Can We Make Sense Out Of the Virginia Tech Carnage?

What is it about the explosive, violent shootings at Virginia Tech that disturb us so much? I know I stopped what I was doing and paid attention to the news when I heard the headlines on the television talking about a school shooting. It isn’t the fact that a person would act out so violently; this should be no surprise to a world bathed in the blood of genocide and ethnic cleansing, two world wars in one century, the war in Korea, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, and current war in Iraq: for the record of human atrocity is long and riddled with violence and bloodshed, from the cruel crucifixions of the Romans to the harsh internment of the gulags. Human violence is not alien to us.
     Rather, it is sadly, very human. What makes the Virginia Tech killings so disturbing, however, is that it has been inextricably stripped of meaning — the fact that Cho Seung-Hui, acting alone, walked through a university dormitory and classroom building without visual affect, as one witness commented, his face was stoic and numb and unleashed round after round of bullets with a Glock 19 handgun into his former girlfriend, her boyfriend, and 29 other people, wounding dozens more and leaving thousands and thousands of people terrified.

The killer, apparently in a psychotic state because of the breakup with his girlfriend, leaves us bereft with a way to make sense of this violence. The act is stripped of meaning and we ourselves are devoid of a way to absorb it, much less understand it. We are left unable to situate this kind of senseless atrocity into any form of meaningful dialogue because the killer has left us with nothing, killing himself, erasing his own history and closing off any hope of restoration. Despite his own personal past, left as a series of clues to help us understand, he himself has left us nothing, except, as one person commented after hearing about the shootings, undulations in a vacuum.
     Sure, people will begin to put pieces together, as is being done, to begin to explain what happened, he himself, at the moment he began to shoot without anger or fear, without hatred or even angst, not even speaking to his victims, as he mowed them down, at the moment of carnage there was absolutely no reasonable sense, nothing to trace one’s finger to an origin that would be explicable or tangible, only overwhelming grief and desolation for those who survived and all of us, drawn together by family and friends and concern for one another.

     We may never have an adequate explanation for these shootings, no matter how much can be gleaned from the evidence, just as the shootings at Columbine and the terrorists attack on September 11th, have left a wound our nation’s consciousness, there is something irrevocably lost in our ability to make sense of this tragedy.
     So, this leaves us with an urge to movement to reach out with compassion to the injured and to the mourning, to make way for their stories as they begin to speak out and seek ways to heal; it is our responsibility to allow for this to happen, to allow healing to take place where it can and to find adequate ways to perhaps prevent this kind of carnage from ever happening again. What we need to do know is to stop for a moment and ponder John Donne, when he said, “No Man is an island entire of himself …. Any man’s death diminishes me for I am apart of mankind.”


Book Review: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Cherry-Headed Conures perched on a branch
Mark Bittner, the Cherry-headed Conure lover from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California, attributes the American poet Gary Snyder as an influence in his own life, writing, and spirituality — and, apparently, Buddhist spirituality — all bound up in his love for parrots.
     According to his book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which was also made into a documentary of the same name), Bittner writes about how since he was a young boy, he considered himself different, “and was never going to have a ‘normal’ life” (5). His early adulthood was a nomadic existence; he was an exotic excommunicant, in a way, living with his sister for awhile, then in a friend’s van, never holding a steady job or aspiring for clear career goals. He describes himself as “on a path.” He writes, “I was twenty-two years old and leading the life of a 'dharma bum,' a term coined by the poet Gary Snyder that means ‘a homeless seeker of truth’” (5). Although Bittner does not cite where exactly Snyder wrote about a dharma bum being “a homeless seeker of truth,” I first figured that it comes from Snyder’s book Mountains and Rivers; in this book he weaves a very long poem that builds upon the Buddha’s teaching as an aimless seeker of truth. Upon further probing into Buddhism and dharma spirituality, I discovered that this phrase, “a homeless seeker of truth” was first actually attributed to Sidhhartha Guatama, or the Bhudda. He is called the Saddhu, “the homeless seeker of truth” according to a slim book I found on Bhuddist spirituality entitled, Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism by Rebecca McClen Novick.


Reference Video Guide: Anatomy of a Call Number

In this video guide, my colleagues and I at the Saint Joseph Seminary College Père Rouquette Library in Saint Benedict, Louisiana break down the anatomy of a call number.

"Anatomy of a Call Number" Library Instructional Video


"Taking it Where They're At": The Origins of an “Anatomy of a Call Number”

A real challenge at our small seminary college library is getting students from their rooms (and their computers) to the stacks. I don't think this is just a 21st century problem. I think this is a problem that has plagued libraries for a long time. Students avoid the library. This was true in the days of paper as well as in the days of 0's and 1's.
     Maybe the particular challenge for libraries today is that often, students feel that the library is obsolete (as well as the print materials it holds) and would rather do all the research from the comfort of their dormitory room: where one can access the library catalog, review online databases, or more generally, scan the web for trenchant articles on a particular topic. While it is more than possible to find resources that one needs without ever stepping foot in a library, what is missing in this “grab and bag” approach to research is the skill to effectively find what you are looking for; most students think they know how to find the most accurate and authoritative source for their research without understanding the fundamental of library research. Because as librarians we know that the current trend tends to keep students from interaction with librarians and the library, I felt the need to take an approach of “where they’re at” to give students the skills to become better researchers.
     When a student does come into the library with a call number in hand, especially new college students, usually what I get is the “deer in headlights” look. At the reference desk at our small seminary college library, looking for that book that they desperately need for the next day’s assignment, they are lost in the stacks. Or, on a tangential note, when the power goes out, and all we have is “paper,” the students have no idea how to browse Dewey to find what they want. It is a joyful day when our director gets to take out her trusty Sears List of Subject headings to instruct a student “how to find a book”.
    Students do not know how to use the Sears book of Subject headings because they do not have the information literacy to navigate the Web (studies have shown that students do not know how to use online databases, or even worse, they do not know what they are). And there is not a librarian at their computer desk to show them, even if they can instant message a librarian or send an e-mail. Because of this physical absence from the library, and also absence from guided research, and the delusion students have of their own research acumen, I have noticed, working as a library assistant, that students do not understand basic principles of how a library is organized. Or, if they do, the librarian language to describe how the library operates differs from the students’ own understanding of how a library operates. Phrases like “Dewey Decimal System” and “library catalog” are sometimes lost on them. A student would look at me, and ask, “I just want to know where the philosophy books are”. Can you get me this article?
    And, even professors, do not always know how to use the library’s resources to supplement their own courses. I attribute this to what I call, the “Barnes and Noble” mentality. It is a product of the erroneous mentality that the library patron is a customer and the library is supposed to fill instantly the customer's needs.
There is a resistance, oftentimes, in gaining lifelong learning and information literacy skills. So, thinking about this problem, I brainstormed ideas to use where they’re at (at their computer consoles) to reach students as a guide to get what they need but at the same time introduce students to tools to enable them to become better, life-long, researchers. One way to do this was to use a schema I devised, “the Anatomy of a Call Number” and to duplicate it and propagate as many ways as I could for student use: as a photocopied handout, on the web, on iTunes, on Facebook, and even as a QuickTime movie.
    Because I noticed students were lost to the geography of a call number, I came up with a graphic to introduce students to how to read a call number and understand it. This is not a novel idea. Many libraries have on their websites Call Number tutorials that guide a user on the basics of library organization. And the notion, “an anatomy of a call number,” is not novel to our specific library. But, I noticed, many of the tutorials I found on the web were not designed for college students nor where they clean and easy to follow. I needed a “one page” graphic that I could then break down into subsequent parts.
    I was first inspired by Aristotle. In his book the Categories, he lays down principles of organizing knowledge into hierarchical degrees. From general to specific. And also specific to general. Aristotle thought that you could organize all knowledge from the most general to the most specific, deductive reasoning, or by specific to general, inductive reasoning. By using the rudiments of deductive logic, Aristotle claimed, for example, one could go from the most general categories, like “living things” down to animals, then to mammals, then to whales, then to giraffes, to dogs, and cats, and humans. One could also inductively surmise that knowledge about Faith and Reason is also related to the broader picture of Theology and by extension belief. This system proved to be a highly successful manner in the West to organize knowledge, even to the present system of organizing animals into Phyla and Species. In a similar manner, a library organizes itself based upon this Aristotelian means of nomenclature and organization.
    Because our program is geared to philosophy and to the humanities, I thought using a philosopher that students had already studied in their curricula to illustrate how the library organizes itself was a useful way to not only reach where they are at, but also to show how the library acts as an interdisciplinary mediator between academic disciplines. Once, the students could grasp that what they are learning in their philosophy courses was related to the way in which the library organized its knowledge, I figured this would increase their interest in the library and also teach them how to apply the theoretical concepts that they have learned in the classroom.
    Because we use the Dewey Decimal System at our small college library, I came up with a one sheet handout that I called “Anatomy of a Call Number”. It shows how the alpha-numeric “call number” is not merely an arbitrary placeholder. It represents the placement of the books within an hierarchy of knowledge. To show this, I broke down one call number,
    (The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck) to show how the call number reflects The Grapes of Wrath not only as a novel shelved next to the other Steinbeck novels, but how it is placed within Contemporary fiction (813.54), which is placed within 813 (American Fiction), which is placed with 810 (American Literature) which is placed within 800 (Literature). Placing these handouts at the reference desk, and taping them to the stacks, the idea was that it would aid students in teaching them basic library literacy at the point-of-contact-level. While helping students “find a book” we could use the handout to illustrate how the call number in the catalog corresponds, hopefully, to the placement of the book on the shelf. And, most importantly, we could relate the act of locating the book on the shelf, to the philosophical quest for knowledge, something they were already learning in their coursework.
    While the handout worked, to some extent, the library staff looked for more ways to introduce library literacy skills to students, “where they’re at”. Like I said, in the beginning, students are in their dormitory rooms, using their computers. Or they are using library computers. Because we have an online OPAC, students usually look up the books they would like to use for their research, then they come to the library, to get their material, and then they leave. Realizing this, we decided to use the Internet and the local school intranet as a way to stream library resources directly to their rooms.
     Obviously, the library web page seems to be an advantageous place to post information literacy resources, like our “Anatomy of a Call Number”. But, we thought, the students do not check the library’s web page like they check their MySpace or Facebook profiles or listen to iTunes. So, we started to stream the library to those online locations and applications on the Internet and on our local intranet.
     We first set up an iTunes application in the library that was connected to the school intranet. iTunes has a feature called “Sharing” where a user can rip music and audio files onto his or her computer, download them into their iTunes file organizer and set up a sharing folder that other users, who are also using the same Internet access point (in our case, our seminary college campus) can also listen to and use without actually possessing the actual files on their computers.
      iTunes makes it fairly easy to not only store PDFs, files, and audio files, but also to stream these electronic resources right into students' rooms. Through a very easy interface and set-up, we started a Rouquette Library streaming share that anyone on the local intranet, using iTunes, would see on their own screens, and could access. This includes audiobooks that students in our curriculum would use, as well, as library resources, including the original “Anatomy of a Call Number”. We are even in the process of making the original analog document into a QuickTime movie that breaks down the call number into its anatomical parts.
We also realized that we could stream library resources through other internet hotspots that students frequent, like Facebook. By setting up an account on Facebook, the library has been able to stream library resources to students, where they are.
      So, the handout I had created, “An Anatomy of a Call Number” has gone through various permutations from a one-page handout to a multimedia presentation to a quick time movie, as you can see in our Poster Session.


There is no ‘Reel’ Mordred:

The Evil Child/Good Child Dyad in Excalibur, The Sixth Sense, and The Good Son

 In the following blog post, I try to link the story of Arthur's bastard son Mordred, who in the Arthurian Legend, comes back to seize control of Camelot from his father, as an example of the "bad seed" trope in contemporary film and fiction.
        It is easy to see how much the Mordred story is edited, conflated, or even omitted in popular Arthurian retellings. Most film versions omit Mordred as in Disney’s The Sword and the Stone (1963) or Camelot (1967) or they conflate his story, like in Knightriders (1981), where he is Morgan, a bad-guy motorcycle nut, his name a mixture of Morgan Le Fay and Mordred. And of the Arthurian films that do include him, he is either: 1.) Arthur’s nephew or a knight "gone bad" as in First Knight (1995) or 2.) the incest taboo is breeched and Mordred is recognized as Arthur’s illegitimate son, as in Excalibur (1981) or the TV mini-series version of Mists of Avalon (2000) (Torregrossa 200-201). In films without mention of the incest plot, the incest taboo is sublimated into a villainous character who desires, at any price, to storm Camelot, to take Guinevere as either a wife or slave and to kill Arthur. Either Mordred is conflated into an evil nemesis that vies for Arthur’s throne, or he is seen as a son, but, universally as a bad seed. This bad seed element is what I am interested in here as an outcrop of a problematic good child/bad child dyad that popular tellings of the Arthurian tale have generated.
This illustrates at what length the story, even Malory, to some extent, avoids discussing the crux of the Mordred story, the “bad seed” part: which is basically a story of taboo desire between a brother, (Arthur) and a sister (Morgauswe) and the product of this desire, an evil child, (Mordred). The boundary is transgressed and the child born from the brother/sister pairing is marked as impure — hence, perhaps the name Mordred: a distortion of “morte,” the Romance derivative of the Latin word, “mortus,” in English, “death.”

     In most cultures, a child made impure by a violation of the incest taboo does not bode well for the tribe. It marks death. From a Structuralist point of view, all cultures, in some form or another, have an incest taboo, for it separates us from the animals and makes us uniquely human — our rage or our sex drive is not mere animalistic fecundity, but we tend to inscribe meaning to our actions which precipitates limitation (Bataille 83). Most cultures include a narrative to limit transgression and also to speak about possible violations of the boundary as a cautionary tale. In other words: Don’t sleep with your sister because it will bring a taint on your house. Stories like this are powerful and interwoven into cultural narratives because the taboo is so strong, we need stories of its transgression to release some of the pent-up energy generated by its suppression.
     But how we tell the story is what is of importance.
     The story of Arthur’s son, Mordred, fits into this basic narrative of incest, not only as a historical figure but as a raw narrative-type fitted into whichever form of the Arthurian strand the artist wishes to take, whether he casts Mordred as a nephew or a son, or an evil traitor, the simple ingredients of the primordial story are preserved. The raw form of Mordred as an evil son, an irreducibly evil son, apparently, has become fodder for a retelling of the Arthurian myth that chooses to emphasize the mythological structure of the story rather than the anthropological structure. From an anthropological standpoint, the Mordred narrative tells of a transgression of a culturally inscribed taboo that needs to be dealt with within the society.
      This anthropological, scientific viewpoint has been challenged by the mythopoetic, or Jungian view touted first by Joseph Campbell. In this view, Mordred or any character in the Arthurian narrative is a creation of mythic imagination, not necessarily rooted in historical reality. While, there may be cause to suggest that a person such as Arthur or Guinevere did, in fact, exist in some form of the distant past, the cause of their presence in history is not inherent in their facticity, per se, but in the raw mythological power that they exert on the human imagination.
Mordred, while the facts of his historical existence are in doubt, exerts a powerful influence on the popular imagination, especially in films that utilize the rhetoric of the Men’s Movement of the 1980s by such figures as Robert Bly and Sam Keen. The Men’s Movement addresses the so-called “crisis in masculinity” that was used as a counter-attack to second-wave feminism, that stated that there is something innate about woman and that womanhood ought to be celebrated and recognized, as inherently bound up with a woman’s own sense of self and power, represented in works like The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Men, by their own, admission, deny women of this acceptance of their womanhood by disavowing their political rights and metaphysical dignity
       The Men’s Movement, or Mythopoesis, as it is sometimes called, countered this, especially in the works of Robert Bly, by saying that there is also something innate about men, but men have not been allowed to express their true feelings like women and are therefore just as much oppressed as women. Bly warned that men should not associate themselves too readily with women, lest they ally themselves with their interests, and only please their mothers and their wives (2). Writers like Bly argued that men should not only get in touch with their more sensitive, nurturing side, or their true selves, but their wild side, or their warrior side as an expression of authentic masculinity. This not only spawned a pate of men’s clubs and book tours celebrating men and men’s interests but also films have expropriated this mythopoetic rhetoric, often times to an inevitable disaster.
     In Films, like Excalibur,, First Knight, The Sixth Sense, The Good Son, and the Star Wars films, the Mordred myth has been expropriated into a mythopoesis that reduces the problem into a good child/evil child dyad. If there is something to be saved in men today, the men’s movement suggests, it is our boys who are in the direst need of help. This emphasis on boys in need of help, seen in books by Michael Gurian and James Pollack, with titles like, The Wonder of Boys or Raising Cain: Saving the Emotional Lives of Boys. This frenzy (or panic) to save our boys from the clutches of soft feminism creates, ineluctably, what I call the Mordred problem, spawned in part by this duality that our children are either good or evil, right or wrong, soft or hard, gay or straight, legitimate or illegitimate, with the emphasis that right, good, hard, straight, and legitimate are the privileged labels. Mordred is a type of the “bad seed,” the bad label, or the evil child and his inverse, the good child, or the virtuous child.
      Reinhard Kuhn, in his book Corruption in Paradise: The Child in Western Literature says that the evil child in literature stems from our fascination with innocence in the child and this innocence is corrupted by society (40-41). He says that evil children in books and films demonstrate “an insatiable appetite for even the most vulgar of such menacing children, and the viewing public has assured a similar success for the many films dealing with the same topic” (43-44). Kuhn remarks that the result of our fascination with corruption of childhood innocence has garnered a proliferation “of evil children on such a scale that one might fear it is they who will inherit the earth” (44).
      The Mordred-myth generates such evil children bent on destroying the father figure, the mother figure — in fact, the entire family. The incest theme is usually downplayed in these films and the villainy of the child is emphasized. These films tap into the archetype of the evil child that seems to fascinate modern audiences. It also presents us with a problematic binary. Especially when seen in context with the recent rhetoric of a “crisis of masculinity” that deems anything not of the moral norm as suspect and thus should be expunged.


Response to Ngugi wa Thiong’o speech at Southeastern Louisiana University

A new book by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wizard of the Crow, satirizes the West from an African perspective; Like Achebe, he brings old questions to the fore about Western colonialism and Christianity. 
The halls of Southeastern's Vonnie Borden theater was filled to hear the world's foremost East African writer. Having just completed a novel about a fictional despotic African leader, Ngugi also spearheads a program at Irvine, The International Center for Writing and Translation, to create and distribute indigenous African tongues apart from Western translations.

Whether or not the Colonial experiment in Africa tainted Christian missionary activity or whether Christian missionary activity is itself tainted is probably not the right approach to tackle Western Christianity’s attempt to proselytize non-Western peoples. It is not that the missionary activity is inherently tainted, but rather that the approach was marred, most significantly because of the imperial and univocal nature of Colonialism — the structure of Colonialism did not allow for, what we would call today, the recognition of the language of the subaltern. The Christian missionary movement was lead by many good-intentioned Christians. But, what many Christian missionaries failed to realize is that they were not only teaching Christian doctrine in their own Mother tongues, not the language of the people, but they assumed that the conquering language had a stake in knowledge that was not apparent in the indigenous languages. Although some missionaries attempted to learn the language of the conquered African colonies, for the most part, the idea of Colonialism was to teach them the history of the Conqueror, the language of the Conqueror, and the beliefs of the Conqueror. Get a few educated elites to learn English, for example, and to translate the ideologies and beliefs of the people into English. In this paradigm, there is no attempt to raise the native languages to the status of the elite — as if Jesus spoke English! Jesus did not speak English, as Ngugi playfully reminded us last week; Jesus spoke a rural form of Aramaic and spoke in simple terms using the imagery and language of the people he taught and lived among in Galilee, which is why it is sometimes very difficult to understand his parables and sayings. But his sayings were translated into the language of the educated elite, which is Greek in this case, and this is how the message of the New Testament writings was originally communicated. But perhaps the Jesus of Colonialism did not learn anything after 2000 years old and is still up to his old tricks, so the language of the elite is still the language of the Conqueror, in this case, English or French, or Dutch, or whatever the language of the conquering nation happens to be. But take this language and try to translate native Swahili to mirror it is obviously going to have problems. But of course, the Harvard educated professor cannot be told by a graduate from the University of Treetops that he speaks good English. “Of course I speak English. I went to Harvard!” Ngugi here is parodying how language is classed, like race or ethnicity. How can the Mother tongue of the Western Nations describe a God (or Gods) to a community of peoples who have their own language of God (or Gods)? It just doesn’t make sense. This has been parodied, as in the short story, "The Gospel According to Mark" when an unbeliever, Espinoza is crucified on a tree like Christ — the people believed him to be the Savior. But this view is terribly pejorative and simplistic. It is as if to say, people of a non-Western ideology or bound to mistake Western religion to the point of sheer, nonsensical violence. This does not make sense. Nor does the univocal injunction to impose one language, one faith, one way of thinking on a collection of people that do not fit into the hegemonic whole. Ngugi seems to be saying that Globalization is partly to blame for this branding of language and culture that seems to disavow the minority of a language for the sake of its own language, not needing to be mediated by a language like English or French to be understood or disseminated. But you may say, there is something innate about all human beings that no language, no matter how univocal its insistence to be the language of choice, can override the dignity and value of humanity, because any knowledge that is worth having is knowledge of a humanity that is universal. But the problem with this kind of thinking is that it ignores the nuances of languages and the inability to express in subtle language — say the texture of snow or the agronomy of the Kenyan plains — that cannot be translated. True, maybe translation from Nilotic to English actually enhances the Nilotic language — but for who? who benefits? Not the Nilotic speaker, but the English one. So, it seems this is what Ngugi is trying to do; he is not trying to disparage English or any other language, but simply insisting that the indigenous languages of a people, to be of value, to provide knowledge for its people, has to be kept within its own language families. Ngugi would say that a novel written in Swahili needs to be translated from Swahili to Nilotic as it is, not mediated by English or French. It would be like translating a letter written in English into another language and then using that language, not English, to translate it into another language. The more permutations of language the more diluted and lost the original becomes. I can see how this can become very problematic and detrimental the more it perpetuates itself. Although I, and millions of other people, know only Western Romance languages and have only read non-Western texts translated into Western languages, it still does not preclude the fact that my language, my Western Romantic language does not need to ipso facto the one language that swallows up the rest.


Poem: "Crucifix"