Sunday, November 28, 2010

The kids are wondering how knowledge quest works.  Part of the answer is that it's a work in progress.

If you go to this facebook group (ask to join and I'll let you in), I've posted links to what it has been, but at bottom what it is is an open-ended attempt to extend the reach of the life of the mind online.  Rather than re-creating an education, it's trying to rethink how we educate ourselves.

It started as a thought experiment about how I"d make a university from the ground up if someone came to me with a blank check and carte blanche to experiment. My initial thought was that I'd take a handful of professors who were experts in their own discipline (not necessarily interdisciplinarians) but whose intellectual and personal interests were broad and have them meet one on one with students, trying to figure out what it was the students thought they were interested in learning and trying to figure out how to channel that into teaching specific disciplinary objectives (doing something that meets up to the rigors of what a liberal arts education is supposed to be but through a different mechanism. E.g. a kid who is interested in globalization is sent to find the best Korma cook in Mumbai while studying Chemistry, comes back reports who she's learned and then is sent maybe to New Orleans to learn music theory and hanging with the Indian-American community there).

Now, I don't have a blank check (not one anyone would cash), but we do can do any kind of experimenting we want, so I've been messing around with the idea of just having people pose me "fundamental" questions, questions they find themselvesreturning to over and over again (mine is "what's the difference between beings and metaphors" but others have involved superheroes, and it could be something as simple as "why do I date the same person again and again?"
Then I'll send you on a knowledge quest. Report back and we'll go from there.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Few Words Whispered Out of Calypso's Earshot

Penelope, bas relief. Penelope, sitting with O...Image via Wikipedia
A Few Words Whispered Out of Calypso's Earshot

Entranceless, entranced
circular time,
on the island that each of us
individually is,
bending shorelines, ageless silences.

Dispel this maudlin grist,
these meaningless reflections!

Over the waters,
annihilated by the commotion
of the wind and wave whither its words are borne,
the night spoke to me in a voice
that could not have been my own
as it painted a smile
whose anonymous eyes far outstripped
what I remembered your face 
to be.

When I heard those shapely lines,
My self-certitude melted like Descartes' wax.
My memory failed me,
ravaged by time's vicissitudes,
(spent, perhaps, too strenuously elsewhere),
a mute and feeble thing
that holds in its emptied form
only this last recurring theme:

How I long for you to return.
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Friday, September 24, 2010

Liberal Arts' Declaration of Independence

    I think at this point in the history of the American academy, folks in the liberal arts might benefit from old-school privatization.  I don't mean the neo-liberal kind, where you replace state funding with funding from multi-national corporations who fund research that they think will be profitable for them, but the kind embodied in the old German word Privatdozent (I recognize that is pretty low down in the old academic totem pole, but that's just a sign of where the academy is today).
   What if liberal arts professors ran their own classes and "bid" to have them fulfill requirements in the course catalog?  In my current position, I make about $100-200 a student a course.  When I taught adjunct at an Ivy League school it was somewhere nearer to $250 a student a course.  But students at my current institution only pay about $1000 a course (so I make a little over 10% of what they pay) whereas they pay a hell of lot more than that at the Ivies (let's lowball it at $6000 which would mean I was making less than 5% of the tuition take).  If folks with tenure calculated their rate, it would be better, but adjuncts and T.A.'s would be even worse off.
   I wager that I could put together my own support and bid on a license and still do better.  If departments banded together (putting together faculties that cover needed courses, replacing a competitive approach with a collaborative one, getting health insurance, providing a at certain degree of security/stability, negotiating a package license with universities), they could do better still. In fact,when departments are functional, this is essentially what they do.  Instead, we in the "service" departments teach lots of classes, put lots of asses in lots of seats, and get paid a fraction of what professors  in other departments make.  But we're still told that we need to trim back, because we aren't bringing in big research dollars.
   It's true, we're not, but I'd wager that we're bringing in more than enough to cover ourselves.   What we can't cover is huge overhead, much of which just so happens to be eaten up by administrative salaries.  For the record, administrators don't teach too many classes (that's not their job --- I know).  Originally they were hired to "administer" the business end of teaching so that could teachers could, well, teach.  Now, they run teaching as a business.  Faculty are their employees, and whether they support themselves or not is less important than whether they are operating as cheaply as possible.  Now, to their credit, since most universities are not-for-profit, administrators only make inflated salaries, and not obscene salaries.  So they have to do what people at any non-profit do.
  Spend the money on the raison-d'etre of the institution!
  Haha, I'm just kidding.  They do what any non-profit does.  Spend it on crap and perks for themselves that nobody really needs!
  If teacher's can't keep up the tremendous amount of capital it takes administrations to run themselves comfortably, perhaps they should declare their independence.
  That, or the guillotine.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Trading Up: Round Five of NPR's 3-minute fiction contest

Some people swore that the house was haunted.  But haunted houses are, as a rule, aged, decrepit, crumbling affairs.  There’s a difference between something falling apart and being torn apart.
They were laughing as they entered the first-floor master, near the great room, whose wiring had been ripped out.  He had said something hilarious to the realtor, who was laughing warmly.  She was laughing, politely --- she was a good sport --- but he could hear the laughter’s sharp edges.  He laughed to show he was harmless.  They were buying a house together, which means love.
I can get you a deal on the plumbing.  From my brother-in-law, actually.”  The realtor pointed through the French doors, four panes of frosted glass kicked out, to the big master bathroom, which had once been tricked out with fancy bronze and copper fixtures.  She wanted them to be sure they knew the house was still a steal.
“That’s very kind of your husband’s brother,” he said.
“My sister’s husband, actually.”  The realtor’s eyes flicked down to her hands, her ten bare knuckles.  He looked at her hands, at her face, smiled.
She turned around, said she wanted to see upstairs.  She was debating if she should walk out the front door.  But they’d all come together in the realtor’s car, a convertible Beamer, a lot like the car she’d drove when she met him.  But she had legs, didn’t she?  She’d run cross-country in school.
The realtor caught her arm gently.  Her honeyed voice told her she should really see the separate his and hers closets.
She was desperate to flee, imagined the old owners running, shaking the house’s dust from their feet, but she was cornered by manicured nails that were gripping her arm tightly, blanching the skin beneath.
“There was a full-length mirror in here, but it’s broken now.  You should put a new one in. You can really see the true colors of things with all the natural light in here.”
The big skylights let the Nevada sun pour in and made the huge clouds of dust look like snow.
The snow was falling on two prone bodies.
Both women shrieked.  He came running in, to save them, no doubt.
The bodies scrambled up.  They were children, nine or ten, twins maybe, two androgynous, blank faces.  They saw the adults had cornered them.  They shrank into the back of the room.
“Are you two okay?” he asked, gently, taking ownership of the house that wasn’t yet his.  He approached them slowly, carefully.
They said nothing, hugged each other, stared at the grown-ups.
His arm bumped a  loose shelf, which fell down, kicking up more dust.  In the blizzard, the children’s bodies became silhouettes.  Because he was a man, and knew how to behave manfully, he held out his hands, palms up, so they’d see he was safe.
While they were still silhouettes, their outlines began to blur until their bodies were replaced by two outlines of light.  The outlines became columns of dust, of air, of light, shimmered, vanished.
He turned around, puzzled, but ready to comfort the two women, as was his wont.
She looked at his eyes.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d really loved him.
She turned and ran, past the scratched-up walls, the hole-in-the-wall-sockets, out the front door. She didn’t stop at the car, just kept running, couldn’t decide if she should run for the city that shone like a mirage in the distance or for the real, substantial desert.
He sighed, but didn’t follow after her.
Nothing was ever the same again after that.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Poetry in Translation: Corona


From my hand, autumn eats up its leaf: we are friends.
We shell out time from the nuts and we teach it how to move,
But time turns right back towards its shell.

The mirror shows Sunday.
Sleep comes in a dream.
Truth comes from the mouth.

My eye climbs down towards the sex of my beloved.
Our eyes take each other in.
We speak together, dark things.
We love one another like poppy loves memory.
We sleep together, wine in conch shells,
Like the sea in the moon’s bloodbeam.

We stand slung together at the window, they look up at us from the street.
It is time that they know!
It is time for the stone to allow itself to bloom,
For the heart to pound offbeat.
It is time for time to come.

Yes, it’s time.

Paul Celan, from Mohn und Ged├Ąchtnis

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Imagined Dialogue on Kierkegaard: From Behind Closed Doors, Part Three

Excerpts from a Sample Conversation Between the King of the Counter-Cultural Scene and Elder Burns, Assistant to the Mission President, Reconstructed With the Aid of My Recently Re-Acquired College Notebooks To Help You Understand What I’m Trying to Tell You: Kierkegaard Edition
We join in medias lecturis:
Professor: ... That’s why Kierkegaard writes an ironic attack on Christendom.  He recognizes that Christendom doesn’t instantiate Christianity, but without knowing what that would be, he lacks the authority to engage in anything but an ironic attack on Christendom.  
Random Goody-Two-Shoes-Student: So what do you think he’d say about the Gospel.
Court Jester <sotto voce, but so that Elder Burns, Assistant to the President and the King of the Counter-Cultural Scene will be sure to hear>: Something ironic, no doubt.
E.B.A.P. : Once you have the Restoration of the Gospel, you don’t need irony.
Prof: Why’s that, Gary?
E.B.A.P.: Because you only need irony were there isn’t authority.  And once the Gospel’s restored, you have authority.
R.G.2.S.S.: Oh, is that why Kierkegaard says, he lacks the authority?
K.C.C.S. : Kierkegaard wrote pseudonymous works, right?  What’s the connection between authority and authorship?
E.B.A.P.  That’s off-topic.  Anyway, this isn’t pseudonymous.
Prof:  No, Isaac’s right to ask.  Remember, Kierkegaard says the key to the pseudonyms is their stance towards faith.
E.B.A.P.  But once the Gospel is restored, you don’t need any stance but the right one.
Prof: Ok, Gary, but if Kierkegaard doesn’t know what the Gospel is, how will he know the right one?
E.B.A.P. : The same way we do:  through faith and prayer.
Prof: So what you’re saying is that he’ll recognize the authority for the same reason that he recognizes that he doesn’t have the authority.
E.B.A.P. Yeah.  He recognizes the apostasy of Christendom and knows enough to know it’s an apostasy, which is all that we can really expect without the light of the Gospel.  
K.C.C.S:  I’m sorry.  I’m still having trouble with the pseudonyms.  I mean, what about Anti-Climacus? He’s supposed to be a higher pseudonym, right?
E.B.A.P:  So what?
Prof: Remember, he represents, Kierkegaard’s understanding of the perspective of Christ?
K.C.C.S.: But isn’t Kierkegaard’s relationship to Anti-Climacus still ironic?
Prof: Yeah, but it’s a higher sort of irony.
K.C.C.S.: But Elder --- Gary --- sorry, we served on missions together.  Gary said there wouldn’t be irony from that perspective.
E.B.A.P.: Kierkegaard isn’t scripture, Elder Smith.
K.C.C.S.: I don’t remember saying that he was.  It just seems to me like authoirty is a lot less important to the question of authorship than faith.
E.B.A.P.: So what?
K.C.C.S: Well, for Kierkegaard, faith is all about a secret, inexpressible relationship to God, right?
E.B.A.P: But that’s because he doesn’t have the Gospel.
K.C.C.S.:  If he had, he wouldn’t have thought it was so secret?
E.B.A.P:  Right.
K.C.C.S.: So what would it have been instead?
E.B.A.P. <sarcastically>: It would have been the Gospel, Isaac.
K.C.C.S.: And what’s that.
E.B.A.P.: It’s what the Brethren say.
K.C.C.S.: And they have authority?
E.B.A.P: Are you saying they don’t?
K.C.C.S.: Of course not, I’m just making sure I understand you.
E.B.A.P.: It doesn’t matter if you understand as long as you understand the Brethren.
K.C.C.S: And what they say isn’t secret?
E.B.A.P.: Of course not.
Court-Jester:  It’s sacred.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Daddy and the Date with the Giant

This is to show the giant.  The other picture is seats in the opera house
This is a story that Ideas Girl and I wrote using boggle dice for our prompt:   
Daddy and the Date With the Giant

I went on a date with a giant and here's how the story goes.  I was putting bolts in some furniture when the giant came and said "May you come and have a date with me?"  The giant had brought a present.  It was doggy bones because we got a new doggy.  The Giant didn't know how to sing his Alphabet so he sang "Ah Be Cee She She Ah Gee Ah Boh Kee Da Owee."  The Giant was only 2, but he was still bigger than me.

The Giant gave me and Ideas Girl a quest.  We had to go to the opera, where Ideas Girl wore a bunny costume, and I was one of the lions.  And there was a car that we rode in at the opera while we sang "OPERA!"  While we were in the car, we sang "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star / How I wonder / What you Are."  Then we saw a crow.  It was eating the pie for our picnic, and we said, "Oh well, we'll go get another one."  So we did.  And then we find two gingerbreads for dessert.

There was water that we could have for our drink.

The End.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Knowledge Questors visit the Creation Museum

(Link to full photo display)

During the first Knowledge Quest road trip, Matt, Jacob and I took what we thought would be a side trip to the Creation Museum.  Little did we know how crucial it would be for the whole road trip.

For those of you who don't know what it is, the Creation Museum define itself thusly:

The state-of-the-art 70,000 square foot museum brings the pages of the Bible to life, casting its characters and animals in dynamic form and placing them in familiar settings. Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Children play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers. The serpent coils cunningly in the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Majestic murals, great masterpieces brimming with pulsating colors and details, provide a backdrop for many of the settings.
 It was built on the Kentucky/Ohio/Indiana border (in the suburbs of Cincinnati) by Ken Hamm (a nutso Australian who I've written some hilarious jokes about) amid great controversy and has become a flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars in the United States.

Ken Hamm is a young earth creationist.  Unlike old-earth creationists, who believe that the earth is 4.5 billion years old but that it was "created' by a God using mechanisms utterly different than those that the modified molecular theory of evolution describes, or intelligent designers, who accept the basic mechanisms of the modified molecular theory but hold that the only explanation for these mechanisms is teleological (an "intelligent designer") young earth creationists hold that the earth (indeed the entire universe) is slightly older than 6000 years old and was created according to a highly literal reading of the narrative in the Bible's Book of Genesis.

The primary purpose of our knowledge quest had been to explore the Indiana-Ohio border and figure out how to provoke a war between the two states and this trip to the Creation Museum was supposed to be a lark, a little joke.  We knew some of our less ironic friends would be furious at us for even going so we decided we'd atone by taking pictures so they could learn about it without having to go.  We thought the hardest part would be keeping straight faces and getting caught.  We'd concocted a back story about being youth ministers in training.  We'd decided we were "agnostic" about the evolution/creation debate, since we couldn't pull off full-fledged believers.  (We later learned that our best bet would have been to bring women and children and pretend to be closeted gay men --- then we'd have fit right in).  Little did we realize it wouldn't be hard not to laugh.  We'd be too busy being scared shitless.

The ticket taker told us the main exhibit space would take us 20 minutes.  It took us about 5 hours.  (Creationists are very bad at estimating time).

We ended up taking copious photographs, which I'm linking to here.  I think we got almost every display, scrap of text, or what have you.  I've included captions and commentary to explain them and make sense of them, but I'll post some general thoughts here.

We are not philosophers of science, although Matt and Jacob had classes with UT's fantastic Dr. M (who is) and I've grown up around scientists and been doing more with the Theory of Evolution specifically because of some work I've been doing on Plato, Nietzsche and Heidegger (a project on separating formal and final causes and temporalizing formal explanations that I call Platonism after Darwin).  My background is much more steeped in the philosophy of culture and art and social and political context, and that's what I personally have taught to Matt and Jacob.  So we're not going to comment as much on the "science" on the Museum as on how it functions as a "work of art."

The thesis that I'll outline here is that the Creation Museum, taken as a whole, is a masterpiece of ideology for the sake of ideology.  I'll explain what I mean by that a little bit here, but the full explanation is given in the context of the pictures we took and the captions/explanations we provide.  This is also where we'll support this thesis.

Let me offer a brief explanation of what I mean, though: 

We had expected that there would be a lot of emphasis put on offering "alternative explanations" of natural history, but this was in fact not the case.  I suspect that they take the work they've done poisoning public discourse in America for granted.  The sad fact is that far too many Americans think that there is a genuine scientific debate and that the Theory of Evolution isn't particularly well proven.  Of course, this is utter nonsense, but we'd expected the Museum to try to make a scientific argument.

In fact, the main argument that was made was "moral," as our friend Danstead had asserted it would be.  The Museum relied on setting up a false dichotomy: either CREATIONISM or NIHILISM.  Once this dichotomy is established and the need for accepting creationism asserted, the museum then sets up an alternative narrative, which we'll have occasion to talk about below.

The main exhibit dealt with four of what the Museum called the seven C's in their narrative of creation: Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion, Christ, Cross, Consummation.  The first four are all taken from a highly literalistic reading of the first few fifteen or so chapters of Genesis.  The last three are taken from an equally literalistic, but now highly selective, reading of the Hebrew Prophets (esp. Isaiah), the Gospels, and the book of Revelations. I say highly selective because they manage to avoid not only the entire social justice message of so many of the prophets and the gospels, but also, for example, almost the entire Resurrection, which is presumably pretty important for most accounts of Christianity.

The narrative, and the initial argument is tremendously, exorbitantly violent.  We had been expecting the Museum to be a foray into the culture wars and to implicitly support the socially and fiscally conservative agenda of the religious right.  Of course it did this, but not quite as explicitly as you'd expect.  And the sheer violence of the narrative was so striking that it seemed excessive for a mere bulwark of an ideology that many people already support --- to say nothing of justifying the enormous price-tag of the Museum.  We had been expecting a patchwork, ad-hoc bunch of dinosaurs and people (something like Jesus riding a triceratops).  We got some of that, but the presentation went far beyond that and was, frankly, masterful.


To understand that, let's break down what the trip to the museum consisted of.

Our experience at the Museum essentially consisted in four parts:

1) Our tour of the main exhibit.
2) A highly sophisticated planetarium show.
3) A terrifying little film about the last 3 C's (Christ, Cross, Consummation), called "The Last Adam"
4) A speech by the Man Himself.  No, not God.  Ken Hamm, who talked to the kids about dinosaurs, and scared the bejeezus out of the rest of us.

To understand how the Museum functions ideologically, it's necessary to think about each of these parts.

But first, let's divide potential visitors to the Museum (and America more broadly) into three groups.

1)  True Believers.  There are the people who already belong to the Religious Right.  They may or may not be familiar with the highly idiosyncratic version of the Creation story that the Museum tells, but they are already to believe it.  These are the people we saw reading the signs to their kids like scripture.  I think that the bulk of the Museum's attendees belonged to this group.  We might wonder, why employ such tremendous violence against your own group?  Why traumatize people who already agree with you?

2)The Squishy Middle.  These are the people who identify themselves as Christian but don't necessarily consider themselves to be fundamentalists and who are, let's say agnostic about evolution.  They might be genuinely agnostic about evolution (far too many Americans are).  Or they might accept the story they learned in school but, lacking the tools to explain it, they might believe that there really is another side and simply want to hear it.  They consider themselves believing Christians, but they aren't necessarily fundamentalists.  They might have a different interpretation of Christianity, or they might not have a determinate interpretation at all.  They may or may not go to church regularly.

Members of this group fancy themselves to be moderates, and the press flatters them by calling them moderates, flattering them by telling them that they have common sense (this is the highest praise that the press can bestow).  In fact, the principle way in which the squishy-middle's worldview resembles common sense is its amorphousness, and by extension its malleability, its capacity for self-forgetfulness.  Socrates already diagnosed the principle weakness of this view in the Theatetus:  it's really just opinion, and opinion doesn't amount to much.  The squishy middle isn't moderate in that its views fall between the extremes of 1 & 3 (or between any extremes) --- it's moderate in the sense that it's up for grabs.  The squishy middle  enthusiastically supported Bush for 6 years without necessarily sharing his conservative views because they were afraid of terrorism and *thought* they were afraid of gay marriage.  They could equally quickly turn on him after his mismanagement of Katrina made his mismanagement of the economy and the war on terror too difficult to ignore, wondering how any idiots could have possibly ever liked the guy (an excellent question).  They could support Obama not because they shared his technocratic pragmatism or slightly left centrism but because they didn't like Bush and were afraid of a depression.  They opposed him on health-care because they are afraid of change, they soured on him because the economy didn't immediately improve, and 4 years from now when health care reform has actually proven successful, they will think they were always for it.

It's hard not to be angry with group 2, but lets just leave this as an observation about the non-ideological, open-ended relationship these folks have to their worldview.  That'll prove important both to the ideology of the Museum and why I think right wing will ultimately fail with its agenda (I say ultimately--- there may be some painful victories along the way).

Given that this group is going to be at least in principle sympathetic to hearing the creationist folks out, but given their squishy moderateness, we might wonder: why employ such a stringent, violent and uncompromising message?  Doesn't this risk alienating group 2?

Finally, we have:

3) The Sinful Liberal Intellectual Secular Humanist Atheist Elite.  It's entirely possible that folks in group 3 have none of these characteristics, and they certainly need not have all of them (I, for example, am a sinful liberal intellectual secular atheist, but not unequivocally a humanist and not particular elite -- though I am elitist.)  What they have in common is a rejection of the creationist worldview.  Unlike folks in the squishy middle, some of whom might not actually agree with the creationist worldview, folks in group three's rejection of the claims of the creationism is hardened, and not likely to change.  There might be several reasons for this: it might be that these people don't know much about modern evolutionary theory but they accept the authority of the modern scientific establishment; they also might know enough about biology to have a good sense of why the creationists are wrong; or they might simply reject the moral argument and/or authority of the religious right.  I think for me, and for many in group 3 all of these things are partially true.  I probably keep up on current developments in biology more than most, but certainly nothing near enough to have any expertise.  Still, even if I were talking to a creationist with a PhD in biology, I wouldn't accept their claims because I'd assume that the an actual expert could show me what was wrong with them (I'd make an appeal to authority, and this appeal would be warranted).  Finally, I completely reject the morality of the  religious right (and on this point I do have a degree of expertise) --- so any moral arguments they make aren't going to have any weight for me.

While group three is probably going to include most non-Christians, it also includes plenty of Christians who a) know their version of Christianity to be incompatible with the Christianity of the creationists and b)accept the authority of the scientific establishment.  Take my father: a devout Mormon but also a professor of physics.  He rejects any version of creationism or intelligent design; he accepts the modern molecular theory of evolution.  After spending over forty years working as a scientist, he believes that he'll learn far more about the mind of God by learning natural history with an open mind than he'd learn while wearing ideological blinders.  Correlatively, his view of the moral message of Christianity has very little to do with the message that the creationists push so he's not going to be particularly concerned about whether rejecting creationism leads into some moral morass.  I know plenty of scientists in this category.

Of course, from the perspective of the us vs. them message the Museum pushes, there is no real difference between Christians like my father and atheists like me, and that's why I group them together here.

Now, given that folks in group three have reasons for rejecting the views of creationists, we might wonder why the Museum doesn't really try to put forth counter-arguments (this is one of the main things I'd been expecting them to do).  Why instead do they employ a violent, dogmatic narrative which won't do anything to persuade group 3?  Doesn't this just confirm the prejudices of group 3?

With these three groups in mind, let's look at the four main parts of our experience and see if they shed any light on these questions.

1) Most of our pictures are of the main exhibit (the other 3 parts didn't lend themselves as easily to photography).  Again, let me emphasize that the logic employed here is extremely sketchy.  The fragmentary logic that you'll see employed in the pictures is concealed by the immersive character of the exhibit.  I want to emphasize that one of the reasons we took so many photos is so that it will be clear that this fragmentary character is not a function of the selection process we employed.  It's not that these selections are indicative of the logic --- they are the logic.

The best way to understand how the museum functions is to look at the photos.  We've described how it functions in the captions.  Let me summarize of few of the most significant features of the museum and our conclusions about how they function.

 Rather than presenting an argument for the creationist view or to contextualize biology "Biblically," the function of the main exhibit is to impose a narrative, and this narrative is principally mythological.  In this respect the Museum is more like a ride at Disneyland (with themed entrance to prime the imagination, use of technology to employ an immersive illusion, and feelings of thrill or terror folded into a story that is already familiar).

What is most striking about this narrative, as I've already said, is its extraordinary violence.  The transition between each of the "C's" I've listed above involves some scene of sacrifice, graphically and prominently displayed.  Given that this is hardly the traditional, or most literal, way of structuring the narrative of the first chapters of Genesis (which is best understood as being about the formation of the people of Israel) to say nothing of the whole Bible, we might suspect that this decision plays a highly specific function.

In the accompanying photos, we try to outline how these scenes of sacrifice structure the whole exhibit.  For now, let's move on to the second part of our visit.

2)  After we had seen the main exhibit, we went and saw a show in the planetarium, presenting a tour around the universe "with Biblical insights" or some such catch.  It's not immediately clear how much of this exhibit depends on the Creation Museum's ideology.  Aside from some boilerplate "the universe as the artwork of God" stuff and one significant foray into ad hoc speculations that I'll discuss below, there didn't seem to be a lot specifically religious about the presentation, and none of the violent narrative we saw in parts 1, 3 & 4 of our tour.  Nonetheless, Jacob, Matt and I all had the same reaction which was to be suspicious of absolutely everything we heard, seem it ever so innocent.  After we left, Matt said "that convinced me of two things:  1) there's probably life somewhere else in the universe, and 2) the universe is way older than 6000 years."

Even so, I have to say that the presentation was impressive.  It's been a long time since I'd been to a planetarium, and the technology has evolved quite a bit --- I imagine that this is a function both of a turn to LED lighting and far more sophisticated mathematical modelling.  Two particularly impressive things were their "telescoping" the views of the universe from micro to macro and imagining how the stars shift in position as we engage in imaginary faster-than-light travel.

The only strikingly "Creationist" part of the show was how they dealt with light-years, a problem to their account that I'd never really thought about until they called attention to it, whereupon it is obviously fatal to their account.  First they emphasize that the light-year is a unit of distance, not time (technically true, until we take relativity into account and note that at the level of the light-year space and time are no longer wholly distinct.).  Then they propose (without explanation) one or two ad hoc theories thought they say would explain why we can see light from points hundreds of millions of light years away when the light year is distance it takes light to travel in a year.

It took me a few days to figure out how this chicanery connected to the narrative in what were the cooler parts of the exhibit, and how they connected that narrative of the rest of the museum).  We live in a world that is awash in light pollution.  It's probably been eight years since I was in a place where human light didn't significantly impact my ability to see the night skies --- when I was a kid, I spent enough time in the deserts of Southern Utah to see some of the best vistas you'll see in the United States.  But even if you go to a relatively dark area a little outside of exurban sprawl, you'll be able to see not only vast distances but vast expanses of time.  Leaving aside certain quantum effects, the full significance of which is still being worked out, and effects of the topography of the universe, the speed of light marks an absolute speed-limit, the speed of information itself.  So if I look up at Messier 81, a galaxy that is part of the Ursa Major constellation, I am looking at light that was emitted 12 million years ago.  If somehow, I were able to transport myself there now, I wouldn't see the sun as it is now, I'd see the sun as it was 12 million years ago.  And, because there are such vast differences between the objects I see in the sky, there is no one constant place that light would be coming from.  Out in Messier 81, I would be receiving information about the stars that hasn't reached earth, and vice-versa.  You can say it's a cool trick to shuttle us around, and I'll agree, but we have to preface it by noting that it's just a fiction.  And although I might gain a lot of comprehension with this little imaginative game, there's something very important I lose: the depth of time.  When I look at the stars, I see the past:  I see the evidence of the vast durations of the cosmos.  The little trick here flattens it out, erases the evidence of time from the night sky.  The same trick is evidenced in imagining the universe from a "God's eye perspective" - again, fine as an imaginative exercise, but potentially distorting when the model we thereby construct is taken for reality.

Appearances notwithstanding, then, one of the effects (perhaps not the principle one, but an effect nonetheless) of the planetarium show we saw was to use the awesome sublimity of space (identified with the power of God), to do violence to time, to our capacity to imagine the expanses of time.  Now, I'm suspicious when philosophers compare some sort of conceptual violence to physical violence, but sometimes that comparison is warranted.  As I'll argue below, there is a very real connection between the violence this presentation does to our capacity to imagine time and the auditory and visual violence that structures the narrative of the rest of the museum.

3)  The reason why we did the planetarium second was because we had timed tickets.  In fact, what is supposed to come right after the main exhibit is a short 20 minute video called, "The Last Adam."  This is a weird way of talking about Jesus --- I take it that the most relevant prophetic way of talking about Jesus qua Messiah is as the rightful heir of David.  I think I've heard  him described as a new Adam (I think Paul might analogize the way in which Christians are "born again" in Christ to the way in which we all, on the traditional creation narrative, are born through Adam).  But I'm not sure I've ever heard the term The Last Adam used before.  It is, as we will see, quite fitting here, and fits in well with the enormous leap we'll make from the first chapters of Genesis to the Gospels, interestingly skipping over the entire history of the people of Israel, for example.

When we walked in, the theater was about half-full.  Rather than sitting next to Matt and Jacob, I sat in front of them.  If I had sat next to them, I would have obstructed the view of some kids, and thought that that would be rude, given that the theater wasn't full.  It turns out I would have spared them a lot of trauma.  What followed was a tremendously violent, disturbing and frankly anti-Christian account of the Crucifixion.

The main exhibit covered the first 4 C's in the Museum's narrative (Creation, Corruption, Catastrophe, Confusion), the film covers the last 3 (Christ, Cross, Consummation).  On this narrative, Christ represents the "last Adam" because he redeems the fall, and he redeems Adam's fall on the Cross.  This of course is one of the central stories of Christianity, but notice that there's already at least two significant shift in emphasis: the first is in the relative devaluation of the resurrection (which, although averred to, isn't shown and which is generally de-emphasized in the Museum, which emphasized the idea that the Crucifixion is the final sacrifice required, and not that it overcomes the logic of sacrifice); the second is in the total lack of the Messianic element of the story.  As it is traditionally understood by proclaiming a spiritual kingdom, Jesus underlined the prophetic heritage of Israel, which had a strong emphasis on social justice, de-terreoralizing and de-politicizing it.  None of that here (we might not be surprised about downplaying the social justice themes, but we should be surprised that they don't make more of the frankly theocratic elements of the Messianic story given their love of state power (see photos).

The most bloody part of the film is the representation of the crucifixion, which is sort of an abbreviated Passion of the Christ, complete with anti-Semitism.  But I want to dwell on the weird prelude, where we see Mary talk about having to give up her son as a "sacrifice."  Here is where our biblical literalists introduce an element that has no textual support whatsoever and which I imagine many Christians would regard as un-Christian.

Did I mention that the exhibit has a weird pro-incest display?  I should probably mention that now.

Before we get to the Annunciation, an old Mary, who has just seen her son killed, recalls the following event (nowhere in the Bible so we'll have to assume it was revealed to Ken Hamm in a wet dream):

"When I was a little girl, I remember how our family would look very hard for an unblemished lamb.  This is the one we would bring to the priests as a sacrificial lamb.  My father made sure my sisters and I watched what happened next.  He wanted us to understand how important sacrificing our best was."

While this narrative goes on, we see a man forcing his two young daughters to watch a lamb be violently slaughtered.

We then get an account of the Annunciation which really plays up the "God the Father" and rape-y overtones of the story.  "But I'm a virgin --- the Spirit of God the Father will overcome you." YIKES!

Now, the wholly fabricated prelude to the Annunciation becomes the key to understanding all the last three C's: Christ is the unblemished lamb who is butchered on the Cross, which anticipates the violent holocaustic Consummation where some will be saved by his sacrifice and some won't (and therefore will have to be sacrificed themselves, presumably).

4) Yikes!  We were scared by then.  Maybe it's time for a light-hearted presentation on the Seven Ages of Dinosaurs by Ken Hamm, the founder of the Museum himself! We had missed his earlier presentation and were told that this one would be a little less dark (the other one was on why genesis was important today --- I'm guessing it has something to do with "sacrificing" fetuses) and more geared towards kids.  The basic "Seven Ages of Dinosaur" which were absurd may or may not have been but Mr. Hamm made sure that there was plenty of horrifying and dark overtones on the way.

A few highlights:
The presentation begins with some impromptu "back and forth" with the president of the Creation Museum, who is clearly torn between his resentment of the fact that Ken Hamm is the one who became famous and the tight bond that sixteen years of sodomy on the DL have created between them.  Lots of jokes about "I've known him for millions of years" accidentally letting slip how many gajillions of books they've sold, etc.  We also learn that the museum is situated where it is because it is near the demographic middle of the United States (I haven't checked, but I'm guessing it's near the southwestern corner of the demographic circle they drew).  He forgot to mention that it was perched in a zone of low actuality, but maybe that's because he hadn't been on our knowledge quest.

Hamm's presentation included the same mix of violence, sophistry, vaguely "Biblical" claims and conservative politics (including some telling slams on global warming) that we've come to know and love.  I wrote a whole series of Ken Hamm themed jokes that I'll share with you later.  For now, I'll just note that there is a big emphasis on "competing" with other museums, trash-talking (while showing photos of) various zoos, museums of natural history, etc.

The presentation ends with a five minute live infomercial where he informs us of all the products we can buy from them: including a whole biblically based curriculum "Did you know that most history books say the pyramids are more than 6000 years old?" Well, actually, no.  I believe most of the great Egyptian pyramids are 4000-5000 years old, but there are plenty of other structures that are over 6000 years old, such as Tureng Tepe.

We wandered around the botanical gardens for a while before leaving in terror.

Upon leaving the Museum, one will be inclined to ask --- why?

I don't think that it was simply because we were in shock that the Museum didn't really seem to make sense.  It failed to live up to our expectations.  Another way of saying this would be to say --- it exceeded our expectations.

Let's summarize the basic expectations that we'd had, again:

  • We'd expected to have sophistical arguments thrown at us designed to confuse us.
  • We'd expected to have cultural conservativism thrust down us: anti-abortion, anti gay-rights, maybe anti roll and roll, yaddah yaddah yaddah.
  • We'd expected implicit jingoism, pro-capitalism, yaddah yaddah yaddah --- in other words, the weird amalgam of economic libertarianism and traditionalist populism that marks the ideology of the religious right.  We'd expected that to be front and center.
It wasn't that those things weren't there, but they were there weirdly.  The presentation was so thoroughly, carefully and sophisticatedly worked out, but it didn't do those things in anything like the way we'd expected and, it didn't seem to do those things very well.
The reason why it didn't seem to do those things very well were the obsessions with violence and sacrifice that I outlined above, and the grotesque fear this gives rise to, the import of which I asked you to think about for each of the three putative groups going through the Museum.

Although this obsessiveness was crucial to the narrative, it didn't make for a very good argument against evolution, nor did it present a very palatable picture for cultural conservatism  And although it was compatible with the main gripes you'll hear cultural conservatives make, it didn't really argue for or depend upon them that much.

The Museum didn't do what we'd expected it to do.  Maybe it tried to do those things and did them poorly.  But it was so carefully constructed and, frankly, so masterful, that we're better assuming that we hadn't expected the right things.  It certainly did something.

What exactly did it do and how did this obsessive, sacrificial violence help it do it?

Certainly anyone who was "persuaded" by the Museum would be more sympathetic to cultural conservatism, but there are much better ways to make the case for that and it would make sense to make that story more central (by spend more time railing about Adam and Steve and less time promoting incest, for example).  There were throw away bits of jingoism, anti-Semitism, sexism and racism, but they were more reflective of the cultural biases that the Creation Museum had then something it was promoting (as near as we could tell, for example, the Americas were uninhabited until the 16th century or so).

Certainly people sympathetic to that cultural conservatism would be malleable to the economic libertarianism and big business oriented state capitalism that the Republican party promotes.  And although we can suspect that this fact helped to rustle up some of the piles of cizash it must have taken to make the Museum, the whole thing would be a bit of overkill --- too controversial to be that effective of an ideological investment for cynical libertarians trying to harness the ugly populism of the religious right.

There were of course, elements of the self-promoting greediness of televangelism and the Gospel of Wealth (for example, in Ken Hamm's little infomercial).  But it lacked the touchy-feeliness, the shades of New Aginess that effective televangelists depend upon.

So it did all of these things somewhat, but none of them particularly well or particularly clearly.  Was it just an amalgam of these various ideological goals?  But then why the obsessive unifying narrative, especially given that this narrative detracts more than adding to any of these particular goals?

Let's ask ourselves, once again, what the museum actually does.  If it in fact does something very well and if the thing that it does it does as a function of its central narrative, we ought to assume that that is its primary ideological function.  It is from this perspective that we'll understand the Museum as a work of art, an ideological work of art, art for the sake of ideology or, perhaps, better, ideology for the sake of ideology.

What exactly did the museum do?

It scared.  It scared us because it's scary.  And it's scary because it's supposed to be scary.

So why is it supposed to be scary?  How does its fear function?
Let's see if we can hear anything from the horse's mouth:

One of the things that Ken Hamm told us when he was was giving his presentation was along the following lines:  "you know, a lot of people ask me why we have such a realistic scene of Adam sacrificing an animal right when you walk into the Corruption room, but actually that's one of my favorite exhibits because it shows the importance of sacrifice.  It shows that we need to sacrifice to live after the Fall."

Did you notice the weird shift that happened there?

Sacrifice is an important theme in Christianity, right?  Well, of course.  After the Fall, we are all mortal and our morality means suffering.  Our suffering means loss.  Loss means economy and sacrifice.  On the traditional account, Christ "pays the infinite debt for us."  In other words on the traditional account, self-sacrifice is the redemption of suffering.

That's not exactly how it works in the Creation Museum's logic:  there, sacrifice is demanded because the world is a bloody place.  We don't see Adam suffering:  we see Adam sacrificing.  Christ's death isn't taken to redeem the suffering of Adam, it's a grotesque mimicry of the sacrifice we saw him doing.  Suffering is passive.  Sacrifice is active.

At the same time, Christ isn't Adam.  Christ is the lamb that Adam is sacrificing (which makes the Romans or, as the Last Adam says in a bit of Mel Gibsony anti-Semitism the Romans and Jews) the Adams (despite the fact that the museum called Christ the last Adam.)

Ken Hamm also told us that he wanted people to know that the Cross was like Noah's Ark, that if you accepted the Cross, you'd be saved just like Noah was saved.  Go back and see what happened to sinners in the Noah's Ark flood diorama.  If you are saved, Ken Hamm told us, the sacrifice of Christ covers you.  Otherwise, it doesn't.

This is, in fact, the central narrative of the Museum:  the world is represented as a battle field.  The battle lines are drawn up: there's God's word and human opinion: there's the majesty of creation and abortion, drug-abuse, childbirth and death; there's vegetarianism and carnivorism.  But we don't can't just make a battle-field in the middle of peaceful, peaceful America, which was colonized so long ago, "won" from a people who the Museum neglects to mention, how can there be battle lines in the middle of peaceful, peaceful America?

That's where the violence comes in.  In fact, the key to understanding the Creation Museum is to realize that it is not arguing for Young Earth Creationism.  It is using Young Earth Creationism as a prop, to construct a mythological story.

The thing that I've always loved about mythology is that it's malleable, that you can bend familiar stories into unfamiliar ways.  Anne Carson, probably my favorite living poet, does this brilliantly and beautifully.  The Creation Museum does it, well, not brilliantly, but very adeptly.  And certainly not beautifully.  It takes the traditional narrative of Genesis and extracts from it a bizzare and violent account of sacrifice in order to do violence to us.

The Museum-goers undergo that violence.  Because the Museum starts by showing us a battlefield: God vs. the World, Museum-goers think that they are seeing the "representation" or "display" of that violence in the displays.  But this isn't a Museum with displays:  it's an amusement park ride.  Amusement part rides, particularly Disneyesque ones, aren't about showing you something; they are about making the amusement park goer experience something.

Under the guise of "learning about a biblically-based account of Creation," museum-goers undergo a certain kind of violence.  They are immersed in a world that tries to present itself as real, where a highly ideologized narrative claims to be real.  Within the space of that virtual reality, they see repeated displays of sacrifice.  They see men of God doing violence to people and animals, and they are told that that violence is an inevitable result of sin (but note, again, it's not the world doing the violence, as in the traditional account of Christianity, it's the men of God).  The crucifixion is represented as the apotheosis of this violence.  We are told that this violence that we've been undergoing has been prefiguring the Crucifixion.  And Jesus, who is represented as the "sacrificial lamb," is given the name of the last Adam, the first sacrificer.  Then, we are reminded that, after all, it's our choice: same facts, different interpretations.  You can interpret them in the godly way (the way that the doers of violence interpret them) or in the human way (the way that those who will have violence done to them do).  But it's your choice.  Ken Hamm ended by driving this point home:  he told us, after he'd told us about the Ark/Cross analogy that he'd made that he hoped we all would know that we were there on the Ark, saved (presumably because we no longer believed in evolution.)

"Belief in evolution" or "belief in creationism" aren't values --- they are schibboleths.  If you try to cross the border and you pronounce the word "river" wrong --- well, you're in trouble.  Why evolution?  Here, again, I think the totally ad-hoc character of the museum's justifcations and their highly sophisticated use of technology are both telling.  They both reflect an element of fundamentalist logic that Derrida called attention to when he described fundamentalism as an auto-immune disorder in the body politic: a willingness to use parts of the whole while rejecting, even attacking, the logic that holds it together.  This is what I had in mind when I said that the violence that the museum does to our sense of reason is of a kind with the physical violence represented in the exhibits.  Early critics of evolution thought that the notion that we were related to monkeys was an affront to the dignity of the rational, moral human being.  And yet the Theory of Evolution is one of the most sophisticated expressions of that reason.  And so contemporary moral critics will simply have to do violence to reason, to submit the human body and soul to abjection and violence and undo the marvelous narrative that the sciences are painstakingly putting together.

This is your choice:  you can believe what we tell you is literally the word of God or you can believe in the systematicity of the human endeavor.  Who are you going to believe?  Us, or your own eyes?

Remember, we have guns.

Okay, so this helps us understand what the museum does in a general sense.  Let's ask ourselves again how this might impact the our three groups going through here, and let's recall our questions:

1)  True Believers.  Why use such a violent narrative, such gruesome imagery, and indeed subject "true believers" to this kind of traumatic event at what is billed as a family friendly affair?  The answer seems a little more clear now.  The point is to provide a central, focal, narrative (again, not the one of traditional Christianity), and to provide an "initiation into violence."  The faithful museum goer experiences the violence but then is told, by virtue of their belief, that they are violence-doers, sacrificers, not sacrificees.  The Museum subjects them to violence, but by identifying Christ first as sacrificial lamb and next as sacrificer, and by identifying the Museum-goes as Christian with Christ, the battle lines are drawn.  True believers experience violence and are given an enemy.

2)  Squishy Middle.  Why use such violence against the squishy middle?  Won't it put them off?  Well, it might, but it will force them to see the stakes of their ostensible Christianity.  And they are given the option of identifying with the right side.  The effect then is to vacate position two and two provide strong reasons for taking side 1.  Otherwise, well, otherwise they'll be with our final group.

The Sinful Secular Atheist Intellectual Liberal Elite.  The violent narrative might not persuade this group, but it will give them a sense of what's coming.  It describes their place in this violent, cosmologically paranoid worldview and lets them know of the violence that awaits them, absent the sacrifice.  As the representatives of this camp, Matt, Jacob and I saw the threat quite well and heard the evils that evil, sinful people like us are going to perpetrate (who knew --- I think we're a pretty mild mannered bunch.)  Of course, we were also told by Ken Hamm that he hoped we knew that we were saved.  Still, we probably blew any salvation that evening during our Louisville Creation-Cleanse (featuring Asian fusion food and bourbon tastings).

In short, we can see that the answer to each of the questions is to realize that the experience of terror, the central narrative of violence is to reproduce itself in the Museumgoer --- to make it a plausible narrative.  It's not about Creationism.  It's about the ideology of the Creation Museum which wants nothing so much as to assert it's own importance.

Far be it from me to get all Glenn Becky, but this relationship to ideology is exactly the same as the relationship to ideology that leading social theorists have identified as distinctive of fascism.  Fascisms invest themselves primarily in creating a fantastic, paranoid narrative and in using sheer violence and power to normalize and enforce it.  Although this narrative plays to and borrows from various prejudices, fears and beliefs of reactionary and conservative elements in society and although it cozies up to, and flatters, state power, capital and its justifying beliefs, it really is a different sort of thing.  Fascisms essentially double down on the lies of ideology:  they take those peripheral stories which derive their appeal from their social role and make these lies the central story, deducing "proper" social roles and rules from them.  Thus, the Creation Museum takes various cultural conservative and, to a lesser extent, fiscally conservative (though this would take longer to explain) stories and weaves them together through a central story which is wholly its own invention.  It then casts this story in strident terms and insists that everyone: ally and enemy, understand society and history through its lens.  Once this story is accepted then they are on their turf: legitimacy comes down to nothing more than control over violence.

As I said, the Museum is quite effective at doing this.  It is a brilliant piece of ideology and, when you are emerged in the sights and sounds of the Museum, when you are amongst the faithful, it can all seem quite real, quite systematic.  It's only on further reinspection when you have the chance to take the experience apart that its thinness becomes obvious.  Because it depends for its depth on its claim to both scientific and moral authority.  And it has neither.  On closer inspection, the morality proves to be grotesque and the science beyond shoddy.

And this is why I think the Museum, and here I'll speculate more broadly about the paranoid movement that has morphed out of the religious right and become its own weird tea-bagging thing, will fail.  They depend on convincing people in the middle that the paranoid ideologues, and not mainstream society, are the legitimate exercisers of state power and moral authority (which they conflate, and which conflation drives their insane, traitorous resentment of current state power).  They depend upon the sympathy of the squishy middle, which thinks that it's Christian, which thinks that it's conservative, which thinks that it's pro-family values.  It thinks those things, but it thinks a lot of other things too. It's also basically peace-loving, anti-conflict, uncomfortable with open prejudice and quite content with the materialist culture that the tea baggers claim to hate.

 The paranoid stories the right tells might win them temporary victories, and those victories might be tremendously painful for rational people everywhere.  But absent some huge, demographic shifting event, the squishy middle is going to resemble the Sinful Atheist Liberal Intellectual Elite more and more.

Or so we can hope.

Now, what does all this have to do with Knowledge Quest, with Mad General Anthony Wayne and a young lady named UC Santa Cruz?

That story remains to be told