My book list is a reflection of the questions I’ve been working through for the past nearly-four years. Its first section, “Knowing and Being in the Universe,” addresses the existential dilemma of attempting to understand ourselves and our role, as individuals and as a species, in a universe larger than we can comprehend. Political systems and societies, after all, are different ways of ordering our lives as communities. But without first thinking deeply about who we are as individuals, we cannot possibly begin to theorize the systems by which we organize ourselves. Articulating our place in the universe is an enormous task, and there are no easy answers to any of the questions raised in the process. All we can do is keep asking, and remember that, as Lao-tzu writes, “Not-knowing is true knowledge. Presuming to know is a disease.” As frustrating as these words may be, they do provide some comfort: if we’re confused, we’re not on the wrong path at all! We’re just taking the necessary first step toward truth.
The following section, “Establishing Political Systems,” explores the rules by which human beings construct systems of organization and power. This section in particular is important because I’ve found it productive to study politics while remembering that all political systems are human constructions, bound by rules and conventions that are context-dependent—in a sense, arbitrary—and ever-changing. Each of these sources reminds us of this truth in a different way: Shakespeare, that participating bodies in a political system must actually recognize the rules we establish; Lanchester, that we simultaneously must not buy into these guidelines so much that they eclipse reality; Vonnegut, similarly, that we must not forget how our rules and theories directly affect people’s realities; and Harmon/Roiland, that we cannot view these guidelines as untouchable, objective, or given. Establishing a political system necessarily requires some set of principles and stipulations, but as with most everything else in our lives, the work on it must be ongoing.
The third and final section, “Balancing Political Accordance, Resistance, and Existence,” is concerned with healing and continued existence in an inescapably political world. For me, it’s not enough to theorize without remembering that politics takes a real toll on real people. Existing in a social and political context is anything but easy, particularly for people of marginalized identities. There is no real option to “opt out” of participation in society, certainly not in the United States, but as Walker says, “[we do have] some control over how much suffering [we] endure.” Achebe, Walker, Morrison, and Oliver each illustrate powerful ways in which understanding and awareness facilitate our healing and renew our existences. This conversation is critical to any student of political theory. Politics is not unemotional, unbiased, or without an agenda. Politics, especially for those at the margins, takes a real and legitimate emotional toll. In order to theorize, we must seek first to understand, to be grounded, to be okay. If the first two essays are written with an eye toward deconstruction and existentialism, this final essay addresses the question: With so little known for sure about politics or the universe in general, what are we as humans supposed to do?
I have composed a list, and written three essays, about what I felt was explicitly missing from my undergraduate education. Every class I’ve taken has danced around these questions, which to me are the most important questions exactly because they are so huge, pervasive, and unanswerable even after centuries of attempts. How do we allow things to be criticized and broken down at the same time as we build and improve them? How do we balance the real and the theoretical? How do we stay honest in our intellectual inquiry, neither overstating nor understating our knowledge?
This is my attempt.
Politics Undergraduate Oral Examination: Book List
SECTION ONE: Knowing and Being in the Universe
- “Theogony.” In Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, Shield, edited by Apostolos N. Athanassakis, 11-36. 2nd ed. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2004.
- The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York, NY: Penguin, 1996.
- Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-help Book. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.
- Lao-tzu. Tao Te Ching: A New English Version. Translated by Stephen Mitchell. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2006.
SECTION TWO: Establishing Political Systems
- Harmon, Dan, and Justin Roiland, creators. Rick and Morty. Adult Swim. December 3, 2013.
- Lanchester, John. Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. London: Allen Lane, 2010.
- Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” In The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr, 2569-2632. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2008.
- Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-dance with Death. New York, NY: Dial Press, 1999.
SECTION THREE: Balancing Political Accordance, Resistance, and Existence
- Achebe, Chinua. Home and Exile. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 2001.
- Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction. Edited by Carolyn C. Denard. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.
- Oliver, Mary. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York, NY: Penguin Press, 2016.
- Walker, Alice. “This Was Not an Area of Large Plantations: Suffering Too Insignificant for the Majority to See.” In We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness, 88-110. New York, NY: New Press, 2006.
selected and written to fulfill senior requirements for
an undergraduate degree in political theory