Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bored by Sex

Not THAT kind of sex. Literature-classroom sex, the wordy two-dimensional substitute for the real thing.

Although I’m firmly committed to the law of chastity, I don’t think I’m a prude. I think it’s possible and at times necessary to discuss sex publicly and that it can and should be done with both maturity and candor. For example, I don’t think youth or adults are well served by chastity lessons that consist mostly of the vague injunction “Don’t do it.” And of course, sex really _is_ part of literature. I once taught a literature class at BYU and noticed halfway through the semester that in one way or another it had come up in every single text (Montaigne, Shakespeare, Goethe, Marx, Ibsen…) we had studied. I finally threw up my hands and facetiously told the class that the chance to read about sex is the whole reason to major in literature instead of math.

But just how much sex do we need to find? In some academic contexts it comes to seem relentless, and also adolescent. And Boaz begat Obed, and Obed begat Jesse (tee-hee—sex in the Bible!) Between-the-lines lesbian encounters in Jane Austen (ha, ha—sex in the most virginal classics!). Phallic symbols in John Donne’s religious poetry (what an erotically charged blasphemous juxtaposition!). At some point just by neglecting a text’s esthetic, historical, sociological, religious, and linguistic features, we’re pornographizing it, and at its worst, the method starts to reduce all texts to pop-up fig leaves. Pull and titter.

If I became this obsessed with eating (an arguably more central human activity than sex), majored in literature and gastronomy studies, could not stop finding hidden digestive processes in literature to the exclusion of every other feature, and talked incessantly about liberating the suppressed polymorphous desires of my own esophagus, I would rightly be referred for psychological help. The name for this kind of obsessive attachment is a fetish. Collectively, as a culture, we have a sex fetish. Seeing sex to the exclusion of all else relentlessly strips it of the complex human context that makes it meaningful in the first place. It reduces sex to porn. The problem isn’t just sexual excess; it’s sex as mere titillation. Bereft of any meaningful connections to the rest of life, sex becomes a series of mechanical postures, a porn manual.

It’s always been a minority of critics who read sex this intensively (and they certainly have given the newspapers exciting things to report about the MLA convention!) I’m also happy to say that from what I can see, excessively sexualized interpretation has already passed its heyday. Maybe all interpretive approaches become more interesting once the initial flurry surrounding them has died down, and we can see what’s worth salvaging.

In the meantime, I’m bored. Oh, Mr. Literature Professor, can we talk about something else, please?

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Saturday, February 04, 2006

Choosing the Left

I'm left-handed. It's something I've always thought was kind of fun, despite the inconveniences of rooms with only tiny right-handed desks (think the JSB at BYU), getting ink smudges on my hand when I write, and the concern about risking my life should I ever attempt to use power tools.

Growing up, I heard that left-handed people were more likely to be geniuses, insane, and criminal— all of which sounded like deliciously exotic possibilities. My brother introduced me to baseball card collecting when I was around eight years old, and I smiled to see the advantage of being a left-handed batter (you're a step closer to first base). Is anyone surprised that I turned out to be somewhat left-leaning in my political views?

I once read an interesting study in which right-handed children were much less likely to know the handedness of their parents than were lefties. It made sense to me— I suspect that most people are much more aware of any characteristic they possess which places them in a small minority. It's something I often find myself observing; I love watching Theoden fight left-handed in Return of the King, and always find it a bit disconcerting that in the scene in which he rides down the line of his men, hitting their swords with his own, he does it right-handed.

I don't know if this is at all related to my left-handedness, but I also have real problems with left-right confusion. If you give me a minute to think about it, I can discern left from right— but off the top of my head, chances are I'll get it wrong. Many years ago when I was a suffering driver's ed student, my instructor had to repeatedly say "No! Your other right!" as I failed to follow his turning instructions. Some part of my brain has simply connected what is commonly labeled "left" with "right," and try as I might, I've never been able to undo it. Left simply feels like right to me.

Church, I find, is a place where I'm likely to be aware of my left-handedness simply because there is so much handshaking going on. I always carry my scriptures in my right hand, in order to leave the left one free for opening doors and so forth. This puts me in an awkward position, however, when someone wants to shake my hand; I have to either quickly shift the scriptures, or simply do a left-handed shake.

I won't even touch the profound theological question of whether it's acceptable to take the sacrament with one's left hand, or to sustain someone. But I do wonder about all those scriptures which state that the wicked will find themselves on the "left" hand of God. I just have to ask— are lefties more likely to be left behind? ;) Because the way I see it, choosing the wrong is clearly a problem, choosing the right is somewhat better, and choosing the left is best of all.

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The Best of Sci-Fi

So I thought I'd start things off by listing my favorite sci-fi shows as of late. They're not really in any particular hierarchy, except that I do have the greatest emotional attachment to Firefly. (Don't expect too much brilliant articulation--I'm mostly just rambling here.)

1. Stargate SG-1: (And to a lesser extent, I would include Stargate Atlantis.) Ultimately, I think Stargate's greatest strength is it's mythos--and what is has is fabulous. I cite the episode Reckoning specifically in regards to this because the brilliant way it brought everything together, and then conceived of a beautiful conclusion to the conflict with the Goa'uld. We got Daniel and his ascension-arc (with roots that trace all the way back to the movie), more Ancient technology, the continuing back-and-forth struggle in the Jaffa Rebellion, RepliCarter, the Asgard, Ba'al working for Anubis with the Kull warriors (Anubis now having to change people every once in a while on account of Lost City), the Tok'Ra...Part One of Reckoning is officially the only episode of the series to have Bra'tac, Thor, and Jacob Carter. I think, more than any other show I've ever watched, SG1 has done the absolute best job of building up history and development and interlocking threads of plots and continuation of those threads and plots...when I watched the episode Reckoning a year ago, I knew that it was one of the absolute best of the series. Because, it would be a terrible episode to introduce non-fans of the show with, but it was the ultimate payoff for the most hardcore and loyal of followers. And Reckoning was the episode that made me realize just how much I love that aspect of the series, and that I really think it's the series greatest strength.

I also absolutely love the continuing mentality with development within the series (if that sentence even makes any sense). For example, when they find new technology, not only is that then incorporated, but it's then used in future technology as everything develops; we meet the Asgard, who give us hyperdrive and beaming technology to be incorporated into the F-302s, the Prometheus, and even the Daedalus on Atlantis. And the all-important discovery of the zat weapons in second season...which is essential because they needed an equivalent of stunning effect from phasers on Star Trek.

And while I initially dreaded the drastic changes to be made to the series this season (what with the defeat of the Goa'uld and the departure of RDA) I've actually been pleasantly surprised. While the interaction between Jack and Daniel remains one of the core strengths and relationships of the series ("Why don't you just hold your breath--you haven't done that in a while.") I've found Mitchell to be a pleasant surprise. And of course, I love Vala, and any interaction she has with Daniel ("Let's make babies!") and am thrilled she's going to be main in 10th season. And even the Ori have proved to be an intriguing new villain--it certainly plays on what the fans seem to want most: to know more about the Ancients. (Too bad we've never gotten to see anything of the Furlings...)

I say Atlantis, to a lesser extent, though more as a sub-favorite, alongside SG1. Part of that is because I think second season so far has been pretty weak, and I've had to watch the character assassination of Rodney McKay (my favorite character) degrading to little more than comic relief. (Oh that Martin Gero will write more McKay episodes--but no more like Duet.) The series does have it's moments, and despite constant cliche, still has potential to be as good as its predecessor. Though I'm hoping that the writers will wise up and realize that Sheppard-McKay interaction is just about the part of the entire series, and will showcase it more. ("This is why parents get someone else to teach their kids how to drive.") I hope Peter DeLuise pulls himself away from SG1 more in the future, because I think The Defiant One may be just about the best episode of the entire series, thusfar.

2. Battlestar Galactica: I've been trying to put my finger on just why I think this series is so great, and the closest I can come to proper identification is in the very tight plotting and pacing. It does have it's down moments, and it's down episodes, but when this series gets caught up in moving fast, it's fabulous. And I think it's second only to Firefly in the central role character plays to the vitality of the series. Things become complicated, and fascinating, and move at such a brisk pace because the relationships are so endlessly complicated. So much so that I enjoy reading all the various, detailed speculations and analyses of each character ("I think Starbuck and Tigh hate each other because they both lean on Adama for emotional dependence and see the other as competition." "Starbuck and Apollo will get together eventually, but they're both too screwed up to deal with each other right now--best that Apollo has a fling with Dualla, and Starbuck continue her obsession with Anders." etc.)

One of the things I love most about the series is that it is literally the only one (in recent memory, anyhow) that could literally draw out such emotional reactions from me--especially in the vein of shock and intensity. I would cite specifically Cally shooting the Galactica Boomer at the end of Resistance. The build up to that was very well structured, as we watched Cally become more and more frustrated on behalf of Tyrol, and come to the conclusion that Boomer needed to be eliminated. Plus, I was semi-spoiled and knew she (Boomer) was going to die, but certainly not like that. And when I watched Ressurection Ship a few weeks ago...I love that you can totally read that Cain knew Starbuck had been tasked by Adama to assassinate her, even though it was never said out loud; and the entire juxtaposition of watching the destruction of the Ressurection Ship from the p.o.v. of Apollo floating in space, with Baltar essentially dismissing the Number Six hallucination from his mind, with Starbuck waiting to kill Cain and Fisk waiting to kill Adama...was genius.

Also, how refreshing is it to see a Sci-Fi series where not only do the main female characters outnumber the male (I'm talking just the opening-credits people) but the creators have made a conscious effort to make this a very egalitarian society. Granted, the series also has an abudance of supporting characters that appear in nearly every episode, but where we have Tigh and Helo, we also have Cally and Dualla.

Further, I find the incorporation of religion fascinating. The humans believe in multiple gods (Artemis, Aprohdite, etc.) while the Cylons believe in only one god--along with somewhat of a deterministic, repeating cycle in the universe (if I understood things correctly from the Leoben interrogation by Kara in Flesh and Bones). And I've stumbled across more than one online article comparing the mythos of the show to Mormonism--the 12 tribes that are wandering, and the fact that you only have to switch two letters in "Kobol" to get "Kolob" and so forth.

3. Firefly: I've been involved with the series less than 6 months, and I can already easily say that it's my favorite sci-fi series ever (which, in my history, is a title not easily given). Also even more significant when taken into account the fact that it's 14 episodes and one movie long. Granted, I was a Joss Whedon fan before I got into Firefly, but I easily think that it's the best of his three series. And while I do usually get somewhat involved with the technobabble of other sci-fi series, I get a kick out of the fact that he is so determined to steer clear of that with this series. (One of my favorite quotes from Whedon is from a Q&A where someone asks about how far apart the different moons and planets are in the solar system, to which he replied along the lines of,"They're really close together, like a little planet village. If you ask me science questions, I'm going to cry.")

Granted, anyone who's a fan knows that Serenity if Firefly-class, and I'm sure there are even some people out there that could recite the class code and all that fun stuff rambled off by River at the beginning of Train Job. But if you think back to episodes, with every single one it's more along the lines of,"It's the one where the characters did this" rather than "It's the one where this part of the engine broke down so they had to travel through time to discover another wormhole to a whole nother reality of existence." And how cool was it that just in 14 episodes, we got to see repeat of supporting characters. (This is going by watching the episodes in actual order, as opposed to how Fox originally aired them.) We got to see Badger again in Shindig after Serenity, we got to see Niska again in War Stories after Train Job, and we got to see Yo-Saf-Bridge again in Trash after Our Mrs. Reynolds.

And while I do love all the characters (a rarity for any show), I do hold such a special place in my heart for Mal (as evidenced by the framed picture of Mal I have above my desk--courtesty of Melyngoch). But it's not even just lust. I get such a kick out of the fact that he likes to appear the bastard, and becomes frustrated by his conscience, and the fact that he ultimately can't help being a good person. And I love that each other member of the crew demonstrates different aspects of his personality (if you like to read it that way, which I do): Zoe is the soldier, Jayne is the ruthless mercenary, Wash is the sense of humor, Kaylee is optimism, Book is spirituality, Inara is compassion, Simon is intelligence, and River is the physical manifestation of the evils of the Alliance.

When discussing Firefly, one also can't ignore the sense of humor. I've enjoyed Whedon humor in the past with Buffy and Angel, but it really hit its peak with this show. I love, love the way they like to take the obvious cliche and slap it in the face. ("Mercy is the mark of a great man. *stab* Guess I'm just a good man. *stab* Well, I'm all right." "Jayne, this is something the Captain has to do for himself." "No, no it's not!" "Oh!") Plus Our Mrs. Reynolds and Jaynestown, between them, have too many great moments to cite many specifics; I've read that Whedon considers OMR to be his best script--and while I don't know whether or not it's true, I could definitely understand why he might that think that; it is fabulous. I absolutely adore the scene in the cargo bay when Zoe calls the entire crew down to meet Mal's new "wife" ("We always hoped you two kids would get together. Who is she?") And everything about the concept of Jayne being seen as a Robin Hood-character, with his own song included, is absolutely brilliant.

4. Star Trek Deep Space Nine: I have to admit, this one is somewhat of an afterthought, but mostly because it's been off the air for five years. This is easily the most emotionally attached I've gotten to in a series with my sisters--and it was a very serious obsession for each of us.

I lost interest in Voyager round about the time we had Seven of Nine in a half-naked skin-tight outfit dueling with the Rock...and while one could justifiably argue that Next Generation is just as good as or better than, DS9 is ultimately the one I remember having the most long-term relationship with. (Uncoincidentally, Ron Moore, who was an executive producer for this show, is one of the show creators/runners for BSG.) I loved that this was the first Star Trek to seriously dabble its feet in religion (which I'm sure just had Gene Roddenberry rolling in his grave.) Are the creatures inside the wormhole powerful aliens? Yes. Well, are they a religious icon to the Bajoran people? Well, that would also be a yes. And the conflict of Sisko being leader of the Federation contigent and simultaneously Emissary to the Prophets was such a pivotal aspect of the series.

The series also managed to move somewhat away from the mentality in regards to women established and maintained during the first two Star Treks. (Women in knee-length cheerleading outfits; Troy in her wolf suit and acting the over-emotional ditz.) Sadly, Star Trek never moved past the idea of women making up any more than 30% of the galaxy, but Dax and Kira were vastly superior to Uhura, Troy and Crusher. I also really liked the idea of the Bajorans being more like the Celts--the women fighting alongside the men in battle.

While the Dominion were ultimately great villains, and served their purpose, one could also argue that the series also succeeded equally (if not better) in various social commentary (though I'm sure one of my sisters could elaborate on that better). I think another thing that made TNG and DS9 better than the others was knowing just when to have fun with an episode. Julian Bashir as a pseudo-James Bond while the rest of the crew has been inadvertantly transported into the holodeck in the ever-classic "Our Man Bashir"...or I remember specifically having a lot of fun going through the sheer enthusiasm and humor from "In the Cards" (which, at the time, also served as a nice counter to all the war/dominion heavy episodes that were around it). And also unlike Voyager and TOS, DS9 did know when to take itself seriously...like in Duet and Hard Time.

I mean, I think it had its flaws, but ultimately I still think of DS9 and TNG as the pinnacle of the Star Trek franchise and look back on both with a considerable amount of nostalgia.

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

How to Read

Language is unstable; texts are ambiguous. Reading, therefore, is not always a straightforward affair.

This gives us leeway in how we approach our sacred texts, from the scriptures to ritual to official proclamations. Accepting the premise that a) God is good and loving in a way that makes sense to us here and now, and b) all sacred texts both embody absolute truth and are inspired by that same God, we're often left with the seemingly simple task of selecting the interpretative possibility of any given text that best accords with our own conception of God.

However, although any text permits a range of interpretations, not all interpretive maneuvers are equally valid. When presented with a spectrum of interpretive possibilites yielding conclusions ranging from absolutely appalling to satisfactory or comforting, it's tempting to simply select the latter as the most valid. In this way, we never have to question either assumption a) or b). Armed with preconceptions of God's character, we can approach texts knowing in advance what they *must* mean, and then simply undergo interpretive acrobatics in order to graft our foregone conclusions onto the text.

While the conclusions may be perfectly valid, however, I submit that this practice is fundamentally dishonest. When we reach conclusions based on readings which do not follow naturally (and I recognize this issue is complexified considerably by the fact that what seems a natural reading of one text to me may not seem natural to you), it seems essential that we openly locate the authority of our conclusions *outside the text itself*.

I once consulted a priesthood leader on the matter of a sacred text which has enough institutional authority behind it and troubles me sufficiently profoundly that it has severely disrupted my relationship with God. His response: "Everyone knows that it *really* means . . ." My contention is that not everyone knows that. Many people accept the language at face value. If that's what we mean, that's what we have to say.

As a specific example of a difficult passage, I've chosen 2 Nephi 5:21: "And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord GOD did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them."

I cannot read this passage without flinching, and I suspect there are members of our own community for whom it causes excruciating pain I don't claim to understand. There's an almost overwhelming temptation, in encountering such a passage, to resort to convoluted conceptual and textual acrobatics in an effort to explain away the plain sense of the verse, and thereby find a way to maintain our commitment to a God who loves all his children without regard to physiological characteristics (and certainly several other scriptural passages would suggest this), and at the same time to maintain our commitment to the inspired nature of the text.

But it seems to me that in an effort to minimize others' pain (and in particular our own discomfort), we trivialize that pain.

There are several ways of approaching this text; the focus of this post, however, is not how best to address racism in our tradition (this is an important issue which deserves a post of its own). The focus is how we treat texts whose most natural implications leave us profoundly uncomfortable. The text says something I don't like, and I find offensive and disquieting, and I think it's worth acknowledging that fact rather than searching for a way to ham-handedly fit the text into my own worldview.

I'm convinced that our sacred texts are often problematic and raise issues that are deeply troubling. But the only way to address these issues is to allow ourselves to see them.

My suggestion is that, whatever else we do, we encounter the text as honestly as we know how. This is not intended to imply that everyone will read a text the same way; our own perceptions and experiences necessarily inform our reading of every text. Nor do I intend to imply that all of us encountering texts as honestly as we can will reach identical conclusions. This is only to say that, given a broad range of possible interpretations to choose from, we select the interpretation not that is the most appealing to our own sensibilities, but that fits the textual evidence as we see it the best.

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Mood Disorders and the Spirit

I was inspired to write and make this post because of the series over at By Common Consent on Mormons and Mental Illness.

I'm a graduate student in my late 20s who's suffered from bipolar disorder since my early 20s. I have no formal training in psychology, but one of my academic interests is psychology and emotion in 20th century American culture (one of my specializations is cultural studies). Typically I look at mood disorders and emotions as cultural and social phenomena (as was perhaps evidenced by my last post on this blog), but I thought I'd temporarily suspend that avenue of thought and explore some thoughts on mood disorders and spirituality that stem from my own experiences.

Those who suffer from mood disorders (or who have watched loved ones suffer) know how difficult it can be to access God, feel the spirit, etc, when one’s disorder is not under control. Depression is a disease that causes immense despair and/or numbness, and often leaves the sufferer feeling cut off from God. Mania leaves its sufferers with racing thoughts and feelings, and often suffuses their lives with exhilarating delusions of grandeur rather than the comforting, affirming touch of the spirit.

One aspect of this phenomenon that really interests me is what we learn about emotion and the spirit from people who have these kinds of experiences. The spirit can touch our lives in many ways. We learn in D&C 8:2 that the spirit can speak to both our mind and our heart. While there is often a lot of discussion in church circles on what makes feeling the spirit different from other emotions and intellectual revelations (for instance, how do the emotions you feel when listening to a moving musical performance differ from a spiritual experience?), and I do think we need to examine the potential differences, in this post, I'm more interested in the commonalities. While spiritual experiences can differ from other emotional experiences in ways that can be difficult to express, I believe that God works through our thoughts and emotions to touch us with the spirit and his love.

Now enter into the equation mood disorders such as depression. "Mood disorder" is a term that doesn't really encompass the totality of the experiences of its sufferers. These disorders are illnesses that affect both one's cognition and emotional state (as well as other bodily processes such as appetite, sleep, etc). On the emotional side they can cause intense emotional pain, guilt, or even an absence of emotion (or, in the case of mania, intense feelings of euphoria or agitation). On the cognitive side, depression can cause a lack of creativity, difficulties in concentration, slowness in processing information, obsessive thoughts, etc. Because of these limitations, it becomes difficult to access the spirit; because one's emotions and cognitions are so out-of-whack, it becomes difficult for God to inspire us in our minds or in our hearts.

I find myself constantly struggling with figuring out what feelings to trust: the church teaches us to trust our feelings, because the spirit is often equated with "feeling" (we "feel" a burning in our bosom, we "feel" twinges in our conscience when we sin, etc). However, mood disorders teach you that you shouldn't trust your feelings: people with bipolar disorder who feel that they are God's chosen servants aren't necessarily so, people with depression who feel like they're the most worthless people on the planet aren't necessarily so, etc.

I do think it’s important to ask how one learns to trust the feelings that come from God while denying the feelings associated with the disorder. At the same time, I think the issue is more complicated than mere differentiation between feelings. Drawing lines between the Spirit and the disorder doesn’t look at the ways that we can experience both at once (or one through the other). For example, feeling the Spirit can affect my base mood level, and distorted cognitions and emotions change the lens I use when thinking about God’s answers to my prayers.

It’s important to not only consider how to distinguish between feelings, but to think about the general messiness and interconnectedness of different feelings. What do mood disorders and their effect on spirituality tell us about how God works through our cognitions and emotions? (What does it mean that when we’re emotionally and cognitively screwed up, it becomes much more difficult to access God and His love?) What can mood disorders teach us about spirituality more generally? How are other spiritual states that are linked to emotion (faith, hope, charity) affected by mood disorders, and how do these spiritual states affect mood disorders and our other emotions more generally?

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Do Honest Questions Aid and Comfort Anti-Mormons?

When my dreams showed signs
of becoming
politically correct
no unruly images
escaping beyond borders
when walking in the street I found my
themes cut out for me
knew what I would not report
for fear of enemies’ usage
then I began to wonder

Everything we write
will be used against us
or against those we love.
These are the terms,
take them or leave them.
Poetry never stood a chance
of standing outside history.
One line typed twenty years ago
can be blazed on a wall in spraypaint
to glorify art as detachment
or torture of those we
did not love but also
did not want to kill

We move but our words stand
become responsible
for more than we intended

and this is verbal privilege

--Adrienne Rich, “North American Time,” from _Your Native Land, Your Life_

Rich’s poem calls me to consider the ethics of speaking into any fierce public divide and the ways the polemics of appropriation can deform what I hope to say. The “political correctness” she describes in the first section shrivels her voice as she notes what she shrinks from reporting “for fear of our enemies’ usage.” I’m very reluctant to use the term “enemy,” especially categorically. I certainly don’t consider someone my enemy simply because he has left or disagrees with the LDS Church. But as I see some of the uses to which those who actively oppose the Church might put our words here, I’m tempted to recoil from those hard and merciful interrogations to which the thoughtful life calls me and to censor myself until I only dimly echo the aphorisms of unthinking consent. On the Internet, how easily our words can fall into the hands of those would concatenate them into inexorable chains whose conclusions we would abhor. It’s not difficult to think of examples, historical and contemporary, of words written and repeated in willful innocence of the ways they have been brandished in bloody triumph over others’ broken bodies and souls, some of which Rich goes on to name in her poem. So, to paraphrase a question once put to Christ, who is my enemy, and what, besides the love enjoined in the Sermon on the Mount, do I owe her? What do I owe the enemy of my enemy who might find himself assailed by my words in my enemy’s mouth? In addition to the obligations to integrity and to mercy that attend all communication, I wonder how to take ethical account of the sometimes bitter public divide between Mormons and anti-Mormons into which our words here now inevitably fall.

My faith and covenants make possible all my inquiry, which I hope to conduct in a spirit of devotion. Although I cannot control the uses to which my words may be put by others, and although I remain committed to welcoming every honest expression of faith or doubt and every sincere question, I hope to foster a dialogue that honors its constitutive faith, even, and perhaps especially, in its most acute, most heartfelt interrogations.

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