On Silences

Andrew Garfield as Rodrigues and Shinya Tsukamoto as Mokichi.

For about the last year I’ve been making the same dumb comment to anyone who would care: “You know, Martin Scorsese and I wrote a book together.”

The kernel of truth within my pretentious posturing is that Scorsese did write a brief afterword to an edited collection to which I also contributed an essay. It’s titled Approaching Silence and is very good. My essay, which is not the best in the collection, argues that the novel’s climactic scene of a Portuguese Jesuit’s apostasy is best understood in the context of Endo’s ideas about religious inculturation and contemporary theories of globalization. Scorsese’s afterword frames the challenges of adapting a complex novel like Silence and explains the unique potential of film to create affectively what is not directly represented on the screen.

Scorsese and I approach Endo’s Silence very differently. I suspect this difference is due to the distinct positions we occupy. As a scholar and critic, my interests are in contextualizing the novel as much as possible in order to tease out the many layers of meaning it might convey. As an interpreter and adapter, Scorsese is interested in how to translate the experience of reading the novel to a new medium. Because we inhabit different spheres, we approach Silence differently. We each – as all readers do – create our own version of Silence whenever we encounter it. As the title of the collection implies, there are many ways to approach Silence; indeed, there are many Silences.

Scorsese’s Silence just happens to be in a much more accessible form. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Dos a Cero After Trump


This is the most unfortunately timed match in US Soccer history.

If you’re unaware, the US Men’s National Team will play Mexico Friday night in Columbus, Ohio in a qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup. USA-Mexico is one of the sport’s great international rivalries, though these matches rarely feature dazzling play or the world’s best players. Traditionally, they do feature a lot of late challenges, chest-to-chest stare-downs, and physical play that toes the line of violence.

In Columbus they also usually feature the US winning by a score of 2-0. Dos a cero. It’s kind of a big deal.

Anywhere else and Mexico is favored. The two teams are much closer than El Tri fans would ever admit, but Mexico has historically outperformed the US side. But in 2001, US Soccer moved its match against Mexico in the final round of World Cup Qualifying – known throughout the region as The Hex (or hexagonal for the six teams involved) – to Columbus Crew Stadium. That year and every four years since, the US has beaten Mexico by the same score in Columbus in this round of qualifying (and a couple other times, too). When they play anywhere else in the US, Mexico fans significantly outnumber American fans in the stadium. Friday night will be as close to a home-field advantage as US Soccer can muster against Mexico.

Which will be really uncomfortable this week.

Three days after electing an avowedly nativist president in Donald Trump, a bunch of middle-class white folks are going to gather in Ohio and yell at Mexicans for three hours. If the traditional scoreline returns, they’ll even yell in Spanish:

Dos a cero! *clap-clap-clapclapclap* Dos a cero! *clap-clap-clapclapclap* Dos a cero! *clap-clap-clapclapclap* » Read the rest of this entry «

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Finding Your Roots and the Limits of Determinism




I’m a sucker for genealogy shows.

But with apologies to Lisa Kudrow, the LDS Church, and everyone else involved with Who Do You Think You Are?, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. produces the best shows in the genre. Beginning in 2006 and presenting under three distinct titles – African American Lives, Faces of America, and Finding Your Roots – Gates has traced the family trees and cultural lineages of dozens of prominent guests, blending archival research with genetic testing and historical context to flesh out each one’s “Book of Life.” Much of the show’s emotional resonance emerges when individual family stories overlap with familiar historical narratives. Seeing Dustin Hoffman learn of the Holocaust survivors in his father’s family or Anderson Cooper discover a slave-holding ancestor killed in a violent revolt is undeniably powerful. These moments show us how historians can place names and faces in history, that what we consider historical events were just life for our forebears.

The Gates genealogy series is the best American history show on television. However, I fear it also reinforces some of our worst assumptions about the relationship between history and today, between politics and the past. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Three Thoughts on Westerosi Political Economy


Two prefatory notes: First – no, I know nothing about the books. Everything I’m going to say here draws exclusively on the HBO version of Westeros. Second, the more theoretically committed of you will note that only one of these thoughts is really about political economy proper. Fine. But I came up with a pretentious blog post title I liked and I’m not going to change it. Deal.

1. The Iron Throne isn’t worth all this fuss.
One of the most remarked upon features of the Game of Thrones TV series is its distribution of narrative energy. Unlike other shows from the golden age of narrative television, Game of Thrones has no clear protagonist – no Walter White-esque anti-hero, no philosopher warrior like Rust Cohle, no principled agitator like Sarah Manning . The focus usually reserved for a television protagonist is instead distributed over the entirety of the Game of Thrones cast, arguably with slightly more energy invested in the show’s half-dozen “A-tier” actors. Still, unlike the quest narratives common throughout fantasy genres, Westeros has no heroic main character.

To the extent Game of Thrones has a center of energy, it’s the Iron Throne itself. Cersei Lannister’s sinister invocation of the show’s title when addressing Ned Stark – “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” – sets out from the first season what all the blood and murder are meant to serve. At least three times each subsequent season, the throne is included in the background of a two-shot featuring those who desire but never sit upon it, visually reinforcing the centrality of the Iron Throne to everyone in Westeros (and, for that matter, the remaining Targaryens across the Narrow Sea). It is the object of each character’s quest and the focal point of nearly all the machinations that dominate the series.

Which is why it’s so weird that the Iron Throne is the seat of a startlingly weak monarchy. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Fractal Problems in Comparative Domestic Policy


After every mass shooting event in the US, charts like the one above (from gunpolicy.org) flood social media and the blogosphere. Proponents of stronger gun control policy use such visualizations to highlight the links between gun ownership and gun violence and to advocate for America joining the rest of the rich world in restricting gun ownership.

I think they’re crazy.

No, not about the policy. Let me be clear: I strongly support gun control. I think the Second Amendment was probably a mistake. I think America has way too many guns. I think fewer guns would mean fewer gun deaths. I think anyone who disagrees with this does so in bad faith.

What I think is crazy is trying to compare gun control policy from any other country to the American situation. American affection for guns is unique among nations. The NRA and its friends celebrate this fact – or more accurately, weaponize this affection to deter any restriction on the profits accruing to the gun makers who comprise their true constituency – but it is a real phenomenon. And it does change the facts on the ground in ways that render comparative policy analysis essentially useless.

Gun control advocates look at that chart and say, “We need fewer guns like everyone else.”

I look at that chart and think, “There is no way to get rid of all those guns.” There’s a change in kind when you’re talking about this scale of problem. It can’t be addressed by cribbing solutions from contexts that differ by orders of magnitude.

It’s a problem of fractal imagination. » Read the rest of this entry «

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Tough Question, for Certain Values of “Tough”

developmentNo. Next question.

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On Polarization

Following up on my notes yesterday regarding the use of out outmoded “liberal” and “conservative” labels within Catholic circles:

Providence College’s Holly Taylor Coolman took to America magazine earlier this week to make an argument rather similar to mine. She argues that viewing disputes within the Church in terms of political polarities renders static and seemingly natural what are otherwise dynamic. Thus:

Concern for the unborn is conservative; concern for the undocumented is liberal. A family rosary is conservative; a ministry among the homeless is liberal. As a constellation of elements becomes fixed at each pole, commitment to the Catholic faith simply becomes commitment to that pole for those who call it home.

It’s worth considering how we got here, and I’ll be thinking this through in coming days. It’s important to understand the appeal of this polarizing framework. I think Coolman’s emphasis on apparent stability – illusory stability but desirable stability, nonetheless – is an important element. As I’ve documented in my work, Catholic identities often become retreats from the disruptions of globalizing modernity. I’m beginning to think these polarizing labels – liberal, conservative, progressive, traditionalist, etc. – serve a similar function for smaller groups whose concerns are far from the frontiers of lived religious experience.

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On “Rusty” Labels

rustybucketTo the extent I’m able, I try to be a conscientious objector in the culture wars. I’m an academic (read: liberal) by training but a scholar of nationalism and religion (fundamentally conservative institutions), so I find no home in any cultural “camp.”

I say this not to put myself above the fray but to point out how useless culture war categories often are.

Take, for example, the carpet bombing of scare quotes in this post at First Things by my old professor Rusty Reno. Ignore for the time being the line-drawing title – “Our Homophobic Pope” – and note the political language in which a fairly small disagreement is cast. Reno characterizes the “liberal” desire for “the Great Capitulation” in which an otherwise “anti-modern” Catholic Church becomes “progressive” with regards to “sexual liberation” instead of “reactionary.”  He says “it’s good to remind ourselves of how frustrated progressives are…” when parsing various proclamations by Pope Francis on issues of sex and family.

Ostensibly, Reno’s replying to this post by Jamie Manson on the institutional effects of Francis’s language with regard to marriage. Manson advocates rethinking complementarity as the bedrock of Catholic thought on the sacrament of marriage. Reno’s reply is snarky and smarmy in equal measure:

Against this “reactionary” intransigence, Manson calls for church leaders to “evolve.” Don’t the bishops know that forward-thinking people don’t think in terms of “men” and “women” anymore? When is the Pope going to get over his reactionary mentality and ascend to the bright uplands of progressive thought?

My issue here is not with the debate over gay marriage within the Church. My views on that subject don’t align neatly with Manson or Reno. Nor is my issue strictly one of Reno’s tone. My issue is the framing in terms of us and them, wins and losses, comforting and discomforting. “I find it reassuring to know that Jamie Manson finds Pope Francis frustratingly reactionary,” is a pretty self-serving way to contribute to a worthwhile debate on the place of marriage in the lives of non-hetero Catholics. Note the preponderance of first-person pronouns throughout the post. Reno’s only interested in our, we, us, I, my, and so on.

Of course, that’s because certain Catholics view Francis as a champion of their idealized version of the Church. Others, Reno among them I’m sure, hope to find in Francis’s words some space for their idealized version of the Church. Each “side” takes solace when the other appears to “lose.” Pope Francis is ours. I won the debate. And so on. This whole framing is repugnant. Not because it divides the Church (nothing as large and diverse as global Catholicism is ever “whole” to begin with), but because it can only conceive God and the papacy in such dialectical, political terms. There’s literally zero concession that those with whom we disagree may have insight we don’t have. They actively discourage consideration of truths we don’t already hold.

More importantly, there’s no recognition that the salient cleavages – both within the Church and in American culture writ large – no longer divide “liberal” and “conservative.” These are outmoded, old-fashioned labels replaced by self-conceptions and idealizations much more deeply rooted than these 20th century political identities. But Reno and others need to hang on to this old framing.

We’re all trying to drink from the same well here, but some want to use rusty buckets to draw up the water. That won’t hold.

“Faith has to take in all the other possibilities it can,” Flannery writes. You can’t do that with labels and scare-quotes.

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Self, Image, Labor

I’ve written before about late capitalism and the labor-intensive maintenance of the self. But this…

… this is some next. level. ish. What labor is necessary when the image precedes the self? What recognition is possible, qua Lacan, when there is a genealogy of the image but no possibility of dialectical inversion?

Can there be a selfie with no self?

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Lumbersexuals and Homosocial Spectacle

The Advocate has an interesting, if brief, blurb on the illustrator Robert Riggs today. Riggs, not known to have been gay but clearly influenced by gay male artists of his time, sketched and painted oversized male bodies in dramatic, hyper-masculine scenarios (boxing, baseball, hunting, warring).  His work appeared in Life, The Saturday Evening Post, and Argosy.

The Advocate says:

There is a grimness to his work, like an underlying threat […] Riggs’s work has a tension that verges on frightening, like the electric moment right before violence erupts.

What strikes me about both this work and how it’s described here is the complete erasure of the kind of anxieties that animate any of the dozens of think-pieces written about lumbersexuals in the last year.  Chief among these concerns is the idea that privileged, young, urban, hetero men are embracing the trappings of working-class labor (beards, flannel, work boots, cheap beer) without acknowledging or challenging the structures that enable them to borrow without doing the actual work. It costs nothing to grow a trimmed beard.

From my perspective, such criticism demands of masculinity an authenticity we would never comfortably expect of post-feminist women. Jezebel’s foray into the conversation is even titled “Who is the lumbersexual and is anything about him real?” As Peter Lawrence Kane articulates in one of the more insightful enquiries into the phenomenon, the lumbersexual would have been unthinkable without the metrosexual revolution of the early-00s. “Around the time men who previously just thought of themselves as men began thinking of themselves as straight men,” Kane writes. Both using beard oil and tszujing in the manner Carson Kressley taught to straight male viewers are ways of performing a decentered masculine identity.

To that end, it’s notable that Riggs’s cartoonish male forms are mostly engaged in homosocial spectacles. The image above, titled The Brown Bomber, presents Joe Louis knocking out Max Schmeling in 1936. They appear in an elevated ring, their muscles and sweat high above the press and the crowd.  There is no doubt that what is taking place is not an essential aspect of masculinity; rather, it is a performance of one version of “man” for the entertainment of other men. One could not imagine the balding reporter in the image’s center performing in the same manner.  Similarly, other Riggs illustrations of baseball players and hunting parties resplendent in ceremonial dress emphasize the considered, affective dimensions of even the most hetero-normative visions of masculinity. One may critique the privilege of office workers dressing-up as laborers, but Riggs’s work ought to remind us men have been dressing-up in one form or another forever.

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  • About Me

    I am a scholar of literature and writing in Chicago, where I write about Catholic Literature and Globalization. This site is my mental clearinghouse.