From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Endings (9)—The Closing of the American Mind

[a] Academics  RF

[b] Closin
 Twenty-four years ago last month, Simon and Schuster published an extended essay on higher education that took the country by storm, making its author, Allan Bloom—a professor at a midwestern university—an instant celebrity. For those too young to remember that time, I think that a short anecdote from his friend and colleague, Saul Bellow, might sum up how quickly this book transformed the author into a person both in the news and (a rarity for a professor of political philosophy) possessing significant "means."

Anyway, he never opened the telephone bills…Those were paid by Legg Mason, the vast investment firm in the East that managed his money. [He said], “I don’t like electronic printouts, I’m certainly not about to study them. Don’t bring anything up, don’t hand me a statement unless the principal falls below ten million.”[1]
I spent a little time with the professor in the years that followed, and think that it is worth reconsidering his message. I say this not because I agree with all or, at times, even much of it. I spoke to that a few posts ago with one of many stories about Allan Bloom (Teaching—A Brief Essay). Agree or not, a quarter century later it is worth revisiting bits and chunks of his text. Let's start with his conclusion.
[c] Allan Bloom
Allan Bloom
The Closing of the American Mind

These are the shadows cast by the peaks of the university over the entering undergraduate. Together they represent what the university has to say about man and his education, and they do not project a coherent image. The differences and the indifferences are too great. It is difficult to imagine that there is either the wherewithal or the energy within the  university to constitute or reconstitute the idea of an educated human being and establish a liberal education again.

However, the contemplation of this scene is in itself a proper philosophic activity. The university's evident lack of wholeness in an enterprise that clearly demands it cannot help troubling some of its members. The questions are all there. They only need to be addressed continuously and seriously for liberal learning to exist; for it does not consist so much in answers as in the permanent dialogue. It is in such perplexed professors that at least the idea might persevere and help to guide some of the needy young persons at our doorstep. The matter is still present in the university; it is the form that has vanished. One cannot and should not hope for a general reform. The hope is that the embers do not die out.  

Men may live more truly and fully in reading Plato and Shakespeare than at any other time, because then they are participating in essential being and are forgetting their accidental lives. The fact that this kind of humanity exists or existed, and that we can somehow still touch it with the tips of our outstretched fingers, makes our imperfect humanity, which we can no longer bear, tolerable. The books in their objective beauty are still there, and we must help protect and cultivate the delicate tendrils reaching out toward them through the unfriendly soil of students' souls. Human nature, it seems, remains the same in our very altered circumstances because we still face the same problems, if in different guises, and have the distinctively human need to solve them, even though our awareness and forces have become enfeebled.  

[d] Parthenon
After a reading of the Symposium a serious student came with deep melancholy and said it was impossible to imagine that magic Athenian atmosphere reproduced, in which friendly men, educated, lively, on a footing of equality, civilized but natural, came together and told wonderful stories about the meaning of their longing. But such experiences are always accessible. Actually, this playful discussion took place in the midst of a terrible war that Athens was destined to lose, and Aristophanes and Socrates at least could foresee that this meant the decline of Greek civilization. But they were not given to culture despair, and in these terrible political circumstances, their abandon to the joy of nature proved the viability of what is best in man, independent of accidents, of circumstance. We feel ourselves too dependent on history and culture. This student did not have Socrates, but he had Plato's book about him, which might even be better; he had brains, friends and a country happily free enough to let them gather and speak as they will. What is essential about that dialogue, or any of the Platonic dialogues, is reproducible in almost all times and places. He and his friends can think together. It requires much thought to learn that this thinking might be what it is all for. That's where we are beginning to fail. But it is right under our noses, improbable but always present. 

Throughout this book I have referred to Plato's Republic, which is for me the book on education, because it really explains to me what I experience as a man and a teacher, and I have almost always used it to point out what we should not hope for, as a teaching of moderation and resignation. But all its impossibilities act as a filter to leave the residue of the highest and non-illusory possibility. The real community of man, in the midst of all the self-contradictory simulacra of community, is the community of those who seek the truth, of the potential knowers, that is, in principle, of all men to the extent they desire to know. But in fact this includes only a few, the true friends, as Plato was to Aristotle at the very moment they were disagreeing about the nature of the good. Their common concern for the good linked them; their disagreement about it proved they needed one another to understand it. They were absolutely one soul as they looked at the problem. This, according to Plato, is the only real friendship, the only real common good. It is here that the contact people so desperately seek is to be found. The other kinds of relatedness are only imperfect reflections of this one trying to be self-subsisting,  gaining their only justification from their ultimate relation to this one. This is the meaning of the riddle of the improbable philosopher-kings.  They have a true community that is exemplary for all other communities.  

This is a radical teaching but perhaps one appropriate to our own radical time, in which proximate attachments have become so questionable and we know of no others. This age is not utterly insalubrious for philosophy. Our problems are so great and their sources so deep that to understand them we need philosophy more than ever, if we do not despair of it, and it faces the challenges on which it flourishes. I still believe that universities, rightly understood, are where community and friendship can exist in our times. Our thought and our politics have become inextricably bound up with the universities, and they have served us well, human things being what they are. But for all that, and even though they deserve our strenuous efforts, one should never forget that Socrates was not a professor, that he was put to death, and that the love of wisdom survived,  partly because of his individual example. This is what really counts, and we must remember it in order to know how to defend the university.  

This is the American moment in world history, the one for which we shall forever be judged. Just as in politics the responsibility for the fate of freedom in the world has devolved upon our regime, so the fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities, and the two are related as they have never been before. The gravity of our given task is great, and it is very much in doubt how the future will judge our stewardship. 

[1] Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (New York: Viking Penguin, 2000), 144.
[2] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 380-382.

Bellow, Saul. Ravelstein. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Endings (8)—The Oregon Trail

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings." 
[a] Old Oregon Trail
No, not the video game. There is an entire literary history that predates 1990...or even 1971, when three teachers at Carleton College created a little educational game. The game is worth a look if you have never seen it (if you are my age), but I would like to push our narrative back, oh, 165 years...from today.

[b] Young Parkman
You see, there once was a well-heeled Harvard College graduate named Francis Parkman, Jr. who decided to take a trip "out west." The travel narrative already had a secure place in the world of American letters by 1846, when Parkman headed for Missouri, where he readied himself and his companions for a journey that would take him into today's Nebraska and Colorado before winding back along the Santa Fe Trail and arriving in Missouri in September. He covered over 2,000 miles, and wrote of encounters with the Oglala Sioux in some detail.

You might see where this is going. I am fascinated by encounters in American and European literature that seem "a little anthropological." Well, in 1846, Parkman undertook several months of intensive travel, spent time hunting and in discussion with the Oglala, and then wrote about those matters in a wildly successful book. It is the kind of narrative I have been reading for the past few years, as I ask the very general (but exceedingly important) question "how did we get from noticing and writing about 'other peoples' to a genre called 'ethnography'?"

How indeed. I won't kid you. After reading Parkman's book, it is difficult to find a meaningful connection. There is little analysis, and the kind of introspection that we seek today is largely missing.

[c] Fort Laramie
On the other hand, I find the narrative more interesting when it is seen as an engagement with "passages" through various streams of otherness. It should go without saying that readers of ethnography today are not going to find The Oregon Trail a very insightful work of cultural analysis.  Absolutely not.  As annoyed as I can get with the self-centered (yet far from self-reflective) narrative, there is a portrait of privileged whiteness here that is set against various backdrops in a rapidly changing United States.  I am guessing that you might be thinking "so what?"  Why would I want to read that?  If you seek to understand the cultural lenses that have contributed (broadly and often problematically) to what we today call "cultural anthropology," I think you should.  If you look carefully, you might well learn as much from the cultural cluelessness of the narrative as from its more than occasionally successful literary turns.

[d] Literary tour (de force)
Let's have a look at the last few pages of The Oregon Trail.  Notice the way that the narrative "fades to (the) east," as it were, and our author plays with the debatable concept of cultural refinement moving (back) on a west-east line.

You will notice a few names of his companions. Delorier (Antoine De Laurier), Henry Chatillon, and "Tête Rouge" (Red Cap) figure prominently in the concluding pages. As you will see, Parkman was a fine writer, if not always a penetrating cultural observer. These characters will "take shape" even in the snippet that follows.

Francis Parkman, Jr., The Oregon Trail

[e] "Savage scenes"
[f] Commemorative

Many and powerful as were the attractions which drew us toward the settlements, we looked back even at the moment with an eager longing toward the wilderness of prairies and mountains behind us. For myself I had suffered more that summer from illness than ever before in my life, and yet to this hour I cannot recall those savage scenes and savage men without a strong desire again to visit them.
[g] Old Oregon Trail
At length for the first time during about half a year, we saw the roof of a white man's dwelling between the opening trees. A few moments after we were riding over the miserable log-bridge that leads into the centre of Westport. Westport had beheld strange scenes, but a rougher looking trop than ours with our worn equipments and broken-down horses, was never seen even there. We passed the well-remembered tavern, Boone's grocery and old Vogles' dram shop, and encamped on a meadow beyond. Here we were soon visited by a number of people who came to purchase our horses and equipage. This matter disposed of, we hired a wagon and drove to Kanzas landing. Here we were again received under the hospitable roof of our old friend Colonel Chick, and seated on his porch we looked down once more on the eddies of the Missouri.

Delorier made his appearance in the morning, strangely transformed by the assistance of a hat, a coat, and a razor. His little log-house was among the woods not far off. It seemed he had meditated giving a ball on the occasion of his return, and had consulted Henry Chatillon as to whether it would do to invite his bourgeois. Henry expressed his entire conviction that we would not take it amiss, and the invitation was now proffered, accordingly, Delorier adding as a special inducement that Antoine Lejeunesse was to play the fiddle. We told him we would certainly come, but before the evening arrived a steamboat, which came down from Fort Leavenworth, prevented our being present at the expected festivities. Delorier was on the rock at the landing place, waiting to take leave of us.

"Adieu! mes bourgeois; adieu! adieu!" he cried out as the boat pulled off; "when you go another time to de Rocky Montagnes I will go with you; yes, I will go."
[h] Santa Fe Trail return
He accompanied this patronizing assurance by jumping about swinging his hat, and grinning from ear to ear. As the boat rounded a distant point, the last object that met our eyes was Delorier still lifting his hat and skipping about the rock. We had taken leave of Munroe and Jim Gurney at Westport, and Henry Chatillon went down in the boat with us.

The passage to St. Louis occupied eight days, during about a third of which we were fast aground on sand-bars. We passed the steamer Amelia crowded with a roaring crew of disbanded volunteers, swearing, drinking, gambling, and fighting. At length one evening we reached the crowded levee of St. Louis. Repairing to the Planters' House, we caused diligent search to be made for our trunks, which after some time were discovered stowed away in the farthest corner of the storeroom. In the morning we hardly recognized each other; a frock of broadcloth had supplanted the frock of buckskin; well-fitted pantaloons took the place of the Indian leggings, and polished boots were substituted for the gaudy moccasins.

After we had been several days at St. Louis we heard news of Tete Rouge. He had contrived to reach Fort Leavenworth, where he had found the paymaster and received his money. As a boat was just ready to start for St. Louis, he went on board and engaged his passage. This done, he immediately got drunk on shore, and the boat went off without him. It was some days before another opportunity occurred, and meanwhile the sutler's stores furnished him with abundant means of keeping up his spirits. Another steamboat came at last, the clerk of which happened to be a friend of his, and by the advice of some charitable person on shore he persuaded Tete Rouge to remain on board, intended to detain him there until the boat should leave the fort. At first Tete Rouge was well contented with this arrangement, but on applying for a dram, the barkeeper, at the clerk's instigation, refused to let him have it. Finding them both inflexible in spite of his entreaties, he became desperate and made his escape from the boat. The clerk found him after a long search in one of the barracks; a circle of dragoons stood contemplating him as he lay on the floor, maudlin drunk and crying dismally. With the help of one of them the clerk pushed him on board, and our informant, who came down in the same boat, declares that he remained in great despondency during the whole passage. As we left St. Louis soon after his arrival, we did not see the worthless, good-natured little vagabond again.
[i] Westport, two decades hence
On the evening before our departure Henry Chatillon came to our rooms at the Planters' House to take leave of us. No one who met him in the streets of St. Louis would have taken him for a hunter fresh from the Rocky Mountains. He was very neatly and simply dressed in a suit of dark cloth; for although, since his sixteenth year, he had scarcely been for a month together among the abodes of men, he had a native good taste and a sense of propriety which always led him to pay great attention to his personal appearance. His tall athletic figure, with its easy flexible motions, appeared to advantage in his present dress; and his fine face, though roughened by a thousand storms, was not at all out of keeping with it. We took leave of him with much regret; and unless his changing features, as he shook us by the hand, belied him, the feeling on his part was no less than on ours. Shaw had given him a horse at Westport. My rifle, which he had always been fond of using, as it was an excellent piece, much better than his own, is now in his hands, and perhaps at this moment its sharp voice is startling the echoes of the Rocky Mountains. On the next morning we left town, and after a fortnight of railroads and steamboat we saw once more the familiar features of home.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Lectures (1)—Knowledge Blooming

Robert André LaFleur
Underkofler Teaching Award Acceptance Remarks

Beloit College
28 April 2011

Thank you Ms. Wink, Mr. Adams, and Dean Davies. This award means a great deal to me, and precisely because it is given at an institution that truly focuses upon the intellectual engagement between teachers and students. I also cannot help but mention here what is perhaps the most significant matter for me since I arrived at Beloit College in 1998. At this very event, ten years and one day ago, I met for the first time a vibrant new member of the college community, Patricia Zody, who had just arrived that February. We went on to become the first marriage to emerge from the original Freeman Grant (an anecdote that the Freemans always liked very much), and she has been my greatest influence as a teacher and as a person.
Looking back over the past decade, I cannot help but think of the enormous role that teaching has played in my development as a scholar. No, you didn’t mishear. It is just that in higher education circles we are so used to thinking about scholarship and teaching as “opposed” realms that (relatively) rarely do we talk about how they are beautifully and synergistically woven into a complex ball of intellectual yarn.  More than occasionally, we will talk about scholarship influencing our teaching—how the article we have just written finds its way into a seminar discussion here or a lecture there. It is a wonderful thing, and a significant part of what we do.

I am speaking of something slightly different, though, and I am delighted to say that I don’t think that it could have happened with quite such positive results in many other places.  By this, I mean that Beloit College has offered me the opportunity to go on what I like to think of as a ten-year reading and writing program meant to bring me from the solid foundation I received in graduate school in historiography, anthropological theory, and Chinese studies to new dimensions of understanding in neurobiology, the philosophy of mind, and social behavior, to name a few.

I have been able to do that as a teacher, and for that I will always be grateful to Beloit College.  I have been free to develop a series of seminars that have had us (students and teacher) hanging on to our objects of inquiry by the thinnest of interpretive threads (or hermeneutic circles…or neural synapses).

It is not every school—not even close to every fine liberal arts college—that has the patience and confidence in itself and its mission to allow year-after-year of terrifying seminars (a book a week, weekly “summary-reviews,” and a 10,000-word seminar paper) on such topics as cognitive science, philosophy of consciousness, and theories of history; the “long-view” history of Western anthropology, starting with Herodotus and thinking it should really have been Homer; or even French social theory from B to Z (Balzac to Zola). And that is not even to mention the “one word” seminars that leave the interpretive path even more open to students—Mountains, Itineraries, or even next semester’s partial word, “—graphy.”  It’s about writin’.
I have always known that there is nothing more important than a deep intellectual curiosity—an academic imagination—in all that we do.  I have sought it in my own academic life, and I have tried to instill it in my students, as well.  I will conclude here with a few thoughts that illustrate how much I believe that imagination and rigor combine to create the kinds of classes in which both students and professors learn deeply. Bear with me (briefly) while I tell you a story of autumnal bloom. 

In order not to take up as much time and room as the long essay that I am writing on this topic these days (check the blog in a few weeks), I shall compress a few parts.

1. First hearing of the Committee on Social Thought (in college)
2. Packing for Taiwan—books, peanut butter, notebooks, and Bloom (Republic)
3. Letter of acceptance from the Committee on Social Thought (March 1987)
4. First reviews of Bloom's Closing  (April 1987)
5. Reviews cooling as the Taipei summer warmed (what to make of this guy?)

So there I was, on a warm Friday afternoon in early October of 1987, at the first of what would be many Committee on Social Thought “sherry hours,” being introduced to Allan Bloom.  “Now which one are you?”, he asked, his whole long face—from the rear of his bald head to his very focused nose—regarding me in a way that told me my answer mattered.   Really, it seemed to matter more than it should.  He must have better things to think about, I mused—colleagues at whom to stare or departmental scores to settle—than the background of a new graduate student. But he wasn’t distracted by the intellectual and collegial tumult in the room. He kept staring at me, waiting.

Bloom, I already knew, took students seriously.  It was in the book—Closing. 

       This essay—a meditation on the state of our souls, particularly those of the 
       young, and their education—is written from the perspective of a teacher. Such 
       a perspective, although it has grave limitations and is accompanied by 
       dangerous temptations, is a privileged one. The teacher, particularly the teacher
       dedicated to liberal education, must constantly try to look toward the goal of 
       human completeness and back at the natures of his students here and now, ever
       seeking to understand the former and to assess the capacities of the latter to 
       approach it. Attention to the young, knowing what their hungers are and what they 
       can digest, is the essence of the craft. One must spy out and elicit those hungers. 
       For there is no real education that does not respond to felt need; anything else is 
       trifling display.[1] 

Trifling was the last thing that came to mind when I first spoke with Bloom that day.  Display, however, was another matter.  He was every bit the showman, and he reveled in his booming question and even more so in the line that followed.

“We take these things very seriously, you see.”

Even then, for all of his display, I could see the personification of his words. Real education was about channeling energies, of tapping into human needs and, indeed, longings. This last phrase was one I remembered from both his interpretive essay in The Republic and Closing. I felt an immediate kinship with him. Here was a person who, for three hundred pages seemed utterly clueless about education, yet he had nailed it with the most critical feature of all. He was saying something that only a few people beyond Plato and Confucius bothered to say clearly. Unequivocally.

Over time, it is what Bloom taught me to see in my own life.  Eventually I learned just a little bit about teaching it. It was something I already had—a longing and passion for ideas, as important as eating or sleeping. I had also learned (through painful socialization) that describing one’s passion for knowledge is not something one does indiscriminately.  It can clear a room—or silence it, creating embarrassment for everyone except the speaker, who fails to understand that such things are usually not mentioned in polite company.  Interest, yes. Passion, not so much. Let’s just keep to test scores and not get “all emotional” about learning.  Bloom wanted the emotion. He wanted learning to matter.  I do, too.  It is as simple—and powerful—as that.

I was ready to answer this learned, quirky scholar with the strange new “popular book” about big ideas and passion for learning.

“I am the one who spent the last two years in Taiwan studying classical Chinese.  I am interested in Chinese historiography and political theory.”  I had especially thought that the last phrase would have an impact.  I imagined an immediate segue into a discussion of the parallels between Plato’s Statesman and Confucius's Analects.  Or Rousseau’s and Mencius’s views on the original nature of human beings and the consequences of social degeneration.  This was the very moment, I thought, when it all begins—when my years of longing and study come together; when East meets West, round meets square, and the heavens of China/Japan/Korea meet those of Europe and the Americas.

“Oh…you.”  Before I could respond, Bloom was swept away by another faculty member needing to talk about another matter.  It was over in an instant, but the scene cast a peculiar—and useful—shadow over the first years of my education at the Committee on Social Thought.  For Bloom, I was not exactly the enemy (I could figure this much even in the otherwise deflating context), but I surely was peripheral.  If I had begun with any particular desire to “please” the now famous author—or to join the small group of Committee students who seemed to play the roles of acolytes—it was extinguished in those moments.  This was the best thing that ever could have happened to me.  I was free to begin the long process of figuring out exactly how and where I did “fit” into the Western classics and the liberal arts.  Clearly, I would not be starting from the Bloomian center.  I finished my sherry and returned home to begin crafting my own plan…on my own.

I can say much more about Bloom and his strange “influence/anti-influence” on my career. Check the blog in June. That is not the point here.  It was almost as though the abrupt historical contingency of “oh, you” empowered me toward my own “teaching of longing,” as it were.   Partly because I was on my own, I was able ultimately to benefit from Bloom’s idiosyncratic blend of annoyance and brilliance (from which I would be alternately attracted and repelled in subsequent years).  I had to do it on my own—but not without him—and for both I am grateful and fortunate.
***  ***
Flash forward twenty-four years.  At Beloit College, I have found a place where I have continued what started on that autumn day when I began my studies at the Committee on Social Thought. I can share my perspectives on books and ideas with my colleagues, and expect the kind of engagement that will push me to new perspectives on those texts and my own work.  I have also found a place where I have students who desire to learn in this same kind of inquisitive way—understanding, even respecting, the recent history of academic disciplines, but not being bound by them.  I have found, in short, in my colleagues and students, a place where the longing for meaning and introspection is not just talk.  That Bloomian channeling of intellectual passion takes place here day-after-day and year-after-year.  When we’re at our best, we are a college that changes lives.

This award is for all of us, and I will never forget that. All of us.

[1] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 19.

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Seinfeld Ethnography (5)—Poppie's Pizza

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific.
Click below for all "Seinfeld Ethnography" posts: 
Marine Biologist         The Doorman          Opposite George   Newman's Mail   The Bootleg         Marriage
Just Dessert               Sleep Desk             Late Coffee            High Stakes        Motor Oil              Downtown 
Code Cracking           Nonfat Yogurt          Bad Boy                 It's Not You         I Can't Be...          Exploding Wallet
Elaine Flies Coach    The Close Talker     The Alliance           Broccoli               Coated Culture    Dinner Party

Click here for the reference to the "Argonauts" title, below.
[a] Pizza civility
Argonauts of the Seinfeldian Specific
[b] Debating "pizza"

Today's post in Seinfeld Ethnography deals with concepts and classification in practice. The key scene (less than a minute in length) has Kramer creating his (the definition has yet to be worked out, although he thinks of it as a pizza). But when is it a pizza? When it comes out of the oven (Kramer), or when you "put your fists in the dough" (Poppie)? Yes, the episode points (brilliantly, I might add) to larger socio-political issues, but I prefer to stick to social and cultural analysis. When is it pizza? This is an important question. More to the point, however, what is a pizza? The issues of cultural classification and division are, to my mind, the most interesting. Is cucumber Is Cap'n Crunch sushi...sushi? Think about it. What are the limitations of what you (yourself) consider "food?"

[c]When it becomes pizza.
Let me give some examples, and then we'll proceed to our theoretical readings for the week (remember, Seinfeld Ethnography has been created to pique your interest with fascinating scenes and questions, and then bury that interest under a blanket of academic a fun way).

So, back to the topic. "Food" is a cultural construction. Don't even try to tell me that there is anything absolutely "natural" about what we consider "food." Yes, I will concede that most societies consider igneous rock "non-food," but you would be hard-pressed to come up with a meaningful list of items that are properly considered "food" in all societies. And that is before we take the very great culinary-cultural step of juxtaposing food items. Just think about the following culinary possibilities, which are nowhere near the interpretive limits—lutefisk tacos, eel-stuffed olives, spaghetti smothered in peanut butter, or, well, cucumber pizza. I have enjoyed several of these.

[d] Flies
Take a serious look at the quotations from Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marshall Sahlins, and Mary Douglas, below. Horse? Dog? The land of the sacred dog? What does food classification even mean? On top of that, how do we define "when" it is food? This is the significant second question raised in a Seinfeld episode to which we will return in future posts. Is swimming tuna food? Is flying eagle food (careful with your answer, Americans)? And, no, I am not going to ask the William Golding question (look it up, but think about it).

I ask only the following (directly flowing from the pizza scene below):
Is it food?  Is it pizza?  
And, on top of all of that...when does it become food?

The episode is brief, but it is full of fertile concepts.  Oh, and read to the very end of this post.  You need to.

The theoretical readings may seem to be far distant from conversations of cucumbers (or visions of sugar plums). Think them through, though. The cucumbers are closer than you might imagine. This is, in short, more about classification than "animal, vegetable, mineral." Think about it.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
[e] Oops
To sum up: birds and dogs are relevant in connection with human society either because they suggest it by their own social life (which men look on as an imitation of theirs), or alternatively because, having no social life of their own, they form part of ours. Cattle, like dogs, form part of human society, but as it were, asocially, since they verge on objects. Finally racehorses, like birds, form a series disjoined from human society, but like cattle, lacking in intrinsic sociability. If, therefore, birds are metaphorical human beings and dogs, metonymical human beings, cattle may be thought of as metonymical inhuman beings and racehorses as metaphorical inhuman beings. Cattle are contiguous only for want of similarity, racehorses similar only for want of contiguity. Each of these two categories offers the converse image of one of the two other categories, which themselves stand in the relation of inverted symmetry.[1]

Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason
[f] Land of the sacred dog
To adopt the conventional incantations of structuralism, "everything happens as if" the food system is inflected throughout by a principle of metonymy, such that taken as a whole it composes a sustained metaphor on cannibalism. Dogs and horses participate in American society in the capacity of subjects. They have proper personal names, and indeed we are in the habit of conversing with them as we do not talk to pigs and cattle. Dogs and horses are deemed inedible, for, as the Red Queen said, "It isn't etiquette to cut anybody you've been introduced to." But as domestic cohabitants, dogs are closer to men than are horses, and their consumption is more unthinkable: they are "one of the family." Traditionally horses stand in a more menial working relationship to people; if dogs are as kinsmen, horses are as servants and nonkin. Hence the consumption of horses is at least conceivable, if not general, whereas the notion of eating dogs understandably evokes some of the revulsion of the incest tabu...Edibility is inversely related to humanity.[2]

Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (see "pizza hands," below)
[g] Cultural hygiene
The book proceeds by developing two themes. One presents taboo as a spontaneous device for protecting the distinctive categories of the universe. Taboo protects the local consensus on how the world is organised. It shores up wavering uncertainty. It reduces intellectual and social disorder. We may well ask why is it necessary to protect the primary distinctions of the universe, and why are taboos so bizarre? The second theme answers this with reflections on the cognitive discomfort caused by ambiguity. Ambiguous things can seem very threatening. Taboo confronts the ambiguous and shunts it into the category of the sacred.[3]

Why are we talking about dogs and horses instead of cucumbers and cheese? Because it's about the juxtaposition of categories, not salad.

Sacrality has nothing to do with hand-washing, does it? Does it?

And when is it a pizza? When?
"It's a pizza when it comes out of the oven."
"It's a pizza the moment you put your fists in the dough."

Oh, and wash your hands. Please.

[1] Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 207.

[2] Marshall Sahlins, Culture and Practical Reason (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 174-175.
[3] Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966), xi

Wednesday, May 4th
Mr. Bookman, Library Detective
[h] Monsieur Bookman

History, authority, order, and even the panopticon (well, of a sort) combine to bring Mr. Bookman to Jerry's door, asking about a 1971 library book...and freeze-dried coffee.

Theory?  Oh, yeah, there will be theory...plenty of it.