Thinking of the Other

There are two big words that have been rambling their way around my mind this week, words from my apprenticeship as a Social Theorist. These two words are Colonising and Orientalizing.

I know these are big words, but stick with me. You trust me, don’t you?

These are terms used to describe Europe’s relationship with its “Oriental” colonies, which meant anything from Morocco to China—you know, the East. From the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Europeans had a mental image of the mysterious orient, the degenerate orient, the dangerous orient, of the barbaric orient in need of civilizing. Orientalizing and Colonising are how the great colonial powers came to think of the people and cultures of foreign lands, of Other groups of people. To subjugate people, we have to be able to think of them as radically different, as the unbridgeable Other.

Amadeo_Preziosi_-_The_Grand_Bazaar_-_Google_Art_ProjectColonising is a term to describe one way of doing that, a view of other cultures as “primitive” and “backward” so that we can paternalistically “civilize” them. Timothy Mitchell uses this term in his book Colonizing Egypt to describe how the British had to think of 19th century Egypt as a country of bizarre, violent customs, dark and twisting city streets, dark, twisted, illiterate, and barbaric natives, and degenerate, corrupt rulers. We are still used to this view, seeing it in the 2-dimensional cartoon Egypt of the Indiana Jones movies.D228 This image has also melded into our view of the Islamic world in general.

The flip side is Orientalizing, conceptualizing the Other as CLK339940radically different, but as exotic and fascinating (and rather erotic). Edward Said uses this term to describe how the cultural study of “the orient” created a falsely romantic but still distancing relationship with the North African, Middle Eastern, and other Asian colonies and spheres of influence. We see this fascination with exoticism in the popularity of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translations of Arabian Nights (or his translation of the Kama Sutra), we even see it in the quasi-Indian mysticism of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s works, not to mention the trappings of Masonic temples.

Now, obviously, there are problems with thinking about whole continents of human beings this way. There are the moral problems of colonialism and exploitation, and the factual carefreeness of these oversimplifications. There is the long-term post-colonial problem that these views imposed upon colonial people are internalized by them, weakening their cultures. Of course, for me as a logician, there is the internal self-contradiction: How can we think of a people as both ignorant and uncivilized, but also become fascinated with their culture?

Of course, in America, we could accept projecting both savage ignorance and the exotic wisdom on the First Nations, accept the idea of barely verbal, semi-human slaves and at the same time the simple wisdom of Uncle Tom or Uncle Remus, or even refuse to accept that “Negroes” were capable of culture, while at the same time stealing jazz and blues songs from them.

We Americans can also buy the music and imitate the style of dark young men in hoodies and sagging pants, while at the same time hoping the police will protect us from them.

Hip-Hop, Gangsta Rap, and their ilk have had an impact on our culture I would never have believed back in the old school days of the 80s. Now, not a day goes by without seeing young men knowingly (or maybe not) trying to look like they are “from the hood,” even in the country mountains of upper-east Tennessee. We project an authenticity and integrity upon the music, and on the showy façade of the fashions. We also project an exotic and powerful aura of danger.

Yet at the same time, we project a dangerous and powerful aura of danger upon young Black men in general, and treat them accordingly. We can criticize the police for stopping cars of young men for DWB (driving while black), but most white homeowners would prefer that young black men in their neighbourhoods be watched closely. For the most part, police are merely doing what we expect them to do: protect us from them.  We project radical otherness upon each other, we project a colonialising and orientalizing conception, we create and exemplify each other’s faulty conceptions, continuing in an odd dance of attraction and repulsion, fear and fascination…..

…until somebody gets shot.

So, be careful with each other. Don’t make each other out to be exactly the same, but don’t make each other out as radically different, either. Maybe as equivalent, “of equal value.” And the best way to understand others is to ask them, and to listen.

Maybe over some good food.

Second Person

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, the English language had 3 ways of saying you: “þū” (pronounced like ‘thoo’) for one of you, “ġit” (pronounced like ‘jit’) for two of you, and ġē” (pronounced like ‘jee’) for several of you. That is Old English. Thou6In Middle English, the second person pronoun was simplified to “thou” and “ye.” Today, in modern English, we only have “you.” Of course, there are regional exceptions, such as the “y’all” of the South, the northern “you guys,” “you-uns,” which is spread across the Ohio River Valley and parts of old Appalachia, its derivative “yinz,” which is a defining characteristic of Pittsburghese, and “yous,” Digression226 which persists in English speaking pockets from New Jersey, Boston, and Philly, all the way to Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

It is not uncommon for languages to slur and simplify. However, in English, there are important social factors and meanings to this change. How I speak to a second person is also a strong indication of how we interact. As Middle English developed a court Thoulanguage for the gentry, it adopted what is called the T/V distinction. In several European languages, the plural 2nd person becomes an honorific, a formal address of respect to superiors. examples include the tu/vous in French, the du/sie in German, and tú/usted in Spanish. By contrast the singular denoted either a lower class, or a sense of intimacy. The farmer would address his lord as “you” and his child as “thou.” The Lord would address other nobility as “you,” but address both the farmer and his child as “thou.”

However, at the same time, the rising middle class began to blur the rigid class Thou2distinctions, and adopted using “you” in all interactions. In part, to show they were not from the lower classes and provincials and in part because the formal was the language of business. One says: “How are you today, sir?” as a courtesy and a sign of respect to any customer walking in the door, but one also expects that courtesy to be returned. Similarly, everybody became “Master” or “Mister,” and “Mistress” or “Mrs.” Digression227

Thou8What was gained by this change to you was an equality of address, but a formal equality. What was lost was the familiarity and intimacy of thou-ing someone. It has its few remnants, but for the most part it sounds archaic. Emily Dickinson’s:
Wild nights – Wild nights! Were I with thee Wild nights should be Our luxury!
          …sounds sweetly archaic, like an ancient ode. It doesn’t sound like wild nights.

The Quakers became known for always using the familial “thou” to demonstrate their belief in universal brotherhood, as well as their unwillingness to Thou4participate in inequality. In a way, it seems odd that the leveling of English chose the genteel formal, instead of the Quaker’s familiarity. Then again, maybe it says something about us that we don’t miss the familiar pronoun. The informal formality of the second person might be an accurate indication of who we are and how we interact. We can be friendly while keeping a distance, casual without being intimate; that is who we have become.

We have acquired the easy manners of the sales person, showing respect and being friendly, but at the same time easily disposing of the conversation and forgetting about it as it passes. We laugh at the second person’s joke in an open, friendly way, all the while thinking of something else. We can get personal without recognizing persons, as well as “nice” and “sweet” without bothering to be genuine.

Of course, we are not slaves to the laws of language, even if we are grounded by them. Like the laws of gravity and inertia, we can defy language occasionally by acts of will and imagination.

We must remember to ask ourselves: Who is this you? Each second person—singular or plural—is their own first person. When we ask “How are you?” we must remember that the you is an I with his or her own concerns. When we say “thank you,” whom are we thanking? When we say “I’ll be with you in a moment,” who is the person thinking “Great. Now I have to wait again?” When we yell “FUCK YOU!!” who is the vulnerable me we are yelling at?


Shout Out: Abbrev’s

A shout out to another imaginary restaurant, this one so hip it could only be in Austin.
This appears to be the Überminimalist cuisine, and I want all my hipster readers to know about it so that you can say you were into it before it was cool.

In the words of the proprietors:

Abbrevs is another one of our heavily financed concept restaurants. At Abbrevs, we serve abbreviated versions of food. Each dish is less than a bite, not even a morsel. A minimal nourishment restaurant with a focus on leaving you still hungry – the hope is to create an entirely new dining experience where the “eater” is only somewhat satisfied but thoroughly intrigued. 

– Chefs Anthony and Danny Palumbo

Check them out at:

Holy Katzenjammer Kids!

The uses and misuses of swearing

Dr. Bear - tinyEditors note: the point of this post is that swearing can at times be needless, overused, immature. hostile, and dull. However, to make this point, I use a fair amount of that language. If you are not jaded, not callous, and not used to this sort of talk, I commend you, but I do recommend that you not read further.

Continuing my tradition of ambiguous Valentine’s Day posts, I would like to talk about swearing.

I appreciate swearing as much as anyone. I grew up in the Swabian parts of Germany, and remember the noble words of the regional hero Götz von Berlichingen. I remember being amazed at the ability of a friend of mine–Couture–to carry on whole complex conversations by simply changing the inflection of 3 little word: “fuckin’ shit, man.” One of the kindest, warmest men I know uses FUCK the way my dog sheds, and I honestly wouldn’t change him.

When Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s defense team says things like: “the prosecutors had greatly exaggerated the frequency of his “licentious evenings;” there had only been 12 in three years,” you might feel the need to say “he’s not out of control because it’s only four orgies a year?!? WHAT THE FUCK?!?” or its abrevicon WTF. Certainly what in the world?!?  seems too mild to be appropriate, and what the hell?!? almost seems too mild. But if we are commenting on this shameful man/men like him in general/the French culture of sexism that allows it/the IMF and its policies in general, shouldn’t we try to do it with creative words which diminish and shame without making us sink to a comparable boorish and harsh level?

I think there comes a time when we must learn to use language judiciously and creatively, rather than the short-barrel blast of hell, shit, damn, or fuck.
speech bubble (point)
First of all, swearing is used in contexts where it is totally unnecessary. Hey red-neck driving down the road trying to look ghetto: It is not necessary to say anything to that annoying tool minding his own business on the sidewalk as. It certainly is not necessary to spout an obscenity like a mid-Pennsylvania farm well spouts Frack-waste. What you look like is a pimpled piece of immaturity trying to shock the Junior High Librarian with his newly learned potty-words. This goes double for all you soft, maturity-frozen guys who don’t seem to own long pants. So guys: if you see someone harming an animal or disrespecting a woman, you might give them a piece of your mind, but save it for then.

Secondly, swearing in general—and the big four in particular—is overused. American culture at this point in the 21st century is overloaded with swearing. In everyday interactions one hears the sort of language one would have expected from Persian Gulf War vets, homeless psychotics mumbling to the voices they hear, or drunken Geordie teenagers taking the train home from a night out. Blue language is used as adjectives and adverbs when the person really means “I’m all like, you know?” Unrepeatables are repeated like birds in an Escher print.
speech bubble  speed it up





Among the many things psychologist Steven Pinker discusses in his book The Language Instinct is swearing. It seems to exist in one form or another in most cultures, enough that the use of harsh language might be hard-wired into the linguistic centers of the brain. His theory is that when we want to use strong, forceful language, language that grows out of strong passions, language that elicits a response, we express ourselves by linking our words to objects that evoke strong feelings. Religion is surrounded by strong feelings, so we use the idea of strong, frightening things like eternal damnation with our casual HELL!!! and DAMN!!!! The impure emissions of the human body are shocking, so we use SHIT!!! Coitus as a public act is shocking, so we have our FUCK! I generally disagree with Pinker as to how much of language is innate and how much is social. I would argue that swearing is a language game within the web and weave of a specific group of cultural practices….
speech bubble (gordon bennett)


The purpose of swearing is to shock, to express strong feelings, to stop us in our tracks and make us pay attention. If this is over-used, than it loses its edge. If swearing becomes commonplace, then what is the point? MOTHER-FUCKING SON OF A BITCH!! is not an everyday phrase like “she was all like ‘I don’t know.'” It is a special phrase. It shouldn’t be worn from over-use when you need it for special occasions, like when your plan fails and instead of getting that pesky road-runner, you drop the Acme 500 pound weight on your foot, or you find out your husband is in jail in Virginia for statutory, or you look at the Presidential field for 2016.

Pepper is good, but too much pepper is just too much pepper.

Thirdly, I am not sure most people realize how harsh obscenity and profanity are. Yes, you might feel as if a certain corporation has jerked you around like a tether-ball, but you tossing a few dysphemisms into a conversation with a poor sales clerk is not going to change that. You may think letting some of that anger out will make you feel better (Hello! It’s 2015. Freud is dead, and so is the hydraulic view of the soul), but the main thing it will do is shower down upon that clerk like a leaky colostomy bag. It might be free expression to you, but it is not like that for somebody who is not free to walk away from it. What sounds like righteous indignation on your side of the counter actually feels violent—yes, violent—on the other side of the counter.

speech bubble (finally2)
Finally, it is dull.

Dull, dull, dull, dull.

It is just 4 words in slightly different combinations. I remember my mother telling me that she felt it only a small mind could not find more creative and original ways of expressing themselves than relying upon a collection of borrowed vulgarities. Is that all you’ve got? Wouldn’t it be better to have more interesting things to say? Shouldn’t your colorful language have a wider pallet?  I’m not saying that everyone has to be Captain Haddockesque about it, but if you must express yourself, express yourself! When the Patriots intercepted that pass on the goal line, the first thing out of my mouth was: “HOLY KATZENJAMMER KIDS!” I had a wonderful co-worker who would yell “Son of a Motherless Goat!!” if she dropped a book on her foot. Be creative! Say things like: “Dick Whittington’s cat!” or “190 pounds of broken pencils would be less of a waste of carbon than you are,” or “Good thing you’re a mouth-breather, because I certainly never expect anything more valuable than halitosis to come out of there,” or “Who needs a hadron collider? There’s plenty of dark matter under that baseball cap!” Make up euphemisms! “He’ll be all over her like a pick-pocket on a kangaroo ranch.” Find random expressions like and make them your own. It is a global village; borrow some “Himmel und Donnerwetter!!!” or “Kapusty Mój!!!” After all, which were the best parts of this post: the big 4, or the colorful language Wode Toad and I used?

In most cases, it is best to speak like a gentleman, but if you must swear, by Toutatis! swear with flair!130signature2


How have our body expectations for a woman playing a boy changed over the decades?

For a short time last night, I was watching the NBC Live Spectacle which was Peter Pan.
I was struck by how angular Allison Williams looked as Peter Pan.
This is odd, since she is, of course, a woman playing a boy.
Of course, Peter Pan came out of the panto or Holiday Pantomime tradition in England–as did Twelfth Night. Greek drama grew out of religious festivals honoring Dionysius, but British Comedy came out of the Topsy-turvy reversal of roles that was part of Saturnalia.
Because of this, servants playing masters and masters acting as servants, as well as men playing women and women playing men was part of the fun.
Most likely, however, Barrie cast a young woman because the law would not allow a young boy to work at night.

All this aside, I began to wonder if there is an odd cultural expectation of how a woman playing a boy should look. This may shed light on our image of boys, but more likely, it reflects our view of women’s bodies, and the expectation of how curvy or thin they were Zena-Dare_as_Peter_Pan1907expected to be.
I have seen three different women play Pan on TV, and strangely enough, Ms Williams was the thinnest. Of course, nobody today could imagine a stage or screen or TV Peter Pan who looked like Zena Dare at right, as she looked as Peter Pan in 1907.
The TV Peter Pans began before I was born, of course, with Mary Martin, first in 1955, then again in 1960. She had originated the role on Broadway–as she had so many.
She took a break from doing The Sound of Music on Broadway to come in and do Peter Pan in 1960.
Next was Sandy Duncan.
I remember being amazed at how thin this woman was. Of course, it was the time of the ultra-thin model Twiggy, and youth was much cooler than looking maternal and curvy.
Being trim and even boyish was pretty sexy, but, strangely enough, she is still more curvy than Ms Williams.

Next was Cathy Rigby.
She may have been shorter than the others. Remarkably, though, she wqas the most athletic of them all, and the most muscular. It is odd: we think of Olympic gymnasts–she was in the 1968 Olympics–as delicate, gossamer things, but she brings the biggest thigh muscles to the role (amazing jumping, too).

I’m not quite sure what to make of Ms Allison’s Peter.
I had thought we had gotten over the ultra-thin ideal, but she is a rather typical TV star. She also appears to go to the gym, because she has very clearly defined arms.
Mostly, she seems skinny to me.
And her teeth are so, so white!

Well: Judge for yourself:
ppcOf course, most of all, I was spoiled because, as far as trouser roles go, Peter Pan could not hold a candle to the youth Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Especially, as played by the amazing Isabel Leonard.
That show is further complicated by Cherubino having to dress up as a girl to sneak out of the countess’s bedroom (long, long story–got 3 hours?). This means a woman dressing up as a boy dressing up like a girl.

Of course, in Shakespeare, one of my favorite characters is Rosalind. She would have been played by a boy, but at one point is a girl (Rosalind) pretending to be a boy (Ganymede), who then pretends to be a girl (Rosalind again–the love interest Orlando appears to be as dumb as a bag of hammers). 4 way gender crossing.
Of course, Helen Mirren was pretty good in the role in the day, even if only a 3 way.

Maybe I should have taken those last 3 credits and gotten that Women’s Studies specialization.

Let us now praise Loud-Mouthed Broads!

The interns and I were talking about Plato’s dialogue Charmides in the afternoon during prep, and then on through tea (apparently, some of them don’t appreciate muffins that leave a warm after burn on your tongue. I, however, thought they went perfectly with today’s post).

Here is my paraphrase of the first part dialogue (Plato’s, not the interns):

Socrates is chatting up Charmides, a handsome, athletic, sweet-natured young man with good manners and a great personality. Charmides is known for having all the virtues a young man should have, especially temperance, so Socrates asks him to explain what that is.

Dr. Bear - Eyes(Editor’s note: the Greek word here is σωφροσύνης, pronounced soph-ro-sun-ace, and involves self-control. We could translate it prudence, but temperance–in the sense of tempering one’s desires and passions–works best, even though I have rarely heard that word used that way since the beginning of the 20th century.)

The young man says it’s like being quiet, or not being too fast.
Socrates points out in how many situations being quiet or slow is actually bad– in Statue_of_a_kouros_Getty_Villa_Collection)classes, the quiet and slow students are not the best, with musicians, the quiet hesitant ones aren’t the best, those who can play loud and fast are generally the best. Do you want your memory to be slow and quiet? Your wit? Your ability to solve problems? No–swift and active.
I might add how many times I haven’t been informed of something until it was too late because somebody was quiet or slow. (“Oh, sorry. I meant to tell you that burner was on.” “You know, there is a tool we got in last week that would have made that easier.” “Didn’t somebody tell you we don’t have to save those anymore?”)

The poor young man says maybe it’s like modesty or meekness.
This won’t do: Homer says that meekness is of no value to the man in need, after all, if you are modest and meek, you won’t be able to speak up for yourself, which would be bad, and certainly a virtue like temperance would be good and not bad?
wode looking rightPersonally, I only value modesty for people who have much to be modest about.
As Wode Toad says: “Modesty is the opiate of the mediocre.”

The young man suggests he heard somebody say it was minding your own business.
Well, says Socrates, if everybody just minded their own business, the plumber would never come to your house, that would be meddling, physicians wouldn’t concern themselves with your body, but would only mind their own, folks couldn’t cook for others, or make clothes for others–it sounds like a pretty chaotic community, doesn’t it?
I might quote Marley: “Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again
“Mankind was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The deals of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

Now, what struck me this time through the story, was how familiar the youth Charmides’ account of this virtue was. Not that young men today are prone to temperance, but it sounds like a Madeleine_au_miroir,_Georges_de_la_Tourcertain model of what might be called “feminine virtues,” or “acting like a lady,” or “biblical womanhood,” or some other cheap brand name. Be Quiet. Be modest. Mind your own business.
Even girls who don’t have any of these things overtly said to them, have the practices of being feminine–or, by contrast, not being seen as a pushy broad, or a bitch, a tomboy, or (gasp!) a lesbian–conditioned into them. Don’t be too loud, don’t run and jerk around so, will you sit still?, stop putting yourself out there, let others talk first, don’t be so demanding, don’t be so proud, mind your own business–all of these are part of being nice, and we all want to be nice, don’t we?
I keep expecting one year to have a woman in my classes who is not aware of these expectations, especially since I get a lot of athletes, but all of them are aware of them, and of how often they have failed to live up to them.
Boys get the nice stuff a little, but women of all ages are taught to wear it like a heavy flak-jacket.


In an age of speed and communication, why do we want to tell half the population they should be slow and quiet? Why would we want to tell young people to be quiet? How much do we lose by that?Klimt_-_Pallas_Athene

In an age of loud voices, why are we telling so many bright, insightful voices they should be meek and modest? If they cannot speak up for themselves, who will? Even more, if things need to be said, they should be said, even if they are critical–especially if they are critical and we don’t want to hear them; that makes any culture stronger.

Commerce, of course, blurs the lines of minding one’s own business, but so does minding animals or children, cleaning up a creek, asking somebody how they are doing and really wanting to know, keeping an eye on the neighborhood, improving the world, showing compassion, fixing flats, and so much else.

Dancin'I once told my daughter that she comes from a long line of strong-willed women and a long line of men who somehow got a kick out of strong-willed women.
Now, my grandmother and her sisters would never want to be thought of as loud-mouthed broads–they were all proper ladies (I just wanted a catchy headline). I do, however, owe a big chunk of my notion of what a woman should be like through them, the Thomas sisters. They were all out-spoken, and that was one of the things that made them so wonderful. My grandma was demure and directed the church choir, but she could also command a crew to make thousands of hoagies in one morning a few times a year as a fund-raiser. They could all be deferential, but I would have hated to have run up against them when someone was treated unjustly–they were outspoken; they were forces of nature beautiful and terrible to behold.

Most of all, men or women, why do we make virtue about what we don’t do?
Shouldn’t it be about what we do?

Shout Out!

I found out today that a graphic novelist I have long admired won a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

I discovered Alison Bechdel’s strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” some time in the 80’s. I think it might have been in one of the papers I read, or the paper DARE, which I sometimes helped with. I loved the witty but real storytelling; the sarcastic but wounded characters. It was sort of like Friends, but with human beings instead of characters. They were each unique, but also reminded me of some of my friends I was hanging out with at the time.
However, I was blown away by the drawings–simple, clean, but very expressive, very real. Mellow, not busy, but still full of life. If I could get back to cartooning, that is the way I wish I could draw.

She is also known for the Bechdel Rule, to show how male dominated the film industry is. THE RULE is that:

A movie should have 3 things:
1. At least 2 women,
2. who talk to each other,
3. about something besides a man.

It really is startling how few movies meet those basic criteria.

Ms. Bechdel  put the regular strip up on blocks a few years back, to work on longer pieces. She has published two graphic biographies, Fun Home, about her childhood and her father–being adapted as a musical, and Are you my Mother? She is working on a third, The Secret to Superhuman Strength.
fun home
Her simple but direct depiction of everyday lives shows how powerful and beautiful a kind of literature graphic novels can be.

We now return you to whatever pop drivel graphic universe you were in.