Wednesday, March 31, 2010

More on Basketball and Baseball

I've been thinking about the relationship between basketball and baseball I touched on in my last post, and I want to refine what I said there a little bit. Basically, my argument was that there's more specialization in basketball than in baseball, and that - combined with smaller roster size - means that individual players are much more important to a teams' success than in baseball. I certainly think that is true, but the question is a little trickier than that.

While they need not be specialized on offense, baseball players certainly are specialized on defense, and they tend to carry those personae to the offensive side of the game as well. Indeed, a whole culture has arisen in baseball around what players from each position ought to do as hitters. It is certainly possible, for example, to have a speedy first baseman or a lumbering shortstop, but those are rare occurrences in reality. Teams have ideas about leadoff men and cleanup hitters that correspond very strongly to certain positions (leadoff men tend to be SS, 2B, or CF; cleanup hitters tend to be 1B, DH, LF). In short, the specialization doesn't seem all that different from basketball's specialized positions: Center, Power Forward, Small Forward, Shooting Guard, and Point Guard.

It is easy for me, as a baseball fan, to say that baseball managers arrange their lineups in a silly way. The stereotypical number two hitter - a slap-hitting, punchy nobody like David Eckstein or Walt Weiss - is a terrible waste of resources, but that doesn't change that there is a two-hitter persona that does dictate who hits second on most teams. The Rockies, for example, will likely insert Dexter Fowler into the two hole, whether he is suited for it or not. The point being, convention is king in baseball lineups, which is also true in basketball. There's nothing stopping a team from starting three seven-footers and two point guards... It just isn't done.

Unlike in baseball, there is at least some sense that current basketball "lineups" are optimal in one way or another. Then again, how often have you seen a team go on a run when they put in their "short" lineup? Or their tall one? Why not build a whole basketball roster with one big guy and four little, fast shooters? If I was a perpetually bad team, I might consider it.

The reason, however, why there's not a lot of inventiveness in basketball on that front is that basketball remains, unlike baseball, a sport where a single player has tremendous influence. Both games are team sports, of course, and the overall offensive and defensive contributions of every player involved in a given game are added up in roughly the same way. The difference - which I under-emphasized in my last post - really is the size of the team and the distribution of the offensive opportunities. In basketball, a star player like Carmelo Anthony will have a much higher percentage of the opportunities than a star baseball player, like Joe Mauer, will have. Even if everything was distributed equally in basketball, Melo would still get roughly 20% (1/5) of his team's offensive touches (ignoring substitutions, of course, which would scale this number down slightly). In reality he gets much more, and that can be scaled up or down based upon his health, his comfort, and whether he's "hot" on a given night.

Not so in baseball. Joe Mauer will get (very close to) 11% (1/9) of his team's plate appearances, and there's nothing the Twins can do to improve on that. Whereas the Nuggets can keep the ball out of Kenyon Martin's hands on offense, the Twins can't do anything about the fact that Nick Punto gets as many chances to hit as Mauer does. The outcome of this is that single players have a much bigger influence in basketball than in baseball.

Even on defense the difference is visible, because there are 9 players to whom the ball might be hit in baseball, and only 5 who may have to stop a shot (both of those are gross oversimplifications, and indeed both sports struggle much more with defensive statistics than with offensive ones for that reason). Needless to say, any error in this simplification will tend to widen the gap between individual impact on a game of baseball or basketball because, while every player is involved in every play on defense in basketball, that is rarely the case in baseball. Again, individual contributions - especially of star players - make up a higher percentage of overall impact on the game.

Ultimately, success in both sports requires efficient players at every - or as many - positions as possible, but in baseball it's much easier to be balanced. It is not surprising, then, that baseball was the sport that spurred the statistical revolutions that are sweeping almost all big-money athletic competitions (like European soccer). Those revolutions are built upon understanding the true value of a player's overall contributions, so that teams can be built not just of stars, but of useful players. As my last post said, the Colorado Rockies do it well.

It is also not surprising that basketball was the second sport on the statistics bandwagon, and while there are certainly "stars" that contribute to the success of great teams in the NBA, there's very good reason to believe that the San Antonio Spurs - who won over and over in the 2000s, despite their small market - were the Oakland A's of basketball: they got the value and efficiency thing before anyone else did. Sure, Tim Duncan helps, but their championship teams were models not of a star carrying a team - the traditional model - but rather of a team, period. No player was inefficient.

When commentators say that sports are about "teamwork," and single out good "team players," they misunderstand what's really going on. Being a good teammate is not about some mystical force; rather, it's about contributing to the efficiency of your offense and defense. Allen Iverson is not a good "teammate" for the same reason that, for example, Sammy Sosa wasn't. It has nothing to do with the numbers of points they score or homeruns they hit. It is/was because they are/were inefficient, bad at defense, and expensive. Take a look at the NBA standings - or, even better - take a look at last year's MLB standings. It's pretty easy to tell, from those, which teams are paying attention to little things like efficiency and value, and which ones aren't.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Best Team in the National League?

Fangraphs is in the second year of their annual "organizational rankings," which combine current talent, future talent, and general front-office well-being to come up with a highly subjective list of the haves and have-nots in the current baseball landscape. Not surprisingly, the top six teams on this list are all American League teams (as of this writing, not yet unveiled). The American League has been quite a bit better than the National League for most of the last decade now, which is reflected not just in World Series victories (somewhat subject to chance), but the much more reliable interleague play records of both leagues. The last five years look like this (h/t to Wikipedia):

2004 American 126 125
2005 American 136 116
2006 American 154 98
2007 American 137 115
2008 American 149 103
2009 American 138 114

There's some variability, of course, but the trend is clear, and even with Roy Halladay moving from the Blue Jays to the Phillies this offseason, there's little reason to believe 2010 will tell a different story come interleague time.

What may surprise you, however, is which organization topped the Fangraphs list for the National League. That's right, the Colorado Rockies weigh in at #7 in baseball and #1 in the NL. That does not mean that the Rockies are Fangraphs pick to make the World Series, mind you, but it does mean that the organization as a whole is healthy, complete with both a solid and contending Major League roster as well as a generous collection of prospects waiting in the wings. Even a cursory fan of the team would realize that 2010 should be an exciting year in Rockietown, but a slightly longer look nets the conclusion that 2011, 2012, and on for the foreseeable future might also be exciting years.

The biggest problem the Rockies face, as an organization, is not player development, drafting, or intelligent management. While certainly they are an imperfect franchise (the insistence, for example, that Yorvit Torrealba start last season down the stretch, or the insistence that Brad Hawpe is a useful player despite being the worst fielder, hands-down, in Major League Baseball), the Rockies for the most part have things figured out. Indeed, in the mid-2000s, while they wallowed in last place, they already had things figured out, we fans just had to wait to see the payoff in the form of Ubaldo Jimenez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Matt Holliday. What has made the Rockies truly impressive, however, is that they have devised a scheme for continued success despite the loss of Holliday, and despite the collapse and subsequent exit of Garret Atkins. Indeed, there is a legitimate argument to be made for the improvement of the team after losing some of its "best" players.

Baseball fans will recall the Mariners team that lost, in the matter of a couple seasons, Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. That same Mariners team won 117 games the first season without those Hall-of-Famers. Why? Because while individual performance is important in baseball, economical team performance is more important. The Rockies do not have a real MVP or Cy Young candidate on their roster (Tulo and Jimenez are the best players, respectively, but they don't touch Pujols or Halladay). What they have, instead, is a solid producer at almost every position and at every spot in their rotation. The Rockies do not have the best ace in baseball, but they do have a couple of the best four and five starters.

Because we have become so accustomed to basketball and football, we tend to forget that baseball is a sport in which every single player is asked to contribute in one of two primary ways: hitting or pitching (all players are also asked to field, of course). There are not really "role players" in baseball in the way there are in basketball or - even more intensely - football. Positions in baseball matter only on defense; every hitter is asked to do the same thing (not get out). In the end, Albert Pujols is great, but he's only 1/9th of a lineup. Better to have 9 good players than one great one and 8 mediocre ones, it turns out.

Contrast that with basketball. Five amazing scorers would not a successful team make. A basketball team needs players who can rebound, players who can pass, players who can score inside, players who can defend, and players who can shoot. What's remarkable, however, is that there is no need for every player to do every one of those things. Indeed, it is not possible to build a team on which every player is good at all of those things. Specialization is a rule because it's the only way to win.

How much more so in football, where positions are even more discreet than in basketball. A great quarterback can make up for shoddy running backs. A solid offensive line can turn a mediocre halfback into an All-Star. A good coach can tactically out maneuver a superior opponent by using his specialists better.

There is some of this in baseball, but very toned down. When all is said and done, every significant event in baseball begins with a pitcher holding the ball, and a hitter standing in the batters' box. It does not matter if the hitter is the leadoff guy, the cleanup guy, or the opposing pitcher, the potential and desired outcomes are the same. For the offense: don't make an out. For the defense: make an out. That's oversimplifying, of course, but its largely true. In other sports, you might say, the object is to score (or prevent the other team from scoring), but there are so many more ways of making or preventing scores in basketball and football. Those sports are not the equivalent one-on-one of pitcher versus hitter.

All of that makes baseball easier to measure, statistically, and also harder, in an odd way, to manage. Putting together a good baseball team is not about finding specialists, but rather it is about finding players who give you the most production given their skills and the position they play. It's a game about value, when it comes down to it, and value is primarily manifest in the competition between hitter and pitcher.

So the Rockies, the best organization - if not the best team - in the National League, do something a little differently. It's not that they are amazing at pitching, hitting, or fielding. It's not that they have clear-cut All Stars, MVPs, or future Hall of Famers. It's that, position-by-position, they have useful players everywhere. They have good hitters, good fielders, and good pitchers in almost every slot in their lineup and rotation, and that makes all the difference. What few problems they have (Hawpe in right-field; Barmes at the plate) are minimal when you consider that most teams have players who are poor at both hitting and fielding. The Rockies are a good organization because they understand that, in baseball, 9 - or 25 - good players is what wins games, not a handful of great ones and a bunch of scrubs.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wedding Script

The following is the script for the wedding last Sunday. Some quick background... Jericha and I lost our officiant to personal matters a few weeks before the wedding, which meant we had to re-conceptualize the entire ceremony. While we of course still had someone to sign our official papers, we decided to essentially run the wedding ourselves, along with our four-person wedding party (my brother, my college roommate, his girlfriend, and one of Jericha's friends from work). For good measure, and to make sure we were "pono" (the Hawaiian word for doing things the right way) we added in my friend and teacher, Kumu Keahi Renaud. The result was something a little different, which hopefully I can convey at least in part by posting the script.

Underlines indicate people's instructions, bold indicates things that were read. Italics represent non-verbal instructions. I have not attempted to recapture the stories that were told or the extemporaneous speeches here. You'll just have to imagine.


Guests enter and mingle. At as near 12:30 as is reasonable,
Jericha enters as Keahi chants, letting everyone know that the ceremony is about to start.

and Monika; then James and Sagen, walk down aisle and set up.

chants, leading in Paul and Jericha.

Keahi gives brief introduction and describes his chant.

Paul does brief introduction of ceremony.


From 'Song of Myself,' by Walt Whitman

All truths wait in all things.

They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,

They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,

The insignificant is as big to me as any,

(What is less or more than a touch?)

Logic and sermons never convince,

The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,

Only what nobody denies is so.)

A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,

I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,

And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman,

And a summit and a flower there is the feeling they have for each other,

And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it becomes omnific,

And until one and all shall delight us, and we them.

introduces the prayer she will read.

Prayer from Abdu'l-Baha


O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand. Thou art my Guide and my Refuge. I will no longer be sorrowful and grieved; I will be a happy and joyful being. O God! I will no longer be full of anxiety, nor will I let trouble harass me. I will not dwell on the unpleasant things of life.

O God! Thou art more friend to me than I am to myself. I dedicate myself to Thee, O Lord.


introduces the passage.

From “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” by Douglas Adams


There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

introduces Joe's passage and story.

Jean Paulhan on Love; and Joe will tell a story.


"For today we hear seemingly normal people, even those with a level head on their shoulders, blithely speaking of love as though it were some frothy feeling of no real consequence. They say it offers many pleasures, and that this contact of two epidermises is not completely devoid of charm. They go on to say that charm or pleasure is most rewarding for the person who is capable of keeping love imaginative, capricious, and above all natural and free. Far be it from me to object, and if it's all that simple for two people of the opposite sex (or even of the same sex) to give each other a good time, then indeed they should, they would be crazy not to. There are only one or two words in all this which disturb me: the word
love, and the word free. Needless to say, it is quite the opposite. Love implies dependence - not only in its pleasure but by its very existence and in what precedes its existence: in our very desire to exist - dependence on half a hundred odd little things: on two lips (and the smile or grimace they make), on a shoulder (and the special way it has of rising or falling), on two eyes (and their expression, a little more flirtatious or forbidding), or, when you come down to it, on the whole foreign body, with the mind and soul enclosed therein - a body which is capable at any moment of becoming more dazzling than the sun, more freezing than a tract of snowy waste. To undergo the experience is no fun, you make me laugh with your entreaties. When this body stoops down to fasten the buckle of her dainty shoe, you tremble, and you have the feeling the whole world is watching you."

tells story


introduces her passage.

From Baha'u'llah


The hearts that yearn after Thee, O my God, are burnt up with the fire of their longing for Thee, and the eyes of them that love Thee weep sore by reason of their crushing separation from Thy court, and the voice of the lamentation of such as have set their hopes on Thee hath gone forth throughout Thy dominions.

Thou hast Thyself, O my God, protected them, by Thy sovereign might, from both extremities. But for the burning of their souls and the sighing of their hearts, they would be drowned in the midst of their tears, and but for the flood of their tears they would be burnt up by the fire of their hearts and the heat of their souls. Methinks, they are like the angels which Thou hast created of snow and of fire.

introduces Monika's poem.

A “Rima” from Gustavo Aldofo Becquer; and Monika will tell a story


Qué es poesía?, dices mientras clavas
en mi pupila tu pupila azul;
Qué es poesía! ¿Y tú me lo preguntas?

Poesía... eres tú.

tells story


introduces his quotation.

From “Beyond Good and Evil, ” F. Nietszche


Supposing truth is a woman - what then? Are there not grounds for the suspicion that all philosophers, insofar as they were dogmatists, have been very inexpert about women? That the gruesome seriousness, the clumsy obtrusiveness with which they have usually approached truth so far have been awkward and very improper methods for winning a woman’s heart?

introduces Sagen's poem

I Have Five Things to Say – by Rumi; and Sagen will tell a story


The wakened lover speaks directly to the beloved,

You are the sky my spirit circles in,
the love inside love, the resurrection-place.

Let this window be your ear.
I have lost consciousness many times
with longing for your listening silence,

and your life-quickening smile.

You give attention to the smallest matters,

my suspicious doubts, and to the greatest.

You know my coins are counterfeit,

but you accept them anyway,

my impudence and my pretending!

I have five things to say,

five fingers to give

into your grace.

First, when I was apart from you,

this world did not exist,

nor any other.

Second, whatever I was looking for

was always you.

Third, why did I ever learn to count to three?

Fourth, my cornfield is burning!

Fifth, this finger stands for Rabia,

and this is for someone else.

Is there a difference?

Are these words or tears?

Is weeping speech?

What shall I do, my love?”

So he speaks, and everyone around

begins to cry with him, laughing crazily,

moaning in the spreading union

of lover and beloved.

This is the true religion. All others

are thrown-away bandages beside it.

This is the sema of slavery and mastery

dancing together. This is not-being.

Neither words, nor any natural fact

can express this.

I know these dancers.

Day and night I sing their songs

in this phenomenal cage.

My soul, don't try to answer now!

Find a friend, and hide.

But what can stay hidden?

Love's secret is always lifting its head

out from under the covers,

Here I am!”

tells story


introduces her passage.

From Baha’u’llah

Jericha reads:

In this journey the seeker reacheth a stage wherein he seeth all created things wandering distracted in search of the Friend. How many a Jacob will he see, hunting after his Joseph; he will behold many a lover, hasting to seek the Beloved, he will witness a world of desiring ones searching after the One Desired. At every moment he findeth a weighty matter, in every hour he becometh aware of a mystery; for he hath taken his heart away from both worlds, and set out for the Ka'bih of the Beloved. At every step, aid from the Invisible Realm will attend him and the heat of his search will grow.

One must judge of search by the standard of the Majnun of Love. It is related that one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his tears flowing down. They said, "What doest thou?" He said, "I seek for Layli." They cried, "Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the dust!" He said, "I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her."

Jericha introduces James

James will tell a story and then lead us in a song.

James tells last story

James instructs audience to stand, leads everyone in singing “Simple Gifts / Lord of the Dance / Ode to Joy:”

'Tis a gift to be simple, 'tis a gift to be free,

'Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,

To bow and to bend we will not be asham'd,

To turn and turn will be our delight

'Till by turning, turning we come round right.

The moon in her phases and the tides of the sea

The movement of the Earth and the seasons that will be

Are the rhythm of the dancing and a promise through the year

That the dance goes on through our joy and tears

Dance, then, whoever you may be

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he!

And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be

I will lead you all in the Dance with me.

I danced in the morning when the world was begun

I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun

They buried my body and they thought that I had gone

But I am the Dance and I still go on!

Dance, dance, whoever you may be

I am the Lord of the Dance, said he!

And I'll lead you all, wherever you may be

I will lead you all in the Dance with me.

A moment of joy is a spark divine

When you drink it in your soul begins to shine,

And you'll find yourself full of peace and light,

At last in the valley of love and delight!

Love, peace, and joy will bring

The world's men and women under their wing

And together we will dance and together we will sing

And all through the valley our joy will ring!

Audience cheers,
James signals them to sit down. James introduces vows.

and Jericha turn towards each other.

reads to Jericha:

O me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring,

Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,

Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,

The question, O me! So sad, recurring – What good amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here – that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

reads to Paul:

Our union is like this:

You feel cold
So I reach for a blanket to cover
Our shivering feet.

A hunger comes into your body
So I run to my garden
And start digging potatoes.

You ask for a few words of comfort and guidance,
I quickly kneel at your side offering you
A whole book--
As a gift.

You ache with loneliness one night
So much you weep

And I say,

Here's a rope,
Tie it around me,

Will be your companion
For life.

Paul and Jericha pass books to Joe and Monika.

James and Sagen present rings and leis.

Paul takes Jericha's ring and lei.

Paul says final line:

We will all, verily, abide by the will of God.

Places ring on her finger, and lei around neck.

Jericha takes Paul's ring and lei, turns and says:

We will all, verily, abide by the will of God.

Places ring on his finger, and lei around neck.

Paul and Jericha kiss.

Keahi closes ceremony with brief statement, then chants leading Paul and Jericha off, followed by James and Sagen, then Monika and Joe.

Friday, March 19, 2010

No More Nuance

Check out this article, if you desire, before reading my post.

A lot of self-titled "progressives" say things like this, from Miles Mogulescu of the Huffington Post:

“Progressives need to have a sophisticated and nuanced relationship with elected Democrats. After the 2008 elections, too many progressive organizations demobilized believing their job was simply to take orders from the White House to support Obama’s agenda, whatever it was. That was a mistake. It’s equally a mistake for progressives to overreact in the opposite direction and think they can abandon electoral politics and do nothing to prevent the Republicans from regaining power. What’s needed is a powerful grassroots progressive movement to force elected officials to do the right thing more often and to counter-balance the power of big money in politics. The periods of progressive change in American politics, like the Progressive Era, The New Deal, and the Great Society, have come when strong progressive movements have forced elites and elected officials to enact somewhat progressive legislation.”

Mogulescu advocates voting Democrat, but then creating a "powerful grassroots progressive movement to force elected officials to do the right thing." He claims that voting third party (or not voting) is naive and impractical, that the Democratic Party is our only hope for salvation from the big bad Republicans and their evil plan for destroying the world. Or something to that effect.

What is more naive, though? Voting third party, or expecting that you can create a "powerful grassroots movement to force elected officials to do the right thing." Hello? How, exactly, is that supposed to happen? Elected officials listen to two things, votes and money. Grassroots movements are not likely to compete with corporations (who, thanks to the Supreme Court, can now give indefinite sums of money to political campaigns) on the financial side. So the only power we the people have is the power of the vote. If we say: "Look, Mr. Obama, we want you to pass a health care bill that actually covers everyone and lowers insurance costs, but if you don't we'll still vote for you," what good does that do? If that is our approach, how easy is it for the Democrats to do what corporate interests want them to do, whilst paying lip-service to their cowed supporters?

No, Mr. Mogulescu, yours is a refrain too often heard. Your revision of the history of previous Progressive movements smacks of corporatism. The New Deal succeeded not because Progressive citizens "held their representatives' feet to the fire" in some namby-pamby, "nuanced" way, but rather because they threatened to and did vote for the Socialist Party. Because they were dangerous to the powers that be. Third parties didn't win any elections, but they did win the battles for reform upon which they were based.

Where do we stand today? Our modern news-cycle has, ironically, all but destroyed our once vibrant third-party world. The "impracticality" of voting for a Libertarian, a Green, or an Independent is so manifestly obvious to everyone that we have decided, instead, to lock ourselves into a perpetual cycle of "the lesser of two evils." If two trains are going to Hell, is it really better to hop on the slower one? I tell you, Mr. Mogulsecu, these trains that are the modern major parties don't have a "reverse" switch on them. This is a one way trip.

Unless, of course, we can overwhelm the power of money with the power of votes. Granting your ideal of a grassroots movement large enough to effect change in Washington, I suspect that same movement would be large enough perhaps not to elect a Nader as President, but certainly to elect a Mike Miles (of Colorado) to the Senate, or a Matt Gonzalez (of San Francisco) to the Congress. Indeed, perhaps we can elect a slew of these true, non-corporate progressives to the legislature, rather than hoping and praying that the Nancy Pelosis of the world will see the progressive light and try to make change for the better, simply because we the people asked nicely.

Now is not the time to ask nicely. The current health care bill, the bailouts, the continuing (unending) wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the reaffirmation of the Patriot Act, the passage of FAFSA (before Obama's presidency, but he voted for it as a Senator), the coming ramping-up of the disastrous "No Child Left Behind" bill... What do they have to do to lose your vote, Mr. Mogulescu? Which of these horrifying bits of Washington maneuvering did your nuanced opposition whittle down into a more palatable poison?

To pick one of these targets, the health care bill is now almost certain to pass. It has no public option. It requires that all citizens purchase health care, but does nothing to ensure that health care will be affordable. It even allows businesses to opt-out of providing health insurance for their employees. It is, in short, the wet-dream of the very health-insurance companies that are the root, tree, branches, and leaves of the problem of American health care. Far from constraining the growth of insurance company profits, this bill is a veritable fertilizer for those companies, which is why it stinks so bad.

No more nuance, Mr. Mogulescu. The Democrats have been shoving nuance down our throats for too long. Nuanced support lost Gore the election. It lost Kerry the election. Nuanced support meant that the Great Hope for Change that was Barrack Obama has turned into a second edition of George Bush (I do not exaggerate; show me a policy which has changed). Until we progressives start to scream at our beloved Democratic Party, "We're not going to take it anymore!" they have no reason to listen to us. Until we progressives demonstrate that we have the power to win and lose elections for the Democratic Party, they will not heed our demands. Until we progressives stop voting for Democrats, our votes will not count.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Writing Lives

I posted the opening section of this paper about Plutarch earlier today, but I figure I might as well just put up the whole thing. Usual warnings about length apply. Read at your peril.


What is biography, and what does it try to accomplish? Recording the events of a life is hardly sufficient to describe the work of the biographer, who must not only chronicle, but must also explicate and strive to understand. For the reader, however, the project comes across differently; for the reader, there is an effort to come to terms with the lives of others, removed in time and space, but still somehow essentially human. There is, then, some relationship between history and biography, which tries also to bring to the present some semblance of understanding of the past, but there is also a profound difference. In this paper, I will begin by discussing the division of history and biography that began with Plutarch. This division will help to elucidate what I see as the essential questions of the biographical process, which will in turn be addressed by looking through the lens of Richard Holmes's Footsteps. Finally, I'll address Diane Middlebrook's Anne Sexton in order to evaluate the process that Holmes suggests. Throughout the paper, I hope to raise questions and provide, if not answers, at least a rough sketch of the direction in which a dialogue about biography might proceed.

The Project of Biography – Plutarch

The writing of histories was not uncommon in the ancient world. Among others, Livy, Herodotus, Tacitus, and Thucydides each tried to describe in broad terms the motions of nations and people, alternately capturing the origin and downfall of the Roman Empire, or the incredible wars of the Greek City-States. These stories have no shortage of heroes – no dearth of individual anecdotes to humanize the effort – and yet they remain histories, complete with the hierarchical understanding that humans make up a society, and that societies, after all, are what make up the narrative of the world.

What is the interest of biography, then? What can the individual life tell us that a history cannot? Of course, the individual is easier to comprehend, his or her travails and successes more obviously apply to our own lives. Is that alone enough to warrant biography?

Plutarch was the first known biographer. His humbly, but aptly, titled
Lives were something of an experiment in the writing of history. He is at least partially responsible for the troubling “Great Man” theory of history with which we are all familiar. His project, however, does not seem to be the elevation of individuals into historical prominence, but rather something quite the opposite. At a time when histories were written which excused the sometimes awful shortcomings of societies because of the actions of the men who led them, Plutarch instead turned his eye upon those men, uncovering their weaknesses as well as their strengths, humanizing them for an audience that theretofore had simply worshiped.

The difficulty of his undertaking Plutarch recognized, and nowhere does he better express his philosophy of biography than in the opening of his
Life of Alexander. “It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed,” he writes (in John Dryden's translation):

"The multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomise the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue and vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression of jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated by others." (Plutarch, 139)

Plutarch's project is not a simple one, however tempting it is to regard this statement as straightforward. Often the subjects of his
Lives are not only dead, but have been for hundreds of years. At a time when record keeping was even more tenuous than it is now, it is impossible to imagine that the very “matters of less moment” and “expression[s] of jest” that Plutarch is after were well preserved. Evidence was not paramount; the story was. The beauty and meaning of the well-painted portrait won the day.

Despite the troublesome issue of accuracy in Plutarch's accounts of Caesar, Antony, Cato, Alexander, Solon, and the countless other ancient luminaries towards whom he turned his gaze, few ancient works feel so timely today as the
Lives. The foreignness of Greek and Roman culture and the gap of some two millennia are not enough to rob Plutarch's efforts of their relevance. Perhaps that is because we do not and cannot know the accuracy of his accounts, and therefore are free to understand his stories as complex and archetypal parables, somewhat like the myths that provided the content of Greek tragedies. That Alexander, for example, was real, and that the events described in Plutarch's account were more or less accurate merely sets the stage for a human drama all the more poignant for its unassuming, undramatic presentation. Alexander, in Plutarch, is human, regardless of whether Plutarch portrays the kind of human he was in reality.

I'm not convinced that Plutarch's fictionalized “humanization” provides a satisfying account of the purpose of biography. That biography is somehow different from history is certain, but that difference in genre raises more questions than it answers. The status of truth in even the writing of history is complicated, even though there is little question that, for that genre, truth is desirable. What of biography? Is truth desirable? What does truth look like? How can a lived life be translated from its sometimes spiritual, sometimes mundane essences into words? How can those words – like those Plutarch wrote about Alexander in the
Lives – reach across generations and nations to reform into a meaningful, or at least entertaining, story?

Throughout this quarter, the project of biography has been an ever-present question in both our class discussions and in my own thinking. What is that project, after all? There are a great many things which biography can and does do, but it seems to me that Plutarch asks a fundamental question by separating himself from history: what are “the marks and indications of the souls of men?” This is the spirit of biography, to discover not what happened to a person or even why, but rather who that person was to whom such things happened. And why do we care so much? That, I cannot answer, except to say that empathy – even and especially for those long dead – connects us to our past more strongly than facts and dates ever can. History by itself may be interesting enough, but it finds its true relevance in biography.

A Coherent Framework – Holmes

Richard Holmes's
Footsteps is not a biography or even an autobiography, but rather a story about what biography might mean. It is Plutarch's meta-biographical comment writ-large and expanded over the course of a series of stories about his own efforts to write biographies. I suspect Plutarch never would have thought there was an audience for writing about writing biographies, but there it is.

In the process of becoming a biographer, Holmes explores not only what biography is, but provides an opinion as to how the project of biography ought to be accomplished (or at least how he chooses to accomplish it). From his journeys, following the footsteps of his subjects, he creates a coherent framework, both for his own writing process, and out of the swirling chaos of the lives of his subjects.

There are two passages from Holmes that I wish to discuss, one from his
1964: Travels chapter, the other from his 1972: Exiles. The quotations are both complementary and contradictory, and thereby offer a kind of verbal frame for a discussion of what the project of biography is, whether that project is, indeed, possible, and why we readers invest so much of ourselves into lives long past.

The first passage runs contrary, but also (perhaps unwittingly) pays tribute, to Plutarch:

"The single subject of biography is in this sense a chimera, almost as much as the Noble Savage of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, living in splendid isolation. The truth is almost the reverse: that Stevenson existed very largely in, and through, his contact with other people: his books are written for his public; his letters for his friends; even his private journal is a way of giving social expression – externalising – his otherwise inarticulated thoughts. It is in this sense that all real biographical evidence is “third party” evidence; evidence that is witnessed. Just as the biographer cannot make up dialogue, if he is to avoid fiction; so he cannot really say that his subject “thought or “felt” a particular thing." (Holmes, 68)

This recognition that even the best remembered individuals existed in a social world is paramount to even Plutarch's
Lives. What differs here is Holmes's conviction to “avoid fiction” by avoiding both dialogue and loaded words like “thought” and “felt.” The “third party evidence” upon which biography rests may allow for inference, but it hardly allows the writer to reconstruct and reanimate a subject in full. The modern biographer does not write lives.

Holmes does chase lives, however, and though he can never capture his subject, he can at least begin to recreate the world in which Robert Louis Stevenson or Percy Shelley lived. He is perhaps constrained to trace, in large part, “the most glorious exploits” that Plutarch avoided, but his efforts to follow Stevenson betray a deeper desire to capture, instead, the less monumental – or at least less visible – aspects of Stevenson's life. He seeks a romance, the
feeling of a journey through France, and the gentle companionship of a mule for evidence about which he cannot write in good faith except in his own story. Why, then, pursue Stevenson? Why pursue Shelley? Why tear through France and Italy, seeking forgotten homes, crossing destroyed bridges, staring out at changed streets, and overlooking a different (so similar, but so essentially different) sea? In such moments one feels that time retreats, that Holmes somehow does accomplish his goal, finding a more intimate 'evidence.' What does this evidence amount to, the evidence of looking out from where Shelley's front door would have been, trying to imagine what he would have seen and thought and felt? In Plutarch's analogy of the biographer as a painter, I wonder whether Holmes details his subject's faces with his pursuits, or if instead he merely uses them to better shade the backgrounds. Is he a writer of fiction, a writer of history, or both?

The second of our passages from
Footsteps speaks to the purpose of biography:

"The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and the outer man. The public and the private life do, in the end, make sense of each other; and the one is meaningless without the other. Its view of life is Greek: character expresses itself in action: and can be understood, if not necessarily justified." (Holmes, 175)

Contrary to the first passage, in which Holmes speaks to the essential impossibility of writing about the individual subject in a biography, instead preferring a socially and culturally situated portrait, this passage recognizes that the “appeal” of biography is somewhat different than the process. While the
biographer may be constrained by the inferences and speculations afforded by third-hand evidence, the reader seeks something more coherent. The biographer's task is, in part, to turn a chaotic selection of cultural and personal artifacts into a narrative, to create order out of a collection of ideas, opinions, stories, and manuscripts ravaged by time and space, which may or may not suggest an order in themselves. Holmes's wanderings are not merely random attempts to paint a clearer picture, it seems, but rather a search for narrative. He claims to forge a fictionalized relationship with his subjects (Holmes, 66), suspending disbelief enough to buy into the reader's hopes and expectations for coherence.

“Character expresses itself in action.” What better hope for order is there than such a notion? Plutarch could not have gotten started without this prejudice. Indeed, he believed it so much that action gave way to the occasional embellished or fictionalized dialogue. If the character is correct, what does it matter if the speeches and conversations are recorded with fidelity? The actions are the same, the man or woman still present in even the most fictionalized account. The trouble, however, is that the “great appeal of biography” and the task of the biographer do not always work in concert. Holmes may be a romantic, but all the while he is beholden to some semblance of reason, to some sense that order cannot merely be constructed out of thin air to meet the needs of his own romantic whims. What is more chaotic, after all, than abandoning all hope of a true coherent narrative and adopting instead an unquestionably false one?

In Holmes, as in Plutarch, there is no clear line between what is the right and what is the wrong approach to biography. We may imagine extremes, wherein the writer presents only evidence, or only fabrication, but neither of those makes for compelling writing. “The great appeal of biography seems to lie,” but it doesn't necessarily lie, it merely “seems to.” Sometimes biography tells the truth, even when it offers “a coherent and integral view of human affairs.”

Is human life coherent and orderly? Is the universe? Those may be unsophisticated questions, too essential for scholarly work in an age of science, but biography was born out of such questions. To create order out of chaos is not so difficult for the playwright, who need only apply imagination when things get sticky. Likewise the philosopher, who, in taking order for granted, is free to manage his assumptions such that chaos is continually denied entry to the conversation. The biographer's job is trickier, creating order out of something far less antithetical and abstract, and thus far harder to combat, than pure chaos. The biographer, we might say, has gazed not only into the Platonic form of chaos, but into its living manifestation. The biographer has seen what happens when a human is reduced to a name and attendant actions: Alexander the Great, Anne Sexton, Robert Louis Stevenson. In staring into the abyss of those names and actions (the 'history' of the subject), in collecting what journals and letters and second-hand (and third-hand and fourth-hand and n-hand) accounts exist, the biographer becomes a chronicler of impossible questions about both the life of an individual and life in general, questions which, impossible though they be, demand a coherent answer if any writing is to be done.

This is no tragic task. Holmes, for his twinge of romantic melancholy, comes across as a fundamentally joyful fellow, gallivanting about with
Le Brun. Perhaps his mad and slightly tardy pursuits across European countrysides and cityscapes help him to retain a healthy perspective. Perhaps his fictionalized relationships – which undoubtedly find their way into his portraits in one way or another – are a way to humanize for himself the mass of evidence upon which he depends, before he tries to humanize and situate that evidence for his readers. If we want to know who the person was – and not just the name or the oeuvre – to whom the events of a life happened, it might first be necessary to fictionalize, to humanize, to spin a fine silken string of order in a universe of chaos. Then, having spun the silk, we hold on, gaze back into the chaos, and hope that a tapestry might emerge.

The Life of Anne Sexton – Middlebrook

What does that tapestry look like, should it emerge? After all, not all biographers are blessed (or cursed) with the same amount of information, or with the same proximity to (or distance from) the subject. I suspect that Diane Middlebrook's
Anne Sexton will not answer my questions, so much as raise more. Nevertheless, I wonder if a life as comparatively recent as Sexton's might give us a different perspective on the nature of biography. Surely Middlebrook, with her incredible wealth of evidence and a culture not far-removed from the one Sexton herself lived in, had more at her disposal than a fictionalized relationship. Surely it was not so hard for her to construct a “coherent and integral view of human affairs.”

Middlebrook's is a more systematic project than Holmes's. Armed with endless correspondence and several years worth of therapy tapes, the work of writing the story of Anne Sexton must have seemed more an effort of organization than an effort of creation. Plutarch's ideal of locating and situating telltale jests that inform the reader more than momentous occasions is realized throughout Middlebrook's biography. For example, Middlebrook highlights this quotation (which we have not quite first hand, but close) from Anne herself to Dr. Orne about her therapy: “I had been with you only a week when I got all the books on psychiatry. I read them to try to find out what kind of patient to be” (Middlebrook, 53). While there are a great many moments as intimate as this in the biography – and a great many intimate things about which we actually know very little, despite the overwhelming amount of material at Middlebrook's disposal – perhaps none speaks more directly to the complications of writing about a character like Anne Sexton. “I read them to try to find out what kind of patient to be” suggests an actress, not willing or able to be herself. If biography is to uncover the person to whom the events of a life happen, how can it succeed in uncovering a person so complicated as Sexton?

That Sexton had in mind her own legacy while she lived certainly complicates the task of writing and reading her biography, but it strikes me that any sufficiently famous figure – a figure about whom a biography is likely to be written – is unlikely to be oblivious to questions of self-presentation. Sexton may be a singularly extreme case of self-consciousness turned into self-disintegration, or at least self-dramatization, but is it not the case that the biographer is constrained to deal primarily with the dramatic self instead of the essential self? The appearance will always take precedence over the soul in an art where overt fiction is verboten. And for good reason, because else we venture into Plutarchian waters, where perhaps stories are well-told, but the lessons of personal history are also corrupted by blatant untruths.

Of course the issue is not so simple, but the point here is not to rehash the tenuous line between invention and reporting that goes on in biography (and history, and even journalism). Rather, the point is that abundance of evidence – even evidence which points to the kinds of subtle but profound moments that Plutarch held in such esteem – is no guarantee of a biography which can penetrate to the heart and soul of a man or woman. Middlebrook dissects Sexton's poems with skill, and organizes an enthralling narrative, and even gives the reader a sense of what Sexton was like, if not who she was. Indeed, hers is an exceptionally skillful biography, attaining as much as Holmes or Plutarch might hope to attain, even though she did not follow – a la Holmes – in Sexton's disturbed footsteps. Even so, Sexton remains a mystery, perhaps because that is what she sought to be. 'Enigmatic' is a difficult quality to create a coherent narrative around, 'insane' a difficult one to make orderly. The picture that arises of Sexton almost allows the reader to find her comprehensible, if it weren't for those moments – like her sexual abuse of her daughter – which unravel the entire sympathetic fabric.

On the edges of even this virtuoso performance in biographical writing lies the chaotic tongue of confused meanings and impossible-to-reconcile disagreements about who Sexton was, what she meant, and why she did what she did. “I have been her kind,” Sexton writes, as an ostensible way to let her audiences know who she was. But do we ever, can we ever know another human being, except by kind? Perhaps Sexton was right to paint herself in comparative hues, to clothe herself in Language instead of trying to
be someone. Middlebrook, then, is stuck with the approximation of Sexton's Language, just as Holmes is stuck with approximation of place and Plutarch with an approximation of character. And yet, for Sexton, perhaps that is as telling a line in the face of the portrait as any.


“Language has nothing to do with rational thought,” (Middlebrook, 226) said Anne Sexton of her mysterious interaction with words. Though she appreciated the formalism of poetry – as opposed to journaling, for example – she was no beacon of reason and order. Where does she stand, then, where her biography in the constellation of biographies that make up our knowledge of lives gone past? Human beings are a species that loves order, and yet seems to suspect that this is a cruel, unrequited love. Plutarch's heroic efforts on behalf of Greek and Roman heroes amounts to an account – a
logos – that compels a sense of ancient virtue, but also shows how thin, unto transparency, the veil between fiction and our sense of history are. Holmes, too, fights the battle of biography, winning a more romantic, but less heroic victory with words, constructing a narrative of beauty and humor. Middlebrook's more modern, more immediate, more honest picture lives somewhere more paradox. Her logos knows that language is rational thought, even if – and indeed because – language has nothing to do with rational thought.


Clough, A.H. (2001).
Plutarch's Lives, (Ed., J. Dryden, Trans.). New York: The Modern Library. (Translation published 1683, original work published ca. 100 AD).

Holmes, R. (1985).
Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. New York: Vintage Books.

Middlebrook, D.W. (1991).
Anne Sexton: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Metaphor for Conversation

I've been thinking a lot about dialogue and conversation recently, so much that I expect dialogue to become something of a centerpiece in my Master's project. What that will look like, I'm not sure, but that dialogue is at the heart of real education is something I believe with increasing fervor. As a Johnnie, that's far from a revelation, but I'm finding that many of the most revolutionary educational theorists - Paulo Freire in particular - were champions of a dialogic pedagogy. What's stunning is not that a classroom engaged in dialogue tends to develop critical thinking and a sense of personal freedom, but rather that so few classrooms use dialogue.

I'm certain I'll return to this concept in future posts, but right now I want to share one of my favorite metaphors. I don't know if I came up with it or if I heard it somewhere else, but regardless I've very much made it a part of my own thinking on the nature of conversations.

The metaphor is this:
Conversations are rivers. This is true especially of conversations between two people, but might also apply to conversations in groups or classrooms. As people converse, there are branches and tangents - new rivulets - that the conversation can and does follow. Frequently the river forks, and the conversants have to choose which direction to go.

The thing about good conversations is, both participants (or all participants) take their turn guiding the metaphorical boat of the conversation down the path of their choice. It's always essential, however, that the conversation stay contiguous. Building upon the ideas of others and listening carefully are signs of a fast-moving, effectively-steered boat. What's more, good conversationalists learn to move not only down a branch of the conversation, but also back up to take a different fork than was taken before.

This last point is an important one, and too often a lost art in our "exchanging monologues" culture. Riverly conversations are synthetic and analytic, progressive and reflective. When we merely exchange ideas, we tend to jump from river to river, rather than following the natural course of the conversation. We wouldn't notice the difference between this and a real conversation, however, if it weren't for the effort to move backwards, an effort that exhausting a branch of the conversation (or at least coming to a mutually agreeable return-point) necessitates. Indeed, a conversation that never turns back on itself - that never returns to an earlier but neglected idea and pursues it instead - is probably not a conversation in any meaningful sense.

Perhaps the most poetic upshot of this metaphor, to me, is the zooming that you can do with it. The Amazon from space (above) is a broad river, but even this small portion of the mouth - these estuaries - would take countless hours to explore. With a tip of the cap to Heraclitus, it's worth nothing that rivers are ever changing, both because the water is flowing, and the people who observe the river are different each time they confront it. We can zoom further in, however, and see the individual hydrogen bonds, the essential infinity of possible arrangements between molecules that signifies the true impossibility of exhausting dialogue.

Conversation is a river, not because it flows, or because it is traveled, but because it is infinite.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Who the Liberator, Who the Oppressor, Who the Oppressed?

Another piece of writing for a class. It's based on the references at the bottom of the post (Hegel, Marx, and Freire), and I don't recommend anyone read it.

That said, I do believe it should be somewhat accessible even if you are not familiar with the works about which I am writing. But I could be wrong. You'll just have to let me know.


The trouble with Hegel - whose Phenomenology of the Spirit permeates the very heart of the writing of both Marx and Freire - is that he operates in complex spheres of meaning, where the seemingly clear categories of, say, "lord" and "bondsman" exist absolutely separately, and yet also in intimate (and perhaps internal) relation. Hegel was certainly not the revolutionary that Marx and Freire are, but it would be foolish to regard these disciples as either separate from or clearer than their predecessor.

To be sure, Freire especially - about whom I will concern myself - is a clearer writer than Hegel (as we will soon discover), but that does not mean that his terms are easily delineated. Who the liberator, who the oppressor? Who the oppressor, who the oppressed? Who the oppressed, who the liberator? Any and all of these combinations - these apparent dichotomies - are not innately dichotomous. They are realms of ambiguity, and while it might be abundantly clear in a real, but limited, social situation who is oppressor and who is oppressed, to look at the question systematically makes the relations involved appear much more complicated.

Hegel's project was no less that a description of the entirety of human spiritual and intellectual history, and a description of that history in terms that would allow for the very humanizing which Freire holds as his end-point. I will not recapitulate that project here, because that is a fools errand. Rather, I want to highlight the particular section of the Phenomenology that Marx and Freire both gravitate towards, the section entitled "Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness: Lordship and Bondage." It is worth noting that this section resides in a larger chapter on "Self Consciousness: The Truth of Self-Certainty."

A sample of Hegel's writing, so you can appreciate the difficulties into which we will soon proceed: "This ambiguous supersession of its [the other's] ambiguous otherness is equally an ambiguous return into itself [self-consciousness]" (Hegel, p.111). This is not an accidental selection of text, because it contains within its ambiguity one of the key components of Hegel's project: the simultaneous and paradoxical interrelation of opposing forces, which merge together both externally and internally to produce a new objective and subjective reality. This is very much what Freire calls "praxis," but here in an extremely broad and not-necessarily-revolutionary framework.

It is important to note that, in the above passage, Hegel speaks to the "ambiguous supersession" and the "ambiguous otherness." This is a challenging, frustrating, and extremely honest quality of Hegel's writing. He is unafraid to acknowledge the inherent ambiguity of the terms with which he colors human psycho-spiritual history. The entire section - and indeed much of the entire book - does not make it clear whether the subject under consideration is an individual or a society. Much like Plato, in the Republic, Hegel is speaking of both and neither. Or, rather, an idealized form of "humanity" as both individual and social. Neither can, it turns out, be extracted from the other - a point Freire makes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed as well - and in the course of the dialectical process Hegel undergoes, it is sometimes necessary to conceive humanity in one or the other of the arbitrary distinctions we have built for it.


Before we attack "Lordship and Bondage," let's get some Freire on the table: "The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos" (Freire, p. 68). Apologies for selecting the passage with Greek words in it. I feel the need because this passage is a clear and well-articulated explanation of what Freire sees the goal and process - which he holds as primary - of education to be. Note that he does not assert that his liberating model of education eliminates truth; quite the opposite. Likewise note that there's a kind of difficult 'both and neither' going on in the role of the educator, about which more later.

"Doxa" means a belief, opinion, or notion, though it has also suggestively acquired connotations of cultural knowledge or dogma. "Logos," on the other hand, means... Well, it means a great many things: logic, words, The Word (from the Bible), ratio, dialogue, reason among them. You'll notice that logic and dialogue both contain logos in them, so it's hard to define it that way. Suffice to say, it is a word that broadly describes an authentic process of understanding, a process which is true in a way that doxa is not. We can, then, piece together some meaning from the passage.

"The problem-posing educator" is an educator who, co-creates a learning environment with the students which allows for said students (and simultaneously the educator) to reach a deeper understanding of the realities of their subject. This occurs through dialogue, because the very nature of "true knowledge" is dialogic (we might also say, true knowledge is social and not individual, or rather, is both social and individual, a dialogue). Didactic teaching - even of true subject matter - is still and always will be doxological knowledge, and therefore will not stand up to an evaluative consciousness. In short, even true doxology - true opinion - is not knowledge at all, and it allows for and indeed necessitates and creates the bonds of oppression for the student.

Got that? Let me rephrase.

It is through dialogue alone, and not didactic teaching, that students learn in any meaningful sense. It is also through dialogue alone that the teacher learns, and that the entire community reaches a higher level of self-consciousness and knowledge. Dialogic education is not the outcome of a revolution or even the cause of a revolution. It is the revolution.


There's more to say about Freire, but before we go there lets spend a little time with Hegel. I believe doing a brief dissection of the "Lord and Bondsman" section of the Phenomenology will help to elucidate some of the mysteries of Freire's conceptual process.

"Self-consciousness learns that life is as essential to it as pure self-consciousness. In immediate self-consciousness the simple 'I' is absolute mediation, and has as its essential moment lasting independence. The dissolution of that simple unity is the result of the first experience; through this there is posited a pure self-consciousness, and a consciousness which is not purely for itself but for another, i.e. is merely immediate consciousness, or consciousness in the form of thinghood. Both moments are essential. Since to begin with they are unequal and opposed, and their reflection into a unity has not yet been achieved, they exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent consciousness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another. The former is lord, the other is bondsman." (Hegel, p. 115)

Phew. Yeah, that's a lot just to get the definitions. Believe me, we're actually cutting out a lot of the build-up to this point.

So what in the bejesus is Hegel talking about? For one thing, there is an unavoidable ambiguity about the subject of Hegel's writing here. Are we talking about an individual, or a society? As mentioned before, there is reason to believe Hegel is speaking to both, and, indeed, that the separation of individual from society is indeed one of the very things under consideration in his treatment. In this passage, in particular, Hegel refers to "pure self-consciousness" and "consciousness which is purely for another," which map not only onto "lord" and "bondsman," but onto our duality of "individual" and "society."

We need not step through the entire definitional passage, because the important bit is this: the essential dichotomy between lord and bondsman originates from some precipitating event. That event divides the "I" (and the social structure) into disparate and mutually opposed categories which nevertheless exist solely in relation to each other. The lord is lord because the bondsman exists for him, the bondsman is bondsman because he exists for the lord. The two are mutually dependent not just for their existence, but for their very definitions.

Further along, Hegel says this: "But just as lordship showed that its essential nature is the reverse of what it wants to be, so too servitude in its consummation will really turn into the opposite of what it immediately is; as a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness" (Hegel, p.117). Freire and Hegel both recognize that within both the lord and the bondsman are the inherent contradictions of their place. The lord - as a being for itself - is dependent upon the bondsman, and therefore exists through and because of, and, in a real sense, for, the bondsman. The lord's identity, in short, falls apart. Likewise, the consciousness of the bondsman is "forced back itself," only to turn into an independent consciousness.

This process is actually quite tricky, and Hegel acknowledges as such at the outset of his description thereof: "However, servitute is not yet aware that this truth [that it is for itself, and not for another] is implicit in it" (Hegel, p. 117). The passage that follows is, essentially, Estranged Labor in more philosophical terms. The creation of an object - which seems to be devoid of self - is in fact the very thing which liberates the consciousness of the bondsman and allows it to turn back in on itself. Marx adds the important caveat that money complicates Hegel's picture, because it provides an eternal framework through which the bondsman can remain bound, but nevertheless the concept is similar: creation is the essence of the liberation of the oppressed consciousness.

This liberation is far from the end-point of Hegel's dialectic, but it reflects the same pivotal process of thesis and antithesis negating each other and re-synthesizing to form a new thesis (and antithesis). In the case of lord and bondsman, it is not recognition of each other that leads to negation, but rather a more complex procedure involving creation and fear which is not of much interest here. More important is this point: the lord and bondsman exist as separate entities, but are actually one and the same (both individually and socially), and their apparently and meaningfully differing manifestations reflect both an essential conflict and an essential sameness. The resolution of that conflict is a process of becoming that contains, ultimately, both the seed of selfishness present in the lord and the seed of selflessness present in the bondsman. It turns out that, when brought to fruition, those two seeds produce the same flower.

(As an aside, It is worth mentioning that elsewhere Hegel argues that the real synthesis of lord and bondsman - of living for oneself and living for the other - is not achieved violently. Violent revolution is an essential step, but it only serves to establish in starker terms the very opposition which was to be overcome (Hegel, p.114-115).)


It is important to note that Hegel, when he writes of the lord and bondsman, is writing of a stage of history that he believes is past (though certainly he would agree with the evolutionary truism that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and thus that the "history" here described is in a state of ever-spiraling recurrence). It is my opinion that we should forgive him this Eurocentrism for his insight; what he describes is the process of the human being (and/or the society) becoming self-consciously free in a very real and meaningful sense. Freedom, that is, predicated on itself and not on the enslavement of the other. Hegel's process is called "the dialectic," and is a dialogic process (both words central to Freire's Pedagogy). While his story of the "lord and bondsman" is a small sample of his bigger project, every step within that project contains within it the whole, and so even here we can see the humanizing force of thesis and antithesis joining to form a new synthesis.

This process may seem to be of merely academic interest, if only we didn't have such brilliant socially-active followers of the ideal. Freire's emphasis on action is sometimes lacking in Hegel (or, rather, Freire's emphasis on causing action; Hegel does not incite, he more chronicles, but in so doing he hardly denies the importance of action in the process). The lesson, however, is not that we should out and start doing, but rather that doing and thinking are inextricably linked, that to create free human beings we must ourselves first be free human beings, neither patronizing the oppressed nor allowing ourselves to be the oppressed.

Freire resists putting it in these terms, but I would venture to say that he understands Hegel well enough to see the implication: we must be oppressor, oppressed, and liberator all at once. We must exist in paradox if we are to accomplish meaningful and lasting progressive change. Let me clarify that: we are not meant to be either the oppressor or the oppressed, but rather we are meant to have undergone the synthesis that takes from each their essential realizations about the nature of being, and put them together into a single, meaningful whole.

This is a paradoxical process, to be sure, and a difficult one. Recall the quotation discussed earlier: "The role of the problem-posing educator is to create, together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos" (Freire, p. 68). If revolution is dialogic education, as suggested earlier, it is brought about not by any one person, or any one group of people. Rather, dialogue requires, in its very nature, the kinds of illusory categorical differences that Hegel describes. Nevertheless, it would still be humanizing - a bit of progress - if we were to destroy the harmful categories of oppressor and oppressed. Indeed, it would be inevitable, if only we adopted the dialogic pedagogy of the oppressed in place of the doxologic pedagogy of the lord and bondsman.


Freire, P. (1969). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Hegel, G. (1977). The Phenomenology of the Spirit. (A.V. Miller trans.) New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1807).

Marx, K. (1964). Estranged Labor. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. International.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Learning of Lucia Joyce

Another position paper from my biography class, this time on the professor's own book about Lucia Joyce. A fascinating and rewarding experience, reading an excellent book with its author.

What constitutes the “text” of a life like that of Lucia Joyce? Where does Carol Shloss turn her critical reader's eye, exactly, in the course of reading that text? So much of Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake rests upon secondary and tertiary sources, and there are so many interpretations of Lucia herself, that locating a coherent narrative – let alone a true one – is a daunting challenge for both author and reader alike.

What strikes me most, however, about the issue of coherence, and the attendant issue of reliability, is the inescapable desire to characterize the what and the who of a person, rather than the ever-present process of becoming. As a student of education, I cannot escape questions of learning. As a learner, born into a culture that purports to value “life-long learning,” I wonder how static the picture of any human being can really be. It is hard enough, I suppose, to explain who any given person is at any given time, and still harder to describe the developments and regressions that mark the narrative of all human lives. It is all but impossible to create that kind of narrative out of the wispy air of destroyed records and withheld information that Shloss had to contend with.

Even so, Shloss does not paint a static picture of Lucia. Rather, there are definitive moments of generation and regeneration in Lucia's adult-life, moments of crisis and moments of transition. She stops dancing. She takes drawing classes. She goes to Ireland. She is admitted to her first sanitarium. She is given protoformotherapy treatments. None of the events themselves tell us who Lucia is or what she thinks, but the combination allows for the construction of an external narrative, and the inference of an internal one. Above all, they paint the picture of a woman who's life was continually changing, resisting the formulaic, modern, and highly Apollonian tendency towards a static (and linguistic) categorization.

It is a fairly recent trend in learning theory (though not educational policy) to reject the kinds of narrow, behavioristic categories to which Lucia was subjected, both in her time, and in subsequent biographies of her contemporaries. Lucia, instead, fits comfortably into Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's theories in their 1991 work, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. The argument is, in essence, that we learn not through the transmission of decontextualized information, but that we instead are members of “communities of practice” wherein knowledge and understanding are co-constructed, and learning is embedded in the very environment in which it occurs. The implications of this insight go far beyond the classroom, spreading throughout the life of a learner, reclaiming and elevating the role of culture in the process of education. Lucia – as a cosmopolitan raised by cosmopolitans in a world still uneasy about cosmopolitanism – found herself dispersed among many “communities of practice,” and in some sense her dance through life strikes me as a fragmented journey of discontinuous learning.

“She would slip from English to French, and from French into Italian, in the course of going from one side of the room to the other” (Shloss, 222), wrote Joyce of his daughter. But what else was there for her to do? All of Lucia's cosmopolitan knowledge was meaningless to her, situated as it was in a limited and largely artificial world. Lave and Wenger write, “We have thus situated learning in the trajectories of participation in which it takes on meaning. These trajectories must themselves be situated in the social world” (L&W, 121). It is easy to imagine Lucia, then, constructing her own social world, or demanding one of her father. Joyce was not only a rare fellow member of her intellectual community, but in many ways he was the master to her “princeable” (Shloss, 304) artistic apprentice, a dynamic that was both a privilege and a curse.

In the absence of a meaningful social world that fit with her previous learning – especially after she stopped dancing and was increasingly taken from her father – Lucia learned to adopt the trajectories found within new social worlds. Learning dance was a communal experience, no doubt, but so was learning to be crazy. It is not that she willfully took on “schizophrenia,” a category so poorly defined that it would be hard to be an apprentice to it. Rather, the definitive seven months Lucia spent institutionalized were a new kind of apprenticeship. Shloss observes that, “After a certain point, it becomes difficult to distinguish the effects of the treatment from the symptoms of the supposed illness” (Shloss, 365), a fact undoubtedly true of both the experimental injections to which Shloss refers and to the experience of institutionalization. What kind of social world was Lucia repeatedly forced to enter? What kind of community of learners was she unwillingly and unwittingly made a part of?

These questions, rhetorical though they may be, point to the more difficult and genuine questions that, I suspect, are the source of the Joyce estate's resistance to Shloss's revisions of the Joyce family story. Why did Lucia stop dancing, really? How could James Joyce maintain such a paradoxically loving and yet unhelpful relationship with his daughter? Who thought that pairing Lucia with Jung was a good idea? Why did Giorgio resent his sister so much? It is far simpler to turn Lucia into an archetype, to deny her existence as a living, breathing, and developing human being. The label, “crazy,” is just that; it asserts that there is no growth or development, no membership in a community of intellectual or artistic practice. The insane are empty shells of disconnected and decontextualized cognition. The insane do not learn.

It is not clear to me whether the story Shloss tells of Lucia Joyce is a cautionary one, a literary one, a cultural one, or a moral one. Perhaps it is all of these, perhaps it is simply a reclamation of a girl abused both in her own time and by the whimsical history of the 'Great Man' that was her father. It seems to me, however, that the real reclamation of biography is a reclamation of a learning human being. Lucia was forced to learn a role that did not suit her, thanks to a mysterious family and a culture in which she was tragically anachronistic. But the important thing is that she did learn, or, we might say, she did breathe and love and laugh and dance. Biography may be accused, sometimes, of reducing the lives of its peripheral characters into the kinds of formulated phrases that Eliot's Prufrock so much despised, but it can also do the opposite, turning a static picture into the complicated and shared dance that is a life.