Trump’s Flat Speech: Populism and Richness of Language

Last Friday night—20 January 2017—I got into a discussion with a Facebook Friend of a Facebook Friend regarding Trump’s inauguration speech. In coming up with a way to articulate my contentions, I unwittingly recreated Bakhtin’s idea of heteroglossia; although this is unsurprisingly, since I engaged with Bakhtin more than once in both of my English Lit degrees and have likely internalized some portion of his thought, it was somewhat disappointing, as I was pleased with what I had come up with and would have liked to have taken credit for it. Nonetheless, if I share a version of that argument here, I can at least save you the trouble of reading Discourse and the Novel or, if you choose to tackle it, give you something to get started with. Moreover, I think Bakhtin may be the right thinker to bring to this conversation at this moment anyway, and I haven’t seen that happen yet.


Source: Geoff Livingstone at

In response to a friend’s observation that there was little dissection of Donald Trump’s US Presidential Inauguration Address, one of his Friends (who has chosen not to go by his name here) claimed that if such a speech required experts to parse it, then it was not a very good speech. Although he did not invoke populism, I assumed he made this claim on populist grounds: he’s made this sort of claim before and much defense of Trump is made in populism’s name—although, as we’ll see, neither Trump nor Trump supporters are really populist. The idea, however, is this: the US Presidential Inauguration Address is a speech for all Americans and, as such, should be as totally accessible to all Americans as is possible; to the extent that experts—that is, journalists, politically correspondents, and so on—are able to uncover some meaning that Joe the Plumber is unable to uncover, the speech fails.

When I responded that it is in fact impossible for everyone to 100% of the meaning of a speech, he said that media must be dropping the ball: if analysis is necessary, then analysis must be necessary in the case of Trump’s speech too.

This is a very good point. I have to concede that my friend’s observation—there is comparatively less analysis of Trump’s speech compared to Obama’s and Bush’s speeches—remains unexplained. However, I felt like there was nonetheless a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and previous US Presidential Inauguration Addresses, that this difference did at least address my friend’s observation, and that total universal semantic accessibility was not a valuable end-goal in such speeches or in almost any text object.

There are two problems conflated here which need to be addressed separately. One is descriptive: is there or is there not a qualitative difference between Trump’s speech and Obama’s and Bush’s speeches, and not merely their contexts, which explains the difference in journalists’ response to these speeches? One is normative: Is it better for a US Presidential Inauguration Address’s semantic content to be more readily accessible and exhaustible to more people? The normative question also has two parts. The first part is, again, descriptive: Is it possible for a speech to be totally accessible to all people at the same time? The second part is truly normative: If it were possible, is it something we should want? Although I tackled both parts on Facebook, here I will only go into the normative part in any detail. Continue reading

Revisiting: Other People’s Epics

Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”


Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA

Other People’s Epics

One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.

As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?

In early modern Europe, there was this group of artists and scholars called the humanists (who are different from the existing group of people who call themselves humanists). They believed in lots of things which were revolutionary for the time, like the idea that people’s talents were formed through education rather than inheritance, and that the arts were crucial to intellectual and moral education. They were also pretty keen on the Classics, especially the newly-rediscovered Aristotle. (Or, at least, newly rediscovered in Europe; in Baghdad Aristotle was well-known.) Emulation (mimesis) and variation-on-a-theme/pattern were central to their pedagogy. Thus they emulated the ancient Greek and Roman writers.* One of the genres they embraced was the epic. In the Greco-Roman tradition, famous examples are Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though many humanists (most notably Edmund Spenser) patterned their careers on Virgil’s. Dante was the first early modern poet to write a successful epic–The Divine Comedy–and Spenser introduced the form to the English language much later in The Faerie Queene.

The humanists liked classifying and defining poetic genres, and we have them to thank for a lot of the very rigid forms, like sonnets. So when they wrote epics, they codified conventions that their Classical predecessors included somewhat more haphazardly. For instance, early modern epics are usually divided into twelve books, because that’s what Virgil did. Some of these conventions have become part of a formal definition for epics as you’d read in a dictionary of literary terms: they must include a katabasis (a descent to the underworld); they must include divine intervention of some kind; they are broad in scope, covering the known world, both geographically and intellectually (they almost always include references to recent scientific discoveries and inventions, reference to historical events, literary allusion, and so on); the protagonist must be aristocratic and must embody the virtues held in high esteem by the audience/author; it must begin in media res; it must describe an event that is of great historical or mythological importance to the community in which the epic was written. However, other traits became just as conventional, and just as necessary, in early modern Europe (or England, anyway). A professor I once had said that any poet who wanted to be somebody had to include in their epic a description of the dawn which beat out Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn (or at least beat out their contemporaries’ descriptions). Other necessities were a half-snake half-woman creature, a talking tree, catalogues of objects, and ekphrasis (a description of a work of art); all of these were drawn from Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. EDIT 24 July 2013: Another crucial convention is the digression. Epics almost always have long asides–sometimes these are flashbacks (pairing with the convention of in media res), sometimes these are history lessons, sometimes these are even premonitions of what is to come (oracles and prophecies are also epic conventions), but often the digressions are bits of plot that wander off from the main goal. Characters might get lost, or separated from their companions, or get kidnapped or imprisoned. They may have dalliances with seductresses or get distracted by red herrings. The coarse of a true epic never does run smooth. /EDIT

Early modern epics were almost always in verse, usually in heroic couplets. (A common way of organizing them was twelve Books divided into cantos, which were themselves divided into stanzas, which were themselves in couplets…but not all epics were like this.) In fact, strict definitions often insist that epics are written in verse, but many people allow for prose epics, and I’d argue that prose epics are still being written. Paradise Lost was the last great verse epic, as Milton himself declared; after this, most verse epics were mock epics. The Dunciad is perhaps the most famous of the mock epics, but I did once know someone who was working on a mock epic detailing the colonization of Trinidad.

(History lesson over)

Looking over the list of requirements, it should be clear that epics of this kind** are especially well suited to expressing their author’s ideology. Of course all texts contain ideology, but epics do so very explicitly. The topic must be formative to the community and the protagonist must be exemplary of the community’s values. The presence of the Underworld and the gods means that the religious and mythic sensibilities of the group are involved. The scope means that the epic gives a shape of the physical and intellectual world of the community. Epics are often nationalist. Thus Spencer was deliberately writing an English epic. Sometimes, however, epics are more religious than nationalist; Milton, who thought that England’s climate made English culture tepid and generally worthless, avoided the national epic and instead wrote a Christian epic. But whatever group they represent, they do it explicitly and obviously. This makes them very good places to examine a particular worldview. Bakhtin (who I’ve mentioned before) says that epics have a single viewpoint; they are monoglossic, one-voiced. And as much as I’ve been talking about early modern epics, I think more contemporary epics exist: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and lots of other fantasy obviously fit most of the criteria (Tolkien was writing a saga, not an epic, but the two are similar and it seems clear that he was incorporating early modern epic conventions, too; while the Narniad did not start as an epic for Lewis, it seems clear to me that, by The Magician’s Nephew, or maybe even The Silver Chair, he knew that he was writing one). But I also think that Wade Davis’ nonfictional/historical/semi-autobiographical One River is an ethnobotanical epic. I don’t think for a second that Davis intended to make it an epic, but it actually fulfills every single requirement, right down to the snake-lady and the description of the dawn. (Also, The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are film epics if you let Will’s father-become-part-of-the-ship count as a talking tree–Ovid’s and Spenser’s talking trees were usually people turned into trees. I don’t know what worldview the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are showcasing, though. That’s something to puzzle out.)

What makes the epic so amusing to me, then, is that as a genre the epic is almost like a fill-in-the-blanks for ideology. You have all these empty fields which you fill in with content; once you’ve filled in the fields, you have an epic. What’s interesting, of course, is to see how the different features change based on what worldview is slotted in. For instance, in Paradise Lost, the katabasis is Satan’s flight into Hell after losing the War in Heaven. In The Faerie Queene, the talking tree is a man who was seduced by a witch (who signified the Catholic Church) and was turned into a tree when he discovered who she was, but in The Lord of the Rings, written by an environmentalist, the talking trees were Ents, early eco-warriors. In The Faerie Queene the hero is a gentleman-knight; in Lord of the Rings he is a hobbit, an analogue for the simple rural men-at-arms in WWI’s trenches; in One River the hero is a revolutionary ethnobotanist who has what Davis calls a taxonomic eye, the innate ability to identify taxonomy at a glance. Good epics of course are not really just highly stylized Mad Libs; a skilled epic poet or writer will make creative use of the genre’s constraints rather than be a slave to them. So what I like to do is imagine what different kinds of epics would look like. What would an environmentalist epic look like? (Probably a lot like The Lord of the Rings.) What would a Canadian epic look like? What would an Anglican, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim epic look like? What would a librarian’s epic hero’s virtues be, or an engineer’s, or a home-maker’s? What would be the Underworld in a Dutch-Canadian epic, an Asian-Canadian epic, an Inuit epic?

I also think about the sorts of world-views that make me uncomfortable. What would an Islamaphobic epic look like? A homophobic epic? A white supremist epic? An anti-feminist epic? This is less fun, but it might be a helpful exercise.

Ultimately, though, I realize that The Faerie Queene is not just an English epic; Spenser wrote it as a handbook on courtly behaviour. It is an English Anglican aristocratic humanist epic. Milton wanted to write a definitive Christian epic, but Paradise Lost is in fact an Arminian Copernican materialist Christian epic. Or, even more accurately, The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s epic; Paradise Lost is Milton’s. So as fun as it is to figure out what a feminist’s epic would be, I really need to be thinking what a specific person’s epic would be. What is my epic? What is, say, Stephen Harper’s epic or David Suzuki’s epic? What is your epic?

I wish people still wrote epics, because while imagining other people’s epics is fun, being surprised to find out how another person used the snake-lady is even more fun. We must watch how we imagine other people’s stories, because when we do so we run a terrible risk of reducing them. For this reason I would prefer to read them rather than imagine them, but since most people don’t write epics, all I’ve got is the imagining.

*If all of this stuff about humanism sounds vaguely familiar and not especially noteworthy, it’s because much of our culture is descended from humanism. It was radical at the time: the neo-Platonic monastic tradition was the real force in education and art prior to humanism’s advent, along with a sense (among aristocrats) that high culture was exclusively aristocratic. To our eyes, the monastics come off as seeming rather silly (for instance, they believed that the names of objects were intrinsic to the object, while humanists believed that names were socially assigned to objects), but it’s important to remember that in most circles the monastic tradition was taken as obviously true until the humanists showed up.
If you’re thinking that it looks more familiar than just a vague permeation of our culture and instead sounds a lot like the ideas of the Inklings, or of W. H. Auden, or of T. S. Eliot, then you’d be correct; these writers are known as Christian humanists because of their affinity with Shakespeare, Sydney, Spenser, Wyatt, Marlowe, et al. Christian humanism is a lot bigger than neo-classicism, of course.

**I say “epics of this kind” because in a more anthropological or comparative-literature sense, the Greco-Roman and early modern European traditions of epics weren’t the only ones. Lots of people count sagas and  puranas as epics; there’s a whole system of designation between oral or primary epics and literate or secondary epics which includes lots of things that don’t fit here. However, I’m focusing on the tradition I’m familiar with, that one epitomized by Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene.

What World Do You Live In?, Part 3

[You may want to read Part 1 and Part 2 first.]


Source: Ruth at

W. Paul Jones seems to have two uses in mind for his Theological Worlds construct: self-diagnosis and pastoral planning. First, the Theological Worlds can help individuals understand themselves. Second, the Theological Worlds can help churches organize their congregation into sub-congregations according to Theological World so that the congregants are engaging with people who fundamentally understand them. If the Inventory is mostly useless to you because, as I discussed previously, the questions make no sense to you, the first use does not apply to you. If you aren’t part of a congregation or other group that might reasonably organize itself in the way Jones imagines, the second use also does not apply to you.

These aren’t the only uses, though. My first exposure to Jones was through Richard Beck, and one of his insights was that if people don’t understand that everyone has their own Theological World, standard attempts of proselytization will fall flat:

Now, it’s a big shocker for some Christians to find out that many of their brothers and sisters don’t live within this theological world. Sin isn’t their obsessio. Not that they deny the existence and problem of sin, just that sin isn’t the defining quandary of their spiritual lives.

I am an example of a Christian of this stripe. Sin and guilt isn’t my obsessio. If you tell me that I’m going to hell I’ll just blink at you blandly and yawn. I’m emotionally unmoved. To be clear, it’s not that I don’t want to go to heaven. I do. I just don’t spend my life trying to save my own skin.

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What World Do You Live In? Part 2

(Read Part 1 first.)


Source: the LAMP at

Having read his book, I had expectations about which theological world(s) W. Paul Jones’s Theological Worlds Inventory would place me in. World 3—that of T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men,” of people who feel like they might be wearing a mask over a personal emptiness—had most appealed to me in the book. Immediately on reading about it I felt an overwhelming recognition that I felt when reading about neither World 1 or World 2. (This was itself a bit of a surprise: based on the book’s introduction, World 3 did not look promising.) I had expected World 2 (animated by a conflict between violent chaos and small bastions of peace) to follow it fairly closely, and then World 4 (concerned with personal sin and forgiveness) a bit after. I did not expect to have much in common with World 1 (haunted by the universe’s apparent meaninglessness) or World 5 (characterized by unremitting suffering and endurance).

So while I was not surprised that the Inventory placed me high in World 3, I was surprised that it placed me just as high in World 5. (World 2 followed close, and Worlds 1 and 4 were equally and very far behind.) Indeed, the results are a bit flat and I think there might be problems with the Inventory itself, but on reading the descriptions in the Inventory I’m inclined to agree that I’m just as much an inhabitant of World 5 as World 3. I’ll discuss this in detail toward the end of the post; first, I want to look at the Inventory itself and the reasons I think it has problems.

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What World Do You Live In? Part 1

One of the lenses through which I look at ideas and the people who hold them is W Paul Jones’s theological worlds concept. I wrote about Jones’s theological worlds before here, having learned about them in his book of the same name; they are personality types of a sort, though they pertain more to a person’s root cosmology than to whether or not a person enjoys going to parties.


Source: Classic Art Wallpapers at

I want to talk a bit more about the theological worlds now that I’ve taken Jones’s “Theological World Inventory” and gotten somewhat surprising results. As such rather a lot of this discussion will be navel-gazing, but I think even so that will throw off some useful material nonetheless. In this first post I’ll re-introduce the concept; in the second I’ll discuss the Inventory and my results; in the third I want to think a bit about the typology’s usefulness (including to whom the typology is useful).

Theological Worlds

Each theological world represents the fundamental dynamic, or perhaps dialectic, underlying a person’s engagement with the world. Jones’s own words from the introduction to his inventory will work as an introduction to the idea:

A World results from the interaction between two poles. The first is one’s obsessio, that lived question, need, ache, or dilemma which has its teeth into us at the deepest level. Other concerns are variations on that basic theme, standing in line behind its importance. The second pole is one’s epiphania, that which through one or more events, moments, and/or persons brings sufficient illumination, satisfaction, or healing to provide a lived answer worth wagering one’s life upon. One’s epiphania is what touches promisingly one’s obsession as fact or as hope.1

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FtPA: A Library Without Librarians?

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. This one comes from the same class as my essay on the universal library’s myriad problems, Dr. Richard Arias-Hernandez’s Fall 2014 course on Digital Libraries at the University of British Columbia iSchool. This time, I was to take a look at a digital library’s workflow and metadata standards and I decided to look at the Marxists Internet Archive as an exercise in connecting library practice with ideological and institutional constraints.


Source: Claremont Colleges Digital Library (not the subject of this post) at

A Library without Librarians?: The Marxist Internet Archive’s Policies and Standards

The Marxist Internet Archive collects texts, and fragments of texts, from writers who have had some impact on Marxist, communist, socialist, and allied movements. Most of these texts are simple HTML documents viewed directly in a web browser; a number of them are available for download in other formats, most commonly pdf but also in prc, mobi, epub, and odt. Most, but not all, documents have a set of metadata, which the Archive presents in a standard way but which do not always contain the same fields: fields might include when the text was written, when it was first published, the source, who transcribed the text, who proofread the text, who applied HTML markup, and so on. Although the scope appears to be fairly well-defined as original texts or text fragments by Marxist, communist, socialist, or anarchist thinkers, a few scientific and feminist documents are also in the collection with little or insubstantial explanation.

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Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).


Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

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Kegan-Chapman Developmental Model

One of my various hobbies is collecting models of human development, either on an individual psychological basis or a social civilization basis. In particular, I’m interested in the move between what I once would have identified as modernism (or absolutism) and postmodernism (or pluralism). I very recently stumbled on another example at David Chapman’s “Developing ethical, social, and cognitive competence,” written in October 2015. I’m not wholly convinced by it, but it does seem intriguing. Moreover, it seems to mirror, with significant differences, various ideas I’ve had on this subject; for instance, a while ago I was worried about academia’s ability to shepherd people into the final ideal stage of personal epistemology.

I am writing this post mostly to a) mark that it came into my attention and b) share it with you, in case you want to follow along with my stumbling attempts at improving my epistemology, ethical philosophy, and political philosophy.

Related topics:

Selves as systems
Categories as patterns (and, using Chapman’s terms, nebulous ones)
Ethics as ungrounded

Therapy, Trust, and Criticism

[content warning: suicide, mental illness]

[I will warn you now that this does not come with advice, recommendations, or conclusions, despite seeming like such a post. It is wholly a reflection. In the end I think I have nothing to offer my friend, in terms of actionable insight on this issue at least.]

My friend Kafka Beluga,1 who is going through a hard time right now on multiple fronts, is having difficulty trusting her therapist. This difficulty limits the use therapy has for her. I have had two excellent relationships in therapy—one counsellor, one psychiatrist—and I am often worried about people who have trouble with medical professionals. Certainly it seems common enough that people do not take well to therapy; I’ve been trying to think about why I am, as one of the various doctors I’ve seen put it, “a good candidate for therapy.”

The particular value that I got from therapy was not so much in simply being able to talk through my problems—if “talking therapy” has some value, I’ve never seen evidence for it—but in talking through my reactions to things so that the therapist can tell me where I’m being silly. My first therapist, a counsellor in Vancouver, was very helpful in making me see myself in terms I hadn’t thought of before, but my second, a psychiatrist in Toronto, was especially good at dispelling my nonsense.

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Ruthven’s Islam in the World and Christianity

Malise Ruthven’s Islam in the World (Second Edition) is an excellent survey of Islam for those who are not yet well-read on the subject. What I have read of it so far (six and a half of its eight chapters) is well-researched and balanced, neither alarmist nor falsely flattering; Voltaire Panda lent it to me specifically for this reason, in contrast to some of Karen Armstrong’s writing. Further, it offers information I have never seen offered by any of the Muslims who have taught me about Islam (ie. acquaintances, university professors): the Quran’s historical, religious, and literary influences. It has also done a good job discussing the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, though I would have appreciated a summary in table form, and has a more textured, less rose-tinted description of Sufism than I have seen anywhere else. Ruthven also shows an informed and intuitive understanding of human spiritual needs and therefore does not rely on the political, material, or philosophical explanations of Islam’s development that most secular commentators privilege, though he also puts these kinds of explanations to good use as well.


Source: Cristian Viarisio at; the Hagia Sophia was a Greek Orthodox basilica which was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and is now a museum

As with any survey, it covers quite a lot of ground and, alas, it can be hard to follow for this reason: the sheer number of movements, terms, approaches, factions, dynasties, and individuals can make it feel like one of those novels with innumerable similarly-named characters with shifting loyalties—Russian literary, high fantasy, or airport spy novels, as you prefer. The glossary at the back helps with this, but is far from sufficient.

As usual I’m not especially interested in writing a book review. I’ve learned a lot about Islam from the book, but instead of talking about it I’d be more inclined to just recommend the book. But I’ve also learned a bit about religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s these insights that I’d like to share. Continue reading