Friday, January 09, 2015

Prolegomena to Further Explorations in Academic Typologies: Starting 2015 Off Right

I've promised Leigh Johnson that I'd try to revive these mostly moribund stylings, and for reasons that we won't get into here (because it would involve a long exegetical detour through Soren Kierkegaard's Repetition, a recollective digression of a hazy after party at SPEP some three years ago, and an unfortunate wrong turn into the state of the politics of domesticity in the twenty first century), this promise takes place within the context of the sort of faux commitment that may be the only kind that as a professed aficionado of a tradition full of what a certain philosophical blowhard and bully calls charlatans,  I am willing to regard as binding in these days upon those of us who are sworn to fight the good fight without hoping for the best.*

As I told her, my reasons for being hesitant about reviving these mostly moribund stylings largely have to do with an ongoing crisis of self-understanding.  When I'd started this blog years ago, it was more or less on a whim, as a quasi-public place to write out half-baked ideas whose formation didn't fit into any particular genre into which my more serious philosophical and literary efforts would go.  Hence, my ridiculous pseudonym, conceived out of two self-mocking jokes.  1)  The fact that I'm really more of an "ideasy" person than an "executiony" person.  (Viz. my initial post attempting to get someone to actually open a taco shop in Bryn Mawr back when I still called that neck of Penn's woods home.) and 2) my observation that the legitimacy of someone's PhD varies in inverse proportion to the prominence of that credential on their book jacket.  At the time I'd conceived it, I was a newly minted and quite juvenile (in every sense) PhD.  I'd always been told that I was a Wunderkind, and though I deplored that fact (I really did) it had nonetheless become by virtue of having heard it repeated so often a central part of my self understanding.  Close to a decade on, and two or three early onset midlife crises in, it's difficult for me not to cringe at all the layers of unthinking privilege that underlay both this self understanding and my ironic disavowal of this self-understanding.  (Lest I be mistaken for a New Sincerist, I'm not accusing myself of being too ironic, but rather of not being ironic enough.  More anon).

At the time, I was understanding this primarily in terms of genre: the virtue of the blog was to give me space to mess around with styles of playful writing that were personally important to me but which lacked an officially sanctioned space.

And for a few years, I really enjoyed doing that.  I appreciated the extent to which --- to return to the the extended excursus on Uncle Soren that underlies this post --- I could fuck around, at the margins of the discipline in which I was struggling (but managing) to make a living, scribbling over the lines that divided the personal and professional, joyfully, I hope, playfully, just for fun.

Occasionally, of course, I would segue into more serious territory, although here most often in a way that was generically unsuited to other fora.   The two examples of which I'm most proud are my reflections on officially resigning from the Mormon church and my Knowledge Quest to Creation Museum, which remains by far my most visited post.  In both cases, several folks suggested to me that I write them up in a more formal way, one that falls squarely into a genre.  In the case of the Mormon posts, I even did a half-assed attempt at an e-book upon which I've made in the neighborhood of $6, which is about all it deserves because the truth  is that the blog is the genre it belongs to.  If it were to be made properly as a book, it would become something else.

Of course, what's missing from my self-description of blogging as a way of violating certain rules of genre is an awareness of the institutions that shape those genres and, by extension, the negative space in which I avoided it.  My decision to blog pseudonymously was certainly informed by the fact that I was made to understand that as an aspiring junior philosophy member, I was expected to.  In short, this was understood to fall outside of the scope of institutional philosophy.  But the implicitly communicated need to distance myself from it spoke to the fact that of course no act of writing by a wannabe philosopher can really fall wholly outside of the scope of the institution.  Call the academy catholic or call it totalitarian but regard it first and foremost how it regards itself, as a university.

But naturally, I was already aware of these institutional realities, even though none of these norms was explicitly communicated to me.  Now, as an ironist, I prided myself on ignoring them, carefully of course, because after all one must pay the bills.  What is glaringly obvious to me in retrospect because I knew it even at the time is that to the extent that I was able to ignore these norms, I was abetted by my relative privilege.  As a straight white cisgendered male from the professional class, I could be reasonably confident that messing around on the margins of philosophy wouldn't exclude me from access to the institutions of philosophy.**

(A slight aside that violates my own commitment here to focus on forms of writing that fall outside the genre of philosophy:  While I was writing my dissertation,  my director warned me that I was writing on "the fringe of a fringe," and that might make me unemployable.  I proudly protested that I didn't care about such things, but of course I did.  Perhaps the ultimate privilege is thinking you don't need to follow the rules in order to win.  If I've grown up at all since then, I hope that it's not in having better internalized the rules so much as in having more fully externalized --- and this does not mean abdicating --- the desire to "win.")

Graduate school had done what it was supposed to do successfully and hidden from me the precarity of academic labor --- I admit that I fully collaborated with it in doing so.  In the intervening years, while I was being forced to be made aware of this precarity, philosophy's online presence grew up (though it did not perhaps mature).  The sort of informal scratchings that I used to use this blog for migrated to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  (And maybe some day Ello?  Ok, probably not).  Meanwhile, although academia's online presence still lacks (for better and for worse) the formal recognition that its sometimes merits, much of the philosophical blogosphere now occupies a quasi-formal, implicit-verging-on-explicit, albeit still not official space.  To my mind, the people who are doing the best, most interesting work here are working on topics and figures that institutional philosophy has neglected while challenging the exclusion of these themes from that institutional space. (I refer you to Leigh's signal boost for some examples of this).

Meanwhile, the old blogosphere is showing its age and its constitutive limitations.  Its unofficial gatekeepers have outed themselves as exclusionary bullies and misogynists and its anonymous "philobro" denizens have shown themselves to be trolls, reduced to muttering in the darkest corners of the philoblogosphere.  In contrast with the vibrant work being done in feminism, critical race theory, the politics of the academy and critiques of neoliberalism (to name a few areas) and to the extent that they haven't critically reflected on the implication of this exclusion in their own ontologies, even the more benign denizens of the old boys blogosphere seem mostly to be engaging in what my friend Felonius Screwtape described as "dickbanging" (apologies to any traumatized readers who have made it this far through my post for my lack of trigger warning).

I've committed myself to working as an ally in this new, vibrant internet.  That said, the hesitation that I voiced to Leigh stems from an uncertainty that I have much to offer qua blogger (as opposed to, say, qua commenter or qua member of the institution).  To anticipate a distinction that I'll make in my next post, I don't know that I have much to say qua public philosopher or even qua radical.  I remain convinced that my primary commitment is to the practice of a kind of irony, which is by design something that nobody ever needs.    Sadly, my commitments as an ironist compel me for purely idiomatic reasons to honor Leigh's exhortation to blog more.  Which I will do, beginning with a critical ontological typology of academics, pronto.***

*I humbly beg your forgiveness for indulging in this paragraph, into which I have covertly compressed a report excusing myself for lo these many years of absence.

**It is my sincere hope that you all recognize, without it being explicit enough for any of you to sue me, how this is a larger parable for the discipline of philosophy in the digital age.

*** While you wait for that, I invite you to visit here, in the archives, for poem in which I'd visited the same theme in a different way.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Lexicon of Philosophical Groupings

A Lexicon  of Philosophical Groupings

Earlier in the year, with the help of colleagues and friends, I started collecting names for the groupings of philosophers (on the model of "a gaggle of geese," "a murder of crows," "a troop of apes," etc.).  Please leave your suggestions in the comments, and the committee on naming will consider them.

An umbrage of analytic philosophers
A pretense of continental philosophers

An ennui of existentialists 
A douchebag of experimental philosophers
An axiom of logicians
A dogma of theologians
A dunce of medievalists

A bind of deontologists
A shame of Freudians, except a slip of Freudians (when talking)

A lack of Lacanians
An abyss of Nietzscheans
A circle of hermeneuts,
A despair of Kierkegaardians, except a chastity of Kierkegaardians (when at bars)
A voluptuary of Kantians
A meander of ancient philosophers
A disposition of behaviorists
A liar of McGinns, except a sleaze of McGinns (around grad students) 
A discretionary of of Foucauldians, except a whip of Foucauldians (in the Bay Area)
A tractatus of early Wittgenstinians
A  game of late Wittgenstinians
A verification of logical positivists
A sheath of feminists
An irrelevance of aestheticians
An outrage of environmental ethicists
An opiate of Marxists
A self-congratulation of cognitive scientists
A vat of skeptics
A thereness of Heideggerians, except a sending of Heideggeians (when skiing) and a      gathering of deceased Heideggerians.
An epoche of phenomenologists
A trace of Derrideans
A jerk-circle of PGR rankers
A rhizome of Deleuzians
An event of Badiouians
A murder of trolley-problem theorists'
A blog of speculative realists
A myx of LBGTQ theorists
An opiate of Marxists
An ideal speech situation of Habermasians
A veranda of Leibnizians

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kinds of Birds

A propos of something a friend brought to my attention, I've tried to write a poem with as many names of bird groupings as I could find. I think I have 63 but I'm having trouble counting.
Kinds of Birds

I want to know who names the congeries of birds
or whether their names hatch from their nests with them.
But when I put my hands in their covers
And cast myself out the house (empty volary)
without a coat
To ask them myself --- not a peep.
It’s like I’m inviting the bracing cold into my bones,
on the sedge by the river,
I clutch a tree branch, scold the vacating trees.
Tell me what the birds feel as they muster
Into sords, nides, neys or coveys
Or ostentations of feathers declaring:
A waste of words paddling south
in descent to where I trip, a wedge
in the company of Epictetus,
stand firm --- November, murder not the charm of birds.
Don’t brood on feathers that raft in the winds
or fall like a watchful colony
laying siege to my self-pitying shivering.
Give no tidings of unkindness when the steam boiling
From the kettles takes flight in wisps to the rafter of the building.
Do not wake the shrieking hordes who pack the skies,
Not until we dole out the tea into teacups,
And gulp it down.
Till exaltation is no longer a dissimulation
(come quickly spring)
when a bevy of bouquets grace
the parliaments congregating at a Roman emperor’s throne,
or in chains,
murder silence, eternal murmuration
of birds, given names
like manna from the heavens in a desert
that we walked through,
our faith in flocks of names
an unraveling skein in you,
oh Lord of Hosts, Lord of Deceits,
Badling God of the chosen party, bipeds on wing,
gaggles of birds.

Friday, October 18, 2013

College men[et al] : stop taking advantage of college women who get drunk. Oh, and look out for one another

By now, I'm sure you've all read Emily Yoffe's panicked piece about the fact that her daughter is going to college soon. You might not have known that that is what you were reading, because it was masquerading as a piece of advice to young women, entitled "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk."  Although the piece brings up a number of real problems associated with binge drinking, it is getting attention because its focus is on her concerns about the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault:

"In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval AcademySteubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril."
Anyone who spends any time in the real world wonders for whom this is unacceptable, as in fact we hear this sort of thing all the time (for example, a google search for news items the week BEFORE Yoffe's article returned several hundred hits).  (In fact, as a general heuristic -- let's call this the Gladwell rule --- whenever someone tells you that they are about to tell you something very unpopular, or otherwise unacceptable, assume there's a very good chance they are about to try to sell you a hackneyed chestnut.)

But let's forget about the Gladwell rule momentarily, and focus on a few other problems with the article.  I'm not going to focus (yet, at least) on the fact --- pointed out by plenty of others --- that this reads like a piece of rape apologia,  though we'll get there shortly.

Instead, let's focus for a few minutes on Yoffe's parental anxiety:
As a parent with a daughter heading off to college next year, I’ve noted with dismay that in some college guidebooks almost as much space is devoted to alcohol as academics...
I’ve told my daughter that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell her I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that she’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around her if she limits herself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men. 
Let's leave aside for the moment the monumental stupidity of the claim that "self-interest should be a primary feminist principle"  (actual feminists have for centuries been linking the oppression of women to a broad call for social justice, but we're in the world of Lean In now), and focus instead on the extent to which Yoffe's own argument places a hugely different onus on her (actual) daughter and the son she imagines, as a rhetorical strategy to give her article the appearance of a little more gender equity than a sentiment like "I hope their restraint trickles down to the men" would suggest.
If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate. Surely this University of Richmond student, acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial, would confirm that.
Let that sentence sink in:  "If I had a son, I would tell him that it's in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate."  Notice the different valence there.  At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I might point out to to Yoffe that just like every woman who is raped is someone's daughter, every man who rapes is someone's son.  But surely Yoffe would tell her son that he shouldn't rape anyone, right?  Because self-interest.

Of course, a more cynical reader than me could discern a different message in Yoffe's story.  At at least three points in her article (including at the end of the paragraph that I just cited), she reminds us of just how rarely men who rape women are punished. (Actually, she speaks mostly in anecdote so she just implies how rarely they are, but I'll help her out here:  it's only 3% of the time).  Which makes her putative son's odds of escaping punishment way better than --- say --- an actual woman's  odds of not being assaulted.

The theory of trickle-down restraint might better fit in with Yoffe's actual attitude then.  Let's focus on women's behavior --- if women become less of targets, then it will be harder for men to target them, right?

I've been following people linking to this article on Facebook, and of the 9 people in my newsfeed or on friend's walls who I've seen defending Yoffe's position, all but one (so that would be 88%)  have made some version of the argument from analogy:  telling a woman to drink less to protect herself from sexual assault is no different than telling someone to take simple precautions to avoid burglary (examples of real analogies I've heard include leaving a purse in an unlocked car in a bad neighborhood, leaving your front door open, walking around with money sticking out of your pocket, etc.)  To be fair, Yoffe comes dangerously close to implying this, but stops short of saying it herself perhaps because as we'll see shortly, her own analysis will show us what's wrong with the analogy.

What's wrong with the analogy?  We still hold thieves responsible in these scenarios but that doesn't excuse us from taking simple precautions, right?  But let's think a little bit more.  In all of these scenarios, who do we imagine as the person who burgles (is that the right verb?) our putative victim?  I'd wager it's a stranger, right?  After all, that's the reason why I'm not going to recover the money that I've lost.  Who knows who took it?

Now, let's change the example.  Let's say we're going to play soccer.  My friend is going home to change anyway, so I ask her to swing by my house and pick up the ball we're going to use.  I give her my keys and tell her the ball is in the garage.  While she's at my house, she decides to go upstairs and help herself to my prize stamp collection (NB for gangs of international numismatic criminals -- I don't actually have a stamp collection).  Did I make myself vulnerable to my friend?  Sure.  But did she abuse my trust?  Absolutely.

Now which one of these examples are most sexual assaults more like? According to the data, it's more like the latter.  But why listen to the data?  Let's  hear Yoffe's anecdotes:

The three young women I spoke to who were victims of such men attended different colleges, but their stories are so distressingly similar that it sounds as if they were attacked by the same young man. In each case the woman lost track of how much she’d had to drink. Then a male classmate she knew took her by the hand and offered her an escort. Then she was raped by this “friend.” Only one, Laura Dunn, reported to authorities what happened, more than a year after the fact. In her case she was set upon by two classmates, and the university declined to take action against either one.  
One of the rape victims was a senior who had been to a school-sponsored celebration where the wine flowed, then everyone went to a bar to continue the festivities. Her memories are fragmentary after that, but a male classmate came by. She remembers running down the street with him, then being in bed, then waking up the next day with her clothes inside out. She was sickened at herself for what she thought was cheating on her longtime boyfriend and confessed her infidelity to him. Ultimately that led to their breakup.
As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

There are so many of the details in these stories that would give any responsible writer pause, and yet I haven't heard the conversation being about these details.  Everyone of these women was assaulted by a classmate, friend or acquaintance that she knew.  Every one of them had friends who were nearby but didn't do anything to stop it.  And every one of these women suffered pain, shame and the deterioration of their personal life, while the perpetrator -- who in at least one case was a known repeat offender --- suffered nothing.

Now, in Yoffe's version of feminism, where self-interest is an ethical first principle, the message of these stories is that individual women need to be every more vigilant, more cautious, less trusting.  People who look at this story with a more sane ethical first principal will be forgiven if they reach a somewhat different conclusion.

Note one other rather obvious point about all these stories, one that again gives the lie to the analogies I mentioned above.  These stories take place at parties, which, last time I checked were social events.  All these stories begin in a social setting because --- and again we are following Yoffe's own admissions --- this is where and why college students  by and large drink (let's leave solitary, hardened alcoholism for us older folks).  When we are in social settings, we often do --- and should be able to -- place trust in our friends, classmates, colleagues and --- yes even casual acquaintances --- to look out for us.  And we should look out for them.  In a lot of these stories, we see people failing to look out for their friends as well as they should (that's part of rape culture too), but that's not my main point.  My main point is that in every one of these cases we have someone who has colossally, callously, intentionally and violently abused the trust of a woman they know.

But by all means let's blame the woman in question, and hope that a little bit of restraint trickles down to the men.  And by the way, we do know that, Yoffe's and her defenders protestations notwithstanding, that the overall effect of focusing on the actions of the victim encourages shame, excuse making, and responsibility shifting. In fact, at her most self-righteous, Yoffe can't resist this herself:
I know many people will reflect on their own bacchanalian college experiences with nostalgia and say the excesses didn’t hurt them—at least what they’re able to remember. So I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun without being drunk. I enjoy moderate drinking and have only been hung over three times in my life. I have never been so drunk that I browned out, blacked out, passed out, or puked from alcohol ingestion. Still, as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol.
"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  In the words of another martyr on another cross:  "Thou hast said it."

"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  And you wonder why violated young women are too frightened to come forward?   And you remark casually about how little universities do even when they do come forward?  And you wonder why they blame themselves?

I congratulate St. Emily on her restraint.  I'm very glad she still managed to enjoy herself in college, (though I'm equally glad I didn't know her in college as she sounds not just here but in everything I've read of hers, like an insufferable bore).   I'm very sincerely happy she was never sexually assaulted while drunk.  I very much hope the same for her daughter, and for my daughter, and for every other daughter and for every other son.  But neither hopes nor or our own personal experiences an ethics make.

I'm glad St. Emily has been lucky, and I hope her daughter is lucky too.  I've been lucky myself there.  As always when we talk about statistics, we can't single out one things to explain why we're lucky or why we're unlucky.  Unlike St. Emily, for example, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion (and sometimes I've even enjoyed it).  In this case, the main factor in my luck might simply be that I'm a heterosexual man, a group that gets raped far less frequently than other groups.  And in my version of feminism, where self-interest isn't a first principle, the notion that that should be relevant is prima facie unjust.

Another way that I'm probably like Yoffe and like her daughter and like every one of you is that, irrespective of my own experiences, I know plenty of people who have been sexually assaulted and raped:   acquaintances, friends, family members.  And I refuse to accept the justice of  a world where the response to that is to place the onus on the victim.   This doesn't make me a particularly good person.  In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

Unlike St. Emily, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion, and I've always been lucky enough to have friends who look out for me.  I take this as maybe a suggestion that I ought to do the same.  So lets just offer one more analogy.  Although Yoffe largely restricts herself to harping on the possibility of sexual assault, she can't resist a broader screed against the evils of drinking; but perhaps we can learn something there.  Take driving.  We all know that you shouldn't drive while intoxicated.  So what do we do?  We designate drivers, we make sure that it's easy for people to take cabs -- we call for cabs for one another.  We spend the night at the houses of friends that we trust.  In other words, we use the very fact that drinking is a social activity to help solve the problems that might be associated with it. (Admittedly, my analogy is imperfect because unlike the link between the risk of sexual assault and drinking, the link between drinking and the danger of drunk driving is direct and causal --- but in fact, this strengthens my overall point).  So just as I would offer a ride or call a cab for a friend who has had too much drink, I make a point when I run into a female friend or acquaintance who has had too much drink that they get to a safe place with a trustworthy person.  Again, I don't think this makes me a particularly good person. In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

But my ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle.  A misplaced fear of offending Ayn Randians has made it somehow unacceptable to suggest that when we don't look out for one another, we are putting one another in peril.  (Go on back to the start of this post -- I apologize for its length ---  and I'll wait for you here).  My ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle, nor does it take self-reliance as the last word.

Yoffe's actual  last words:

"Lake says that it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at catching and punishing sexual predators; that’s simply not their core mission. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with you. For better or worse, fair or not, just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.” I’ll drink (one drink) to that."
What if Yoffe gave her daughter different advice (this is the advice I hope that I manage to give to both my daughter and my son, though they're quite a bit younger):

Look, you're going into the world and there are a lot of dangers.  There are things that you can do and precautions that you can take that will help you minimize those dangers, but ultimately, there's also a good degree of luck.  I'll give you the best information that I can, but whether I like it or not, you'll be the one who chooses what you do with that information.  Whatever choices you make yourself, it also doesn't necessarily affect the choices your friends make.  So I want you to look out for your friends.  And surround yourself with friends who will look out for you when you make bad choices too, because you inevitably will.  Sometimes you'll be lucky and even when you make stupid choices things will turn out fine.  And sometimes, whatever choices you make, bad things will happen to you and your friends.  When they happen to your friends, I want you to be there for them.  When they happen to you, I want you to know that I will be there for you, no blame attached.  Love yourself, because your worth doesn't come from what you do to yourself or what others do to you.  Love yourself as much as I love you.  And love your friends, and treat them well.  Don't be cruel to others, even when you don't like them or even when you think it will benefit you.  When you see weak people or vulnerable people, reach out to them.  Never take advantage of them.  And when you are weak or vulnerable yourself (because we all sometimes are), reach out to those you trust for help.  And let them help you.  Because justice begins with you.  For better or worse, fair or not, the responsibility falls on all of our shoulders.

I'll drink (with you) to that.  And I'll make sure you get home safely too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ideas Man Sees An Action Movie: Nietzsche help us all.

I know you are all awaiting my reaction to The Dark Knight Also Rises with bated breath, but you'll have to keep the air bated for one more gasp whilst I make the following caveat:  I've seen maybe 3 action movies over the last decade and all on the small screen.  As near as I can recollect, this is the first time I've been to what I believe is called a summer blockbuster since 2001's disastrous Swordfish.  After that, I swore the genre off.  So my reaction to the movie might be purely physiological, the consequence of not having habituated myself to the noises and images that were thrown at me at a dizzying clip, lest I not notice the thinness of the story.

So I'll dispense with anything but the shortest review: The effects were cool, lots of shit got blown up, lots of famous actors acted so famously you didn't notice there wasn't anything approximating a genuine exchange between two characters anywhere in the movie, the requisite objects of lust were luscious enough you'd hardly noticed how unsexy the movie was, and any "message" was muted enough it won't interfere with your entertainment.

The truth is, I don't know much more of what to make of the movie than that.

I don't know whether it would be more correct to say

  • that Nolan produced a masterpiece of cinematographic crispness in the style that high end digital photography cum special effects permits OR that the images lacked any depth.
  • that said special effects were tightly and lavishly composed OR that they belied the lack of any other compositional considerations.
  • that the narrative at such a quick clip that it kept you constantly engaged OR that the plot induced such whiplash you didn't notice it didn't really hold together.
  • that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the left to attack Mitt Romney [actually no, pace Rush we can be pretty confident that's wrong] OR that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the right to create a caricature of Fox News's left-wing anarchist vaguely Islamofascist (and steeped in the rhetoric of the French revolution to boot!) lunatic.
  • that the movie contains a sharp critique of the paramilitarization of the police (with the corruption of the bloated Gordon police force at the beginning, with the allegations of people kept in prison without due process) OR that it celebrates the paramilitarization of the police (as the "true" protectors of the peace not only of the post-industrial city of consumption but also of the operation of democracy)
  • that (speaking of consumption) the movie is a clever commentary on the decadence of our own consumer culture OR that this "critique" was just a chance for product placement (See the rich getting thrown out of Saks! And with this 30% off coupon, you can look like a million bucks too!)
  • that the movie takes a pleasure (perhaps the only pleasure in the whole movie) that borders on pornographic glee in the technologies of the military-industrail complex (think of Catwoman molding herself onto Batman's oversized bike with its two gigantic cajones --- I mean wheels) OR reflects what is perhaps an equally pathological distrust of that technology, with the  specter of nuclear devastation and the ease that Batman's toys can be turned against us.
  • that the movie is a critique of the dangers of vigilantism OR that it is a vindication of vigilantism.
  • That the movie was Occupy Wall Street propaganda with its buffoonish, incompetent stock traders and board members who are the puppets of villainous criminals OR that the movie was a parody of Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, with its dystopian vision of the consequences of overthrowing the 1%, with its apparent belief that even though the 1% are the site of so much injustice they are also the only group that can fight against it (OR that the movie simply clumsily used a story of class warfare only kept in check by police force as a backdrop for what is ultimately a paranoid worldview, a worldview where the world is fundamentally and intractably unjust, where the various oppositions and contradictions in our society are intractable, where the only recourse to dealing with them is violent contest, where the winners inevitably perpetrate more violence on the losers and where the losers experience nothing but pain and desperation).  (As an aside, the movie is at its very sharpest when it makes this feature explicit, as for example when Bain explains that the reason why the prison from which the villain comes is the most painful prison of all is because the constant presence of the sun and open air invokes the hope of the outside, or when Alfred invokes for Bruce Wayne a peaceful life outside of Batman --- but even there not that the possibility of pleasure and joy are presented as lures to the haves and taunts to the have nots). 
  • OR that it was just mindless entertainment.

Still when, after the end of 3 hours of the cinematic equivalent of what would happen if bare knuckle boxing met WWE wrestling as my stomach unclenched (this more or less coincided with the audience's "spontaneous" applause at the big happy-ending reveal that I won't give away), I couldn't help but think about the sheer number of people there to see one of two late night showing at just one theater in a mid-sized city in the Midwest, people who in age (I would estimate I saw people aged from 4-90), gender, race, and apparent class were about as diverse as the city itself.  Tragedy, we all know, produces a mass effect of catharsis, which comes from the Greek word for purging.  I didn't vomit my popcorn and beer (You can buy beer at the movies now! Yipee!)  But my I did feel my stomach unclenching.  Did everyone else feel the same thing? Maybe it's that I have young kids myself, but I wondered how a movie like that (a villain with giant teeth, a weapon of mass destruction,  the threat of martial law taking hold in a banal American city) couldn't cause nightmares in a child (Ideas Boy, at 4, still has a very tenuous grasp on the line between reality and fiction, and although Ideas Girl is cognitively more sophisticated about such things I doubt she is emotionally).

With my physical reaction to the movie, was I abnormal or was I the norm?

You'll likely think I'm asking this question rhetorically.  You likely think I think I have the answer to the set of interpretive possibilities I list above.  I don't think that at all.  I don't even hew to a theory of meaning that would allow me to think I have the answer , since I think that under the right conditions of interpretation, and given the right context all of these readings (except maybe Limbaugh's) are possibly efficacious.

But whatever interpretation we adopt, a at least one conclusion seem warranted.  There's nothing new to it, but for me The Dark Knight Also Rises highlighted it in a deeply physiological way.  We as a society --- and I include myself --- are fascinated by violence.  It occupies us and, what's more, we allow ourselves to experience our fascination with violence collectively.  We seem to want to experience it together.   Why are we so quick to gravitate to stories where the only real motivators seem to be violence and resentment?  What motivates us not to share narratives of pleasure and joy in the same way?

I do think our willingness to collectivize brutality in this way has something to do with the collective paranoias we seem apt to indulge in. It's a shame, because any world, no matter how unjust, is still rich, is still beautiful.   It seems to me that in any world that  still qualifies as a world, there are always possibilities for joy and pleasure, the joyless applause of the audience at the end of a three hour study in resentment and revenge notwithstanding.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Performance Piece Masquerading as a Conference Talk

I was recently reflecting on the fact that I apparently now only ever right conference pieces which violate in various ways the norms of conference pieces (this is apropos for something about Derrida I'm working on)

I offer the following up as proof: it's an occasional piece, written with the Ancient Philosophy Society in mind (this will be clear from what follows if you keep in mind they met this year in Sundance, Utah and had encouraged pieces that dealt in particular with the topics related to physis.)  It is, as will be clear, unacceptable and undeliverable as an actual conference talk.  I therefore offer it up instead to the internets.  Enjoy. (Here is a link to it as a google doc which may be easier to read)

Butch Cassandra and the Sundance Stranger: On Teleology and Normativity

In Utah, physis comes in two flavors.  In the North, there’s the full, piny aromatic sweep of sloping hills surveying valleys that were once rich with brush and scrub, but where the scrub has been reduced to little isolated brown patches surrounded by what passes in the West for verdure, brought to you by the irrigated, tamed and dammed up rivers whose pesky finitude will one day bankrupt the West.  Further south, the trace of the human is less remarkable, but that’s not why the flavor of physis is different.  The reason for that is in the rocks, whose color runs redder, whose angle tends closer to vertical.  The same rivers that quench the thirst of Western megalopoles have been running a much longer show down there, over thousands of millennia, they’ve notched the landscape with scores of deep slot canyons, they’ve polished the rocks into weird, vaguely anthropomorphic shapes, into arches, into stairways.  People who don’t look closely enough have called the landscape inhuman.  They’re not wrong, but it’s a little like saying humans have vegetative souls.  It’s not it’s most distinctive trait.  It isn’t just inhuman, it’s positively inorganic, if not quite abiotic.
Let’s call these northern and southern Utah flavors of physis, Aristotelean and Platonic flavors respectively.
Although, I grew up in northern Utah, along the Wasatch Front --- not much more than twenty minutes from here; at this height, you could probably see the house I grew up in if there weren’t a mountain in the way --- although I grew up here in the Aristotelean part of the state, although for what it’s worth, I’m sure Aristotle is probably more right than Plato, I imagine that my affinity for Plato derives somewhat the time I’ve spent amidst Southern Utah’s inorganic, unconsoling beauty.
Sundance Stranger: I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call you on that.
Me: On what?
S.S.:  On the tendentiousness of your metaphor.
Me: Excuse me, but what are you exactly?
S.S.: I’m the Sundance Stranger.
Me:  Well, Stranger, since you’re not from around these parts, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you are unaware of the norms that govern conference presentations.  It’s perfectly acceptable to have a short introduction, whose connection to the thesis is metaphorical or illustrative.  What isn’t acceptable is interrupting someone at the beginning of the their paper.
S.S.: But I wasn’t calling you out for using a metaphor, I’m was calling you out for its tendentiousness.
Me: How can you know if it’s tendentious if you haven’t even heard my thesis yet?
S.S.: Ok, let’s hear it.
Me: Um, that the inorganic, unconsoling terrain is a mark of what distinguishes the Platonic Good from its post-Kantian re-iteration.
S.S.: No.
Me: It would have sounded better in context.
S.S.:  And the context was what, that little piece you opened with?
Me:  Among other things.
S.S.: What are the other things?
Me:  Well, for starters, I would have explained a little what I meant by the phrase “its post-Kantian re-iteration.”
S.S.: And what do you mean by that little phrase?
Me:  It would have been helpful if I had been able to continue situating it.  See, I was planning on seguing from this description of the inorganic landscape to a brief discussion of the claim, popular nowadays, that the “absolute” idealism of Hegel and Holderlin inter alia differed from Kantian idealism by its embrace of Platonic realism.
S.S.:  I’m familiar with the work of Friedrich Beisser.  But I hardly see how that gives any coherence to your thesis.
Me:  It doesn’t, on its own.  But thinking about what that claim gets wrong about Hegel and especially Holderlin has gotten me thinking about what people get wrong in Platonism, whether the only possible way of embracing Platonism is through Platonic realism.
S.S.: I suppose it depends on what you mean by “realism,” which is I suppose what you are going to claim that that little number at the beginning was going to help clarify.
Me: Kind of, I guess.  I hate to keep on getting auto-biographical.
S.S.: I’m sure you do.
Me:  But this time I’m at least talking about philosophical autobiography.  See, for a long time, I’ve been thinking about the difference between the way in which the ancients seem to have understood teleology and the way that moderns seem to.  You know how annoying it is when people summarize the intellectual importance of Darwinism, and they mangle their Aristotle, imputing something like the argument from design to him?
S.S.:  As if the ancients were a bunch of good little Victorians!
Me:  Exactly.  See, when I reread The Origin of Species a while back, I was struck by how much time Darwin devoted to justifying the idea that species (and I mean that here in the broad sense as a Latinization of eidos) need not be eternal, could in fact be mutable.  And it struck me that that’s what would have been a bigger stumbling to the ancients than the idea that organic forms required a designer.
S.S.:  Ok, I think I see where you were trying to go, then.  You were going to try to imagine how it would be possible to temporalize the Platonic notion of Form and I suppose that’s what you had in mind by an anti-realistic Platonism.
Me:  No, that’s way too big of a project for such a short presentation.  I’ve been working on that in a lot of different ways.  Here, I was just going to focus on how the inhumanism of the Platonic good distinguished it from Kantian and post-Kantian teleologies, which depended so heavily on the concept of a normativity fixed by humanism for their understanding of what Plato would have called the good.
S.S.:  Alright, I’m starting to see your point a little better.  But your metaphor was still a little over-wrought.  More importantly, it conflated a lot of different senses of the notion of organicity.  You have to recognize that that’s central to the complex of problems you’ve raised.
Me:  I guess I do.  But, and I”m embarrassed to admit this, I’m not fully sure how to deal with that problem.  So I was hoping that we could let that conflation slide.
S.S.:  Wouldn’t it be better if we investigated it?
<Butch Cassandra gets up from the audience and says:>
B.C.:  Somebody stop them right now.  If you let them continue, by the time they’re done, they’ll have made Plato look like Nietzsche.
Me:  Did you hear anything?
S.S.:  Must’ve been the wind, which can really howl at these heights.  By the way, keep your eye out for Butch Cassandra.  She’s said to be hiding out somewhere around here.  She may be a prophet, but she’s also really annoying.  It’s best not to listen to her.
Me:  I’ll keep that in mind.
S.S.:  You know where you really should have started if you think the idea of normativity is so important?  Anaxagoras!
Me:  I like Anaxagoras just fine, and I can see where he might be helpful in pushing for a rejection of a humanistic teleology, but that’s because he rejects teleology altogether.
S.S.:  And that’s exactly what I think makes him so important to what you’re trying to do.  If you look at where he shows up in Plato’s work, I think you’ll find that it’s precisely at those points where what post-Kantians would recognize as the concept of normativity shows up.  But I’m afraid it’s going to complicate your little thesis.  For starters, it’s going to associate the idea of normativity with Plato’s theism much more strongly than you’re going to want to admit.
Me:  Ok, so let me think:  there’s the famous reference in the Phaedo.  And I guess I can start to see how you might claim that it’s associated with normativity, since Socrates goes on to criticize the idea that you can describe how he got to jail without some reference to the Good.  But now I’m going to have to accuse you of tendentiousness.  That may be normativity, but it’s nothing like the normativity I’m going to want to derive from the Kantian tradition.
S.S.:  That’s only because you’ve missed the most important point.
Me:  Which is?
S.S.:  Just wait.  First, let’s expand the presence of Anaxagoras in Plato.  He’s in the Apology.
Me:  But that’s just a throw-away reference to the fact that if people think Socrates holds that the sun is a rock rather than a God, then you’re mistaking him for Anaxagoras.
S.S.:  You think that’s a throw-away reference?  You think when Socrates says that the thing that distinguishes him from Anaxagoras is his theism, that that’s a throw-away reference?  And consider the presence of Anaxagoras in the Laws.
Me:  Believe me, I have, but that hardly helps us clarify things.  I mean, really the point you’re getting at has less to do with the Good than with the fact that Anaxagoras is Plato’s cardboard cutout atheist.  But here Plato’s the one guilty of conflation: he uses that cardboard cutout knee-jerk reaction against atheism to conceal the huge difference between his conception of God as the good and the traditional notion of divinity, to cloak his radical conception of the good in the garb of traditional piety.
S.S.:  And you don’t think that that conflation is itself significant?  What allows him to make that connection so naturally?
Me: I don’t understand what you mean.
S.S.: What does his conception of the divine share with the traditional Greek conception?
Me:  Well, lots of things.  He’s Greek, after all.  But what I consider most significant is the connection between the Platonic notion of eternity and the Greek conception of immortality, which are both aeizoon.  That’s actually exactly the point where I think that the post-Kantians will depart with Plato.  But the challenge then is to explain how they nonetheless remain Platonists.
S.S.:  You’re getting ahead of yourself, but you’re on the right track.  Now ask yourself the most obvious follow up question.  Is Anaxagoras different than Plato and traditional Greeks here?
Me:  No, that’s actually precisely where he and other early ancient atheists, like the atomists go astray.  They have to imagine some sort of eternal, unchanging substrate, of course.  But even more to the point, they imagine the eternity of form, even if they don’t put it that way.  So, for example, in Anaxagoras, he has to have everything mixed with everything to explain how motion makes significant, formal change possible.  Or, in the atomists, although they imagine something like natural selection in their account of the origin of life, it’s not a recursive, self-reiterating natural selection.  Random parts come together randomly, but the atomists make it sound like those parts are arms, legs, eyes and other organs are randomly cohering, with only the coherent, whole  organisms survive.  And that’s where Plato and Aristotle get them:  because it’s impossible to understand an organ apart from a holistic organism.
S.S.:  So they imagine that the origin of life is temporal, but their understanding of the meaning of life is implicitly atemporal.
Me:  Right.
B.C.:  Normativity is irreducibly futural.  But it requires the constancy of the past for its guarantee.
S.S.:  Okay, so if Anaxagoras hasn’t shaken the necessity of the eternal, unchanging ever living mind, why is he useful for Plato in making himself seem traditionally theistic?
Me:  I don’t understand what you’re getting at.
S.S.:  You told me that Plato is making throwaway reference to Anaxagoras in order to lead people off the scent of his radical change in the notion of the divine.  It’s a truism that that change is to identify the divine with the Good.  So it’s no surprise that it should help Plato introduce the notion of the Good.  But notice that, because Plato assumes that Anaxagoras shares certain assumptions with him about the meaning of the divine, it obviates the underlying constancy between traditional Greek theism, Anaxagorean atheism, and Platonic theism.
B.C.:  Stop them!  Before they cast doubt on sacred idols!  They want to make you think that Plato killed God, when we all know it was Nietzsche.
S.S.: <continuing>  Now, what name would you give to that underlying constancy?  You said “eternity,” but you may as well have said “normativity.”
Me:  No, because that’s precisely what Anaxagoras rejects.  The point is that he doesn’t think that the eternity of nous requires a commitment to a normative good.  And that’s where Plato differs with him.
S.S.:  What about traditional Greek theism?
Me:  That’s a much tougher question.
S.S.: Go on, give it a try.
Me:  Why don’t I just let you?
S.S.:  Is it fair to say that what you’re saying is that the Greek conception of physis assumes a metaphysical stance, but that the precise position of that metaphysical stance may differ?
Me:  I guess so.
S.S.:  Ok, so now you’re ready to think about the significant detail you missed before.
Me:  Which is?
S.S.  Why is it that, in his central discussion in the Phaedo of the conversion to the good, Plato has Socrates give as his example of a normative claim one with which he doesn’t in fact agree?
Me:  That’s debatable.  Isn’t the whole point of the Crito that he’s accepting the judgment of the laws?
S.S.: You could argue that he’s accepting their force but not their justice, or goodness.  And even if we say it’s debatable, it seems odd that you’d take a debatable “good” as your example of the Good.
B.C.:  Normativity and teleology are both bets on the future.  That does not mean that they are betting on the same future.
Me (ignoring B.C.):  Okay, let’s grant that it might not be a claim about the good that he would agree with.  But his point is that you still can’t understand why he’s there without some reference to the good.
S.S.:  Or, for that matter, without some reference to the transgression of the Good, whether the fault for that transgression lies with him or with Athens.  And the truth is, that transgressive element was there in the example of the Apology too.  Socrates is accused of the crime of impiety.  He uses Anaxagoras, who is an atheist, to distract the jury from his own strange theism, which might just still be impiousness.
Me:  I’ve been known for some crazy readings of texts, but you’re really going too far.
S.S.:  Am I?  Remember the Laws?
Me:  Of course I remember the Laws.  There, the Athenian Stranger, not Socrates, throws all atheists into a moderation tank lest they corrupt the state.  And he does it with reference to Anaxagoras.
S.S.: <laughs>  And how do you know the Athenian Stranger isn’t Socrates?
Me:  Because I’ve read the Phaedo and because I’ve read the Crito.
S.S.:  So you know Plato’s last word about normativity?  And you know Socrates’s last word about normativity?  And, not only do you know both of their last words, but you assume their unanimity?
B.C.:  All strangers are Socrates.  Socrates is a mortal.  Nevertheless, Strangeness is immortal.
Me:  I try not to indulge in conspiracy theories.
S.S.:  Fair enough, but in doing so, you miss the transformative, transgressive power of fiction, even in Plato’s dialogues, even if through fiction they speak of the truth.
Me:  So Plato as an old man is indulging in a fictional daydream about his old teacher taking a hike up a mountain with two other old men?
S.S.:  Why not?  The mountain air can be a welcome change of scenery, especially if you’ve most of your life in a city under siege, a city where the excesses of Periclean democracy have palpably reduced air-quality.
Me:  Ok, let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Plato has written a little fictional coda to the life of Socrates where he imagines the laws of a society that criticizes the excesses of Periclean democracy, the very excesses of which he takes Anaxagoras to be a figure.  So what?
S.S.:  Wrong.
Me:  Excuse me?
S.S.:  Plato doesn’t think that Anaxagoras is a figure for the excesses of sophisticated Periclean democracy.  Remember the reference in the Phaedrus?
Me:  When he says that Anaxagoras’s wisdom exercised a moderating influence on Pericles?  I’d forgotten that one.
S.S.:  And anyway, Plato’s relationship to Pericles is far more ambivalent than you’re giving him credit for here, as you know full well.  That’s particularly important in the Laws, where the Stranger envisions a mixed comprise between Athenian and Doric constitutions.  And, once again, that’s where Anaxagoras is relevant.
Me:  Now I’m totally lost.
S.S.:  Don’t worry, you’re close to home.  Didn’t you tell us it was just on the other side of this mountain that we’re on?
Me:  What happened to metaphors?
B.C.:  Although Presenter doesn’t want to admit it, he has always imagined the society of the Laws in a strange place, with a topography like Southern Utah.
Me (to the Sundance Stranger, not Butch Cassandra):  What happened to the Republic?
B.C.:  No one can imagine that as happening in any place at all.
Sundance Stranger (to me):  Remember, in the Laws the state of the Republic has been dismissed out of hand, because it would require the body politic to share sensory organs with one another.  The golden thread of the laws has been introduced to address this lack.  And do you remember what the feature it was that made the laws golden?
Me:  You mean persuasion.
S.S.:  And does persuasion owe more to the laws Doric or Athenian character?
Me:  Athenian.
S.S.:  And how does persuasion figure into the examples of Anaxagoras in the Phaedo and the Apology?
Me:  It doesn’t.  These are both places where persuasion has failed, and force is necessary.
S.S.:  Imagine such goings on!  In a democracy, no less.
Me:  Democracies have no problem with normativity.  In fact, if anything, they take their normative claims too seriously.
S.S.:  They mistake their voices for the voices of God?
Me:  Something like that.
S.S.:  And notice here how Plato is critiquing that.
Me:  But he still throws atheists into a moderation tank.
S.S.:  He does.  He doesn’t have much faith in people and he’s worried that they’ll lead them astray from the good.  But that doesn’t mean these atheists beyond persuasion, providing they are moderate and provided moderate, wise people talk with them.
Me:  Like the Nocturnal Council.
S.S.  Exactly.  The Nocturnal Council has to defend the Laws, which can’t defend themselves.  Because, unfortunately, the Laws, like all norms, don’t really exist.  But they defend them in a way that bears little resemblance to enforcing them.  The people enforce them on their own.  The Nocturnal Council defends their Goodness, which depends on their persuasive power, which is something quite different than their force.
Me:  But that’s Kant!
S.S.:  Exactly.  But it’s Kant without the humanism, it’s an inhuman, nocturnal Kant.
B.C.:  At night, they say that Kant defended his human dignity by having himself tied up!
Me:  But this is exactly what I was going to argue was distinctive to the pst-Kantian German Idealists.  I was going to argue that by distinguishing the rationality of the law from its efficacy, that their notion of a robust normativity in nature didn’t imply a return to Platonic realism but rather allowed idealism to emerge out of a dialogue with the the natural, or the real.
B.C.:  You were going to turn Hegel into Nietzsche, and you thought you were so clever.
S.S.:  But you don’t have to say that that’s any different than Plato.  Plato, it’s true, seems not to have had the vocabulary to imagine fully temporalized ideals.  He recognized he needed the notion of the Good.  But he never fully expunged the transgressive, fictional, downright mendacious character of that good.  This possibility remains in the textual body we call Platonism, ready to be liberated, provided we find a way to understand how fictional norms can nonetheless be efficacious.  Heidegger’s innovation was to realize that this was what Nietzsche had done.
B.C.:  See, I warned you this would happen.  I’ve warned you that they’d turn Plato into Nietzsche.
S.S.:  And although he imagines a metaphysical stance from which to talk about physis and although he invokes the gods to enforce that stance, he recognizes that the logic of metaphysics is utterly different in its essence from the language of force.  He invokes the threat of atheism to disguise that recognition, but we can recognize the respect beneath that invocation.  He recognizes a kinship with the inhumanism of the atheist.  I would wager that’s what you saw down in the desert, even if you’re telling us about it from the heights of a mountain.
Me:  So, after criticizing my thesis, you’re willing to agree with me.  And you’re willing to grant that my metaphor wasn’t tendentious after all.
S.S.:  I suppose I am, and I suppose it wasn’t.  It turns out you were right after all, though for all the wrong reasons.
Me:  But if you’d just let me read my paper, maybe you would have seen that I’d said the same thing, albeit with different words.
S.S.:  Well, I’d love to hear your paper, but I fear we’re out of time.  So we’ll have to turn to your argument another time.
Me:  Yes, we’ll return another time.
B.C.:  No, they won’t!