sanity
So let's be both kind and sane in how we think and talk of others' language usage. Kind, because it's right. Even if a politician makes a linguistic mistake, that probably has no bearing on whether his or her politics is good or bad. Sane, because otherwise we might be the ones people laugh at! In other words, we have to make sure we know what we're talking about before we critique someone for saying something like "Ich bin ein Berliner," or the joke will be on us.

Friday, February 1, 2013

For Linguistic Kindness and Sanity in 2013...

. . . and beyond.

But if we can have just the last 11 months this year with basic linguistic kindness and sanity, that would be a great start! Those who work in academics, and particularly the humanities perhaps, do not have an immediate impact on the major, visible problems of evil in the world (greed, idolatry, violence, poverty, oppression). But improving how we think about, say, language does change how we think about others and then ultimately how we treat them. A trickle-down effect if you will.

Linguistic Kindness
So how do we think kindly about others' usage of language? I would argue that it starts with humility. Regardless of how much we know about language in comparison to someone else, we do not allow ourselves to think less of them when they use language or say things about language (metalinguistics) that we disagree with or even know to be patently wrong.

Linguistic Sanity
At the same time, we must insist that none of us knows as much about language, or anything else, as we would like to. So before we make linguistic condemnations or pronouncements, let's be sure we know that what we are saying is true, sane.

Concrete examples of all this to follow . . .

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

2012 Language News Update - Addendum 2

This is the final addition to the latest Language News Update. Read the first two parts and the first addendum as well if you like.

This latest piece of language news/research comes from researchers at the University of Washington. They have looked into how brain structure before babies' first birthday can predict problems in language development. The actual title of the study: "Early gray-matter and white-matter concentration in infancy predict later language skills: A whole brain voxel-based morphometry study." I do not know what the second part of the title means (particularly the words voxel and morphometry, but this sounds like, if not a breakthrough, a huge step in the right direction for understanding both the brain and language and children and language.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My Google Demographics

Google knows what I do--online anyway. My blog belongs to Google, I search almost exclusively on Google, and I have a (Google) YouTube account. So I was amused the other day when for the first time I checked my Google ad preferences. They were more or less right in regard to what I search for online (literature, spirituality, news, language references) but were off in a couple of key categories:

Jeremy Patterson
Age: 35-44
Sex: Female
Languages: French, English, Italian

I am a 28-year-old male (if you are female and named Jeremy, that's fine with me, but I'm just sayin' . . .) and know no Italian. I don't think I've ever searched for any Italian words online either, but who knows.

I figured even Google needs a little help sometimes, so I straightened it out and hope for more interesting ads in the future.