Friday, March 20, 2009

"I feel the need--the need for speed"

It's almost disturbing how many times in a day I find quotes from Top Gun making their way to the tip of my tongue. (This is one of the aspects I recall from The Reluctant Fundamentalist: how young financial analysts spoke in Top-Gun-ese to one another with such fluency and understanding, like a secret language insulated from generations ahead and behind.)

Sadly (why "sadly?"), I don't think any movie seeped into my conciousness (and unconscious) like Top Gun. Even now, I can't resist the allure when it's playing on TBS. A couple of years ago I made a pilgrimmage to the bar in San Diego which was home to the famous "carnal knowledge" scene. Indeed, it was a treat for me to introduce my two older boys to the movie about a year ago--though I think they remain puzzled my its special spell on me (what's their Top Gun?).

What is it about the movie? How is it that Tom Cruise still seems to just ooze cool when I watch it (leaving Kelly McGillis hanging in that elevator scene)? That Goose seems like a friend to die for, whose own death is heartbreaking? Or is it the fact that this was the first silhouette of a kiss I saw that involved a tongue (!)? I confess I lack any critical capacity on these questions. It's too close to me--too tightly woven into the warp-and-woof of my memory and self-understanding.

Indeed, it shapes my language. The quips and tropes of the movie come to me like the cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. Whereas my younger brother, fascinated with weapons and war, could quote every bit of dialogue from First Blood, I absorbed the dialogue of Top Gun like a second language. What a treat, then, for me to find this page at which, in archiving "memorable quotes" from the movie, seems to pretty much cover the entire film. It's hard to select any particular favorites, but who can forget:

Charlie: Excuse me, Lieutenant. Is there something wrong?
Maverick: Yes ma'am, the data on the MiG is inaccurate.
Charlie: How's that, Lieutenant?
Maverick: Well, I just happened to see a MiG 28 do a...
Goose: We!
Maverick: Uh, sorry Goose. WE happened to see a MiG 28 do a 4g negative dive.
Charlie: Where did you see this?
Maverick: Uh, that's classified.
Charlie: It's what?
Maverick: It's classified. I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you.
or this exhcange (followed by Val Kilmer's weird jaw clench):
Iceman: You two really are cowboys.
Maverick: What's your problem, Kazanski?
Iceman: You're everyone's problem. That's because every time you go up in the air, you're unsafe. I don't like you because you're dangerous.
Maverick: That's right! Ice... man. I am dangerous.
These and a hundred others could roll off my tongue without thinking about it. I suppose the only thing that's "sad" about this is that the Psalms don't come to my lips nearly as easily.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Wolterstorff Redux: An Update

As I noted earlier, I made several contributions to the Immanent Frame symposium on Wolterstorff's Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Wolterstorff generously wrote a response to those three pieces entitled "The Fine Texture: A Response to Smith." And Immanent Frame has now posted my reply to Wolterstorff, "'Bob and Weave': A Response to Wolterstorff." Here's a snippet:

Nicholas Wolterstorff’s calm, careful, humble response to my posts might make me look like an overly pugilistic polemicist. But I think he’s just from a different school of pugilism. (As a Canadian and long-time hockey player, I think pugilism is a great way to spend a Friday night, with beers afterward.) Wolterstorff is a careful student of the “bob and weave” school of philosophical polemics, turning ill-advised haymakers into merely glancing blows. I, on the other hand, tend to be a student of the George Foreman school of philosophical polemics (and frequent user of his grills to boot!): I’m easily sucked in by rope-a-dopes. Why stop now?

Read the rest of "'Bob and Weave': A Response to Wolterstorff."

Friday, March 13, 2009

Post-Secular Conference at Yale

Folks on the East Coast might be interested in attending an upcoming conference at the MacMillan Center at Yale University, "Exploring the Post-Secular," April 3-4, 2009. It's free and open to the public.

It's a working conference, bringing together an interdisciplinary collection of scholars to share drafts of what will eventually be chapters of a book. I'll be presenting a paper on the Friday afternoon, entitled "Secular Liturgies and the Prospects for a 'Post-Secular' Social Science." (I don't know if I'll have time to discuss it--my draft is 40 pp. long--but a long section of the paper explores the "secular liturgies" found in the so-called 'postmodern' literature of David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker, and Cormac McCarthy.)

The context or rationale for the conference is described this way:

There has been a great deal of talk in recent years suggesting that we have entered a “post-secular” age. Much of this is a response to the resurgence of politicized religion on the world scene. But what, if anything, does the term “post-secular” even mean? Have we really entered into a post-secular age? And if so, what implications, if any, does this have for the social sciences? Do these developments imply a new approach to the study of religion? A wholesale reconstruction of social science? A shift towards social philosophy? Is there such a thing as “post-secular social science”?

This conference brings together a number of analysts of religion and its entanglements with the world in an attempt to assess these questions. We will address the possible meanings of religion and of the various terms with roots in the term “secular”: secularism, secularity, secularization. Without some grappling with the question of what religion is, it is very difficult to say what secularity or secularization might entail. We will explore the extent to which the “return of religion” is a product of an actual upsurge of religiosity around the world as opposed to greater scholarly attention to religion. We will also examine the ways in which the global religious situation may compel us to reconsider how we think about both religion and social science.

A pdf of the program and schedule is available here. It includes a contact for registration and further information.

The meeting is co-sponsored by the MacMillan Center Initiative on Religion, Politics, and Society, the Center for Comparative Research at Yale University, the Social Science Research Council, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A-Political Science?

NPR commentators this morning seem positively giddy about the news that today President Obama will sign an order overturning the Bush administration's restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. They seemed particularly fond of the mantra that this administration would be guided by "science, not politics"--and that Obama's administration would further "separate" science and politics.

This, of course, is taken to be the "enlightened" position, in contrast to the neanderthal policies of the Bush administration which let science be controlled by political ideology. In other words, according to this line, science under Bush was governed and controlled by politics. Instead, we need to liberate science from such unscientific controls--we need to liberate science to be a-political. Indeed, it seems that Obama will suggest the inverse: that our politics and policy needs to be governed by science. The paragons of the Enlightenment couldn't have put it any better.

But methinks this Enlightenment could use a little further enlightenment. Perhaps Obama's address will be more nuanced than the NPR buzz about it, but to suggest the liberation of science from politics is a naive conceit. There is no a-political science. (I might suggest that David Axelrod add a couple of books to the Air Force One library: Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy). That's not to say, of course, that science can't be hijacked by ideology; clearly it can. But the alternative to ideological science is not pure, a-political science. The best we can hope for is an honest, attentive science driven by "good" politics--and the latter, of course, is the source of much debate. The NPR/Democratic ruse about a pure, a-political science indicates a naive politics at best.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Proof(s) of Happiness, Books of Sadness

I've just finished correcting the page proofs for The Devil Reads Derrida--and the proofs for Desiring the Kingdom are now staring at me from the desk with an accusatory glare.

This is my favorite stage of book production. The manuscripts were sent off months ago with a "Good riddance!" of exhaustion and frustration, cast out into the world with an angst and insecurity that masks itself in temerity. By that time, the manuscript--usually overdue--has been hanging around like a smelly uncle who wore out his welcome months ago. During the final stages, all of its blemishes and failures and irritating ticks swell and overwhelm your perception of the book, so you tell yourself that you're just "too close" to it and look forward to seeing it with fresh eyes upon its return to your desk.

By the time a marked-up, copy-edited version of the manuscript is returned, it's just a more blemished, disheartening version of what you sent off. Except now an editor--sometimes with red pencil--has seen all the same failures and pockmarks. Your worst fears are confirmed and now you're mired in attention to these details, struggling to still find that "distance" you were hoping for. It still reeks of that unwelcome uncle. It even still looks the same--it looks like a document you generated from your printer, or it's simply a photocopied version of your manuscript. This doesn't feel any closer to being a book; it feels even further away.

But then a few months pass. You're quite glad to have sort of forgotten about the thing. And then a box arrives: crisp, taped, with a distinct shape, the publisher's address emblazoned on the top of the label. You know what's inside: the page proofs.

It's hard to articulate the transformation that takes place. For me, it recalls the experience of moving from dot matrix printers to the crisp Times New Roman of laser printers. My academic career tracked this development. I've gone from having an electric typewriter, to an amped-up version of an electric typewriter that actually had a kind of disk system, to a dot matrix printer that rattled its high-speed labor across reams of paper connected by a perforated fold. Dot matrix already wowed me a bit: here was my introduction to fonts. But then I saw someone printing with a laser printer in a Times New Roman that looked like a book! This seemed like the grail itself: the work spit out from the laser printer seemed to come with the imprimatur of "publishing."

When I finally finished my master's thesis, I felt like this was a sort of coming of age because it was printed on a laser printer in Times New Roman. It will seem crazy, but this was a gift to me, in a very tangible way. At the time (indeed, during the entirety of my master's degree), I was working the night shift at a feedmill in Cambridge, Ontario. The business manager was incredibly kind to me, and offered to let me print my thesis from his laser printer. I was thrilled and grateful. I had never seen the words in crisp Times New Roman during the whole process, and here at the end, it emerged from the printer with the shape of what felt like "a book." (It would later be published as The Fall of Interpretation.)

Now we're used to the banality of Times New Roman. That's the mundane shape of the manuscripts that leave our desk. But I'll never tire of cracking open the page proofs. This "thing" that's been hanging around your neck like a millstone, sometimes for years, now looks like a book. I even love the marginal cut lines and marks for the printer. It's always made me feel like "a writer."

And so I relish page proofs. Though I also enjoy it while I can, because I know what's coming: that inevitable, post-partum-like depression when the actual book is in your hands.

Monday, March 02, 2009

On Wolterstorff's "Justice" @ Immanent Frame

The Immanent Frame is staging an interdisciplinary symposium on Nicholas Wolterstorff's magnum opus, Justice: Rights and Wrongs--in part, no doubt, because Wolterstorff argues that there can be no sufficient secular grounding of rights.

I'll be contributing several posts to the symposium. The first--"The Paucity of Secularism?"--is online today. The next couple will appear throughout this week. The ensuing posts will begin to articulate a critique of the project--or at least some of the readings that undergird the project.