Reading: Bart D. Ehrman (or, In Praise of the Historical Jesus programme)

I’ve lately been reading quite a few of the books by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman has the same story to set up most of his books, which are mostly about the same subject matter: the historicity of the Christian Bible. Like a bad Vonnegut novel, it starts off with the identical origin story. Ehrman grew up in a not particularly religious household, and then became evangelised as a teenager. Ehrman then went to religious colleges and was warned about ‘secular’ institutions which have course on bible study.


Eventually Ehrman widens his academic horizons and discovers philosophy and literature. Ehrman becomes the bible scholar but finds that his initial evangelical pretentions to the inerrance of the bible are predicated on premises such as: the book that we read today (i.e. what we can buy from bookshops, churches or online etc) has a long historical narrative as to how it came to be.


Ehrman explores the histories of early Christianity and finds a story of how certain narratives won in historical disputes and the result of that is the Christianity that we understand today. As someone reading Gibbon I can definitely recall the disputes of the likes of the Arians and the Donatists, how questions of Christology, Soteriology and Mariology (not the study of an Italian plumber) reveal deep schisms of belief between people and was hardly a dry scholarly issue at the time. The history of Late Antiquity is the story of how our Christianity of today came to be.


Let’s take a bit of a step back. I like Ehrman’s work, even though I haven’t read many of the commentators he’s referring to. I’m currently pacing through DF Strauss’s Life of Jesus Critically Examined at the moment. I find this fasincation with the Historical Jesus utterly fascinating for a few reasons. One is that it shows the success of Kant’s programme on religion. If we are to take the idea of moral religion seriously we have to then consider the historicity of the character of Jesus.


There’s a divide in the so-called apologetics of today where people try to use hokey rational arguments which don’t convince someone with a background in philosophy, and other arguments on the vein of William Lane Craig or William Alston or Malcolm Platinga which applies some pretty heavy metaphysics (which is always very attractive to me) to give arguments for the existence of God. Then there’s the other side of apologetics: claim that Jesus was an Historical figure.


Back in the turn of the 20th Century this tradition might have been called ‘Liberal Theology’ or ‘Protestant Theology’. I find it astounding that Atheist/sceptics have finally caught up with 19th Century Theology in the form of Bart D. Erhman. Many of the atheists of the 2000s had arguments which were no better than Hume in the 18th Century. When it comes to critique of religion, I always thought that the powerful arguments came from Kant, who came from within the spiritual and exegetical tradition to critique the articles of Christian faith. It is one thing to convince someone who has no background or interest in understanding a religion or any religion, but it takes another to see the logical extensions of what it means to have faith and see where it leads. Kant I take it, follows the latter route in his moral philosophy. It is often said that the liberal protestant tradition has come from Kant’s programmatic statements in the Religion within the bounds of Mere Reason work. I find the argumentative strategy in Ehrman’s book refreshing, as if atheism has their own ‘Catholics’ and ‘Protestants’ of their own. As it happens, with the controversies and immense criticisms going towards people like Sam Harris and Bill Maher (on contemporary political issues) or Richard Dawkins (on his, perhaps one should refer to them as ‘social opinions’); perhaps we need a protestant movement within atheist intellectual circles to distance ourselves from their doctrines.


Destre returns from the mists to write this post



#AMDG , or On the Jesuit Pope

We are living in an age of so many unprecedented things it is too much of an effort to keep track of them all. I thought I would care to mention one unprecedented thing of significance to us, and that is the announcement of a Jesuit Pope, the first ever Jesuit Pope.


There are lots of different things I could address about the most recently appointed head of the Catholic Church: the fact that he is from Latin America; the issue of liberation theology, or the other issues that many in the public and the Church congregation which to have the new Pope address, such as celebacy, scandals in the Church or the role of women. I’m going to do the side-stepping thing of not discussing them for the purposes of this post, and only talk about two issues specifically. Firstly – the question of ‘Why Francis I as a papal name?’ and secondly What significance is there to a Jesuit Pope?. It should go without saying that this is a speculative exploration in the exercise of writing this piece.


Why Francis? 


When I heard that the Pope was named Francis the First. I immediately thought of one Saint. Unlike most of the commentators around the Vatican and in Catholic media, I considered Francis to take after Saint Francis Xavier, who is the patron saint of Goa, known for introducing Catholicism to India and Japan and one of the first Jesuits. We at Noumenal Realm considered it interesting that we have a particularly different relationships to Francis Xavier. For I consider him as one of the founders of the Society of Jesus foremost, while Michael considers Xavier as the missionary who brought Catholic Christianity to parts of Asia.


Many commentators likened the name to an association with Francis of Assisi, better known for love of animals and nature. The question of what’s in a name is a significant one – as one is a missionary going to the edges of the known world spreading values, and the other has more of a conscientious connotation. Perhaps it is like me always to overplay the Jesuit connection with everything!


A Jesuit Pope 


Ah the Jesuits, they live in poverty and obedience to the Pope. The Jesuits are sometimes called ‘God’s Marines’ due to their militaristic nature. The Jesuits have placed themselves in many educational institutions and have taken a large part in mission work historically. I grew up with tales of Jesuit adventure and the very real perils that they faced in their work, including beheadings. I also have memories of the Jesuits claiming that they had their own personal views about homosexuality and women being inducted to the priesthood, but must always submit whatever personal views they had to the authority of the Pope. I always saw that as freethinking within limitations. I also respected such freethought from what appears to be a very authoritarian order.


I’ll always have a bit of a rational blind spot about the Jesuits, as they made me who I am in very large ways: inspiring my interest in Classics, Theology and Systematic thinking. The Jesuits also taught me that you should live by ideals, which included adhering to them. One of the things that has been coming out about Francis I is the way that he enacts poverty to his real life. The way that Francis I takes austerity in his own living conditions and behaviour, dress and actions is embarrassing the status quo of how things are done and have been done in the Vatican. No more custom red shoes, no more elaborate stoles and no more popemobile? This is a Christianity that I was grown up to believe in, not one of rock-star like entourages and fancy clothes, but one where a concern with the poor means identifying with the poor in how one lives, eats, dresses and travels.


Living with a minimum, without too much extravagance, and dressing for simplicity was the way that I was taught by Jesuits, and the ideal that I saw Jesuits live by. I was told about how Jesuit teachers had a ‘common pot’ where they put their wages, which were used for things like food, personal travel and clothing expenses. Even my dress sense has been influenced by the Jesuits. Smart, but universal. Simple and utilitarian. Try not to be too flashy. Try dressing to be adaptable. Wear black.


The Jesuits live with orders to have obedience to the Pope, does that make a Jesuit Pope a contradiction? How is it that an individual Jesuit can have complete obedience to himself? This reminds me of that old saying from Meister Eckhart: Can God make a stone so big that he could not carry it?


Perhaps I am being more deferential than I should. It is also the case that there are many critical avenues that people wish to address the papacy. I choose just for this post to focus on the Jesuit angle, because if he’s anything like the Jesuits who taught me, there is definitely space for reform.


I suppose all one can do is keep eyes open. It’s also amusing to see #AMDG trending on twitter!



On opposition to Gay Marriage (and a Kantian thought)

It’s 8am, I’m very tired at the start of the day. I am still recovering from the two prongs of having worked late and went to sleep later. I got up only to check emails on my phone. I saw a message following an ongoing email discussion about the recent news of the legalisation of Gay Marriage and I suddenly had a surge of intellectual thought. I shouted out “AUGUSTINE!” and then thought to myself: this is a victory for Kantian philosophy. Okay, so many that bit most people won’t understand, I don’t think most people understand the things I shout out in public anyway. However, I thought I’d venture to explain myself further. A single word expresses about 1600 years of literature.

The orientation of my thoughts are around a certain story of current affairs, namely, the legalisation of same-partner marriage in England and Wales (but not Northern Ireland, and not yet Scotland). I find several things objectionable all at once, and I thought I’d go through them systematically.

Bad arguments

I think one of the things that I thought notable was the television coverage summarising the issue. One view was an old Conservative MP whose background of edcuational and cultural priviledge gave him the wisdom of the following proclamation: marriage is between a man and a woman, it has been so historically for years and should continue to be so.

That’s not really a reason, or an argument. It’s an old man stating his view in the guise of a discussion of implementing a legal measure. I think that’s what Aristotle called demos kratos. I found an interesting piece from the New Humanist from Jason Wakefield effectively debunking what are thinly veiled layers of anti-gay bigotry. Arguing from the premise of tradition or the status quo is bad for democracy, is bad for rational argument and insulting to the idea of progress. I do think however, there has been a good rational case following the likes of Mark Vernon to be wary about imputing the historic standards of marriage as an institution to what is effectively a newly emerging acceptance of wider sexual difference. Of course acceptance of difference (overcoming bisexual erasure, transgender issues and non-monogamy) is a battle of many fronts, of which same-sex marriage is one particular front.

For the purposes of this post I shall not go into those issues in particular. Instead, I shall consider some of the appeals of the kinds of attitudes that would be inclined to reject homosexual marriage and I shall take these into more philosophical consideration.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – essentialism

I hold this claim to be an essentialist appeal to the meaning of the term. By essentialist I would take it to mean a broadly Kripkean view that there is a certain ‘this-ness’, or natural kind appeal. This kind of appeal would assert that there is a point at which the object of marriage has been (excuse the pun) Christened in a brute way, as say me pointing to a glass of water and saying: THIS is water.

There are two kinds of ways of replying to this essentialist appeal. The first way is through permutation, and the second is to reject that it is essentialist. Let’s consider permutation. If we followed the thought experiment that christening some object and claiming some ‘this-ness’ to the criterial nature of the thing, as if we just point to something and say: THIS is marriage (like say, pointing to a couple arguing; buying furniture at Ikea on a saturday afternoon; appearing as a legally recognised couple in the eyes of the law etc). We can say that the ‘this-ness’ of what it means to be a couple (or coupledom) will still hold even in different conditions.

Permutation of a condition like, say, the recognised gender of either party in a marriage may still preserve many of the aspects of putative coupledom. Perhaps the essence of a marriage is in something else than its gendered membership: things like having arguments about what colour to paint the spare room; whether to take on parental responsibilities; buying furniture from sofa-world or being in love with each other. We can turn this case on its head and say, if we look at putative cases of opposite-sex marriages and find some element missing (like say: a married couple not having parental commitments/buying furniture together/being in love), would we still essentially call it a marriage? I will leave that question open. The kripkean essentialist account, as I understand it, can reasonably account for permutation. The seeds of a watermelon grown on mars that tastes salty and takes a square shape, is still a watermelon according to this essentialist view. Absurd maybe, but I don’t think the argument against same-sex marriage can take essentialist appeals as a rational option.

‘Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman’ – social construction

An alternative view to the thesis that marriage is traditionally supposed to be between a man and a woman is to look at social construction, essentially (excuse the pun) a contrasting ontological perspective. Namely that of social construction. There is an overwhelmingly good case to consider the historicities of institution of marriage. To see marriage as a tradition is correct, but to quote Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, it is also tradition that times must, and do change, my friend. To canonise history is a mistake, to canonise tradition as fixed is also an insult to our understanding of social construction, and perhaps to make an embarrassing ontological mistake. This is a bad reason to make an appeal against gay marriage, not least because it raises more questions than it would purport to answering an issue.

Historical reflections I: Natural Law (Thomism)

Some Catholics may be familiar with this kind of view. Natural law is the basis of many Catechistic principles. Natural law is a notion which has a large basis in Aquinas that through Reason we can see the work of God, and through His nature we can see his will, which in turn informs our moral understanding.

This issue is important from a perspective of faith, because there are many ethical issues that are not addressed in Scripture, and so another recourse is needed to create a religious persepctive. Natural Law appeals to lookings at purported facts of nature and imputing that seeing the teleology (or design/intention) of the natural world suggests God’s will. Perhaps a neat caricature of this view is the Flanders and Swann line: “If the Juju had meant us not to eat people, he wouldn’t have made us of meat!”.

Natural law has an interesting set of applications, this is not to speak of whether it is agreeable or disagreeable. Natural law has a philosophical utility in the kinds of conclusions it makes under the assumption of telos: for example: because humans and other animals have incisors, we are supposed to eat meat. Because of the female reproductive system, only procreation between a man and a woman is permitted. However this kind of view is so strong it would be against a whole lot of things: cybernetic implants and other post-humanist implantations to extend human ability and human life; vegetarianism is immoral. Not least a whole gamut of other philosophical problems: the naturalistic fallacy (which is a whole big issue in itself); the problem of interpreting God’s nature correctly (another big theology issue); the role of socialisation being undermined as ‘human nature’ is overemphasised, and perhaps most intuitively, the desiderata of an ordinary moral theory is to preserve certain things like: murder is wrong or the wrongness of sexual violence. . Natural law would seemingly have the same kinds of problems that sociobiology would have in taking an ambivalent acceptance to the these cases of nature. Not least to say that same sex relations actually happen in non-human mammals as part of a social ritual. Wouldn’t it then be considered natural? (or within nature’s repetoire?). Let’s go back to natural theology later.

Historical reflections II – Separate but Equal

The appeal of separate but equal has been a justification for a variety of contexts. When I googled the phrase earlier, it referenced a misquotation to the attitudes of the Jim Crow era in the USA. The rationality is that many hold there already to be an institution (the civil partnership) for same sex couples, which fulfills the function of marriage. However, it is the point it doesn’t, and to introduce a tier system which essentially is on the basis of sexuality is to establish a level of segregation that forms a barrier to equality.

I think that this rational strategy could be established more, and this may pose an interesting avenue for non-homophobic opposition to gay marriage. However, there is something prima facie suspicious when we introduce an idea of tiers about legally recognised relationships, and the fear that civil partnerships (which heterosexual couples are legally allowed to have) reflect both an aysmmetry (thus suggesting a tiered aspect) or a perception among some of the public that civil partnerships are marriage-lite’’. Which is essentially the fear that Mark Vernon expressed.

Historical reflections III – biblical references

Ah, now if we are taking a Christian perspective, we could appeal to the scriptures. Particularly 1 Timothy, and Romans. These are the writings of St. Paul, who is generally accepted as a scriptural ground for opposition to homosexuality. Then of course there is Leviticus 18 in the ‘Old Testament’/Jewish Scriptures. But then again, if we read into it, Leviticus also forbids tattoos! I do wonder sometimes when I watch the God channel on freeview digital television if some of these cool looking evangelicals who hold to the literalness of scripture know about Leviticus.

Without even taking to account the fact that in a secular environment, this statement of belief is not admissible in a public discussion on the level of Government. We could challenge the canon of the Bible itself. To do this we must consider the historical organisation of the library that is the Bible. Why are the synoptic gospels canonical over others, or do we have any reason to doubt their historicity?

Closing: The victory of Kant’s moral religion

I consider the issue of gay marriage a victory for the broadly Kantian project, of elminating the cultus from religion, from separating ritual from value. The Kantian perspective on religion (which has lots of details) was deeply influential in beginning the historical Jesus project of research, commonly associated with what is called liberal theology.

One way we can see the issue of gay marriage in England and Wales, is to see it as undermining aspects of doctrinal Christianity. Slowly and slowly we are finding moral communion and consensus towards the acceptance of same-sex partnerships through a non-religious and public conversation. We are moving away from the likes of scriptural justification for the basis of our ethical values and moving towards public reason – perhaps.

Lately I have been reading Bart D. Ehrman’s ‘Jesus, Interrupted’, we might review this book at a later time, but one of the overarching theses of the book is the point that there are good grounds to doubt the literalness of the way that the books of the New Testament have been established. The organisation of the books of the Bible are a result of disputes in Early Christianity during the late-antique period, and following Kant’s perspective on philosophical anthropology (an issue I based my MA dissertation on), there are grounds on which we can sympathise with other moralities from different cultural origins, on the basis of their historical basis. Strip away culture and historicities, and we can find a better basis of our ethical values.

How about, say, the formula of humanity: to perceive rational beings as ends in themselves. Human agency as the basis of our respect towards others by virtue of being human, or by virtue of being a moral agent (I take these two to be interchangeable for now). I think its fair to say that those who may be opposed to their views are entitled to practice their cultural heritage within reason, and this measure should not be seen as an affront to their beliefs. I also think that this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that is another feather to the bow of liberal theology, and the subsequent way in which it undermines many of the precepts of fundamentalist and literalist belief.

In closing. I thought it was odd that I didn’t have a philosophical opinion about this issue, but then I realised I did have a dog in this fight. Trust me to show the relevance of Kantian philosophy in any social issue.

Michael (in conversation with Destre)

Barriers to Aesthetic Criticism

I think there are two barriers to having valid critical appraisals. One is having an opinion, and two is having a disposition to a view. By the term critical appraisal, I shall consider cultural artefacts as the object of criticism. By the term criticism, I take to mean the act of praising the merits or demerits of a work on the basis, or at least on the guise of an informed and considered view.
Lately I’ve been reading quite a bit of critical thinking on cultural artefacts. Some things are very evidently laden with feeling, perhaps praise or perhaps derision. I myself have been writing quite a bit of critical prose on music, film, comics and television within and without NR.

The ad hominem

Sometimes I wonder if for instance, there is any worth in engaging in criticism of culture when one makes a name prior any given opinion, if they have already tied their flag to the mast. If for example I were to go on a diatribe about how Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj represented everything that was ill and sick about a culture, many may agree or disagree, but maybe not for the reasons elicited. It may be that the assent to a view is sufficient to assent to an identification of a feeling, or an identification to a clan. There is no criticism in the activity of assent or dissent to a conclusion. This kind of clade behaviour defies thinking, but appeals to feeling, namely, the feeling of approval. When appraising critism works in this way, or the sole materials of our critical framework is to be based on a feeling, it would seem prima facie difficult to make this communicable. All we can communicate is how it feels, and whether others or not have felt similar or the same before is not up to us.


Similar, but not the same to the ad hominem of simply holding to a view and stating it in writing, or as a spoken utterance, for example: ‘Nickelback is aweful, overly-produced generic rock for the masses!’; the notion of a disposition poses a similar challenge to aesthetic criticism .To have  a disposition is to hold to a family of views that you are inclined to agree with on the basis of something (that may not need to be specifed).

I wonder for instance what the worth of reviewing books one has an inclination to hate, if they are speaking from the dispositions they have. A Christian may dismiss all books by anyone who claims to be an atheist, and whether or not as an explicit speech act, may harbour tacit biases and may be primed against any positive (or negative) view against a given cultural artefact. Dispositions can come from many things, habit, a limited pool of experience and familiarity, or even something like cultural context and orientation. Some dispositions are by choice, or have been developed over time, and some things are not. Many cultural prejudices we don’t even know we have sometimes.


Why are these things important? Lately, as part of a book review, I’ve been reading an anthology on children’s literature (and its relation to philosophy). One of the things I have noticed is a distinction between what I might call ‘good’ and ‘bad’ criticism. I thought I would try to elucidate something general to highlight what I thought was problematic about some of the articles I read and where the perspectives were coming from.

Criticism is lazy when it is simply a mouthpiece for a point of view. However, sometimes being a mouthpiece for a point of view is a very important thing, An example of this is the discussion of Lana Del Rey in early 2012. My favourite such example was in (I think) Spin magazine.The criticism was directed not so much to the music of Del Rey, but the packaging of her music, and the preferred ways it had been described, as well as the iconography and multi-media nature of her celebrity presence. As a cultural critique this communicated a lot, and it also gave a more systematic treatment to what essentially is what one may consider a cynical reaction to a cynically produced cultural product.

Criticism is poor when it serves as a front for one’s own views. A good example of this would be the way in which Slavoj Zizek appropriates many things, such as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. I think that the activity of eisegesis has its merits, but to put it forward as criticism is unwarranted and lazy thinking. Of course, it should be said that when Zizek appropriates cultural references he does not (I think) take it to be a form of literary or film critcism. I also think that even the hallowed Adorno may be guilty of skirting on this kind of prejudice at times. To appropriate a cultural artefact as an accessory to your own views is different to criticism. To take the cultural artefact sui generis, to take it on its own merits, as its own object, and not necessarily in relation to other things (although this may be relevant if we are in a discussion of say, genre), is to give a more sensitive view of the work. In a sense it may seem contradictory to consider how our own prejudices are a barrier to an appraisal of a work of culture. I also see these barriers to criticism as a neat way of framing aesthetic appraisal in terms of the role of disinterest.

Destre and Michael

Reading Goffman (3): The Front and Back (or, ‘On our online presence’)

Reading Goffman’s Presentation of Self can be difficult, much of it is quite dry and abstract, and then you have little moments where he presents eccentric examples of his ontology which perfectly reflects the terminology he has constructed. The emergence of Social Media, and its effects on our presentation of self is a neat way of highlighting the nature of Goffman’s notion of the front and back, as well as the moral crisis of character presented by his division.

Goffman presents our behaviour as social agents in terms of a performance for an audience, and as away from said audience. The essence of the distinction between the front and the back relies upon this. This presumes the presence of an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group; for from another perspective, an audience and a performer. Goffman’s Presentation is said to have an obvious relevance for the service industry, as we can understand it in terms of social actors in roles where performance is essential. Upholding a standard of customer service, and the customer’s presumed ideal of servitude is enforced and often met. When it is not met it is presumed that a failure has occurred on the basis of what is presumed to be correct behaviour or service in terms of being treated as a customer, or sometimes, in what is expected of a customer.

The world today places a high emphasis on image, and a binding set of norms on what we presume of the appearance of a known person. In other words, a person may behave in certain ways which creates an expectation, and acting beyond these terms thus violates these expectations and our image of them. This image, this construction can be so damaging that it inhibits the range of possible behaviours of an agent, at least so in public, or among the relevant ‘audience’ where said agent is a performer.

Lately I’ve been thinking of how constructions such as the Facebook Profile or the Twitter account reflect Goffman’s Front. The Facebook Profile is almost ubiquitous around the world, across continents and across cultures. When one looks at Facebook profile, one looks at a carefully constructed image made by that person. When we create a Facebook profile, we do not create an image of ourselves ‘warts and all’, but one which fits what we consider to be our standard of acceptability.

The online profile is increasingly ubiquitous in the industrialised world. It is as commonplace as the suit is in any office. It is part of our inventory for social acceptability as say, a mobile telephone is or a pair of shoes. The online profile is the merging of the front with the back. Through one’s Tweets or Facebook updates, we communicate ourselves, but we also (at least often) write to be read. We expect to be recieved in our views or what we say.

Our Facebook status updates can be signifiers of social class and other tacit signs of character. People are increasingly aware of the importance of personality management in our online identities as it is to manage our personality and appearance in face-to-face social interactions. Our ‘Front’ in face to face interactions communicates features that are not our choice, such as disability or ethnicity, and are unfortunately adversely discriminated upon (and sometimes positively). Online profiles are distinctly different in that one can hide certain stigmatising features. Unless you knew me, you wouldn’t know my ethnic background, or know if say, I had a history with a speech impairment when I was younger. Disclosing these facts invariably changes my appearance to others when I present it to my front side.

Employers and recruiters in an increasingly difficult job market are forced to use background checks such as going through personal Facebook or Twitter profiles to gain a perspective on a person and if they are right for the roles they are being considered for. With the recent spate of arrests and furore over Tweets, it is becoming evident that what we tweet is important towards how we present our ‘Front’. I consider this a worry as normally Facebook status updates and Tweets are forms of self expression which communicates one’s inner world and thoughts. The online world has been considered in some ways an escape from our everyday ‘Front’. I could play World of Warcraft and be a Troll, where on real life one may have more pedestrian adventures by contrast to that Troll.

The worry present in Goffman’s ontology was that the Back stage was pushed further and further away as the Front becomes ubiquitous. If so much of our behaviour is presenting a Front, an image of acceptability, what becomes of our inner world? Let’s put that in more modern terms: we are ever cautious of what we have to say, whether that’s in person or online. The online world is beginning to be policed in terms of offence and trolling has been redefined as defamatory behaviour (without acknowledging there are non defamatory and harmless forms of trolling, if we used a broader sense of the term, like answering the door to a pizza delivery wearing a horse mask).

We are ever cautious of the appearance of our public profiles, and this affects the scope of our presentation. What we choose to share on Twitter or Facebook betrays of our political or otherwise ideological and ethical views, and the backstage has become our Front stage. Sometimes people choose to share aspects of their backstage behaviour on the likes of Twitter, such as their dissatisfaction with a customer or a those moments of solace, which is within their rights, but we should be aware that the medium does not affect the message anymore, complaining about a (say) customer or client in front of an audience is just as bad and damaging (to yourself or who you may represent) as being public about it.

What of the social media in relation to Goffman’s Front and Back? We could say that it allows for a melding of the front and back stages, or this melding pushes back further the space in which we can truly be backstage. I see this analysis as relevant towards the role of online anonymity.

Destre (this post established from conversation with Michael)

Reading Goffman (2): Props and Teams

One of the primary drivers of our social interactions are the things that signify or confer some form of identity. In some cases these signifiers may denote a particular role we seek to perform, or see others performing. This defines our expectations and parameters with them. These props are useful tools to govern interaction.

Following the dramaturgical analogy of Goffman, the props that constitute social interaction are much like the props in a stage play, these are the costumes of the actor, or perhaps the scenery of the set. Carrying a defective table set with a missing leg in the returns queue of Ikea is the primary motivation of an angry customer to the customer service person at the till, and forms the basis of their interaction.

This is not to say that props are necessary or criterial of interactions, however they are such important drivers of interaction that interactions without props may involve creating new forms of props with significance internal to the agents who confer meaning to such a prop. An example of this was an energy driink that I bought for the sole purpose of making an in-joke with a certain friend, following a conversation about a certain brand of energy drink that we had a month previously.

Props are signifiers of roles, but are not necessarily conferring of roles. A related aspect of Goffman’s social ontology is the role of teams in interactions. People working with a shared goal, or under the auspices of a shared identity, be it of an organisation or grouping by creed (or something else) work in collusion with each other, when interacting with outsiders. There is a distinct world that the colluding team try to portray towards those outside of this group, and a certain set of behaviours or rituals of activity are performed in before the outsider.

Teams can be placed under a strict form of behaviour. Disagreement between members of a group can be downplayed or even unacknowledged towards outsiders. Some organisations have their own official and unofficial codes of conduct to give guidance towards the proper image and impression that is given by the organisation. Team behaviour can be highly regimented and controlled, either overtly by one of the members, or tacitly and among several agents at the same time.

When reading Goffman the worry does emerge about how strictly controlled social interactions can be. I see this regimentation in two opposing senses. In one respect it can be affirming towards uncertainty and a loss of face, in that rule-following behaviour, whether tacit or not, provides the pool of options an agent has in a given social situation. On the other hand, one could see the regimentation of such team behaviour and the application of props to be an almost tyrannical form of control over the individual. This is a tyranny not of the political persuasion, but the kind we all agree and consent to, which in a way is even worse. People often speak of the political tyranny of policing behaviour and thought, when the state is percieved in some way to intervene. However, what if collective humanity may be responsible for uniformity of interactions viz the regimentation of behaviour through props and teams? This is a tyranny of another sort, one which paints Goffman as a social cynic, and anyone who would agree with his viewpoint.

So with that I would ask: what goes against this vision of the world?

The next post will be on the ‘front and back regions’.


On Julian Assange’s allegation

As part of my continuing philosophical education I like to read articles from the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, and one recent article that I was reading was on the subject of Rape.

In recent news developments and reactions have come around Wikileaks Founder Julian Assange, who, while being infamous/famous for being the head of an organisation which has leaked many documents and other files about the US Government (inter alia), some of which provoke many serious discussions about US foreign policy; Assange is also infamous for a rape allegation.

Among us in the Noumenal Realm Blog, we’ve decided not to talk much about the controversy about Wikileaks, on the one hand about whether government should keep documents and their decisions public against the need for secrecy about any given current military or operational project (such as say, social research or police operations, which when revealed, would undermine the efficacy of those projects). Then the infamy of the rape allegation took place.

I don’t feel that it’s right to keep silent about this issue anymore, and here’s why:

  1. Rape is a serious and devastating act against the victim. One writer in the F-Word pointed out how even if people convicted of rape endure out a criminal sentence, the victim lives a sentence of a different kind, in terms of long term psychological damage, as well as the relationships around them.
  2. The counter-claim of people like Assange and his supporters that this is a government conspiracy, or George Galloway’s claim that this case was a set-up, is deeply harmful and undermines all victims of Rape and sexual assault and the seriousness of these allegations

It’s a bizarre straw man position to be in defence of the act of Rape, but what I will say is that I was not aware until recently about the degrees of harm against women that sexual assault has. Greenfield (1997) points out that 91% of rape victims are female while almost 99% are male. Some feminist perspectives highlight the deeply ideological nature of rape through history, and the difficulties that women have in reporting, conviction and recovering from the incident reflect these challenges. It is also true to say that many women and men have different kinds of responses to having been raped. The long term and cultural impacts are perhaps the most harmful.One thing I didn’t realise is how broad the notion of sexual assault can be. There are many acts that can make a woman deeply uncomfortable and that violate her sense of autonomy.The distinction between ‘rape’ and ‘not rape’ can be less important when we broaden our conception of sexual violence beyond the act of forced penetration. There are behaviours such as verbal harassment or indecent exposure which are harmful to women and their sense of security in public spaces. I have a distinct feeling that whatever will happen with Assange’s case, it will harm women unless he goes through a criminal court for his allegation. There’s a certain political tribalism that is getting in the way of this issue and it has caused a divide of sorts.

Reading about this issue and following many twitter discussions have forced one to think harder about sexual assault. I cannot emphasise how damaging it can be to diminish the seriousness of sexual violence. The diversity of the phenomena is also something that may not be obvious to everyone. Rapists may know the victim, perhaps as a co-worker, relative or friend. There are ways of violating someone’s autonomy through sex, this can include: not using a condom when someone explicitly says to do so, having sex with someone while they are unconscious or asleep with no indication that this is acceptable and using sexual acts as a form of coercion or bargaining with a person in need (such as the transactional behaviour of many women in East Germany during the end of the Second World War).

Bringing countercultural insights to this issue makes the issue of Assange’s allegation all the more difficult. With countercultural movements such as Occupy and leftist type movements rushing to Assange’s defence. I think that the seriousness of Rape is undermined, as well as the cultural and political space that women hold today. On the other side of the Atlantic, there are lots of stories about Conservatives who are outspoken about their views on birth control and on a related subject, pregnancies through rape. The one thing that really upsets me about all of this, is that women seem to be least visible on this issue in US politics and in the media at large. This shows to me that women are not being taken seriously as political beings and conscientious individuals with their own views, while male pundits talk on their behalf.

I really shouldn’t have to say this. Rape is not okay. It’s not okay to have relations with someone that is not in any way out of the agreed terms.