In Praise of Final Exams

It’s finals season. Comprehensive review of terms, ideas and people from studied nearly a year ago have been my normal subject matter this past week. On the one hand, finals are an aggravating process – why should one test count so highly? Why not a final project instead of a cumulative test? Pedagogically, however, I am coming to appreciate the role final exams play in completing the course.

It’s been said that “imitation precedes art.” Finals are a place to see students moving from imitating their teacher to the art of compiling truths together to assume a new form. The way I have structured my literature class, students have read eight different texts this year. Now that they’ve read them all, our review permits them to make connections, analytical discoveries, and new insights impossible without the prior work of wading through a dense text. In history, the same students are now able to process the more theoretical aspects and prove them with data.

Our review period has also made gaps evident. As we reviewed the book of Job, one student revealed a lack of understanding about Satan (she had combined the Jewish, Christian, and Mormon teachings about Satan’s origins), while another had a lightbulb moment when she grasped the different between the Jewish Shema (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is One”) and the Christian Trinity as we wrestled with plural pronouns in Genesis 1.

All year long, I have been asking students to imitate my historical and literary habits (reading, thinking, writing, analyzing), and now the period of review before the final is letting them all synthesize the imitation into distinctive forms unique to each student. Far from being just an administrative/testing burden (like standardized testing), the cumulative final creates space for the classical student to assemble their grammatical and logical knowledge about a topic and put it into a unique rhetorical form.

So to all my friends and fellow teacher staring at the stack of essays, tests, and circled answers, press on! The tunnel is ending, and a more educated student awaits on the other side of finals!

Ready Player One: Space Opera and a Literature of Video Gaming

Somewhere in the distant past, a revolutionary technological change altered the state of mankind irrevocably. The discovery of writing and the possibility of preserving thoughts across the generations created new possibilities and caused anxiety for the traditional method of knowledge transfer. After all, what need is there of a teacher if one can read the works of great men of the past? Mankind, however, moved on and has found writing to be a blessing to existence. A further revolution came about when Gutenburg developed the moveable type printing press, enabling cheap creation of books and pamphlets for the first time in western history. His invention, coinciding with other historical developments of the Renaissance, sparked an intellectual flourishing which contributed to the Reformation. Today, it is hard to imagine a world where books had to be chained to desks to protect them from thievery.

In his novel Ready, Player One, Ernest Cline addresses questions of modern technology and its impact on human relationships. In one of the best examples of the science-fiction novel as a novel of ideas, Cline blends the creation of a unique world, themes of isolation, friendship, and gender with the creation of a literature of the 1980s. Through this story, Cline argues that ultimately humans are the same creatures regardless of technology, and are still “designed to live in a polis.”

Cline posits a world where a videogame designer develops a completely immersive online experience with infinite expansion capabilities. In the world of his novel, the OASIS has become as integral for life in the 2040s as Facebook has become today. Businesses, schools, and pleasure all take place in the OASIS. The designer, James Halliday, dies and in his death leaves a set of clues to the ultimate treasure: $240 billion, and control of the OASIS. The novel follows the protagonist as he solves the riddles, and ultimately defeats the evil corporation.

This novel could be read in a variety of ways. There is a contrast established between the free-range programmers who establish a capitalistic environment vs. the corporation which wants to turn the OASIS into a regimented marketing scheme. Halliday is contrasted with a friend named Ogden. Where Halliday is uncomfortable in social settings, Ogden thrives. Halliday’s anti-social nature drives him to build an intricate escape. The novel also contains a picture of online education worked out in detail, a vision which educators might appreciate.

Where Ready, Player One achieves something beyond the typical cyber-punk or space opera thriller, however, is its question of friendship. In the age of social media, western society is currently wrestling with what it means to be a friend. Could two individuals have a true friendship, but never physically meet? Is physical proximity necessary for friendship? The same questions apply to romance – an entire dating industry has developed connecting people through the internet. Cline points out the ability to deceive. At one point, Wade (the protagonist), finally meets his best friend Aech (pronounced like saying the letter “h”). They have been friends for six years through the OASIS, but as the novel climaxes they must meet in person. Wade then discovers that Aech is neither white, male, nor hetero-sexual but a black, overweight lesbian. Wade is taken aback, and feels a moral obligation to set aside his prejudices and accept Aech. He does this, and comes to see their friendship as a superior one, operating on a purely mental level unbothered by biological realities.

If friendship is complicated in the virtual age, romance becomes even more so. Wade falls deeply in love with a girl who goes by the screen name Art3mis, named for the Greek virgin goddess of the hunt. Wade is happy to date and profess love in the OASIS, but Art3mis is unwilling; if they have never seen one another, it’s not real. By the conclusion of the novel, they meet. Cline also emphasizes the connection between honesty and romantic love – because both Wade and Art3mis built their digital personas to resemble their actual selves, they did not have to overcome layers of deception.

By the conclusion of the novel, Cline concludes the both friendship and romance can begin in virtual space, but for the fullest realization of these human relationships they must also manifest in the physical world. He raises important questions in an era changed by Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. How will humans relate to one another with the possibility of digital interactions? Cline both highlights the complexities of friendship and romance, and points towards a solution in Ready Player One.

While addressing heavy themes and complicated moral dilemmas, Cline also has enormous fun using film, music, and pop culture references from the 1970s and 1980s. To solve the riddles and find the treasure, characters must learn all there is to know about the films and music loved by Halliday. The OASIS is populated by men and women of 2040s who are enacting a Renaissance of the 1980s. Players apply all the tools of literary studies to films, comics, books, and movies from 80s, certain that mastering this era will reveal Halliday’s clues. I find the idea of applying literary studies to such a field fascinating, and wonder if it points to the ongoing relevance of literature regardless of content.

A final fascinating element in Ready Player One is the religious component. The novel opens with Wade explaining that in the OASIS he learned the truth – that God is a lie, and evolution is the Truth. Throughout the remainder of the story, however, he develops his own religion. He has a sacred text – the diary of James Halliday – which he memorizes. He has a body of inspired literature – the films and music of the ‘80s – through which he interprets his life. And he has a God-figure who created the OASIS universe and is offering him a chance for eternal happiness – James Halliday. As Wade gets deeper into the contest, he even develops ascetic habits to enhance his performance in the contest. This quasi-religious structure also explains why Wade and Art3mis remain chaste. Neither articulates any morality of sex, but in the religion of OASIS, sex is a distraction from achieving the divine goal of winning the contest. To add in the religious overtones, Wade uses the screen name Perzival, derived from Percival, one of the knights of Arthur’s court who achieved the holy grail. For all his rejection of religion as an “opiate of the masses,” Wade constructs his own religious system complete with a deity, sacred text, liturgical duties, and purpose for his life.

While science fiction owes much to the many pulp formulas writers who fill the shelves of used bookstore, finding an author who uses allusions, plot structure, and wit to create a unique and enjoyable world is a pleasure. Cline achieves this in Ready Player One. He wrote a novel which can be read just for the story, which is certainly satisfying. For the reader who enjoys dialoging with an author, Cline is a helpful conversation partner when considering the ways online media affect our relationships. Ready Player One can stand alongside works by Stranger in a Strange Land or Cat’s Cradle as science fiction novels of ideas.

 

 

Monster by Walter Dean Myers – Book Review

This book review I (Jenn) wrote for a literature class in grad school. I wanted to share it with you all! Any comments and/or thoughts in response would be great!

Monster. By Walter Dean Myers. Amistad, 1999. 281p. ISBN9780064407311. $9.99

Steve Harmon hates prison. He decides to document his trial by writing a screenplay, creating a window into his own uncertainty about his innocence.

Review

With its movie screenplay style, Monster treats the reader to the personal account of 17 year-old Steve Harmon and his trial. Readers hear directly from the characters – the accused, lawyers, family members, and witnesses – through dialogue and can judge the testimonies to determine who is and isn’t guilty. Interspersed throughout the script are journal pages of Steve’s thoughts and self-reflection. Though Steve did have some association with the robbery, was he a participant in felony murder? Does he deserve to go to jail for 25 years? This book leads to great discussion concerning human nature and the conscience. The style, text, and subject matter appeal to a teen audience. The story contributes to an ongoing discussion about human nature, its conscience and the frailty of the human spirit.

 

Copyright 2013 Jennifer Herring

Joss Whedon’s Masterpiece: An Introduction to The Dollhouse

 

Some TV shows are fun and easily forgotten, while others are worth returning to every few years. Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse is one of those. It’s tight storytelling, engaging characters, and cutting edge philosophical explorations merit further exploration. In coming weeks, The Herring Review will publish a series of articles examining different figures, themes, and significances of Dollhouse. If you have seen Dollhouse, this introductory piece should be unnecessary. If you have not seen the show, this introduction is intended to situate the major elements of the show and encourage you to watch it! The shows reminds this author of a favorite poem by Yeats, which described the kidnapping of a human child by fairies:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
.

(W.B. Yeats, The Stolen Child).

Dollhouse is a bit like a fairy story, stealing the viewer away. By the end of the show, the viewer has a clearer, albeit darker, understanding of the world.

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Summary

I want to begin by summarizing the major plot movements of Dollhouse. If you have seen the show, this is the section to skip. Like any worthwhile story, Dollhouse has a series of subplots underneath the main plotline. In this section, I describe the major plot elements.

The story revolves around a revolutionary technology (referred to as imprinting): what if your mind could be removed from your body, and a different mind inserted? A mind that had different skills, memories, habits, and history, even awareness of self, could be in your body. For people who have committed crimes, struggle with grief, or have some pressing reason to need to skip five years of their life, the Dollhouse becomes the perfect business opportunity. The Dollhouse offers the perfect arrangement to the mother who lost her first child, to the serial killer facing the chair, or to the post-college activist caught red-handed trying to commit corporate espionage: work for us for five years. The Dollhouse will remove your personality, shelve it on a disk, and will take very good care of your body. During those five years, your body will be imprinted with different personas suited to the client (perhaps a dominatrix one day, a submissive the next; a thief, an assassin, or the perfect lover/mountain climber). People who are imprinted are referred to as Dolls. At the end of five years, you will be reinserted in your body, and it will feel like you’ve only blinked. You will have a huge sum of money for your years, and go away without consequences.

This is the Dollhouse, and it sells people tailored to requested specifications. The show follows one woman, Caroline, who becomes a Doll (also known as an Active) called Echo. Echo is somehow unique – she retains all the imprints (personalities put in her body), and can become any person she was ever imprinted as when needed. At one point, she is imprinted as an FBI spy. When threatened with danger, she calls up the persona with Kung Fu skills. Echo transcends her role as Doll, the blank slate on which a new persona can be written, and becomes her own person.

As she develops her personhood, Echo also adopts a savior mentality. The technology which enables the Dollhouse to work is gradually expanded throughout the show, and by the end has gone viral. Original humans become rare, and are always threatened by those who would turn them into “Dumbshows,” people who have been wiped involuntarily and roam the world in a state of infantile naïveté, able to be enslaved by the first opportunist who discovers them. Echo’s goal expands alongside the technology, and she eventually plays a key role in reversing the Dollhouse’s technology restoring humanity to its original state.

 

Characters

The characters in Dollhouse are well developed, and they quickly became one of the best parts of the show. While the show revolves around Echo and her growing personality, the secondary characters each get plenty of time and subplots worth exploring.

 

Caroline is the main character. After finishing college, her driving ambition was to fix problems in the world. She honed in on the Rossum Corporation as an evil organization. While she at first thought their evil only extended to cruel animal testing, she learned later that they were involved in extensive human experiments exploring the extent of neurological control. After a botched attempt to destroy a Rossum lab, she was captured and offered a deal by Adelle DeWitt to join the Dollhouse instead of facing corporate espionage charges.

Echo is the designation given to Caroline’s doll-state body. Caroline is shelved for a five year term, and when her body is not imprinted with a persona, she is referred to as Echo. Over the first season, Echo is developed as a unique character who undergoes more traumatic experiences than other dolls, and is somehow special. In the second season, we learn that Echo retains all her original imprints and can summon them up at will. Rather than just the blank slate she is supposed to be, Echo becomes a real personality which evolves to a point of control over normal personalities which are imprinted onto her. She has an odd relationship with Caroline, because for Caroline to return to her body Echo must die.

Adelle is the manager of the Dollhouse. She recruits people to become Actives, oversees their new lives, and arranges clients’ wishes. She is British, and has a vague humanitarian streak. She articulates the ethical rightness of the Dollhouse’s existence – the technology exists, so the good guys should control it; the Dollhouse is serving needy people who could not find satisfaction otherwise; all Dolls are volunteers who contractually agree to give five years to the Dollhouse. Over the course of the story, however, Adelle sinks to moral lows as she loses control of her House. Eventually, she becomes one of the staunchest opponents of Rossum.

Boyd is Echo’s handler, the one responsible for overseeing her engagements (working out the clients’ fantasies). He oversees Echo’s psychological development, and cares for her. An active is imprinted with an intense bond of trust – so strong that they trust their handler with their life. Echo feels that for Boyd and it is a consistent presence in their relationship through both seasons. By the end of the first season, he becomes the head of security in the Dollhouse.

Paul Ballard is an FBI agent obsessed with revealing and dismantling the Dollhouse. He is sent information on Caroline which forms his initial fascination with her. The FBI, however, expels Ballard. He joins the Dollhouse, becoming Echo’s handler after Boyd becomes head of security. Ballard has complicated romantic feelings for Caroline/Echo which get resolved in the series finale. He is instrumental in training Echo to access multiple personalities.

Topher Brink is the scientist who programs Dolls for their engagements. His character develops from one of moral neutrality, pursuing science for its own sake, to deeply compromised as his inventions strip humanity of free will. He is also the quintessential nerdy, isolated genius character. He helps Rossum develop their technology to successively higher stages.

Sierra is the codename for Priya, a Doll sent to the Dollhouse by a vindictive Rossum employee with a grudge against Priya. She has a deep-seated love for Victor, whose original name is Antony. Their love story plays out over the course of both seasons; no imprint removes their love. They always remember each other, regardless of which personality is placed in their bodies.

Mellie is a Doll sent to spy on Paul Ballard. After they begin sleeping together, Paul learns Mellie is a Doll. He bargains his leverage with the Dollhouse to have her released from her contract early. Paul still has feelings for Mellie, even after he learns of her Doll-nature. She returns in the series as a foil for Paul’s developing feelings for Echo.

Alpha is a Doll made from the body of a convicted serial killer. He experiences a “composite event” where all his previous personalities cascade into his mind. He and Echo are the only two Dolls who can hold multiple imprints in simultaneously. Alpha is both a genius and a killer; when his composite event occurs, he kills several Dolls and Dollhouse employees. He is a recurring character in Dollhouse.

 

Philosophy

Dollhouse engages deep questions of philosophy, and has no qualms wrestling with dangerous questions. While there are far more than these, at least five philosophical areas deserve discussion in an introductory article.

  1. Morality – Dollhouse takes place in a post-Christian world, with the one exception of an episode dealing with a cult. Outside of Christianity and traditional Western theism, where does one root morality? Dollhouse argues that free will is the highest value, and consent establishes a basis for legitimate action. Drawing on the foundations of natural law and social contract theory applied to an individual level, Dollhouse grounds moral righteousness in free will. That which strips an individual of free will is evil. The show questions (but does not answer) if there are areas which an individual cannot choose to yield. Can one rightly yield up his body? Is the whole premise of the Dollhouse morally wrong? Or can one make a contract to sell himself into a form of indentured servitude and thus escape any moral blame for actions done with his body during the time of Doll-slavery?
  1. Technology – Closely tied to these questions of free will are the considerations of the dangers of technology. The “law of unintended consequence” reigns supreme in Dollhouse; just because one person invents an element of technology does not mean he will control it. In a world where free will is only moral restraint (government is ineffective, and penetrated by Rossum at the highest levels), technology opens endless dangers for human flourishing. Simultaneously, Dollhouse presents technology as also holding the cure to human sufferings. The same technology which can imprint a woman to assassinate her husband could also be used to cure brain tumors.
  1. Power – Foucault made a career out of writing on different constructions of power; Dollhouse would have given him entirely new insights into human nature. The show plays with what will people do when given the ability to change or oppress other human beings without consequences. In one episode, Topher changes Echo into the positive (redeemed) version of a troubled girl in the hopes that Echo will inspire this future-neurotic to seek help. In another case, a Rossum doctor abuses his access to the Dollhouse to commit serial rape. The technology and moral ambiguity of the Dollhouse technology creates new opportunities. One particularly bizarre episode features Echo being imprinted as a mother for an infant whose actual mother died in birth. In another, a woman purchased death insurance. When she died, her personality was imprinted into Echo, allowing her to speak with her family after her death and solve her own murder. In all of these ways, Dollhouse explores the questions of power, particularly in constructions of identity.
  1. Mind/Body Duality – Following Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, the Dollhouse practices a Gnostic duality between the mind/soul and the body, making them completely separable. Except, on occasion, something remains. Victor and Sierra still love each other, even when the mind has been removed. Echo has the same passion to fix broken people that motivated Caroline. Alpha is motivated by the same murderous desires which moved his original personality. Though in one sense Dollhouse holds to a clear division, it also flirts with a more Christian understanding of an embodied soul. Something essential to the person remains, even if their intellect is removed.
  1. Love – One of Plato’s most famous dialogues (The Symposium) is dedicated to the question of love: what is it? Why do people pursue it? Is it worthwhile? What are the different possibilities of love? Dollhouse explores these same arenas and explores the boundaries between lust, agape, phileo, and the quest for love in community. Echo divorces love from physical expression; having been imprinted with every possible erotic experience, yet she still seeks love with Paul Ballard. For Victor and Sierra, love allows them to transcend science. Topher pursues love in Bennett Halvorsen, another Rossum programmer. With Bennet, Topher finds a love rooted in common pursuits and appreciation of genius. The loves pursued by the dolls stand in stark contrast to those clients who want nothing more than a one-night stand with the perfect programmed woman or man. Perhaps Dollhouse seeks to investigate the question of love in a post-sexual revolution world.

Conclusion

Joss Whedon is a master storyteller, and Dollhouse is a marvelous creation. Whedon creates, in Tolkien’s language, a “secondary world” which has the “inner consistency of reality.” Inside this world of believable characters and heart-wrenching choices Dollhouse explores some of the deepest questions of postmodern philosophy. If you haven’t seen the show, check it out on Netflix or Amazon Prime and come back to The Herring Review for more reflections on Dollhouse.

 

Copyright 2015 Joshua Herring

Platonic Eschatology

 

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Plato! It’s all in Plato! What do they teach them in these schools?” Sitting in the final class of Theology III, I think Lewis might have been on to something. Listening to the professor meander on about whether or not God will destroy the world – burning it to extinction – or will renew it, and then move to trying to divine the different connotations of “heaven” in the corpus of the Bible, I wonder if Plato might provide a helpful tool.

Plato argued that reality exists in at least two planes. The manifest world is the physical realm in which we dwell. It holds people, things, and exists in itself. He also posited the world of the forms. This realm is the world of ideas. These two worlds relate to one another in terms of reality. The world of ideas, for Plato, is the realm of ultimates, of transcendent reality. Here the highest Forms dwell. Manifest objects and ideas correspond to these forms, and derive their existence from them. For Plato, these two realms are always separate and we in the manifest world apprehend the world of the forms through our nous, our minds. He argued that such a realm must exist by deductive reasoning.

This theory sounds suspiciously similar to elements of Christian theology. The Bible posits a duality. Humans dwell in the physical world, God in the spiritual realm. This spiritual realm is variously described as a city, a bride, a feast (positively), and a lake of torment, neverending suffering, and a “place of outer darkness” where the damned live out eternity (negatively). Humans are hybrid beings. As physical creatures made out of dirt, we belong to the manifest world. As bearers of the imago dei, however, we are also spiritual beings; attempts to divide body and soul quickly stray into heresy. The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that God Himself became embodied, sanctifying the body.

Where this helps with eschatology lies in resolving the question of the new heavens and new earth. John’s Revelation clearly shows that the world will be changed. Different readings diverge from that point, but all agree that change will happen. If we understand the spiritual and physical realms as two planes which dwell side by side today, yet one is invisible, then we could posit that in the return of Christ the creation of the New Heavens and the New Earth is a merging of the two realms. In Eden, God walked with man. Throughout the Bible, men long to reunite with God. Israel feared God even when he was veiled in shadow and high up on the mountain; in the consummation of the ages, the world of transcendent truth and the manifest world are made one. Here there will be no need for the sun, “for God Himself will be their light.” Perfect peace, justice, government, and life everlasting will exist in the perfect city through which flows the river of peace, alongside which grows the tree whose leaves “are for the healing of the nations.”

Rather than stumbling through complicated terminology and constructing new theories to explain the eschatology of the Bible, we are better served to take Augustine’s advice and “plunder the Egyptians,” or in this case the pagan Plato. While Plato will not be in heaven, he certainly had an insight into the nature of reality, and his terms provide an illumination into the workings of God described in Scripture.

-Josh Herring

Copyright 2015 Joshua Herring

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher – Book Review

Greetings! Below is a book review I wrote for a literature class back in grad school. Any comments and/or thoughts are appreciated! – Jenn

Asher, Jay. Thirteen Reasons Why. Johnston, Joel and Wiseman, Debra. Audiobook. Listening Library. October 23, 2007. Wake County Public Libraries Overdrive Media Console. March 7, 2013

13 Reasons Why

Annotation

Clay Jensen listens to the voice of Hannah Baker, the girl he distantly loves, as she tells the unfair, selfish, arrogant acts of her classmates that tell her life story, relating to her suicide.

Review

Jay Asher crafts a story in Thirteen Reasons Why asking what leads a high-schooler to commit suicide. The story centers around Clay Jenson, a fellow high-schooler who receives a mysterious package after school one day. Within, he finds 7 tapes from Hannah Baker, a classmate who committed suicide three weeks earlier and the girl he loves. Hannah says that she is about to tell her life story – with the twelve people involved, contributing to her suicide.

The narrative is in the first person from Clay, his thoughts and actions interspersed with Hannah telling his story. The audiobook is recited by a Joel Johnston, as Clay and general narrator and Debra Wiseman as Hannah. Because Clay is listening to Hannah while sharing his own thoughts, it is helpful to have the different voices which is a difficult distinction otherwise. The narration is intriguing, but I do not think it improves on the story. In fact, reading might be smoother to experience because the abrupt change between Clay and Hannah is less. The story sounds choppy with the constant back and forth. Reading the story gives it a personal relevance because you still ‘hear’ Hannah’s voice and realize her pain at the circumstances out of her control, all of which drive her further away from people.

The introspection of Hannah’s thoughts opens a window to the isolation her misconstrued reputation results in. Others have lied about her. To her, her innocence is sacrificed without her consent. And she brings out how the thoughtless, selfish, attention-grabbing acts of her classmates have a “snowball effect” and these tapes are intended to tell these students what those implications were for her. The story ends with Clay purposing to make choices with positive effect in another’s life. He pursues another classmate – Skye – who showed symptoms of inclusion and hiding. He does not want to repeat the tragedy of Hannah’s life in another classmate.

Copyright 2013 Jennifer Herring

A New Adventure!

Josh and Jenn - Hillsdale

Hello friends!

Jenn and I began this blog to share our love of good books, hatred of bad books, and general writings with a wider audience. Our lives are constantly filled with readings and writings and we look forward to sharing these aspects with you. We will each have posts on this site dedicated to our separate interests. Jenn is a librarian, and her reviews will generally focus on children and young adult books. I (Josh) tend to read fantasy, science-fiction, and literary classics and my reviews will reflect those interests. We will occasionally put up blog articles based on  musings about life, theology, philosophy, politics, and other aspects of pursuing the good life. Welcome to the adventure!

Sincerely,

Josh and Jenn Herring