Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Gosh, how long has it been?

OK, I suck. It's all my fault. Just...don't even start, OK?

I don't even have an explanation for my defection from blogging. I just didn't have anything to say for awhile. Got bored with myself I guess.

But I'm going to try to do better.

The most interesting thing I did this summer (so far) was deliver a conference paper arguing that Joss Whedon's film Serenity is a new atheist text. It went well, I think, though I was excruciatingly nervous. I took one for the atheist team anyway. I got some odd--though, I guess, not unpredictable--questions from the audience. One young woman tried to claim that the media portray stereotypes about Xianity that aren't true. I didn't say "bitch, please, the media and politicians all kiss religion's collective ass," nor did I ask, "oh, you mean like when CNN trotted all the candidates for president out and made them prattle about their faith on television?" No, like the professional that I am, I steered the conversation back to my actual material and said, "Well, I have to disagree that the ideas I identify in the film rely on stereotypes. At some point you either believe that Mal must accept Christ into his heart or be doomed don't. That's not something imposed on Xianity by others--it's doctrine." (Score, me!)

Then I got some old dude trying to tell me about how there are all these different ways to be religious and even to be Xian! (Golly! For reals?) I replied that this really wasn't much of an endorsement because once you start spreading your base that thin you have a hard time making any truth claims at all. I finally said that the bottom line--and what I see the film criticizing--is that to maintain a religious perspective you always end up at a place where you must believe something without evidence. That got a few nods and a few sneers so...good?

I have to confess again that I was terrified doing this. I'm always nervous when I read at conferences. I know it seems strange, a college professor who imparts wisdom to rooms full of people for a living sweating with stage fright, but students don't know if you're full of shit most of the time. They just don't. Your peers are different. And it doesn't help when you're dealing with provocative subject matter. The real shock, though, was how easy it turned out to be. I could answer every question without straining myself. I credit all the glorious atheist debaters and writers and speakers and podcasters and bloggers who helped me prepare for my first anti-crusade. Thanks!

Here's a brief excerpt from my talk, if you're interested:

The Alliance’s scientific inquiry seeks methods of control, not enrichment, of the public, specifically of people’s natural impulses and drives, including the Freudian libido. Referring to those drives as “sin” establishes an overt religious context that informs further allusions. For example, River’s association with Eve aligns with Miranda’s association with Eden. The use of “Miranda” as a proper name apparently occurs for the first time in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as the name of Prospero’s naïve, untainted daughter. The word “Miranda” translates from the Latin to mean “worthy of being admired” and shares its root with the words “miracle,” “admire,” and, awesomely, “mirror.” I presume it’s no coincidence that Shakespeare’s Miranda grows up on a beautiful isolated island, ignorant of the outside world and protected in that ignorance by an overbearing magical father who is obsessively invested in her sexual purity. River first encounters her buried memory of Miranda in The Maidenhead, a reference to female sexual innocence, underscoring the repression of River’s natural drives and impulses in favor of the forced ones implanted by the Alliance. Her childish affect and dependence represent the Alliance’s infantilizing influence, further mirroring the arrogant paternalism of the Alliance toward the people on Miranda: “We just wanted to make them safe.” The Edenic situation is one of eternal childhood, ignorant, provided for by daddy-god, naked without sexual tension or embarrassment like the ubiquitous snapshots of our toddlers in the bathtub, free from pesky knowledge and understanding and thus from the responsibility of moral choices.

I once heard Philip Pullman interviewed about The Golden Compass, and he said he saw his protagonist, Lyra, as an Eve character, a girl who obtained information she wasn't meant to have and then acted upon it and bore the consequences. River is like that too. If the Alliance tried to create a new Eden, employing the same ideas as Genesis in the privileging of ignorance over knowledge and passivity over activity, then River is the one whose appropriation of forbidden knowledge dismantles the hierarchy. The story of Eden is a story of who is allowed to possess knowledge, and River knows something she isn’t supposed to and has the courage to pass that knowledge to others, going viral, just as they feared she would. The Operative calls River an albatross. In a sly moment, Whedon uses the reference to the Coleridge poem to show that Mal is a more honest reader than the Operative; he read the poem to understand it not to bend it to his own purposes. The reference also clarifies the intensity of the Operative’s desire to kill River. Like the albatross around the ancient mariner’s neck, River is a physical reminder of a crime against nature motivated by selfishness and superstition, the punishment for which is the mariner’s spending eternity telling the story, like another signal that never stops. At the heart of Christianity is the scapegoat, the belief that sacrificing one person can erase the guilt of others. River is a living embodiment of the Alliance’s crimes; kill River and you kill the Alliance’s guilt.


At 4:40 PM, Blogger gad said...

Hey Shell --

Good to have you back. :) I swung through your neck of the woods earlier this summer and tried to get in touch, but I must have tracked down the wrong phone number or something. Hope all is well.


At 10:40 PM, Blogger Shell said...

Greg, I left a reply on your 37 blog thinking you would get it faster, but I see you haven't written in a few months.

At 6:03 PM, Blogger StickyKeys said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Shell said...

Hey Stix! Yes, I've seen that article--I bought that book. And I really enjoyed it. I would send Jacob my paper but sometimes people don't want unsolicited manuscripts cluttering their mail. Good to "see" you! :)

At 4:16 PM, Blogger StickyKeys said...

Go ahead and send it, he'll love it! I'm glad you're back and well, babe!


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