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Tutor profile: Shannon L.

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Shannon L.
Law Student at Washington University in St. Louis
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Questions

Subject: SAT

TutorMe
Question:

I'm having trouble with the grammar questions on the SAT. What could I do to improve?

Inactive
Shannon L.
Answer:

A trick to mastering the grammar section is to say the sentence in your head with each of the options and seeing which one "sounds" the most correct. English grammar has a lot of rules, not all of which are consistent, and it's often more difficult and time-consuming to try to memorize them all and then try to remember them during the exam. If you say the sentences "out loud" though, it's a lot easier to get a feel for which answers are right and which answers are wrong. Also, if an answer involves contractions, break those contractions apart into two separate words to see if the sentence still makes sense like that.

Subject: Writing

TutorMe
Question:

In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau radically split the state of nature from modern society. On the Social Contract attempted to legitimize political society based on the values he expressed in Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. Through these two texts, Rousseau sought to implement ancient virtues of republicanism in modern society. Analyze the manner in which Rousseau adopted and altered the republican political tradition. Why did Rousseau perceive modern society to be problematic? How and why did he seek to find a solution through republicanism?

Inactive
Shannon L.
Answer:

In Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau argued that the natural state of man involved two basic principles: man’s natural self-interest and desire for self-preservation, and man’s general distaste for the suffering of other sentient beings. Modern governance was therefore removed from man’s natural state in the sense that it was built on the concept of force, in which the people obeyed because they were obligated to, not because they chose to. Rousseau therefore proposed in On the Social Contract a form of republicanism as the solution because it was a form of governance that most closely approximated the natural state: it was perpetuated by a collective of individuals who each desired to maintain their own self-interests, and going against the state would hurt both the individual and the whole, which man in his natural state was instinctively opposed to. Rousseau’s main objection to modern governance was how far removed it was from man’s natural state. If a sovereign power held itself above its subjects, then the subjects obeyed because they were obligated to, not because they chose to. Social order derived from such governance was the result of an agreement, a contract, rather than from nature. The only natural form of authority was the authority parents held over children, and even that authority was dissolved once the children had no need of their parents’ care. Anything further would once again be the result of an agreement. One could make the argument that no form of government technically contradicts any of Rousseau’s ideas about the man’s natural state. After all, choosing to obey a tyrant rather than face the consequences of disobedience could be said to be a form of self-preservation. No one is technically forced to obey any sovereign power. Dissent is always technically possible. Yet in those cases, choosing to preserve the interest of living requires forsaking the interest of autonomy and freedom, which may be said to be no real choice at all. Indeed, Rousseau made that point when he put forth a situation in which he would be forced to give up his purse should a robber hold him at gunpoint, even though he could technically hold onto his purse as the robber had not physically taken it. Therefore, it is unnatural when the people are only able to voice their dissension at the risk of the principal interest of living. It is also arguable that if man in his natural state is disinclined to cause harm to other sentient beings unless in case of direct personal harm, then there might as well be no need for government. After all, one of the main functions of the government is to maintain order among the people and prevent undue harm from coming to any individual. This is entirely possible if one did not wish for man to progress beyond his primitive state. However, by Rousseau’s reasoning, it is against the nature of man to never progress, due to his “faculty of self-perfection.” In seeking out pleasures for his own self-enjoyment, man will naturally acquire knowledge, and through that knowledge necessitates the development of language, which then gives rise to socialization and societies that, ultimately, result in the formation of governments. In order to maintain every individual’s self-interests while still operating as a society, Rousseau’s social contract necessitated that every man relinquish the entirety of himself to everyone else, thus giving rise to three corollaries. The first corollary was that since everyone was in the same situation, no one individual would seek to make things any more difficult for anyone else. The second corollary was that since everything was surrendered equally, no individual would have any powers or interests that would pose a threat to the contract and the state. The third corollary was that since everyone gave themselves over equally and entirely, everyone essentially gave up nothing at all. As can be seen here, the republic is the form of governance that most closely approximates man’s natural state, as it plays off both his desire to maintain his self-interest and his reluctance to hurt other sentient beings unless it was necessary for his own self-preservation. And yet, the republic still has logical shortcomings. Rousseau stated that while the sovereign could not violate the social contract, individuals could work to their own self-interest by enjoying the benefits of being a citizen while shirking the responsibilities. Subsequently, irresponsible citizens would be forced to obey the general will. This form of obedience is at first glance alarmingly similar to the forms of government Rousseau had previously criticized. He had argued earlier in the text that force was no determinant of right, that a government run on force was no true government, as the people could not exercise free will and were forced to obey lest they lose their lives. In a republic, the consequences are no different. Rousseau wrote that “whoever refuses to obey the general will, will be forced to do so by the entire body.” As there is no other given alternative, one assumes for the sake of argument that the other alternative is leaving the society. While it is technically possible to live apart from society, one cannot reasonably expect that a man that was raised in civilization would be sufficiently equipped in skill to survive on the edges of society. Therefore, the choice is once again between forced obedience or death. Furthermore, the statement “forced to be free” is inherently paradoxical, as is this system of governance. The individual must either choose to or be forced to surrender himself to the republic, yet the republic does not surrender to him. His life depends on his cooperation in the system, yet the system does not suffer if he refuses to take part, as he is only one man. By guaranteeing against “personal dependence,” Rousseau’s republic has only managed to once again strip autonomy from the individual. Rousseau addressed this in Chapter 8, when he said that under the social contract, man would lose his natural liberty in exchange for civil liberty, that in losing the ability to do whatever one wished and was able to do, one gained the ability to apply reason to his actions, which were governed by the rest of the citizenry. Rousseau argued that moral liberty is what makes one truly the master of oneself, the ability to make a rational decision and know right from wrong. This is in line with the concept that man, even savage man, had faculties of self-perfection and naturally tended towards a state of self-betterment. Yet the concept of needing to sacrifice personal freedom for a sense of morality seems to go against one of the second principles of man in his natural state, that is, that savage man too possesses a sense of pity and unwillingness to hurt others. Rousseau stated that justice and morality are what separates man from animal, but there seems to be very little difference between this and the sense of pity that he wrote on in Discourse. If the point of justice and morality is to make sure that men do not hurt each other in their pursuit of personal desires, and pity does the same thing, then the need for a republic seems redundant. Yet Rousseau wrote in Discourse that pity did not stay men’s hands from cruel acts, saying that while Sulla and Alexander of Pherae were moved by tragic plays, they themselves were more than capable of committing cruelly violent acts. But Rousseau explained this phenomenon when he said that pity was a strong, overwhelming sentiment in savage man, but grew weak in civil man. It is concerning, however, to note that in civil society, which supposedly ennobles and elevates men’s minds and actions, natural pity seems to be so diminished a quality that it must be replaced with an artificial institution to ensure that men do not attempt to hurt each other in the pursuit of their interests. Ultimately, Rousseau’s republic was designed as a simulacrum of the natural state. Given that man was already so far removed from the natural state by 1762, it was necessary for Rousseau to design a form of governance that could simulate or induce the psychological state condition of natural man. Ungoverned pursuit of self-interest was replaced with the republic to ensure that no one man infringed upon the interests of others in pursuit of his own, and a natural sense of pity was replaced with morality and a justice system to check man’s possibly-harmful impulses.

Subject: English

TutorMe
Question:

Please analyse the purpose of the substance Ubik in Philip K Dick's novel of the same name, both within the universe of the novel and as a literary device.

Inactive
Shannon L.
Answer:

From the beginning, Philip K Dick’s Ubik is an exercise in suspension of disbelief. The point of the novel is that nothing is real. Even the events that supposedly happen in the novel can’t be proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to have actually happened. In Ubik, reality is relative. Reality is what one believes to be real, and it is no longer reality when one stops believing in its power. When existence fails to match up with one’s preconceived notions of reality, then it’s no longer considered real. That is how people distinguish dreams from reality. The problem, however, lies in the fact that there is no real way to prove whether dreams are the real world or whether the life we live in our waking hours is real. One accepts that one is living in reality because this life is what one believes is real. The power of anything lies in someone’s belief that it has power. This is how the economy works, how governments work, and how society works as a whole. Nothing has power unless there are people who believe that it has power. The point of the substance Ubik is that its power lies in people’s belief that it is real and has power and a purpose. The power of belief is evident beginning with the events following the explosion. The coffee and cream are inexplicably spoiled, their currency is mysteriously obsolete, and the phonebook is outdated, but there’s a constant attempt to rationalize these things in the context of being alive and awake. They believe that they are all alive and everything that has happened is entirely real, and so they never stop to question the fact that these occurrences might indicate that they are not currently in what they believe is reality. An interesting point of note is that Joe barely questions the validity of Runciter’s writing on the wall. Joe is the only one who asks if the writing is true, and Al only replies with, “Sure. Obviously” (p.127). It is not explained why Al is sure, or why the writing is obviously true, and Joe doesn’t ask for an explanation. Immediately, Al declares that they must be in half life, and once again, Joe doesn’t question this. The entire scene between Al and Joe is actually just a continuous back-and-forth of Al making statements that Joe just accepts without question. Al confirms Runciter’s writing as true; Joe accepts Runciter’s writing as true. Al proposes that they are all in half-life; Joe accepts that they are all in half-life. Al says, “We shouldn’t have separated from the others; that’s why it happened to Wendy” (p. 128); Joe does not question how Al knows that the separation is the cause of the chaos, or why the separation is the cause of the chaos. He simply says, “I’ll go join the others...Yes, I understand” (p. 128). Later on, Joe sees Runciter in a television commercial, where a supposedly pre-recorded version of Runciter tells Joe to buy a can of Ubik in order to fix everything. Joe asks what Ubik even is, what it’s made of, and how it works, but Runciter never answers. And after the commercial ends, Joe’s opinion on Ubik slowly begins to change, and he doesn’t recognize the shift in his opinion. At first, he shows skepticism, calling it “Runciter’s alleged spray-can product. Which probably did not even exist. It was probably a further hoax, to bewilder them that much more” (p. 137). But by the end of that section, Joe decides to pick up the sample of Ubik from his conapt because “that’s what the TV commercial urged [him] to do. [He’ll] be safer carrying a can of Ubik with [him], as the ad pointed out in its own jingly, clever way” (p. 137). There is no explanation for why Joe suddenly changed his mind about the validity of Ubik’s existence. Herein lies the point of the substance Ubik: it has power when one believes that it has power, just as reality in the novel is real as long as one believes it is real. Joe’s reality constantly changes based on what he believes to be true. He believes that Runciter is dead when he accepts the writing on the wall as true. Then, he believes that Runciter is alive when he sees the television broadcast announcing that Runciter will be laid to rest in Des Moines. Then, once again, he believes that Runciter is dead when he sees Runciter’s commercial. Finally, Joe settles on believing that Runciter is alive and that he had ordered the pre-recorded commercial to be played at this time and failed to retract his orders, thus leading to the contradiction between the commercial and the bathroom graffiti. Joe believes this explanation to be valid because “...it would in fact explain [the contradiction]...no other explanation would” (p.136). The fault in Joe’s reasoning, however, is that the explanation fails to actually explain what has happened since the explosion. If the group had died and Runciter was still alive and had made that video when he was alive based on inaccurate pre-cog information, then it would have been impossible for Runciter to know about the writing on the wall. He also wouldn’t have known if Al specifically was deteriorating. Pre-cogs can see into the future, but the novel gives no evidence that pre-cogs can see into the half-life world. However, the rest of the novel proceeds as though the group is dead because Joe believes that they are. It doesn’t matter that the explanation is invalid; it becomes valid solely through Joe’s belief. Joe’s relationship with Ubik is similar. Joe never actually knows what Ubik is or how it works. He asks what Ubik is several times, and nobody ever actually gives him a straight answer. Initially, he does not even believe it to be real or useful. Subsequently, when he first opens the free sample of Ubik, it appears to him as “Ubik Liver and Kidney Balm” and subsequently regresses into “Elixir of Ubique.” Even when he first reaches the drugstore, Jory is capable of regressing the Ubik back into jars of liver and kidney balm. However, when he is handed the jar, Joe begins “flooding it with his need” and insists, “You are a spray can. This is 1992...What I hold here is a spray can” (p. 221). It is important to note that this time, Joe actually needs the Ubik. Up until that point, Joe has never personally expressed a need for Ubik. Runciter’s reappearance in the hotel marks the first time Ubik has ever been successfully used on Joe without it regressing into balm or elixir before it could be applied. Up until Joe is deteriorating in the drugstore, Joe doesn’t ever feel like he needs Ubik. He feels like he needs Runciter, and that is why he does not believe that Runciter is dead, and why the Ubik doesn’t regress when it’s directly connected to Runciter. Every tangible thing that Joe connects to Runciter remains true and “real,” whether it be the writing on the wall, the commercial, or the various notes supposedly left to him by Runciter. When he meets up with the rest of the group, he tells them that they are all dead, and he knows this because “Runciter told [him]” (p. 165). Joe’s reality is that they are dead and Runciter is alive because he believes in Runciter, and subsequently, Runciter’s word is all Joe needs to make anything real to him. Initially, Joe fails to change the liver and kidney balm into Ubik, but then Myra Laney appears to him a short while later, explaining her presence by saying, “You brought me here from the future, by what you did there inside the drugstore a few moments ago. You summoned me directly from the factory” (p. 223). By insisting that Ubik is real and that it has value to him, Joe essentially wills Ubik into being. It exists because he believes that Ubik has a purpose and that he needs it. When Joe discovered that Runciter had been lying to him and really had no idea what was going on, he stopped believing in Runciter, thus causing the Ubik to degrade again. Because Joe no longer believed in Runciter, Joe stopped believing in Ubik by proxy, because Ubik was so closely-tied to Runciter. Following Joe’s meeting with Runciter, the Ubik begins to lose function. First, it replaces Don Denny with Jory after Don sprays the remaining Ubik on himself. Then, when Joe reaches the drugstore, he finds that Jory has managed to regress all the Ubik into kidney and liver balm. However, by expressing a need for Ubik, by insisting that it is real and that it is right there, Joe manages to summon Myra Laney and, by proxy, a functional can of Ubik. Ubik is only useful when one believes it is useful, or believes that one needs it to survive. This quality is further reflected in the fact that Ubik keeps showing up as a commercialized product. At the beginning of every chapter, a small commercial jingle the benefits of Ubik, which appears as a variety of products, including a bra, a deodorant, a beer, a coffee, and a cereal. The first time Joe actually hears about Ubik, it’s in the form of Runciter’s commercial, which is incidentally the only time an Ubik-related commercial markets Ubik as actually doing what it’s supposed to do. Just like any of the consumer products that Ubik acts as a stand-in for in the beginning of each chapter, Ubik has no power until someone believes that they need it, or that it even exists at all. None of the products at the beginning of each chapter are necessities. Cars, salad dressings, coffees, and bras are entirely non-essential things. But after one knows about their existence, after one is made aware of their usage, then those objects have power as coveted objects, objects that are somehow suddenly necessary to living. Joe deciding that he needed to obtain some Ubik wasn’t a logical conclusion made from a set of concrete evidence proving Ubik’s usefulness. He decides to get some Ubik just because the commercial told him to. Just as normal, everyday commercials subconsciously urge people to purchase entirely unnecessary objects, so did Runciter’s commercial convince Joe of Ubik’s value. There was no gradual realization that Ubik was important to existing, no mounting set of facts that made Ubik’s value undeniable. Joe jumped straight from doubting the validity of Ubik’s existence to deciding that he needed to get some, that it would make him feel safer because the commercial said so. Ubik’s power as an object derives from the belief that it will do something, that it will serve some task that no other object is able to serve, just as commercials convince consumers that an object simply must be had because it is the only object that is capable of fulfilling a very specific need, and that that need is something that is very real and very lacking in any other form of solution besides the advertised product. Another point of note is the fact that in the novel, Ubik is considered useless when not in spray-can form. When Ubik appears as a kidney and liver balm or as an antiquated elixir, it appears to have no power at all. The only time Ubik is seen as being useful in the novel is when it is in the form of a spray can. When it appears a product that Joe cannot understand or does not see a viable use for, it no longer has power. This trait is again reflected in the consumer products advertised in the beginning of each chapter. An object requires an obvious and understandable purpose to be meaningful. A balm or an elixir is not something Joe can understand as being useful, and so in those forms, Ubik has no power. But when Jespersen sees the elixir bottle, it is valuable to him because the bottle means something to him. To Joe, the bottle is nothing, just a regression, but Jesperson recognizes it when he speaks of its history on page 151. Subsequently, Joe thinks the bottle is made of useless ingredients, “oil of peppermint, zinc oxide, sodium citrate, charcoal...” (p. 151). To Joe, the contents of the elixir are entirely useless. Jespersen, however, knows what’s in the bottle, knows that it’s gold flakes suspended in mineral oil, and so clearly, it is very valuable. When it comes in a spray can, however, Ubik is “a portable negative ionizer,” according to Myra Laney (p. 224). Myra’s explanation of the spray can’s contents is unclear, but Joe understands what’s in it. To Jesperson, the spray can of Ubik would’ve been totally expendable, because he would not have known what a spray can was, or what a negative ionizer was, but to Joe, it’s indispensable because the contents mean something to him. Joe recognizes the spray can, recognizes what spray cans are and what they do and understand Myra’s explanation of what the spray can is. Subsequently, the spray can of Ubik is valuable to him, whereas the balm and elixir forms are not. In order for Ubik to have any power, a person has to see it in a form that they can comprehend, because that is the only way that they can believe it has the capacity to have any power in the first place. The scope of Ubik’s power, however, and whether or not it only stops deterioration is up for debate. First of all, Myra never explains what Ubik is. She only says, “A spray can of Ubik is a negative ionizer,” not what Ubik itself actually is (p. 224). when Myra explains that the spray can is a negative ionizer, Joe says, “To say ‘negative ions’ is redundant. All ions are negative” (p. 224). Joe is wrong. Not all ions are negative. This factual discrepancy is possibly explainable by saying that Philip K Dick had no background in the hard sciences, but given his proliferative work in the field of science fiction, this explanation seems impossible. If this error was in fact intentional, then it implies that Ubik in spray-can form has powers beyond preservation. Myra repeatedly refers only to the negative ions, never the positive ions. Given that she is a technical consultant for the Ubik factory, it will be assumed for the sake of argument that she has a firm grasp on the hard sciences and is aware of the existence of positive ions. However, she makes no mention of them, thus leading to the question of whether or not Ubik would act differently if the spray can was a positive ionizer. This lack of clarity, paired with the recurring safety and usage warnings in the advertisements at the beginning of each chapter, hints at the possibility of Ubik being more powerful than Joe knows. However, because Joe is not aware of this extra capacity, Ubik’s capacities beyond that of a preservative have no meaning to him, and subsequently, have no meaning at all in the context of the novel. Belief works both ways in both giving and taking power away from an object. Ubik’s ambiguity regarding the “true” account of events is reflected in the flexible nature of Ubik’s power. Reality in Ubik is a manipulable concept, one that can be changed dependent on relative reference points and belief. Similarly, the substance Ubik is also manipulable, able to change form and function dependent on the beliefs of the people it encounters. Its power is derived from Joe’s and Ella’s and Runciter’s belief that it will save them, that it is a powerful, necessary substance, and without that belief, Ubik is useless.

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