7 Quick Papers (5/6/11)


I’m up late tonight writing my last college paper ever.  After I finish this paper by daybreak, I only have one final between me and graduation.  The final this afternoon (delivering an original speech for an Oratory seminar) is a fun last hurrah, but the paper is not quite as exciting: it’s on methods of estimating infection rates for Hepatitis C.  I have gotten to write some more-interesting papers in college, though, so the rest of the Quick Takes are teasers of the ones I’ve loved, ending with a link to my senior essay, since a couple of you requested.

Oh, and fair warning, I really love putting colons in titles.



On the Existence of Unperceived Objects
(or The Utility of the Appendix)

Freshman year, in Directed Studies, I wrote one of a brief and snarky little paper attacking George Berkeley’s theory of Immaterialism, which claims material objects cannot have an existence independent of a mind that perceives them.  This theory ends up setting up an proof of God’s existence (the natural world appears not to be dependent on human observation because God can perceive everything and hold it in existence from moment to moment.  I tried to use the appendix as an example of a thing that turned out to have existed before we knew about it.  If the paper had been longer, I would have tried to make up a metaphysics in which objects existed as long as they were perceived at any point in time.  The appendix existed because it would be perceived in the future and therefore it had to exist in the past to preserve the continuity of the timeline.  I’m sure this could develop in interesting, science fictional ways.



The Hour is Come, but not the Man:
Technology and the Failure of Adams’s New Man

Who would turn an essay on The Education of Henry Adams into a discussion and defense of the steampunk aesthetic?

Ok, I guess that question was a bit of a gimme.

Adams’s wonder/horror at seeing dynamos at the World’s Fair set me off talking about the kind of sleek, closed off technology that alienates people from the physical laws their machines depend on:

Today’s engineers have taken science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s famous pronouncement that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” as their guiding principle. All technology is prized for being effortless, seeming to have simply come into existence as a whole thing, incapable of being broken down, and as Adams would say, occult. But, in a world built by new men, we would no longer value technology for being effortless, but for allowing the user, if s/he chose, to go under the hood and mess around. It is the difference between a digital clock and a clockwork one. The latter’s workings are accessible and can be interpreted by tinkering, while the former is inaccessible. One would never discover electrical force by watching a digital clock; the mechanisms are too difficult to reach.



Alienation of the Body, Alienation of Agency:
The Chronic Condition of Modern Medicine

This was kind of a philosophy of medicine paper.  I was looking at the way that progress in a doctor’s ability to understand disease could make a patient irrelevant to their own treatment.

It is a peculiarity of the modern age that allows us to conduct double-blind trials: most modern medicines are, from the point of view of the patient, indistinguishable from inert sugar pills. We don’t expect our medicines to do anything but make us well. Side effects are seen as a flaw in the design, rather than an expected component of the healing process. Ideally, the patient experiences only the cessation of symptoms.

The emergence of germ theory robbed patients of both their ability to understand what was going on within their bodies and their ability to help doctors gain understanding. Rather than engaging directly with their patients, doctors engaged with the microbes that caused dysfunction. As germ theory provided new kinds of data about illness, the perspective that patients could provide from their subjective experience of their bodies became less valuable and less relevant.

This shift caused patients to cease to be participants in their own cure, and it was possible that they could become antagonists in the eyes of their doctors. Today, we remember Mary Mallon, a cook who had emigrated from Ireland, exclusively as “Typhoid Mary,” and we tell her story primarily as it was eventually told in the newspapers of her time. We imagine her as a malevolent imp, deliberately spreading disease throughout households, the type to, “willfully and deliberately to have taken desperate chances with human life.” It would be more accurate to remember Mary Mallon as the first woman to be completely betrayed by and divorced from her sense of her own body.

Now, as a epidemiology enthusiast, I’m certainly not arguing that alienating laypeople in order to develop more complex and more effective treatment wasn’t a worthwhile trade-off.  I just want to recognize that the trade-off exists.



Would you believe Yale gave me academic credit for writing a scene and song about diphtheria?  (spoken text in italics, singing in CAPS).

At last, there was progress. Tri-chloride of iodine could save the guinea pigs from the baccilus. But the chemicals burned holes through the flesh of the animals, the few that recovered frequently succumbed to the cure. To create a serum that could save children, I had to turn to hardier animals.


What cures horses and guinea pigs and sheep and rabbits must cure children! A few desperate cases were injected with the serum, and, although several died, the rest lived! A whole stable of horses was pressed into service to produce antitoxin, and, at last, I was able to take the first batch to the diphtheria ward.


They recovered! More recovered than died! 



Treat half, leave the rest

So, I didn’t say it was a good song.  A great class, nonetheless.




If Only Angels Would Prevail:
The Moral Tragedy of Sweeney Todd

I loved writing this so much.  My focus was on the moral dimensions Stephen Sondheim added to the story of Sweeney Todd when he adapted it as a musical from a play by Christopher Bond.  I wanted to address the problem of how one can live in a fundamentally degraded dystopia, and then all my friends accused me of injecting Catholic morals in.  You be the judge.

Ultimately, Bond’s Sweeney believes that he can shuck off his Sweeney persona as easily as he put it on. After the murder of the Judge, Todd sheathes his razors and declares, “Now that my vengeance is assuaged I long to see Johanna” (Bond, II, x, pg 43). This line could never be delivered by Sondheim’s Sweeney. Unlike Bond’s murderer, Sondheim’s Sweeney understands that the evil he embraces will warp him and preclude the possibility of ever seeing his daughter again. In ‘Epiphany,’ the song in which Sweeney decides he will kill at will, rather than only destroying the Beadle and the Judge, he declares, “We all deserve to die./And I’ll never see Johanna/No I’ll never hug my girl to me – finished!” Although most of the song is performed in a desperate rasp, in these sections, the music drops into a resonant register and is sung more sweetly, symbolizing the humanity Sweeney is putting aside. His decision to kill sunders him from his morally pure daughter.

Sweeney believes himself to be as dead to his daughter as his wife Lucy is to him. His recognition of this loss makes him profoundly more tragic than Bond’s Todd. Sondheim’s Sweeney understands that his vengeance comes with a terrible cost, the perversion of his own soul, which renders him unfit to see his innocent daughter. The harm he inflicts upon himself cannot be erased or set aside, as Bond’s Sweeney believes. Sondheim’s Sweeney is aware that there is a moral law, even as he transgresses it.



A New Future of Facelessness:
Political Protest in an Anonymized, Atomized Internet Age

Finally the senior thesis that made me jump for joy.  Some of my friends asked me to upload it, so, if anyone has a burning desire to know my opinions as to whether DDoS attack are a constructive form of protest or is totally in the dark as to what a DDoS attack is, I’ve uploaded the whole thing to Scribd.

[Seven Quick Takes is a blog carnival run by Jen of Conversion Diary]
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  • How come you've written so many papers? In my four years at uni, I've written three or four and I graduated in a master that's considered 'heavy' on papers. So how come you have this many? Are you an English major?Also, though it may be a bit premature, congratulations on graduating! Enjoy your freedom after your final final this afternoon.

  • Believe me, as a political science major, my load is way lighter than that of my history major friends (as they keep reminding me!). I'll bet your papers were much longer than mine. Most of them (except the thesis) are in either the 5-7 or 12-14 page range.

  • The premise of paper #2 definitely sounds like a great start for a sci-fi story. Going to develop it?

  • Michael Haycock

    Y'know, #2 makes me think of the Weeping Angels. Not sure exactly how the two ideas would combine, but… it's intriguing 😀

  • Congratulations.