Debating “The System”

Debate

I was one of “those” debate kids in high school whose weekends were spent at debate tournaments — and yes, I carried a ridiculous briefcase, spoke too fast, and owned a dress suit. In other words, I was livin’ the life.

So you can perhaps imagine my interest at a recent Radiolab episode that not only featured the story of a debate team, but of a debater who got his start in Kansas City, where I happen to live. This debate team performed a very unlikely act: in the final round of the national tournament, these underdogs reversed the customs of debate, and in so doing redefined what it means to engage not just in debate, but in persuasive discourse about their own and others’ identities. Continue reading “Debating “The System””

Competing Discourses on Life and Death

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According to this news story from a few years ago, a “living” man from Ohio was legally ruled “dead”:

A US man declared dead after he disappeared nearly three decades ago cannot now be declared officially alive, though he has returned home and is in good health, a judge has ruled.

Donald Miller of Ohio left behind a wife, two children and significant debt when he fled his home in 1986.

He was declared legally dead in 1994, then re-emerged in 2005 and attempted to apply for a driving license.

A judge this week found death rulings cannot be overturned after three years.

Judge Allan Davis handed down the ruling in Hancock County, Ohio, probate court on Monday, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, according to media reports.

“We’ve got the obvious here. A man sitting in the courtroom, he appears to be in good health,” he said, finding that he was prevented by state law from declaring Mr Miller legally alive.

“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”

What we have seems to be a case of competing discourses. If this man went to the hospital, it seems unlikely that the doctors would direct him to the morgue. On the other hand, from the court’s perspective he is dead and thus not eligible to get a driver’s license. Continue reading “Competing Discourses on Life and Death”

The Harm of World Religions

World_religions_ENGWhile discussions of “World Religions” often attempt to encourage appreciation of human diversity, these presentations have become the focus of scholarly critiques because of the harm that they cause. Such presentations appear to provide a clear way of describing the world (as illustrated in the map above), but the assumptions behind them often serve to promote European dominance that people present as simple descriptions. A recent animated presentation on Business Insider illustrating the spread of the five major world religions becomes the object of a range of critiques. Continue reading “The Harm of World Religions”

How Old is That?

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The following is a brief excerpt from my own Introduction to the soon-to-be published collection of essays, Fabricating Origins, from the Working With Culture on the Edge book series.

Among the assorted knick-knacks that line my office’s shelves — ranging from such relics as photos of friends and family or gifts I’ve accumulated over the years to a selection of tattered romance novels shelved long ago among my books by mischievous students — is a nicely matted and framed “fossil” of Knightia, a long extinct genus of small boney North American freshwater fish, dating to more than 35 million years ago (or what scientists know as the Eocene epoch), and which was recovered from the well-known (to fossil hunters, at least) Green River Formation in southwestern Wyoming. I bought it one summer, heavy wooden frame and all, about ten years ago in a gift shop in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, at the same time that I purchased for my Department’s library a number of other artifacts, such as the stereotypical dancing Shiva statue and the Thai-styled bust of Buddha, complete with its intricately carved curls. I never anticipated writing about my framed piece of sedimentary rock, though I have often used it in classes to illustrate a point or two about discourses on origins; I now realize that this rock might have some uses outside of the classroom. Continue reading “How Old is That?”

Our Extended Arms

Picture 15To open the Introduction to my 2003 collection of essays, The Discipline of Religion —  a book concerned with, among other things, investigating the links between the invention of and social uses for privacy, on the one hand, and, on the other, the practical, governing role played by the discourse on belief, experience, or faith — I wrote as follows:

it is 1988 and I’m at home, living just outside Toronto, watching a television special on the Olympic torch relay across Canada to Calgary, the host of that year’s winter Olympic Games. I recall seeing a young boy, lucky enough to be selected to carry the torch for his designated distance, running through the crowded street with the torch held out over his head, obviously excited. His father runs alongside with his video camera, matching his son’s pace, documenting the event for posterity. The boy looks at his father, and into the camera, and says, “I can’t wait to get home and see this on TV. ” I recall thinking to myself, “You’re living it now, kid, so why do you have to get home to see it on television?”

This is likely one of the first memories I think I have of an occasion when the intertwined nature of the past, present, and future became apparent to me, i.e., when the present’s continual invention of itself was obvious, via its contrived distance from an imagined past that is no longer here or a hoped for future that has yet to appear. Continue reading “Our Extended Arms”

Words (and Peppers) Matter

Dried_spicy_red_peppers_(4888546786)My colleagues have discussed on this blog the significance of labels many times, such as labeling something a restoration, a gang sign, and Paleo, or simply as something different. This concern for the significance of labeling, though, is not limited to the strategies of marketers and politicians or everyday observations. The selection of identifying labels often reinforces the dominant discourse, even when apparently not intended.

Rereading Fred Clothey’s Religion in India: A Historical Introduction (Routledge 2007) for my Survey of Asian Religions course, I noticed a significant example of the power of labels that I had missed previously. One passage in a section on Cochin Jews caught my attention this time. Continue reading “Words (and Peppers) Matter”