Sunday, November 21, 2010

Presentation to The TTU Secular Student Society

On Monday, 15 November 2010 I had the honor to address the TTU Secular Student Society concerning the topic "Is science a religion?" This event was open to the public and took place in Holden Hall on campus. The lecture hall was full and I was expecting a good mixture of those in both the skeptic and religious camps. Unfortunately, not as many pro-religion people attended but it was till a good discussion. Here are my thoughts on the talk which certainly could have been much clearer that night.

In this presentation I argued four main points: (1) Both camps use similar (or even the same) terms but with different meanings, (2) neither camp is composed solely of idiots, (3) each camp privileges different kinds of evidence and (4) decision makers of education policy are not really stakeholders in the debate (or do not really see themselves as such).

Both camps use similar (or even the same) terms but with different meanings.

Consider the four reasons that Carl Sagan proposed for studying science:

These are all great reasons to study science but if one were to replace "science" with "religion", one could make the same argument. In the past, Christianity was seen (especially in the colonial powers) as a means to escape poverty. Most any religion argues that it best explains the "deeper mysteries of life" while warning of the technological perils created by modern society. Most religions also see themselves as compatible to democracy; only some few religious fundamentalists would quibble with that. For someone not in the debate, this looks similar.

Also, for most scientists, religion is not seen as falsifiable; this is in some ways a mistake. True, no one has devised a means to test for God but religion is flexible and does correct itself to adapt to cultural norms. Once, the Quakers did not use cars because it was deemed "worldly". Now, they do as long as it is simple, black, and with no radio. This is but one example of how religion adapts and morphs to the current needs of its members. For many people, this is quite similar to the notion of science changing through evidence. Although the change may be slower, change does happen and, to the outsider, this is similar to falsification.

Neither camp are idiots.

This should be obvious. Many pro-religion and pro-science people are highly educated and intelligent. What constitutes as evidence, however, is what is different. One may not agree but this does not mean that they are ignorant sheep, heathens who "God has darkened their intellect", or idiots. They simply believe differently (and with good reasons) according to their world views. If each side cannot summon respect, each should, at least, be gracious.

Both religion and science do study similar social effects, teleology, and cosmology. This desire to understand the world may incubate competing dialectics which seem similar to the outsider:

Both camps are interested in understanding the world but go about it in different ways.

Each camp privileges different kinds of evidence.

One aspect that religion and science have in common is that they both are built on underlying assumptions, albeit they are different ones, i.e., each discipline has its own set of assumptions. Not only do religion and science rest on differing underlying assumptions, only one -- science -- goes about rationally testing its assumptions.

- Gottlieb, S. (1997, April 8). Religion & Science: The Best of Enemies, The Worst of Friends. The Harbinger.

When one asks "What is the evidence?" during this debate, each camp believes that they have overwhelming evidence for their position. This is because each camp privileges what kinds of argument constitutes evidence. Both camps may use various methods of evidence, but each camp privileges what is the best kind of evidence as rational. This is confusing for people who are trying to understand the debate.

In general, science prefers inductive reasoning. Most people see a simplistic example of this in police procedure TV shows such as Sherlock or CSI. Certainly the scientific method uses this line of reasoning in order to present evidence of a scientific or empirical understanding of nature. This line of reasoning is contingent on observation and extrapolation based on empirical evidence. This lies at the heart of science and may seem to be unfair to religious thinkers; after all, who has observed anything beyond 100 years ago? How can tradition be understood using this line of reasoning?

Religion, on the other hand, tends to prefer deductive reasoning in its investigation of reality. Most people would equate deductive reasoning as a series of "if/then" statements. Scientists may use this reasoning to create a hypothesis but certainly not to argue conclusions. For religious thinkers, however, this line of reasoning tends to be acceptable to discover understanding about God, social practice, and the world. Of course scientists may concede that this may be a good start for investigation but how can one say its definitive?

My point here is that both systems of evidence are rational--from each perspective. Science is based on observations of nature while religion is based on deductions from tradition. This needs to be understood, articulated, and defined before a meaningful debate can occur with any hope of resolution.

Decision makers of education policy are not really stakeholders in the debate.

Most people in the United States are woefully educated in both science and religion. Even people who practice a given religion really know little about the religion they practice--let alone any other religion--and have difficulty in conversing in even their own practices. For many people, religion is more of a social institution where practitioners simply attend occasional services and celebrate life goals, such as marriage or baptism, or holidays. This is lost in the cacophony of fundamentalist voices who often speak the loudest--regardless of religious or atheistic worldview--but most people view themselves outside of the battle. To these people, scientism and religion look quite similar so why not teach both? For many people, the big bang and the Genesis account are separated by context, one in church and one in the classroom, but both are just as unlikely or inscrutable. After all, how does this effect real day-to-day life?

Religion has the advantage of tradition and that it does impact (albeit occasionally) their lives in a more visible way. Science is often understood in terms of technology--most of which is hidden--and in the form of the high-paying jobs that "may exist" in the future. Eventually, if proponents of science education do not change their tone and tactics, these decision-makers will eventually elect to just teach both views because it is simply easier.

Also, we live in a postmodern world, like it or not. In the modern era, science was king and empirical evidence was privileged over philosophical conclusions. This has changed. Most people are accustomed to considering competing ideas and weighing the "pros and cons" of both based on what they believe is true. Decision-makers will have no trouble presenting both and letting students decide for themselves.


Science and religion are conceptually similar. They both seek to explain the world, through an ill-defined ideology, in which their participants exist. However, they are functionally dissimilar because of potential empirical falsification. In short, religion seeks truth from which to identify laws. Science seeks to identify laws from which to garner truth. Because of empirical falsification, science is not a religion within the context of a science classroom.

Still, they do seem similar to outsiders. This must be taken into account for advocates of science if they truly want to keep science out of the classroom. Pejorative attacks will only harm their cause. This is the classic emic/etic debate. Of course there are identifiable differences when one is in one camp or the other but, from the outside looking in, decision-makers will have difficulty in seeing just what the big fight is all about.

-Safari Bob

Saturday, October 30, 2010

2010 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Conference

On 14 October 2010, I was fortunate to present a paper at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association (RMMLA) conference in Albuquerque, NM. Now I love Albuquerque and I have attended some conference there every year since 2006 (5 total) so I was really hoping to get to participate. Once I got there, however, I could little believe how friendly and open the other conference attendees were both at my presentation and out by the coffee/tea bar. In addition, I listened to some fine papers in both Technical communication and literature. I hope that I will be able to attend next year in Scottsdale, AZ and, if you study literature, writing, or technical communication, you should too. Here is a snapshot of my presentation:

Multi-dimensional Audience Analysis: Synthesizing Technical Expertise and Cultural Dimensions as Audience Heuristic

Analyzing and articulating different audiences is a significant challenge for students of technical communication. Instructors of technical communication can provide these future practitioners with the tools to accurately identify and profile specific audiences by introducing heuristics that synthesize dimensions of technical expertise and culture. By practicing how to use this heuristic in ‘real-world’ contexts, instructors can provide students the tools necessary to identify and articulate specific targeted audiences within a global environment.

In this presentation, I first briefly examine two common audience analysis heuristics: technical expertise and dimensions of culture. Both approaches can provide valuable guidelines for practitioners of technical communication to assemble effective audience analyses for their writing projects.

Next, I articulate how technical communicators can benefit from incorporating these heuristics into the classroom. Specifically, technical communication students can function as symbolic-analytic workers and information architects as they synthesize technical expertise with cultural dimensions in order to analyze a specific audience for a deliverable such as technical instructions.

Finally, I offer a pedagogical approach to introducing heuristics of technical expertise and cultural dimensions into the service-level technical communication classroom. Specifically, I introduce my heuristic approach to audience analysis in the classroom: The Technical Frame.

Presentation Slides

If you are so inclined, or if you suffer from insomnia, you can read more about my conference presentations at

-Safari Bob

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought is the second book by Cherie Priest in the steampunk Clockwork Century series. The first book in the series, Boneshaker, was quite well received and features a strong female protagonist with memorable characters. She continues that tradition in this book.

As the story begins, we find the heroine of the story, Vinita "Mercy" Lynch, working in Virginia as a nurse in a war hospital that serves the South during this alternate history of America. She soon receives news that her husband, who was fighting for the Union, has died in a POW camp. Soon after, she learns that her estranged father, who she has not seen since she was very young, is deathly ill and he requests that she come to see him--in Seattle, WA. Having no reason to stay in Richmond, she decides to travel alone through the war, across a dangerous and unincorporated western prairie and over the Rocky Mountains to a strange city on the other side of the continent.

Along the way, she travels by dirigible, steam boat, and the infamous Union-operated steam engine Dreadnought, a terrifying weapon of war that often transports the dreadful steam-powered "walkers" of mass martial destruction. She also becomes involved in a political struggle between the Union, the Confederacy, the Texan Republic and Mexico--all seeking the answer to this question: What happened to a lost legion of Mexican soldiers and why are they eating people in Utah?

I quite enjoyed this book. I love the steampunk genre but Priest does a good job of writing her protagonist as an ordinary human being just doing her best to survive the strange circumstances in which she finds herself. Her narrative is tight, descriptive and introspective. For instance:

She felt alone, in the middle of everybody--even the other civilians who hunkered in the ceter passenger car and read books or played cards or sipped out of flasks to pass the time. She was the only medical professional of any sort on board, which meant that every stubbed toe, every rheumy eye, and every cough gravitated her way for analysis and treatment. It was the nature of the beast, she supposed, but even these small ailments did little to punctuate the wary boredom [1, p. 296].

This humanizing, descriptive prose also extends to action passages:

The hum started slow, and low; it began distant, and thundering, and rough. A cloud clearing its throat, or a mountain shrugging off a small avalanche. A windmill caught in a gale, shuddering and flapping. The conductor called for it, saying, "More hydrogen! Divert it from the secondary boiler! Just power the plow first--we won't move without it!" With more fuel, the hum came louder, and steadier. It went from the crooked fan blade, unbalanced and wobbling, to a smooth and vocal growl that rose up so loud that it almost (not quite, but almost) dampened the sound of Theodora Clay and the men in the passenger car firing; the Mexican inspector, still upright, still shooting, and now openly crying; and the undead hoards oncoming [1, p. 356].

Overall, this is a good, solid read that delivers action, adventure and dirigibles. What is not to love about that? It also touches on race relations, class distinctions and gender roles but all in the modern understanding of each. Still, if you enjoyed Boneshaker, this novel does provide a less pessimistic view of the world (even though its troubles deepen for the entire continent) while continuing the overall tale. I recommend it.

-Safari Bob

[1] Priest, C. (2010). Dreadnought. New York: Tom Doherty Associates. ISBN: 978-0-7653-2578-5

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Postmodern Ethnography in Standing Ground by Thomas Buckley

In his book, Standing Ground, Thomas Buckley uses postmodernist methods to understand and explain the culture of the Yurok Indians of Northern California. Central to his methodology is “the most ancient of intellectual strategies, storytelling” (Buckley 2002: 23). By privileging the stories told by native authors involved in the Yurok culture he was describing, Buckley allows the reader of this ethnography to wade through a larger pool of voices through which the reader may emerge with a changed understanding of the culture being investigated and explained. For Buckley, this approach “is, if nothing else, a more modest undertaking than constructing a line of data and argument...along which the reader is marched toward a foreordained, explanatory conclusion: ‘I have shown that….’” (Buckley 2002: 23).

By privileging storytelling as ethnographic strategy, Buckley embodies three postmodernist concepts of ethnography: (1) Ethnography as ‘Thick Description,’ (2) Ethnography as Discourse, and (3) Ethnography as a Process of Knowledge. This paper will examine how Buckley uses these three approaches in his ethnographic work.

Ethnography as ‘Thick Description’

Clifford Geertz, in his essay “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” argues that the concept of culture is essentially semiotic or shaded by nuances of multiple possible meanings (1973: 5). For Geetrz, an ethnographer is faced with a “multiplicity of complex conceptual structures, many of them superimposed upon or knotted into one another, which are at once strange, irregular, and inexplicit” (1973: 10). The ethnographer must first understand and then render these conceptual structures through a ‘thick description’ or narrative that allows for the multiple meanings that are present during observation. Geertz argues that the whole point of his semiotic approach to culture is “to aid us in gaining access to the conceptual world in which our subjects live so that we can, in some extended sense of the term, converse with them” (1973: 24).

Buckley acknowledges that his work is influenced by Geertz (2002: 21) and that he feels the best way to achieve a ‘thick description’ is to “let everyone tell stories” (2002: 23). Buckley uses this strategy throughout his ethnography but his treatment of the stories of “men doctors” may best exemplify his understanding of thick description.

According to Buckley, A. L. Kroeber insisted that the Yuroks always took for granted that a sucking doctor (kegey) was a woman (2002: 162). Kroeber seems to have disregarded the information provided to him by Native Authors such as Fanny Flounder and Robert Spott and in his quest to reconstruct Yurok culture, he negated the significance of men as kegey for five possible reasons ranging from a limited understanding of the word kegey to a predisposition to creating a hypothetical ethnographic present and a disregard for an emergent regional culture (2002: 162-163). In fact Buckley asserts: “I believe that Kroeber was wrong on several accounts and that his errors resulted precisely from his conception of cultures in northwestern California as having segregated ‘compartments’ of traits and his consequent failure to appreciate the complex integration of various domains and associational spheres in those cultures” (2002: 164).

In contrast, Buckley weaves the narratives of Lucy Thompson, Robert Spott, Fanny Flounder, and others to demonstrate that the kegey also included anyone, male or female, that “drew spiritual power from the upper world and applied it to the well-being of individuals and communities” (2002: 163). Kroeber expressed dismay at the term kegey being applied to men that contributed to the deerskin dance because he viewed the world renewal and doctoring activities as occupying separate compartments of culture. For Kroeber, culture was segmented and compartmental while Buckley understands that culture is a multiplicity of complex structures that are knotted and messy.

Ethnography as Discourse

James Clifford, in his essay “Partial Truths,” asserts “[e]thnography is actively situated between powerful systems of meaning. It poses its questions at the boundaries of civilizations, cultures, classes, races, and genders” (1986: 2). Because ethnography is inscribed as text, it is constructed, objectified, and subject to “the powerful lies of exclusion and rhetoric” (1986: 7). In order to accommodate native speakers, culture needs to be seen as “an interplay of voices, of positioned utterances” (1986: 12) and ethnographers should move towards a specification of discourses that addresses who is speaking and writing, who they are speaking with, and under what institutional and historical constraints (1986: 13). For Clifford, ethnographers no longer hold “unquestioned rights of salvage” (1986: 16) but must include native informants as co-authors while recognizing their own role as interpreting observer (1986: 17). In other words, cultures are not scientific objects but “contested, temporal, and emergent” (1986: 19).

Buckley recognizes Clifford’s call for a dialogical ethnography but struggles with the fact that an ethnographer acts as a final editor (2002: 22). Still, in his analysis of the Jump Dance, he opposes the scientific objectivism of the ‘world renewal cult’ by Kroeber and his student Gifford and casts world renewal as cultural discourse. He criticizes the ‘totalizing approaches’ of Kreober as excluding both individuals and history from ethnographic analysis by creating systems that are closed to individuals and change (2002: 266-267). Buckley argues that world renewal cannot be reduced to elements or structures but that fixing the world “is also the goal of a discourse into which these elements enter as central motifs or themes and is thus a process, something emergent, rather than a reduced ‘system,’ ‘pattern,’ or ‘organization.’” (2002: 267). For Buckley, although discourse theory may provide an interpretive mode for understanding what people do, “what they do is a mode of discourse, of oppositions simultaneously yearning toward wholeness” (2002: 268).

By listening to the dialogue of story telling, Buckley illustrates his point by using Kroeber’s own recorded narratives of two myths surrounding the deerskin dance (2002: 272-273). In both myth narratives, the parties involved negotiate on how and where to perform the dance and “[t]hus these myths suggest that the constant effort to get it right is of equal importance and interest to getting it right” (2002: 273). Kroeber, in order to classify a timeless closed system, missed the important evidence of an emergent, living process of negotiation into a native understanding of world renewal.

Ethnography as a Process of Knowledge

George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, in their book Anthropology as Cultural Critique, summarize interpretive anthropology as operating on “two levels simultaneously: it provides accounts of other worlds from the inside, and reflects about the epistemological groundings of such accounts” (1986: 16). In other words, “the effort to conceive of culture primarily as systems of meaning has come to focus on the process of interpretation itself, that is, on ethnography as a process of knowledge” (Ibid.).

Buckley casts himself as a witness with political, moral, and ethnographic commitments to his academic readers (2002: 20). Throughout his book, Buckley steps back to allow native authors to tell their own stories before stepping back into the narrative to explain the significance of those stories.

An excellent example of this strategy is in Chapter 4 (“Seeing With Their Own Eyes”) when Buckley explores the physical aspect of Yurok spirituality (2002: 90-101). Throughout this section Buckley weaves the words and perspectives on ‘training’ supplied by native peoples like Frank Douglas, Philip Drucker, Dewey George and others into a process of understanding how Yurok men trained both as an individual and as an actor community life (2002: 91). This training enabled those who practiced to achieve the social ideal of male (2002: 91), commune with past traditions of daily life (2002: 92), compete in the stick game in lieu of warfare (2002: 95), and compile spiritual power that may result in supernatural feats of strength, endurance, or mien (2002: 96-101). By weaving the narratives as seen through the eyes of multiple native informants, Buckley demonstrates that the distinctions of mind, body, and spirit within Yurok spirituality is a process that is messier and more interwoven than any closed classification can reflect in reality.

-Safari Bob

References Cited

Buckley, Thomas
2002 Standing Ground: Yurok Indian Spirituality, 1850-1990. Berkley: University of California Press.

Clifford, James
1986 Introduction: Partial Truths. In Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Eds. Berkley: University of California Press, pp. 1-26.

Geertz, Clifford
1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Marcus, George E. and Fischer, Michael M.
1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Daughters of the Dreaming: A Précis

In the book Daughters of the Dreaming, Diane Bell examines the lives of Aboriginal women in Central Australia by focusing on the nature and structure of women’s ritual in the region. Her observations challenge the popular anthropological characterizations of women’s lives as male-dominated and centered in the life of the camp with small religious ceremonies of little community importance (229). Bell explores “women’s rights and responsibilities in land, the nurturance themes celebrated in ritual, and women’s power to exclude men” (230) and finds that they are not fantasies or lost positions of autonomy and independence. Rather, women operate as their own agents within the structure of all Aboriginal society. Central to her analysis is the Law of Dreamtime (or jukurrpa), the rituals used by women to maintain social structure through jukurrpa, and the complexity of social relations within the structure of Central Australian Aboriginal society.

The idea of jukurrpa is vast, subtle and complex as well as way beyond the scope of this précis to articulate. In short, it is The Law that all the social factions revere as authoritative and through the dreaming, each generation interacts with the past—and each other (91). Through the jukurrpa, women keep the land alive and nurture the relationships of the living within their society (94). In fact, for Bell, the land is truly the power base of women and through the maintenance of responsibilities and the exercise of the rights to maintain the land (via jukurrpa), women have long enjoyed autonomy within their society (59, 95). Important locations, such as ‘ring places’ (110), are sites located at intersecting ‘dreaming tracks’ (138) at which rituals can be preformed that reflect the authority of women to try social offenders and resolve disputes, to offer healing and refuge, and to discuss matters of importance or give and receive counsel (124).

If the land provides the power base of autonomy for women within the Aboriginal social structure, it is through ritual that this autonomy is expressed and reified—all within the context of jukurrpa. For instance, when the yawulyu, a ceremony comprised of ‘women’s business’ (11), is preformed no men are allowed to observe; in fact they fear it. This ritual affords a time for “distant people [to] come together to exchange and assert their common bonds of responsibility to country” (126). Women lead the ritual, through the positions of kirda (who is responsible for certain knowledge encoded in the various aspects of the ritual) and kurdungurlu (who is responsible for the safety of the ritual objects; 139), informing the participants of the country and enacting the dreaming story through dance and visual markers displayed on the sacred painted boards. These visual cues may instruct observers about the country but only if the observer in schooled in the dreaming (127). This ceremony embodies three major themes: land, love and health—all within the context of jukurrpa (128). Here, fat is the central symbol that links these three themes as the past heroes rubbed the fat on their bodies to inspire beauty and demonstrate ‘glowing health’ (130). Through ritual and women’s interaction with the land, the jukurrpa is reaffirmed and reactivated.

Through the social links established by women, knowledge of the jukurrpa is transmitted and ritual reciprocity is established. Yilpinji, or ‘love rituals’ (162), are means in which women may influence marriage arrangements and find a husband. Missionaries have maligned these complex rituals (such as Phillip Creek) as ‘love magic’ and some Aboriginal men have continued this hegemony in order to defuse the influence of yilpinji (162). Bell explores two inter-related myths that embody the yilpinji: the kurinpi (or old women dreaming) and the ngapa (or rain) dreamings (164). Both dreamings consist of the exploration of the fears of women as they marry: (1) the loss of autonomy and (2) the desire for social intercourse (174). In both dreamings, women are either seduced or compelled into leaving their land and becoming isolated from family. Yilpinji is preformed to establish correct unions between men and women “and this is why it is feared by men: it impinges upon the set relationships which men claim to control through marriage alliances” (176). Through this ritual, women can overturn the plans of men and establish male-female relationships deemed legitimate by their society (177). Bell argues that this ritual should be understood within the context of land and as achieving socially approved ends (178). “In acting out the responsibilities the Law confers upon them as women, women engage in work which is distinctly theirs” which also allows them “to control this world and exclude men from this domain” (179).

Although men and women do compete in displays of knowledge of the jukurrpa, Bell argues that both men and women are united in the maintenance of their society in accordance with the Dreamtime Law and each maintains both a symbolic and a physical presence in each other’s rituals (183). Ceremonies known as yungkurru enable men and women to “make public statements about their own rituals and to allow the other to approach and to handle ritual objects” (184). This forum allows women to demonstrate their knowledge of the jukurrpa without providing men the opportunity to gain control of women’s autonomous world. Each group is allowed to demonstrate their unique contribution to the jukurrpa while also being able to monitor the content of the other’s ritual world (191). Each prepared songs, boards, and designs but only brought a fraction of the knowledge they had prepared to the yungkurru. However, each knew something of what the other had practiced in their respective work areas. Bell observed that during this ritual, women were not only able to direct men but were often the initiators of ritual action (193). Each was afforded opportunities to observe the ritual activities of the other.

In addition to coeducational ceremonies within a given community, Bell observed a yungkurru in which “the dreaming was extended to the east” (195) and another community was invited to participate. The women navigated the complex structure of Aboriginal society in order to ensure that men from both communities were included in the yawulyu (or women’s business) component of the Neutral Junction gathering. This joint ritual allowed people to exercise their responsibilities in the jukurrpa and this make public their rights in country (198). Although women took a decisive roll in choosing how much knowledge was displayed, women celebrated the interdependence of the roles of kirda and kurdungurlu as well as the inter-relations of the dreamings of ngapa, wardingi and yawakiyi while sharing knowledge with another group—and receiving instruction in a different understanding of the jukurrpa (201).

By extending their dreaming range and organizing ritual relationships with one another, women attempt to consolidate their position within the structure of Central Australian Aboriginal society at large (231). For Bell, settlement life is the greatest impediment to this consolation of women’s power of autonomy within their society. In the past, women “enjoyed a complex set of rights which were validated by their direct access to the Dreamtime and the use to which they put the land” (95). As white settlers and Aboriginal peoples began competing for resources (such as water for cattle), conflict between whites and Aborigines escalated into massacre (Coniston; 67), fewer foodstuff and water resources (69), and active conversion attempts to Christianity (64). The Australian government began distributing food (65) and soon Aboriginal people found fewer opportunities to work and were forced into vocations that reflect white ideals of the roles of men and women (86). Once, women could depend on the resources provided by the land for subsistence but governmental institutions began to narrow the opportunities of women (70) and although aspects of settlement life is incorporated into the ritual lives of women (example: Warrabri dreaming; 147), the autonomy women once enjoyed is severely limited by life in the settlement.

In order to create some autonomy, Kaytei women created a jilimi (single women camps; 11) where women could escape bad marriages and socialize with other women (84). This separation of the sexes and women’s independence are no longer mutually reinforcing values (84) as women are denied the freedom of unlimited access to resources provided by the land. Shifts in marriage systems of kinship, ritual transformation and the strengthening of male links between generations result in disequilibrium whereby men’s domain intrudes into the autonomy of women. As Bell observes, “it is the shattering of the ritually maintained nexus of land as resource and spiritual essence that I have located a shift from female autonomy to male control, from independence to dependence” (247). Men and women once negotiated roles but now women’s autonomy is lessened due to the loss of land over which to forage. By looking at the historical record of the past century, Bell argues that the material conditions have changed dramatically and this change is “reflected in ritual, both in terms of the way in which ideas are incorporated within the Law of the dreaming and in terms of the opportunity to stage rituals” (249).

-Safari Bob

Bell, D. (1993). Daughters of the Dreaming. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN: 0-8166-2398-8

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pareidolia, Prototype Theory and Jesus on Toast

The other day I overheard a snippet of a conversation in the checkout lane of the local grocery. A group of young women were looking at a picture on their mobile phone of a slice of toast that supposedly depicted the image of Jesus. One young lady said, "That ain't Jesus! Jesus don't look nuthin' like that!"

Jesus on Toast

Of course finding an image of Jesus (or Buddha or Donovan McNabb or whoever) on a piece of toast is simple pareidolia which is a common phenomenon of perceiving random patterns as having significant meaning. So I asked the young lady, "What does Jesus look like?" Understandably, she looked away and the conversation ended (I am not pretty and she didn't know me from Adam). Still, I wonder what she sees when she thinks of Jesus.

Many people in the US, when they think of Jesus, instantly see this picture in their mind:

White Protestant Jesus

Catholic Americans are more likely to see a picture similar to this:

Catholic Jesus

Of course everyone has a slightly different image in their mind when they hear any word. Consider the word "dog." Most everyone knows what a dog is and most everyone can see a mental image of a dog when the word is understood. Of course, these images are always different (I always see my first dog, Rex, who was a black German shepherd). This phenomenon is anticipated by Prototype Theory and is just part of normal congnitive development.

Still, I wish that young lady would have described what she saw when she thought of Jesus. If she watches a lot of TV, I wonder if she saw this:

South Park Jesus

Does she like movies? If so, maybe she saw this:

Buddy Christ

Maybe she secretly likes Steampunk and saw this:

Steampunkin' Jesus

I wonder how anyone can see this:

Extreme Jesus?

The moment is past to hear from the young lady, but what do you see?

-Safari Bob

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book Review: "The Sociology of Religion" by Max Weber

Central to Weber’s idea of religious and social change is “the integrations and discrepancies between expectation systems which are institutionalized in normative orders and the actual experiences people undergo" [1, pg. lvi] or, in other words, the sociological study of what people interpret to be consequences for themselves and the aspects of the human condition which they are apart in relation to conformity or nonconformity with an established normative order. This basic tension is how Weber defines and analyzes the progression of social and religious changes within a given society and the ensuing emergence of ‘breakthrough.’

At the beginning of his work, Weber is careful to state, “The essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior" [1, pg. 1]. He simply wishes to approach the study of religion from a ‘subjective’ standpoint or from the viewpoint of the religious behavior’s “meaning.” He posits that religion is rationally motivated by ‘the rules of experience’ and therefore should not be apart from the range of everyday conduct, “particularly since even the ends of the religious and magical actions are predominantly economic" [1, pg. 1]. Here, via perceived extraordinary powers which he describes as charisma, begins a process of abstraction based on experience in which they are rationalized, symbolized, and stereotyped into sacred law and, upon further reflection, into objective specialization of gods and numina which results in priests. These spirits reflect certain principles of order, which develop into an ethical attachment of individuals to a cosmos of obligations. Magic and adulation develop into obedience to religious law. Taboo is transformed into a systematization of ethics and the irrational immergence of hope for salvation. Prophecy and priesthood work to produce a centralization of ethics under the aegis of religious salvation.

This dynamic is played differently in divergent political, social, and economic classes. Certain religions developed in urban environments while others were mostly agrarian. Proletarian interests tend to be more irrational and display resentment while the concepts of sin and salvation tend to not be found in the political elite but are used for political control and legitimacy. The middle class tends toward a congregational rational ethical religion. Some Theodicy of disprivilege is a component of every salvation religion, which draws its adherents primarily from the disprivileged classes. Revolution may arise through the reinterpretation of stereotyped magical or ritual norms. Political and ethical communities intermingle to loose gods from political connection to become universal powers and ethical and economic rationalization clash resulting in a rejection of ‘the world’ and especially economic activities. Sex and art are also defined through ethical rationalization resulting in hostility indicative of every authentic religion of salvation.

Weber’s approach is basically evolutionary which reflects the times in which he lived and wrote. I find it notable that he, like Durkheim, both missed the influence that science would play in both society and religion even though they both used to some degree the evolutionary model provided by science. I did however find his three bases of authority or legitimization (charisma, traditionalism, and routinization) to be insightful. Although it could be seen as an oversimplification, this process does seem to be prevalent in the forms of most aspects of religion and politics. I am not so sure that “bureaucratic rule was not and is not the only variety of legal authority, but it is the purest [1, pg. 299]” but in his historical world this seemed to be the model for western society.

- Safari Bob


[1] Weber, M. (1991). The Sociology of Religion, E. Fischoff (Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN: 0-8070-4205-6

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Technical Communication: What is it Anyway?

Behind any written document there exists a synthesis of three components: the author, the subject, and the audience (or reader). All three elements work together to create meaning and each has responsibilities in this relationship.

Different genres of writing emphasize different relationships between the three components of a document. A novel emphasizes the relationship between the author and the audience while an informative essay (like this one) concentrates on the exploration of a subject by an author. Technical writing emphasizes the relationship between the subject and the audience; the author or authors are secondary in this dynamic. In many ways, a technical document can be confusing to the reader if the author is too prominent in the text.

To illustrate how this relationship between the reader and the subject works in a technical document consider the user’s manual for you car. You may glance at it when you first buy your vehicle but most often you only refer to the manual when you want information—and usually in response to some question or problem. As the reader (or user), you require information. Perhaps your brake lights are burnt out and you need to replace the bulbs so you consult the user’s manual. Even the title of this document privileges the relationship between the subject and the audience in that no byline is found on your user’s manual for your vehicle! You don’t care who wrote it, you just need information—now!

Defining Technical Writing

This genre of writing has many nuances that are reflected in the multiplicity of terms used to label it including technical communication, professional writing, technical rhetoric, and professional communication to name a few. There are two major dichotomies at work when anyone tries to define this discipline: professional/technical and communication/writing.

Initially, technical writing evolved out of a need to transmit specific technical information to users who did not understand the jargon of engineers. Every academic discipline and industry arena possess certain terminology or uses of words that are either unique to that community or used in a unique manner that the general public does not explicitly understand. Soon after WWII, Americans were able to buy the first televisions, transistor radios, kitchen appliances, and other products of technology that were new to the thinking of the general populace. Engineers were more concerned with creating new products than to communicate to non-engineers how to use them. Someone needed to translate and thus technical writing became a recognized profession.

Soon other professions and industries began to notice that they could also benefit from this kind of specialized skill. Writers were hired to transmit information from not only scientific and electronic industries but also those of medicine, pharmaceuticals, computers, software, and education began to use specialized writers to convey instructions, write internal reports, and craft grant proposals. Technical writing soon transcended technology and pervaded other professions; in essence technical writing is now just one genre within a multiplicity of professional writing contexts.

In addition to multiple professions using specialized writing to convey specific information through print, another need was soon realized: a need to reach specific audiences through other means than the written page. More and more specific information is being disseminated orally and visually to audiences of different cultures and in different settings. Managers had to present findings to higher levels of management, new medicines had to be explained to global communities, and instructions for products and services had to be understood by customers with different expectations and learning contexts. Professional writers are moving beyond solely written media (whether printed or computer screen) to the arena of holistic communication.

In order to illustrate this point, consider our earlier example: your car’s user manual. If you were to consult the manual for directions to change a burnt-out bulb in your taillight, chances are that you will encounter other symbols than just written text. Most manuals have illustrations designed to convey information to a specific audience—you. You see pictures with step-by-step instruction including visual representations of parts and arrows that portray movement. In addition, you may encounter colors such as red or yellow, which may have other meanings in other cultures. Writing specialists now have to understand how icons or figures can transmit specific directions outside of written text.

We are now in the position to define technical (or professional) communication: to provide specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose or use. Undoubtedly you noticed throughout this article my repeated use of the term “specific.” This qualifier is vital to our understanding of this discipline and merits a closer examination.


If you remember, technical (and professional) writing emphasizes the dynamic between the subject of the document and the reader of that document. More than any other pairing (author/subject or author/audience), this presupposes a sense of urgency. A novel or an essay can wait; a burnt-out taillight cannot. This urgency is seldom experienced in a general way and results from a specific problem to be solved on the part of the reader. You are the one with the burnt-out taillight and you need to know how to change it. You are a specific person with a specific problem that needs a specific solution.

To solve this specific problem, you need specific information that is clear, concise, and presented in such a way that you can access and use it. If the information is crafted with technical jargon or obscure language, it is at best time consuming to translate and at worst useless to you in your situation. You are the specific user; you bought the car and they gave you that manual. Technical communicators specialize in analyzing what specific kinds of people would buy that car and in what specific contexts you would need to use the manual. Taillights burn out and clear information should be constructed in anticipation of that specific need.

Another, often unspoken, aspect of a technical document is that of a specific shelf life. Novels and essays are often written for broader audiences and with a sense of timelessness. Most genres that emphasize the author in the dynamic aim for longevity. Technical documents are tied to a specific audience with a specific purpose. When the audience is informed and the purpose fulfilled, technical documents lose urgency; they lose relevance. Cars rust and are junked, computer software quickly becomes dated, and instructions are learned and no longer needed. Technical documents form from urgency and that urgency creates contexts of specificity by which all technical documents are judged useful, confusing, or irrelevant.


I have defined technical communication as providing specific information to a specific audience for a specific purpose or use. Technical documents are used with urgency that creates contexts of specificity that encompass usability, clarity, audience, intent, and shelf life. In a world where the boundaries of countries, language, culture, and industry (even workscapes) continue to overlap and even, perhaps, disappear, technical communicators will become more valuable and pervasive within other contexts of specificity and utility in other professions and industry. I leave you with these questions to consider: How can technical communicators influence future conventions of technology? Paper is portable; computers are accessible through ubiquitous networks. How are future contexts of specificity going to be addressed by technical communicators in the light of future urgency?

-Safari Bob

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I Write Like...

Have you heard about this website that analyzes your writing and compares it to the writing of famous authors? As a writing teacher, I find this website, I Write Like, a fascinating (if silly) diversion and I have submitted some writing just to see the results. After I submitted a randomly selected pericope from this blog, I received this result:

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Oh, if only it were true! Here is the results from another post on this blog:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Still, I think that I will incorporate this website into my TSI 303: Developmental Writing class. I wonder how this classification may influence beginning writers?

-Safari Bob

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Review: "The Construction of Religious Boundaries" by Harjot Oberoi

Central to the main theme of this book is the notion that there is nothing natural or self-evident about such religious categories as ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, or, in particular, ‘Sikh’. Due to the nature of religion in Indian society, these categories are fluid and ambiguous in that they did not possess a pure form. “Historically, it is more precise to speak in terms of simultaneity of religious identities rather than distinct, universal, religious collectives" [1, p. 418]. By utilizing history and anthropology, Oberoi constructs an ‘ethnohistorical approach’; in which he explores the formation and distribution of ideologies which would coalesce into the Tat Khalsa episteme that would eventually be associated with the standard Sikh identity. The blurred boundaries became distinct in that the Tat Khalsa had ‘framed’ the modern Sikh community. By viewing this progression within the Sikh community, Oberoi hopes to reveal the “entire process underlying the rise and dissolution of a episteme" [1, p. 30].

He begins by recounting the first attempts by the Khalsa in the later eighteenth-century to establish boundaries by establishing concepts of self and other through life-cycle rituals, taboo behavior, transgressions, and the constitution of sacred space. Next he explores the displacement of the Khalsa episteme by the Sanatan Tradition and its transmission through the Dasam Granth; a sacred text that was used by and/or promoted the three major forces of change: guru lineage, holy men, and traditional intellectuals. The mixing of Khalsa and Sahajdhari texts, theology, and social practices formed a bricolage; which deeply transformed Sikh thinking and conduct. Whereas the Sanatan Tradition is viewed as belonging to the elite, rural Sikhs also participated in ‘popular religion’; which varied village to village and consisted of a plurality of religious beliefs and conducts. Despite the dissimilarities, these two forms of religious expression coexisted until the encroachment of Colonial Christianity forced a unification of the Sikh identity in lieu of a perceived decline of the Sikh population. In order to preserve the Sanatan Tradition from the repercussions of military defeat, the misidentification of Colonial census, and the inroads of Christian missionaries, the Singh Sabha formed to record and codify Sikh customs and practices. Most Sanatanists recognized a plurality of beliefs but in following the European logic the Singh Sabha strove to form a rational and uniform tradition. A new ‘elite sub-culture’ utilized the advantages of nineteenth-century modernization to influence the formation of the Tat Khalsa with which to purge the religious diversity within the Singh Sabha tradition. Puritanism, asceticism, and restraint were touted in the construction of a neo-Sikh moral community and the establishment of the Adi Granth as the sole religious text. In the ensuing struggle the elite Tat Khalsa and the non-elite Sanatan Sikhs demonstrated a clash of ideals reflecting divergent world-views. Faced with the prevailing attitudes that the Sikhs would not be able to compete with other religious communities for jobs and facing a possible loss of cultural independence, the neo-Sikhs established schools in which the Sikh community identified themselves with the Tat Khalsa and eventually this identity defined Sikhism.

Through this account, Oberoi demonstrates that the reification of the Sikh religion is not the simple product of British policy or the compulsions of elite politics, but rather the result of a complex evolution within religious, political, and economical domains.

-Safari Bob

[1] Oberoi, H. (1994). The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-61593-6

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tobacco Review: C&D Murphy's Mistake

Back in the JFH days, we sold a ton of Cornell & Diehl pipe tobacco. I first met Craig and Patti at the St. Louis pipe show in 1995 (I believe--the years run together sometimes) where I first tried some of their blends. They had some great blends with such whimsical names as Bow-Legged Bear, Cross-Eyed Cricket and Junk Yard Dawg. To this day I still enjoy the Cross-eyed Cricket and Pennington Gap both of which I tried at that show. Of course I also enjoy many of their newer blends; in fact I just bought a pound of Autumn Evening.

When I decided to introduce Cornell & Diehl blends at the store, Craig and Patti were very kind and sent 10 different jars full of samples for the customers to try. There were always friendly and eager to help with any ideas or problems I had and I truly believe that they are some of the finest folks in the tobacco business. One day, I may actually get out to their new blending facilities and see what all they are blending now.

Murphy's Mistake is simply that--a mistake in a blending run. A few years earlier, Cornell & Diehl had similar batch they named "Santa's Mistake" (released around Christmas) that is now quite collectible. This time, they tinned and released Murphy's Mistake in March '09 to cater to the St Patrick's Day crowd and it is starting to be just as sought after. Here's the manufacturer's description:

We can’t tell you which blend it was supposed to be but we can say it’s a full English that’s smooth and creamy and, just like with Santa’s Mistake, while different from what it was supposed to be Murphy’s is an excellent blend in its own right. We can’t say it enough, quantities are limited so call or e-mail for yours today!

This blend is attractive with black Cavendish cuts with what appears to be red and golden Virginia ribbons as well as dark latakia. The blend was a wonderful sweet-sour aroma and this flavor develops throughout the bowl. The 'baccy takes to the match and is easy to light even though it is moist. As the bowl progresses, the flavor develops a creamy, malty texture that has a sweet citrus hint that is delightful. Throughout the smoke, the lively flavors shift between sweet and sour and well a tangy, salty and creamy. As it burns down to a heavy mottled gray ash, the flavors stay lively and true to the first light while the room note reminds me distinctly of burning leaves in autumn.

This is a great, smooth, rich, full English blend that is complex and certainly keeps your interest throughout the bowl. I would recommend that you grab a tin while they are still relatively cheap. I like it!

Rating: 4 Puffs out of 5

-Safari Bob

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review: "Lives of Indian Images" by Richard H. Davis

Central to the purpose of this book is the notion that the identities of Indian religious objects are not fixed or permanent but constructed and reconstructed by the religious, cultural, economic, and political circumstances in which they are found. Davis approaches this idea by adapting the reader-response theory of ‘interpretive communities’ into his notion of ‘communities of response’ in which one may consider “the plurality of ways viewers approach and encounter a visual object" [1, p. 9]. The location, presentation, and environment in which an object is encountered constitute a “frame” that guides the responses of a viewer in looking at and acting toward the object. The viewer also brings a second frame or “dispensation”, i.e. her own socially shared assumptions, ideas, needs, experiences, and hopes, to this encounter. This interaction between the icon and the viewer creates a series of responses or “reinterpretations” over time in which these objects may be animated as much by these encounters as by the deities they represent and support. By going beyond material creation, Davis argues for “an expanded frame for viewing Indian religious objects, one that accepts contingency, instability, and plurality in the identities of images" [1, p. 263]. This focus on the moment of creation restricts the meaningful possibilities of an object and distracts from the participation of the object in the ongoing social life of its communities.

To demonstrate his purpose, Davis examines a series of objects and sites to explore significant moments or shifts in response that affect these and other Indian objects. He begins with a bronze Siva to juxtapose how an American museum and its original temple setting would present this icon to the viewer. He then illustrates the range of rhetoric in the appropriation of select religious images such as the Calukya door-guardian by medieval Indian rulers. Next he uses Islamic iconoclasm and Hindu response to demonstrate the ways in which Indo-Muslim and Hindu texts narrated acts of image destruction and reconstruction, differing ways of interpretation and response to Indian religious icons, and the political and theological purposes behind them. After this Davis explores the transformation of Indian icons into ‘art’ vis-à-vis the acquisition of “Tipu’s Tiger” by British colonial forces and the altered political relationship of Britain and India. Next he traces the diachronical formations of meanings in relation to Somanatha and the efforts of diverse social groups to retell its story according to each group’s purpose. Finally he examines the current market in the West for ancient Indian art by following the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to illuminate the conflicting claims and views of Indian worshippers and Western collectors hold toward these objects.

In all of these “biographies” Davis demonstrates how historical, devotional, and cultural frames affect the meanings and interpretations of these objects by different viewers. I found his treatment of the bronze image of Siva Nataraja to be especially illuminating in that I also previously held the assumption with the Indian Government of “once a religious image always a religious image" [1, pg. 252]. By exploring the various layers of ‘the recovery of ritual selfhood’ he truly demonstrates the murky definitions of how we should approach these icons. The fluidity of how these ‘dispensations’ can subtly morph as well as the ever-changing environmental framework in which these icons are found truly form multiple complexities of the subjective imposed on the objective.

- Safari Bob

[1] Davis, R., H. (1997). Lives of Indian Images. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 0-691-00520-6

Monday, April 19, 2010

Depositum Fidei: Can Powerful Beliefs and Tolerance Coexist?

As I approach this question it appears to me that two major social contexts are being contested within scope of this problem, namely that of power and identity. Certainly the social conflicts are broad between cultures in a global environment and as we enter a pluralistic or multicultural setting, boundaries defined by proximity have become tighter or of little consequence. With temporal and spatial division shrinking, soon, it would seem, we may have to stop thinking of ourselves as a multicultural environment and more as one multiethnic culture. In order to survive within this context, issues of identity and power must be defined and addressed in the hopes that common ground may be found on which to live.


One could argue that the world is still languishing under the effects of colonialism, the product of the first worldwide capitalist endeavor, in that the old colonial powers still have much of the global wealth. Voices and faces, previously caricatured, imposed, and invented, are emerging to speak for themselves. The traditional centers of ‘Western’ or colonial power are becoming decentered or postcolonial. As technological advances in the transmission of ideas and transportation increase, the world seems smaller in that it now longer takes days to travel distances it now takes hours to cross. Ideas, once taking months to circulate via the printing press now take seconds via the Internet. Space and time are now of small consequence.

Still hegemony exists in the form of capitalist interests, no longer only for the colonial powers but also a possibility for territories that once were occupied by these colonial powers. By offering the Western idea of success many former colonies see the possibility of wealth and education for themselves as a viable reality. This ideological control can even be seen in the idea of tolerance, which carries with it the notion of a position of power that deigns to grant clemency out of magnanimity rather than acceptance out of graciousness as a coequal. One problem seems to be that hegemony no longer is working and control, as recent events demonstrate, must be re-exerted by means of arms. The western ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of the ubiquitous Big Mac no longer offer the same allure for those former colonies. Why not?


Although I do not accept all the finer points of Mary Douglas’ system of understanding social pressures, I do find her model of Grid/Group useful in describing and understanding the social conditions in which we find ourselves [1, p. 60]:

Within this system we can see that we have an increasingly privatized system of classification with the construction of democracy and the and an increasing amount of group as the world gets smaller and we are confronted other people’s beliefs as well as social pressures of style, consumerism, and whatnot. Those that identify with this egalitarian worldview fit in and feel accepted. Those that do not are marginalized and isolated from the culture. These isolates are unpredictable in that their voice is not heard within the context of the prevalent culture. These isolates are not necessarily counter-cultural, they are just unheard, invisible, and unpredictable. This environment of isolation, I believe, allows for the formation of views that within the prevailing social context seem counter-cultural and extremist. Here is the pool of persons waiting to be exploited as human bombs in terrorism as well as any other counter-cultural activity whether violent or not.

We are, of course, speaking in broad sweeping generalities with this or any other model but I believe that it does allow a means for study. The question now becomes what happens when different cultures compete for the same space? Or even, what happens when a new idea or personality is introduced into the grid/group ratio of a given culture?

Adversarial Mode

When different or competing cultures or systems of beliefs encounter on another, a mad scramble for power ensues, often in the form of what Bourdieu [2] would describe as ‘cultural capital’ or perhaps those items that constitute each culture’s idea of the moral high ground. This perception of risk or threat often gets focused into political and religious sayings such as “God is on our side” or “Don’t tread on me!” This heightened sense of defense allows for a period of justification, accusation and social galvanization against the other culture. This can also happen within the same culture with the introduction of a new idea into a socially charged environment ready for its acceptance to create division and social revolution.

We can certainly see this at work in the broad reformations that swept Western Europe in the sixteenth-century. The competing factions will feel threatened, defensive, and will justify acts that may not have been thinkable earlier in the name of religion or politics. This is also the context for war in an egalitarian society such as the West. Because our values, interests, and worldview are threatened, aggression can be justified even when dialogue could be able to solve matters. Liberal views, hitherto seen as socially progressive, are criticized as idealistic and weak. Conservative viewpoints, hitherto criticized as narrow-minded and mean, can be seen as practical and necessary.


So can powerful beliefs and tolerance coexist? I believe that they can if they exist outside of an adversarial mode under the aegis of commonality. In a religious context, I am not speaking necessarily of ecumenism or as Westhelle describes as a depositum fidei in which an imaginary cathedral works to store and display all “proofs of faith" [3, p. 7]. And politically, I am not speaking of a ‘one-world government’, of which the mere thought would inspire revolutions, both political and religious, the world over. So how do we do we provide an environment where all beliefs and cultures can coexist, perhaps even peaceably?

I believe that we have to address the notion of power to include gracious acceptance in coequal terms. A universal ‘live and let live’ must be adopted and practiced by all cultures in this increasingly shrinking world, in which all inhabitants can practice systems of belief without infringing or being infringed on by others. Within a given culture the social isolates must be given the opportunity to express their voices if they so chose. The problem is that this is practically untenable. As borders constrict conflict arises until one cultural identity is fashioned.

I suppose the only answer to this question is yes it can but not until everyone’s powerful beliefs include the notion that every person has the right to hold divergent positions and ideas. This position of difference cannot be perceived as threatening or conflict, war, and terrorism will always exist. The Catholic and Protestant institutions that battled within the reformations have made a quiet peace with only minor hostilities in the form of bigotry from the extreme fundamentalists in each camp. Each has its own identity and each respects the differences in the other. With Vatican II the Catholic Church even made major overtures toward a lasting, peaceful respect. Perhaps the rest of the competing cultures can do the same.

-Safari Bob


[1] Douglas, M. (1996). Natural Symbols. New York: Routledge.

[2] Bourdieu, P. (1998). The State of Nobility. Lauretta C. Clough (trans.). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

[3] Westhelle, V. (2003). “Multiculturalism, Postcolonialism, and The Apocalyptic” in Theology and The Religious: a Dialogue, Viggo Mortensen (ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, pp. 3-14.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Book Review: "Metaphors We Live By" by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

I have been wrestling with this question: How would a rhetorician approach Metaphors We Live By? Certainly, the various approaches possible to rhetoricians is as diverse as the number of rhetoricians who interpret. After some time, I find myself wondering about the role of rhetoric in myth construction. I wonder if rhetoric functions to shape mythos—in the construction of gestalt. The one problem I see with this book is what happens when a culture constructs competing gestalts; in other words, what happens when a culture understands a metaphor in such a way as to construct two (or more) opposed interpretations of experience?

Certainly, metaphors can allow two people or groups of people to understand individual views of reality. The essence of metaphor is to understand one concept in the light of another [1, p. 5] and this comparison is best realized within a given culture. Still, within a given culture, conflicts can arise and these conflicts can produce competing metaphors [1, p. 23]. The authors argue that although individuals and sub-groups place priority on metaphors that reflect ways that are good and virtuous to them, “individual value systems are coherent with the major orientation metaphors of the main-stream culture” [1, p. 26]. So, one way to determine cohesion in a given culture is to explore the orientation metaphors (ie active is up) and the ontological metaphors (ie entity and substance) of a given social group. Thus, metaphors tend to be coherent across social strata [1, p. 44] and reflect may reflect a common conceptual system in which metaphors grounded by “virtue of systematic correlates within our experience” [1, p. 58]. This cohesion allows metaphors to emerge naturally in a given culture because what it highlights corresponds to what the members of a given culture collectively experience [1, p. 68].

At this point in the book, the authors introduce the notion of a gestalt: a whole construct of meaning that humans find more basic than the parts [1, p. 70]. This is a basic tenant of prototype theory, which examines the way that different social groups understand or place value on the world in which they exist. For instance, when one is presented with the category of ‘snake’ people from different cultures would react differently. In some cultures a snake is a symbol of evil while in others it is a symbol of wisdom. The authors eventually complicate this idea with the notion of ‘truth’ by which they reject the ‘myths’ of objective category and subjective interpretation. Rather, they advocate that categories such as truth are best understood within the “interactional [sic.] properties that make sense only relative to human functioning” [1, p. 164]. Interaction properties and experiential gestalts form the “experientialist myth” that can best explain how humans understand and function in their world [1, p. 228]. This understanding “emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people” [1, p. 230]. Meaning is negotiated and metaphor is crucial to create rapport and to communicate the nature of unshared experience [1, p. 231].

My question is still unanswered by the “experientialist myth”, however. I think that, in this theory, rhetoric is instrumental in the negotiation of meaning between competing views but I am not sure that the authors address a possibility that one culture may actually hold competing and inconsistent experiential gestalts. They seem to assume that a culture is more cohesive than a pluralistic entity like the United States. Earlier [1, pp. 22-24] they give lip service to cultural difference only to move to a more basic (or universal) understanding of metaphor. What happens when competing gestalts, within a given culture, exist (or emerge) to explain categories such as truth?

-Safari Bob


[1] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN: 0-226-46801-1

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Tobacco Review: Vauen Black Pepper

When I was at Just For Him, I actually tried to blend a black pepper pipe tobacco but I just could not get the flavor to unfold. I could get spicy, hot, and even a greenish kind of sweet pepper once (I never could replicate it, however) but I never could nail down the black pepper taste. So when I spied Vauen Black Pepper, I immediately placed an order and started counting off days on the calendar until the UPS guy showed. I don't know too much about Vauen Pipe Co. other than it is German and is purported to have been in the pipe business since 1848. I do not know who makes these tobaccos for Vauen or if they manufacture it themselves (I doubt it). Still, this blend is tasty, it is made in Germany, and does not disappoint. The tin has no manufacturer's description, but here is what says about it:

The double-fermented Black Cavendish based on Virginia and Burley tobaccos delivers a unique smooth smoking experience with a distinct aroma of black pepper. MSRP: $14.10; 50gm tin.

The tobacco is black Cavendish and stoved ribbons that burns well into a mottled gray and white ash--a hint that different kinds of tobacco are blended here. Perhaps it is a Virginia (maybe Red Virginia?) and Burley mixture. Certainly, one notices a distinct black pepper aroma as the tin is cracked and I definitely enjoyed this flavor throughout the smoke which is accompanied by a subtle sweetness, although it does fade a bit in the heel. This tobacco is not moist--maybe a shade drier than I like--nor does it feel oily. The room note seems woodsy rather than sweet and I swear I can still smell the black paper 15 minutes after the smoke.

This is a good, smooth aromatic that has some complexity in the smoke and certainly delivers a black pepper flavor without the bite. For some reason, it reminds me quite a bit of C&D Autumn Evening but with a different flavor. Interestingly, Autumn Evening is a cased Red Virgina; perhaps this is why Vauen Black Pepper reminds me of it so. I thoroughly enjoy this blend and am working on my second tin. If you like Lane's BCA, you might find it a little dry, but overall this is a great all-day blend with an unusual flavor.

Rating: 4 Puffs out of 5

-Safari Bob

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: "Colors of the Robe" by Ananda Abeysekara

Central to this book is a “study of the formations and deformations of contingent relations between ‘religious’ identity and difference" [1, p. 4]. Here Abeysekara seeks to demonstrate how the relation between what comes to count as religion or difference alters in varying “minute contingent conjunctures” in which diverse persons, practices, discourses, and institutions conjoin to form competing definitions of self/other identities within a period of a few years, months, or days. In order to do so, one needs to “locate the central visibility of the emergence and submergence, authorization and unauthorization [sic] of specific knowledges [sic] about what does and does not count as [identity] in conjunctures of debates" [1, p. 4]. Disciplinary deconstructions of colonial knowledge of Indian religion, culture, and difference result in a static conception of Indian identity and therefore propagate colonial assumptions. It is only “the examination of such contingent conjunctures that should form the basis for disciplinary works seeking to understand religion, identity, and difference as historically varying ideas" [1, p. 16]. In fact Abeysekara wants to demonstrate that “if we can have no a priori epistemological guarantee of, a privileged access to, the altering relation between religious identity and difference, we must explore those conjunctions of debates in which authoritative persons, practices, and institutions that counted as religious identity yesterday become vulnerable to being thwarted, deauthorized [sic], as difference today" [1, p. 25].

By exploring the volatile political landscape of Sri Lanka and the prominence of Theravada Buddhism centered there, Abeysekara explores his thesis. First he demonstrates that authoritative narratives that contend to represent Buddhism should not be used as “readily available ethnographic examples” of the relation between religion and society as they are part of “altering ideological conjunctures” by investigating competing narratives about Dhammananda. Next by using the debate surrounding the construction of the BPU he demonstrates how “different conceptions of Buddhism and politics, the religious and the secular, religious identity and difference, become authorized and deauthorized [sic], come into central sight and disappear from sight, in contingent conjuctures of debates" [1, p. 107]. Next by examining Sri Lanka’s economic relationship with Japan and the ensuing construction of a ‘new economy’ that authorized a particular image of Buddhism and monkhood, Abeysekara locates the “dynamics of a particular epistemic space" [1, p. 27] in which debate as to the relations of self (Theravada) and other (Mahayana) “came into central view and faded from view” through competing discourses. He affirms this phenomenon in his explorations of religion and violence and how these categories are “discursively produced, and hence shift within the conjunctures of different debates" [1, p. 234].

I found his argument to be compelling in that categories I had held to be, more or less, static, such as ‘Buddhism’ or more specifically ‘Theravada Buddhism’, are not self-evident but continually being contested in “specific conjunctures of debates” that define and recast these terms. His insightful use of Foucault in defining identity as not only an effect but also as an instrument of discourse/power helps in establishing the notion of movement and shifting in the meanings of identity in religion and society.

-Safari Bob

[1] Abeysekara, A. (2002). Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN: 1-57003-467-2

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Science 2.0: Open Science via Web 2.0 Technologies (Intro)

Last week I presented a paper at the College English Association 2010 Conference in San Antonio Texas. For some strange reason, I actually received three or four requests for copies of the paper I presented. Although I decided to not offer the full text in this forum, I have decided to publish the introduction here on the blog. If you would like to read it, I will be happy to send you a copy via the eerie power of the Internets. So if you are suffering from insomnia, here is your treatment. Enjoy!

Science 2.0: Open Science via Web 2.0 Technologies

In his article, “Science 2.0: Great New Tool, or Great Risk?” for Scientific American, M. Mitchell Waldrop (2008, January 9) experiments with ‘networked journalism’ by allowing the readers of this article to contribute to his understanding of Science 2.0. He describes this article as a “particularly apt candidate” for this kind of collaborative journalism due to the subject of Science 2.0, which he describes as “how researchers are beginning to harness wikis, blogs and other Web 2.0 technologies as a potentially transformative way of doing science” (p. 1). This iteration of his article is a draft and the contributions of readers were assimilated into the final product published in the following April edition. In other words, Waldrop (2008) is using the platforms that allow Science 2.0 to exist to inform his future article about Science 2.0.

Certainly, the World Wide Web (WWW) has transformed the ways many people today approach business, conduct journalism, connect with friends, and receive education. Web 2.0 technologies are reinventing the identity of educational institutions across the world. Social web tools, such as Weblogs, wikis, and podcasts, are changing the ways businesses, libraries and universities conduct commerce, define education and information literacy (Richardson, 2007, p. 62; Kraft, 2007, p. 34). Real Simple Syndication (RSS) tools allow users to create and subscribe to every kind of information (and misinformation) imaginable (Marsh, 2006, p. 340). As Richard Berry (2006) describes it, Web 2.0 tools “allow anyone—individual or corporate—to produce content for audiences who do not particularly care where it comes from” (p. 158).

Science, and specifically how research is conducted, has also noticed the potential and the pitfalls associated with the appropriation of Web 2.0 technologies into its processes of inquiry and publication. Advocates of incorporating these technologies into scientific research argue for “openness as cooperation” while opponents warn that this openness is dangerous: “using blogs and social networks for your serious work feels like an open invitation to have your online lab notebooks vandalized--or worse, have your best ideas stolen and published by a rival” (Waldrop, 2008, p. 2). Although these reservations in the scientific community are often understood as the conflict between “public science” and corporate “industrial profit-goals” (David, 1998, p. 15), Daryl E. Chubin (1985) warns against this over simplification of the ‘scientific community’ as ignoring “the subtleties that characterize [scientific] practice and defy ideal-types” (p. 74).

This paper seeks to examine these subtleties that characterize the practices of the scientific community by exploring this one question: How have the tools of Web 2.0 changed or influenced the way scientists conduct their research? In order to understand how these tools are used in science today, this paper will first examine the concept of Open Science and how it relates to Science 2.0. After examining the context in which Open Science operates, a set of criteria will be offered in order to describe the practice of Science 2.0. Next, this paper will examine how some practitioners of science use Science 2.0 tools to conduct research. Specifically, this paper will contain a cursory rhetorical analysis of The Mimulus Community, a discussion group in OpenWetWare—a wiki dedicated to open research using Science 2.0 tools—in order to understand how some scientific researchers are using Science 2.0 to cooperate with each other’s research and to publish their results. Ultimately, this paper seeks to provide a more complete understanding of how some scientists are shaping research through the new software technologies that enable the practice of Science 2.0.

(Copies of complete text is available upon request)

-Safari Bob

References for this Post

  • Berry, R. (2006). Will the iPod kill the radio star? Profiling podcasting as radio. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 12 (2), 143-162.

  • Chubin, D. E. (1985). Open science and closed science: Tradeoffs in a democracy. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 10 (2), 79-81.

  • David, P. A. (1998). CLIO and the economic organization of science: Common agency
    contracting and the emergence of “open science” institutions. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 88 (2), 15-21.

  • Kraft, M. (2007). Integrating and promoting medical podcasts into the library collection. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 26 (1), 27-35.

  • Marsh, C. (2006). Aristotelian ethos and the new orality: Implications for media literacy and media ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 21 (4), 338-352.

  • Richardson, W. (2007). The online edge: Online-powered school libraries. District Administration, 43 (1), 62-63.

  • Waldrop, M. M. (2008, January 9). Science 2.0: Great new tool, or great new risk? Scientific American. Retrieved April 19, 2008, from

  • Waldrop, M. M. (2008, April 21). Science 2.0—Is open Access Science the Future? Scientific American. Retrieved April 23, 2008, from