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Between pandemic and protest: introducing The Liberating Arts

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to join a group of gifted Christian scholars with an idea for a grant proposal. The idea was to respond to the crisis facing institutions of higher education, particularly liberal arts colleges, proactively rather than reactively. That is, to see the moment—pandemic, protest, political upheaval, demographic collapse, threats to the future of the liberal arts on every side—as an apocalyptic one, in which deep truths about ourselves and our culture are unveiled, as it were, from without. What to do in light of those revelations? How to shore up the ruins, and more than that, to articulate a positive and hopeful case for the institutions and areas of expertise to which we all belong, and by which we have been so profoundly formed, in the midst of so many competing challenges and voices?Led by Jeff Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Noah Toly, and Davey Henreckson, the proposal was approved and we received the grant from CCCU. Earlier this month the pro…

On "anti" films that succeed, and why

More than one friend has pointed out an exception or addendum to my last post on "anti" films, which makes the claim that no "anti" films are successful on their own terms, for they ineluctably glorify the very thing they are wanting to hold up for critique: war, violence, misogyny, wealth, whatever.The exception is this: There are successful "anti" films—meaning dramatic-narrative films, not documentaries—whose subject matter is intrinsically negative, and not ambiguous or plausibly attractive. Consider severe poverty, drug addiction, or profound depression. Though it is possible to make any of these a fetish, or to implicate the audience as a voyeur in relation to them, there is nothing appealing about being depressed, addicted, or impoverished, and so the effect of the cinematic form does nothing to make them appealing: for the form magnifies, and here there is nothing positive to magnify, only suffering or lack.
So, for example, The Florida Project and…

No such thing as an anti-war film, or anti-anything at all

There is no such thing as an anti-war film, François Truffaut is reported to have said. In a manner of speaking, there is no such thing as an anti-anything film, at least so long as the subject in question is depicted visually.The reason is simple. The medium of film makes whatever is on screen appealing to look at—more than that, to sink into, to be seduced by, to be drawn into. Moving images lull the mind and woo the heart.Moreover, anything that is worth opposing in a film contains some element of goodness or truth or beauty. The wager or argument of the filmmaker is not that the subject matter is wholly evil; rather, it is that it is something worthwhile that has been corrupted, distorted, or disordered: by excess, by wicked motives, by tragic consequences. Which means that whatever is depicted in the film is not Evil Writ Large, Only Now On Screen. It is something lovely or valuable—something ordinary people "fall for" in the real world—except portrayed in such a way as…

2021: the year of Martin, Rothfuss, and Williams?

Could 2021 see the publication of long-awaited sequels to three major fantasy series?It would mark a full decade since George R. R. Martin published the fifth entry in his Song of Ice and Fire. He's been writing pages and pages since then, or so he says. He turns 72 this month, and following the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones concluded, then living through a global pandemic, he's had nothing but time to write. In any case, even after #6, he's got at least one more book in the series to write, assuming it doesn't keep multiplying and fracturing indefinitely. One can hope, no?
It's also been a decade since the second book in Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy was published. Four years spanned the first two books. Perhaps ten will span the second and the third? Rothfuss insists that he is hard at work on The Doors of Stone, yet reacts cantankerously to continuous "Are you finished yet?" queries. It's unclear whether it's the perfect…

Louis Dupré on symbolism and ontology in religious language

Religious language must, by its very nature, be symbolic: its referent surpasses the objective universe. Objectivist language is fit only to signify things in a one-dimensional universe. It is incapable of referring to another level of reality, as art, poetry, and religion do. Rather than properly symbolizing, it establishes external analogies between objectively conceived realities. Their relation is allegorical rather than symbolic. A truly symbolic relation must be grounded in Being itself. Nothing exposes our religious impoverishment more directly than the loss of the ontological dimension of language. To overcome this, poets and mystics have removed their language as far as possible from everyday speech.In premodern traditions, language remained closer to the ontological core which all things share and which intrinsically links them to one another. Symbols thereby participated in the very Being of what they symbolized, as they still do in great poetry. Religious symbols re-presen…

François Furet on revolutionary consciousness

[T]he revolutionary situation was not only characterised by the power vacuum that was filled by a rush of new forces and by the 'free' activity of society. . . . It was also bound up with a kind of hypertrophy of historical consciousness and with a system of symbolic representations shared by the social actors. The revolutionary consciousness, from 1789 on, was informed by the illusion of defeating a State that had already ceased to exist, in the name of a coalition of good intentions and of forces that foreshadowed the future. From the very beginning it was ever ready to place ideas above actual history, as if it were called upon to restructure a fragmented society by means of its own concepts. Repression became intolerable only when it became ineffectual. The Revolution was the historical space that separated two powers, the embodiment of the idea that history is shaped by human action rather than by the combination of existing institutions and forces.In that unforeseeable a…

10 thoughts on colleges reopening

1. Not every college is the same. There are community colleges, private colleges, public colleges. Some have 1,500 students, some have 50,000 students. Some are in rural areas and small towns, some are in densely populated urban centers. Some have wild and uncontrollable Greek life, some (very much) do not.
2. Not every place is the same. There are regions, locales, and states that are still hot spots on lockdown, and there are others that are in rather better shape.3. Not every institution is the same. Some are cash-strapped or risk-averse or profit-driven or top-down—or what have you—and some have resilient and time-honored habits of shared governance.4. Not every professor is the same. This applies not only to characteristics like age or discipline but also to personal judgment or preference: universities are not split, in a perfect dichotomy, between administrators who are pushing forward with reopening and faculty who are pushing back.5. Economic pressures are real. Although it is…

David Walker on slavery and the justice of God

And as the inhuman system of slavery, is the source from which most of our miseries proceed, I shall begin with that curse to nations, which has spread terror and devastation through so many nations of antiquity, and which is raging to such a pitch at the present day in Spain and in Portugal. It had one tug in England, in France, and in the United States of America; yet the inhabitants thereof, do not learn wisdom, and erase it entirely from their dwellings and from all with whom they have to do. The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth…

Tony Judt on the New Left in the '60s

It was a curiosity of the age that the generational split transcended class as well as national experience. The rhetorical expression of youthful revolt was, of course, confined to a tiny minority: even in the US in those days, most young people did not attend university and college protests did not necessarily represent youth at large. But the broader symptoms of generational dissidence—music, clothing, language—were unusually widespread thanks to television, transistor radios and the internationalization of popular culture. By the late ’60s, the culture gap separating young people from their parents was perhaps greater than at any point since the early 19th century.This breach in continuity echoed another tectonic shift. For an older generation of left-leaning politicians and voters, the relationship between ‘workers’ and socialism—between ‘the poor’ and the welfare state—had been self-evident. The ‘Left’ had long been associated with—and largely dependent upon— the urban industrial…

Ahab, slave to the dread tyrant Sin: Melville's dramatic exegesis of Romans 7

Near the finale of Moby-Dick, in the closing moments of the last chapter before the great chase for the white whale begins, gloomy Ahab has one final heartfelt conversation with Starbuck, his earnest and home-loving first mate. At the very moment when the climactic encounter is nigh, Ahab looks to pull back. And Starbuck is eager to help him do so. They converse on the deck, Ahab unsure of himself and Starbuck pleading with him, wooing him, conjuring the decision against the fatal hunt that he so hopes Ahab is capable of making. And just when Starbuck thinks he has his quarry, something inexplicable and wholly mysterious changes in Ahab. Here is Melville:
But Ahab's glance was averted; like a blighted fruit tree he shook, and cast his last, cindered apple to the soil.
"What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing,…