Author: cmajgaar (page 1 of 2)

On Darwin

On November 14th, Janet Browne braved another Cape Air trip and returned to Colby to speak on the ‘Darwin’s Origin of Species’, her biographical work on Charles Darwin. In reading her book, I was very pleased with the amount of information supplied on the topic. Browne adds well-considered tangential information to the work, which encourages readers to venture off and explore related topics on their own. This helps keep Browne’s book lightweight and pleasantly readable throughout.

To me, reading a biography focused on Darwin himself enabled me to consider his theories in an entirely new light. While I had never learned about Darwin formally as a component of my curriculum, his study of evolution has always been present in my education. His work had always been presented as fact. However, I had never learned about his early life, his educational aspirations, or his family life. I feel that each one of these points of conversation have allowed me to consider Darwin more holistically. Janet Browne does an excellent job of presenting Charles Darwin as a human, first and foremost; something which is often lost in more scientifically oriented texts.

Stories about Darwin’s hardships, like enduring the deaths of three of his children, show the tremendous impact of his personal life on his intellectual endeavors. In losing three children, he was seeing his own theory of natural selection play out right in front of him.

With such an excellent book and domain expertise like no other, I was very excited for the opportunity to discuss with and learn from Janet Browne during our extended afternoon seminar. Much to my dismay, though, it seemed very much that Browne had arrived with a set-in-stone agenda which ended up feeling much like she was leading a book-club. She asked a series of simple questions to the class and insisted on going around the room to hear everybody’s long-winded answers on e.g. whether they were taught evolution in school. I was rather sad about this and felt it to be an inefficient use of time, given that we had the expert on Darwin’s life in front of us.

One topic which I found particularly engaging and attempted multiple times to query about in class was the close relationship between the eugenics movement and Darwin’s work. Although Dr. Browne did entertain some conversation on the matter, it seemed her focus on the topic was mainly to insist that Darwin was a ‘good man’ whose work was perverted by a handful of people. She did also suggest at some points that the eugenics movement in its initial phases was an honorable attempt at improving humanity.

I was extremely thrilled to have the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Browne. Her extensive knowledge of her domain is inspiring and privilege to benefit from. However, I do wish that she had dared venture outside of her immediate comfort zone when asked questions tangential to her immediate expertise.

Nullius in Verba

Professor Hanlon opened his presentation by making a remark about the structure of our campus. Facing Miller Library from the bottom of the hill, humanities studies take place on one’s left and sciences occupy the right. Arts are isolated from this structure, with theatre on one far side of the campus and visual and music hidden behind the science complexes. There is a clear physical divide between disciplines. One can easily dispel the issue by claiming it is a matter of convenience. However, as a liberal arts college, Colby prides itself on the interdisciplinary and boasts that its students are well rounded and apt in multiple subjects. So why does it force students wishing to broaden their horizons to trudge across campus in the grueling winter? Not exactly what I deem the definition of convenience. In fact, I might even call it a deterrent.

Aside from edu-geographical issues, Professor Hanlon’s presentation was mostly concerned with the Royal society and the novel, two major forces which see their origins around the same time in history.

Hanlon provides an overview of the Royal Society and mentions their motto, ‘nullius in verba’, which translates to ‘take nobody’s word for it’. The Society focused heavily on pure observational science and detailed accounts of experimentation and research, without an overwhelming focus on ‘why’ or ‘how’.

Hanlon mentions the novel by S. Fielding, published in 1744, which bears the title ‘The Adventures of David Simple: Containing An Account of his Travels Through the Cities of London and Westminster In the Search of A Real Trend’ or its abridged title ’David Simple, The Adventures of, in Search of a Real Friend’. Hanlon explains that the novels of the era were far form fantastical. They focused on the quotidian, with a strong emphasis on realism. They sought to teach through their attention to detail and the particular. Hanlon argues that these novels led to a development in observational science where contextual knowledge could be built upon understanding of others’ works.

This interdisciplinary link, focusing on the spread of observations enabling the creation of contextual knowledge, highlights a trend of constructivist learning which I believe we will see only increase in magnitude in coming years. As information becomes easier to share, observations are easily digested in the form of imagery and videos, and our literature becomes increasingly atomic in nature (think tweets, Facebook posts, reddit headlines), the focus on constructing one’s own knowledge will only grow. Although this is an overarchingly positive idea, encouraging critical thinking becomes more important than ever with this trend. As information becomes more digestible and begins to require less energy to process, we must find it in ourselves to verify what we ingest. We should construct learning from the information around us, but must not forget ‘nullius in verbs’.

[In reference to the issue of trudging across a snowy campus (mentioned in the first paragraph) the truly interdisciplinary solution would obviously be contracting a network of interweaving underground tunnels which serve to connect the disciplines and function as modular spaces. Most importantly, such a solution would also keep us warm during Maine winters. Get on it, Colby!]

Putting the Super back in Superhero

On the 21st of November, Chris Gavaler graced us with his presence to discuss with us the origins of superheroes. In class we spoke extensively on the idea that eugenics were heavily intertwined with the creation of superheroes. Together with my classmate, Walker, we spoke after class for a great deal of time on the idea of transgression, transcendence, and transhumanism. For our discussion in the afternoon class, we read two chapters of ‘Origins of Superheroes’, Gavaler’s book, which dealt heavily with the connection between eugenics and superheroes.

Gavaler mentions in our afternoon seminar that superheroes, unlike gods, are not wrathful powers which can behave irrationally. He explains that superheroes take on the role of vigilantes above the law and religion but bound by the code of ethics defined by their encapsulating society. Superheroes are upholders of the status quo, defenders against the foreign, the best of us: unspoiled by impurity and totally dedicated to the preservation of our people. If that sounds slightly third-reich-y, you’d be right. The interplay between eugenics and superheroes is undeniable according to Gavaler.

Essentially, the modern superhero is enabled and permitted to do the things he (Yes, he. According to physical and eugenic ideals, he generally ends up being a man) does because he is strong, handsome, white and protecting his society from foreign invasion or threat. The law does not apply if you’re strong, good looking, white and in the process of saving us all, even if you’re destroying a number of things in the process.

Gavaler also mentions that all superheroes which we see today stem from the same origin, a metaphorical superhero big bang. Unlike the big-bang, however, the material which would eventually compose the modern superhero identity was very much present before this explosion. Ideals of physical traits, moral codes, and responsibilities all helped spur the eventual creation of a proto-superhero, from which many spin-offs could be made. The superhero identity acts as a widely replicable template, with cut-paste-features that can adapt to any culture or plot line.

Unfortunately, this template is often to the detriment of superheroes which attempt to take on a more progressive role. With the advent of Wonder Woman, an opportunity to widely promote imagery of strong & capable women was unfortunately coopted by the template beneath her. Her story, which existed to fill a socially necessary role as a strong female leader, was unfortunately undermined by the standards which govern superhero stories. Her physical appearance propagates a physical ideal for the feminine form. Her means of force are largely based on the notion that women should not fight: primarily uses a shield and bracelets to deflect attack, employs a lasso which compels people to tell the truth (pretty darn cool, but unfortunately still subject to senseless ideals).

When we discuss superheroes, we focus on the ideas of transgression and transcendence of the human form (physically, morally, legally). However, the identities of the superheroes we define, no matter their progressiveness, still fall short of transgressing our own fetishized ideals. Once we define characters which transgress these ideals, we will have put the super back in superhero.

Celebration of Research: Final Reflection

This was the final week of our Origins seminar. In anticipation of the Celebration of Research, we were asked to prepare and present a draft of our poster about our research topic to present to the afternoon seminar.

Lightly workshopping the class’s posters during our longer afternoon seminar was especially nice, as I got the chance to see everybody’s posters (something which was not as easy later in the evening as I found myself rather occupied with my own poster). Although we had been discussing our research with each other throughout the semester, it was rewarding to see the culmination of each project. Many of the class’s projects took on an entirely new dimension when presented visually and to their full extent.

I was particularly enthralled by two students’ projects: Ronnie’s artistic presentation of various origin stories and Benard’s research into the origin of his tribe.

Beginning with Ronnie, the first thing which caught my gaze was the exuberant use of color. For each of her pieces, she had selected a vibrant palette of primary colors which seemed to both clash and harmonize at the same time, which I would have had a rather tough time achieving. I’m glad that there was a talented artist among the group to make up for absolute lack of creativity which I contribute. Beyond her use of color, she had managed illustrate a number of different origin stories (each with unique plots) in a cohesive style; perhaps an homage to the notion that we all share the same ultimate origin, but each maintain our own descriptions and philosophy on how our world came about.

Benard’s extensive research into the origin of his tribe frankly blew me away. With limited written resources, he had managed to compile an extremely far-reaching history on the origin, movements, conflicts, and tragedies of his tribe. His project, to me, really exhibited the power of strong traditions of maintaining oral histories (a concept which interlinks somewhat strongly with my own research topic). He had provided excellent visuals with informative annotated maps and pictures from the region. Benard was enthusiastic about his topic and excited to answer questions. His project really exhibited the effort that he put into it.

We would go on to revise our posters last-minute before the evening’s activities.

During the evening Celebration of Research, in the brief amount of time in which I was not discussing with Walker or benefiting from the generous buffet, I ventured over to the Zine tables to view the artistic compilations of our sister-class. Having used a number of resources allocated to them through the new MuleWorks Innovation Lab, the students had assembled a variety of projects which displayed their poetic abilities, creative vision, and perhaps an element of rather cynical self-awareness. One of the zines, made by Will Gross, included a strike-anywhere match annotated with the caption “Make this zine useful”, implying that the notion that the work might be better suited as a fire starter. I wouldn’t agree with that notion, as the content was perfectly apt, but I appreciated the humor.

Throughout this semester, this series has provided me with weekly material for contemplation. It has been an exciting experience to interact with such brilliant and enlightening guest speakers so consistently, something which very few undergraduates get to do in the way we do.

Onion vs Oyster (Mignonette?)

Professor van der Meer visited our extended afternoon seminar on November 7th to discuss the story of Indonesian nationalism. Arnout suggested that we project a map of South East Asia to illustrate the points he would present throughout our discussion. He detailed colonial regimes in the Philippines and Indonesia, trade routes, and the subsequent religious affiliations which followed. Van der Meer explained how the narrow channel between Malaysia and Indonesia, which allowed access to Borneo and the Philippines from the West, turned areas bordering the Java Sea Sea into a multicultural trading mish-mash. The geographical overview, shown behind Arnout, was key in contextualizing the impact of external cultural forces of South East Asian nations.

Arnout, baiting the room, suggested the Onion Theory as a model for explaining Indonesian culture. The Onion theory hypothesizes that layers of cultural identity can be peeled away, much like the layers of its namesake, to reveal the core/essential identity of a people. He continued, elaborating on how Dutch colonialists, Muslim faith, and frequent external cultural influences could have formed layers atop the core Indonesian identity; which could be distilled to it’s purest form with some historical insight. Needless to say, the room flared up with discussion mostly critical of the proposed model. The notion that a core identity would lay undisturbed throughout time was not very popular. It seemed to suggest that additional layers ‘added on’ were not relevant or essential to the Indonesian identity, simply later add-ons.

Much like my peers, I disagreed with the bait-theory and quickly began pointing out its flaws (some of which eventually devolved into some degree of nonsense, as I began taking the onion analogy too literally). Considering the subject ex post facto, I would propose an alternate analogy (perhaps more ridiculous): The Oyster Theory, which in my mind aligns much more with Arnout’s deconstruction of Indonesia’s constantly fluxing national identity. The (/my) Oyster Theory postulates that Indonesia’s national identity is a product of continual ‘filtering’ of externally introduced cultural substance. Over time, the substance is converted to the flesh and shell of the oyster, building a national identity fed by selectively used foreign substance. The Oyster can never be separated back into the egg and sea-gunk that formed it. Tides change, the oyster is fed with fresh water and continues growing. The oyster exists in flux, just like the soul of the Indonesian people.

Additionally, during the evening lecture, van der Meer introduced Soemarsono as a means of linking the rich history of Indonesia to a story of a person. [Arnout argues that contextualizing history through a narrower biographical approach allows a deeper insight into developments of the time, rather than a surface level timeline of discrete events.] Soemarsono’s experience and political movements very much embody the notion that Indonesia holds pride in its many cultural influences and believes that their identity is owed to careful selection of cultural substance offered to the nation throughout time.

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