Skinners in the Box of an Angry Rationalist

When I was younger I used to refer to the vending machine in the university cafeteria as “the campus Skinner Box.” It was great fun to watch co-eds kick and bat at the plexiglass when the result was not as expected.

Today I feel like I am the campus Skinner Box, expected to dispense inflated grades after obligatory contact with manipulandum (in the form of mandatory curriculum). Today’s operant schedules include a Freshman “game” to invent a classroom religion[1] and an American Lit discussion of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

In the first class, I expect to receive compressed food pellets. In the second, I just know I’m going to get electrocuted.

I had a young man tell me (in a reading quiz) that the answer to the question at hand was, “Must be some religious garbage because that’s all we ever talk about in this class.” Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you for consideration: Puritan culture. Not a whole lot of Sci-Fi going on. Unless you count Michael Wigglesworth.

So that’s where The Bad Witch has her head in her work-a-day life. The seventeenth-century.

Rationalism, my friends, is a bore.

The seventeenth-century was the era of The Great Awakening and Jonathan Edwards, the height of Cartesian rationalism, and simultaneously, not surprisingly, The Time of Great Forgetting of the Maya.[2] It ushered in our absolute dependence on “The Incremental Rational.” Time, money, science, reason. Everything became tightly regulated by its smallest degrees. Michel Foucalt would call this creating a “docile body.”[3]

The Cartesian method applied by B.F. Skinner is tres docile.

What else happened in the seventeenth-century that would effect a Bad Witch like me? Let’s see. We have the translation of the Picatrix and reification of the Kaballah—a system based in Abrahamic patriarchy—by the addition of books like Sefer Raziel to the Western Esoteric cannon. We stopped reading Ficino and preferred Agrippa.

Side note? It’s Agrippa and Paracelsus that lead Victor Frankenstein down his path of doom. Not because the occult is evil, but because Romantic reactions to The Enlightenment reign in Victor’s mind (Shelley’s pen)—he is incapable of balancing the creative force with rationalism. This is Victor’s doom. Just remember I said this for a later post. Mary Shelley was a chick.

Oh, and then there’s Sir Francis Bacon—seven degrees or less, I’m sure. The texts of the Renaissance and Early Baroque are far less “rigid” (not that the Arabic Picatrix is a loosy-goosy text[4]) than those following the dig-your-heals-in-boys-it’s-going-to-be-a-fun-ride authority of empiricism.

Pull the lever, get your food.

What else? How about the Witch Trials in Massachusetts? But, I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

My hero, Susan Bordo,[5] explores how seventeenth-century philosophy intentionally shifts emphasis away from a connective female cosmos to a mechanist male “rationality” that not only disassociated human existence from the medieval feminine paradigm, but completely erased it as though the Earth Mother archetype never existed; she refers to this as a “murder” of the female soul. Bordo explains how the masculinization of thought arose out of a desire to control surroundings considering the fear of the (older paradigm of the) feminine connective cosmos resulting from plague, famine, and other seemingly arbitrary natural cataclysm.

Drop me a line if you want to read chapters of theory-laden criticism by my alter-ego: the former doctoral student.

In short, rationalist-scientists liked it better when A could be irrevocably linked to B and then C could be reduced to … whatever one sees as the lowest common denominator for C—just so long as we are all in perfect agreement about what that whatever is. (There’s a whole different post in the creation of “rational incremental thought” that shows how our “agreement” concerning such denominators is purely arbitrary. You don’t want my PowerPoint lectures, trust me.)

Pull lever, get food. Sperm in, baby out. Use *this* magical formula, get *this* result. Because it’s rational; and rational=male=divine=superior. Don’t make me fight with you about the post-Cartesian application of the Platonic Table of Opposites. Onna counta I will.

Today I was re-reading Rosi Braidotti’s Nomadic Subjects[6] (1994). I had read it back-back-back in the day and remembered the section where Braidotti discusses reproductive technologies and the (normative) power of science over women’s bodies. She talks about the difference/femininity-phobic paradigm; namely, the common cultural fantasy of a child born from a man, and the concomitant erasure of the maternal body: “Once reproduction becomes the pure result of mental efforts, the appropriation of the feminine is complete” (89). I had been using it to talk about “Momism” in twentieth-century American film. Not this time.

This time, her critique of Alchemy (actually Alchemists) struck me more than it did when I was writing about White Masculinity in Crisis of the Cold War Era. Funny how these things happen, no? This time, I paid more attention to this passage:

The flight from and rejection of the feminine can also be . . . . [found in] alchemists busy at work to try to produce the philosopher’s son—the homunculus, a man-made tiny man . . . fully formed and endowed with language. The alchemists’ imagination pushes the premises of the Aristotelian view of procreation to an extreme, stressing the male role in reproduction and minimizing the female function to the role of mere carrier. Alchemy is a reduction ad absurdum of the male fantasy of self-reproduction.

It’s pronounced Frahn-ken-shteen.

In arguing with all of the errors in Cartesianism and the binary philosophies of masculinism that pervade occult studies (and even Witchcraft (especially Wicca)), it seems that, in displacing the feminine with the “rational,” a quantum leap has been made in common sense and intuitive reasoning. And that’s where my new thesis begins.

There’s so much more to cover, but I have to go make the doughnuts. It’s been a fun coffee-break but I’m off to teach “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to students-who-haven’t-read in the hands of an instructor-who-has-totally-overthought-today’s-lecture. Same thing, really.


[1] The point of which is to initiate a conversation about religion in a Cultural Diversity context which highlights the similarities of world religions as opposed to the differences. Another was to point out that there are “odd” elements to every faith and that we should neither disparage nor discount any of them: “No giggling.” This latter part inevitably becomes important when they learn the tenets of Scientology.

Added: This particular class, somehow obsessed with Bilbo Baggins, decided that the hobbit was our forerunner to the prophet and Gandalph our keeper of the ancient ways; our pilgrimage was to Tuscaloosa where we would observe the “damned” as they are forever hazed into a fraternity by “eternally mopping the facilities in Mordor.” A commandment was “Thou shalt not wear the ring.” Another was “Mead.”

[2] 1618—also 1.618, The Golden Ratio.

[3] Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1977. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1979.  A docile body results from domination or power derived from the manipulation of bodies by regulating and dividing up their movements as well as the space and time in which they move. Interestingly, Foucault traces the origins of discipline back to monasteries where one of the primary principles that sustains discipline is uniformity and conformity.

[4] But it was translated into Hebrew before Western languages. I’m always a fan of returning to the original. Sadly, for this case, I learned Biblical Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic—not Arabic. Like, not at all. Not even a little.

[5] The Flight to Objectivity: Essays on Cartesianism and Culture.  State University of New York Press, 1987; “Selections From Flight to Objectivity.” Feminist Interpretations of Rene Descartes. Ed. Susan Bordo. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999; “The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought and the Seventeenth-century Flight From the Feminine.” From Modernism to Postmodernism: An Anthology. Ed.  Lawrence E. Cahoone. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

[6] Rosi Braidotti. Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. By nomads, she doesn’t mean “wandering” or “homeless-folks.” She means something a little more theoretical–like “contemporary transitional identities.”

8 comments on “Skinners in the Box of an Angry Rationalist

  1. Angela says:

    Whenever I read a post of yours, I (not so) inexplicably wish I could be taking your classes. Which leads me to want to learn magic and sorcery and theology from you. Which leads me to just want to talk to you; I’d ask for clarification on all the small references you fill your posts with. And that brings me back to wanting to take scholarly classes from you. Come to New England and teach me, please?

    (Kidding; yet serious.)

    Purpose of this comment: I love reading your blog because its always a jumping board for me to go look up some term or phrase you use, and then I get to learn more. The best blogs do that. Keep on keepin’ on, Miss Bad Witch. 🙂

  2. More fuel for my rant-in-progress about “the Enlightenment.” Or perhaps you’ve covered everything I had to say about the operation of the clockwork[1] 😉 Wonderful!

    Now, I have not read Ficino yet, but since I got Purdue’s new translation of TBOP I (, it’s been clear just how much Agrippa owed to Ficino (and also how much he owed to everyone: no more than a tenth of his writing is his own words. It’s not easy to organize such a messy subject, and I think he did it well considering, but then it looks like Ficino showed him the way to do that, too).

    — Fr. Ophis

    1. Except, being possessed myself of a scientific education, I really enjoy trashing today’s materialists by showing them how they are holding on to 19th century math and science, the certainties of which were demolished by Einstein, Dirac, Heisenberg, Goedel, et al. *before 1950* and thus before the breakthroughs in non-linear dynamics known as Chaos Theory gave the coup de grace to any possible pretensions of predictability.

  3. Rachel Izabella P. says:

    begging—Wow! I so need to read your alter ego’s further chapters and thoughts.—/begging Please and thank you! -R.I.P.

  4. […] from the vice-grip of the male-oriented tradition preferred in the seventeenth-century (as per my last post – which is now a funny “box” joke to me) and embraced by the likes of Kellner and […]

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