Thursday, June 26, 2008

The joys of the internets


Two days ago, I sent an email to the author of a widely-read philosophy blog regarding a post of his which I had thought a little too provocative and counter-productive to certain disiderata within the world of philosophy (I won't bore my readership with the overblown analytic-continental distinction). I like to think my email to him was polite and respectful: my intention was certainly constructive. Apparently, I wasn't the only person who brought this to his attention, and he graciously changed the wording of the post.

Yesterday morning, there was a much longer post criticizing peeps who had taken the author to task for an entirely different blog entry about rising stars in philosophy. Now, not 20 minutes before this I had gotten a weird email from some website called claiming that someone had been searching for me. Now, I don't know about you guys, but I regularly google myself, and think you should do the same too (google yourself, not me). Well, whozat is way better than this: it quickly uncovered so many things about me that it freaked me out. (Fortunately, I am squeaky clean).

For some reason, this confluence of events led my paranoid mind to think that I was one of the targets of the smack-down that I had earlier alluded to. Why? Well, as it happens, I had engaged in a brief discussion with my good friend Dr. J on the original post that had started this brouhaha. Now, I try to comment on the world of philosophy as little as possible, as readers of my blog will know. . . So it is quite coincidental that my two forays into the public philo-blogo-sphere should both come to a head at the same day.

As you'll notice, Dr. J. and I are both pretty mild in our criticisms. Actually, Dr. J doesn't even criticize; she raises some (legitimate) questions of the value and methodology of ranking and then asks the (as she points out genuine) question about how people know what offers other people got. I do use language like "douche-bag" and "asshole," but it's clearly in the spirit of good fun, and I go on to make fun of myself, also (more on this later).

So when, in my paranoid mind, I thought that we were being called out publicly, I thought that it was quite uncalled for. I was going to blog in more length about this, but then learned that there were truly bitter posts out there: here and, most graphically, here. Some of the comments here are in fact mean and unwarranted, so that made me decide that the author of said widely read philosophy blog was in fact perhaps warranted in the harshness of his response.

But I do want to spend some time talking about a few issues that arise from this kerfuffle. I'll have some tangentially related blogs over the next few weeks, assuming I have time (the duo of the Ideas Kids is getting ever more dynamic and Ideas Woman returns to work next week leaving me to hold the Ideas Fort down solo), but I do want to talk about what I meant by the following comment on Dr. J.'s blog:

"Sometimes I think that the primary purpose of the Leiter Reports is to tempt me towards ressentiment, to refer to something we talked about in a previous post ..."

Now, clearly I am being a little silly here (I am fully aware that this is a tertiary or quaternary purpose at most.) But, the previous post that I was referring to pertained to a number of posts on human rights that culminated here. Now, here ressentiment was used in its Nietzschean sense to refer to a form of morality that is based in feelings of vengefulness or hatred. . .

And, as much as I was kidding, I was also entirely serious (I was "kidding on the square.")

Here's the thing. Although I don't consider myself to be a Type A personality (Type A personalities don't have houses that look like mine), I care deeply and am very serious about my work, such as it is. Although I consider myself to be a slacker, I've managed to cram a lot into the last decade (did I mention that I recently turned thirty, and am trying to put my quarter-life crisis behind me so that I can move into my third-life crisis?) and of done a lot of things "young" (started taking college classes when I was 11, got married when I was 20 --- although, in my defense, I had finished college, and finished my dissertation by 25). Now, I don't say these things (particularly not the married one --- if Ideas Girl or Boy tried that crap, there would be serious trouble) to brag (Ok, I'm bragging a bit on the other two; but isn't an unemployed over the hill bloke allowed the occasional brag?) but to properly frame the ressentiment of which I will soon enough be seeing. But one of the reasons why I could accomplish these things is because I really didn't consider them to be work. I worked hard, but I also enjoyed myself (writing the diss in particular was both a good in itself and maybe for something else also --- we'll see.)

So I don't mind working hard for things that matter to me: like the Ideas Family and my writing and reading and my students and art (not mine, but others), but also So You Think You can Dance and TV in general and my new Wii and this blog. There aren't anywhere near enough hours in the day to accomplish half of what I'd want to on any of these things (I've only just got caught up on So You Think You Can Dance, for example), but I like to think that I'm approximating something like a healthy balance, to the extent that such a thing is possible.

Now a big portion of that of my two biggest concerns (my family and the life of the mind) involves finding myself a good job: a job where I'm comfortable and intellectually stimulated and doing work that I care about and is valued. Given that I haven't succeeded in finding this job on a permanent basis this occupies me a lot. In my sane moments, the search for this mythical great job occupies me to the extent that it fits into my life values.

But when I get too deep into the "philosophy zone" all that goes by the wayside. All that seems to matter in the job cycle is how many job offers, or interviews or papers one has gotten published and with whom. Those of you haven't gone to the APA don't know the joy of seeing rank and mass paranoia mixing with the sheer and naked joy that the weak can take in their few brief moments of power (I rarely quote Kissinger, but he was right when he said that the reason why academic politics are so vicious is because so little is really at stake). It's a truly terrible, soul-draining place. It's hard not to get sucked into the hysterical vortex and believe you actually care about how many interviews you get and with who and who you did or didn't talk to at the "smoker..." There are certain colleagues that I have to avoid for the whole job search cycle (October-April --- half the year for those of you who can count) because all they can ask about is the minutiae of the market and academic politics.

As it happens, I've had some really great "interviews" as we put it in the business, but it really doesn't matter. . . It certainly doesn't justify: job seekers coming up to me and grabbing my name-tag when I was sitting at my alma mater's table at the "smoker" and asking me what my affiliation with the school was (deciding whether or not they needed to suck up to me --- they didn't, as they quickly surmised...). My favorite APA experience was when I went up with Ideas Woman and newborn Ideas Girl in Boston. While I was there, I tried my hardest not to act like an insane job seeker. To that end, I didn't wear a suit or name-tag unless I was actually interviewing. The rest of the time I kept it low key and kicked it with the Ideases at the connected mall. Anyway, we were in an elevator filled with a bunch of nervous job candidates whilst I was in my civvies, and Ideas Woman said to me, "You'd better get changed for your interview." All the people in the elevator, who didn't seem to notice we existed before that turned around and checked me out --- gave me the full up and down with absolute no attempt to conceal it. . .

That's the APA for you.

Now, when I get in "job search" mode, I feel tempted to get sucked into this mindset. And this clearly is a mindset based on ressentiment, whether or not one succeeds (that's why it's not the same as resentment). It involved publishing and teaching and advising students not for love of doing those things or even to have a stable career, but for the sake of a competition where ascetic excess is rewarded and where virtue is judged in moralistic terms.

Now, I don't deny that there is a connection between things like getting a lot of great offers (or great interviews or articles accepted for publication at great journals) and skill at doing the activity of being a philosopher. And I'm not the sort of person who thinks that an "obscure" job is necessarily better than a "prestigious" job. Earlier on in my career, I probably thought that I wanted to be a hot-shit star myself and I unconcsiously assumed that since what I did was inherently interesting doing it and doing it well would make me a success. I still probably would prefer a "research" job to a "teaching" job but now that's mostly because I prefer research to teaching (any hirers who happen to have found this board should note that I love both --- but my love of research goes to 11, to paraphrase Spinal Tap). I've taught at 4 universities, 2 of which have PhD programs very well regarded in their field (as a non tenure-track peon I obviously wasn't teaching in these PhD programs...) and 2 of which were more obscure teaching colleges. Based on these experiences and the experiences of my friends and colleagues, I am pretty confident claiming that there is no correlation, positive or negative, between prestige of a department and healthiness of department environment.

And yet, when the JFP comes out, or I read about "rising stars" or hear who is interviewing with whom where, I find myself slipping --- and I see lots of my colleagues already down there. Now, let me be clear, I'm not asserting that any other particular people (such as the people on the rising stars list) are themselves only succeeding by playing the game of professional philosophical ressentiment. I've learned enough about myself to know that it's a game that tempts me personally. And I know that this is a temptation shared by lots of philosophers across the spectrum.

That's what I mean by ressentiment.

Now, in good Nietzschean fashion, I plan on writing in the next few posts about why I do love philosophy, or something that slightly resembles what passes for philosophy.

More on that to come.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Ideas Boy, B.A.(B.Y.) and the Oedipal Complex

I remember that when Elena was about, let's say half a year old, she went through a phase of being romantically in love with Heather; Jasper, at four months is already starting to go through that in a major way. A few days ago he started screaming while I was holding him and when Heather came in the room and took him (without doing anything else) he started cooing. He wasn't hungry; he just felt like things would be better with his mama than his papa.

I don't know if there's some sort of gender or sexual difference involved (the nice thing about having only one of each is that you can chalk up all differences to innate gender differences . .. . and believe me, parents do when they are giving us "advice.") For the record, I'm pretty sure that Elena is "straight" (to the extent that a three year old can be) --- this first became obvious when we were in Italy and she was about 19 months old, in a way that was hilarious and deserves its own post some other time. But the only important thing for our purposes here is that Jasper has started wooing Heather much earlier than Elena did.

So, today, our housekeepers* were late in coming, so we were unable to cook dinner at home. We gave Elena the choice of where to go (from a limited selection) and she chose the California Pizza Kitchen. This made me happy because this is just about the most upscale sort of place we can go with the kids (actually we were recently in West Virginia and ate at a great restaurant. . . but that was a unique exception in many ways and would probably also merit its own blog entry or two; also, one of the things I loved about our trip to Italy with Elena was that we could eat pretty much anywhere with her and no one would look at us askance)...

Fortunately, our kids are pretty good when we go out to eat and everything was going swimmingly. Elena was eating her cheese pizza (which she's a pro at ordering but has only recently started eating --- for a while we were going around the Main Line collecting kids' pizzas to put in our fridge) and Jasper was kickin' it old school in his car seat. We were at a square table; the kids were facing one another as were Heather and I.

Jasper started to get a little fussy and so I took him out. Assuming he was sleepy, I held him in cradle position and started rocking him while he was eating. He was having none of it and started lifting up his head. This wasn't good enough, so he started lifting up his whole chest, which is no small feat for a little four month old. He had almost managed to sit himself up, so I decided I'd help him and turned him around so that he was sitting on my lap.

At that point, all tiredness left his eyes. He started staring at his mom, cooing and talking up a storm. And that's when it hit me:

There he was, in what was to his unsophisticated mind surely quite an upscale and intimate place . . . looking over (my) wine glass (but he was willing to ignore that fact) into Heather's beautiful amber eyes.

And me? Well, I was there, but he had maneuvered himself so that he couldn't see me. He had literally taken my place.

As soon as we got home, I went ahead and moved the hiding location of my symbolic phallus. I usually keep it somewhere in the entry-way closet in case I need to exercise my patriarchal authority. But I hid it in the attic, because I can lock that. . .

Hopefully Jasper won't start reading Lacan anytime soon.

*no one is allowed to judge us for having a housekeeper unless they have two or more children and they and their co-parent are both trying to hold down a full time job**...

**for the purposes of my moralism, I ask the reader to forget that one of those co-parents is currently on maternity leave, and the other is on a summer break that looks like it'll be extending into unemployment.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Ideas Man First Annual Discussion Forum (Part Two)

Ok, so I recognize that my last post was a little abstract and might have suggested a discussion that only appealed to me.


Here's a different topic.

Assuming, Obama clinches the nomination later this week, who should he name as Veep? (In the interest of full disclosure, I'd be delighted, but I'm 6 --- soon to be 5 --- years too young; so no currying points with Ideas Man, something that I know is a goal for all of you).

To get started, here are some of the "talking points" along with my 2 cents (adjusted for inflation).

First, let's dispense with:

Hillary Rodham Clinton. I've made no bones about my dislike for HRC. But the nomination has been incredibly close and, at times bitter, so this is the obvious way to "heal" that split. Now, leaving aside my personal feelings for HRC, I still think it's a bad idea insofar as their styles and messages don't just not mesh but are opposed (each would pretty clearly dilute the "brand" of the other). Plus would they really be able to conceal their hatred long enough to present themselves as a "unity" ticket? Plus, I really think in their hearts of hearts they both know it's a terrible idea.

So let's move into the first category of candidates, who seem to obviate the problem of personal rancor while attempting to "heal the rift." Clinton supporters:

Ted Strickland. A popular governor from an important swing state (Ohio) brings in executive experience (well 2 years of it ...). From what I know about him, he seems likeable enough and appeals to that all important consituency of blue collar whites, who are apparently the only real Americans (I am proud of my elitism).

I haven't heard of Ed Rendell being talked about (he has a little more experience and is a former DNC and perhaps the paradigmatic Clinton hack). It seems to me that he'd be good for the same reasons as Strickland, but I'm glad that he's not on the list, because I really dislike him, even though I voted for him twice (the alternative was always way worse). He did a goodish job as mayor of Philly when I first moved here, but his two big causes as governor have been: expanding legalized gambling and property tax reform. Really? These are Democratic issues (when they both involve transfers of money to the rich from the poor).

Then there's the ex-Clinton supporter (Judas) if you will: Bill Richardson. Great executive experience and Hispanic (his name is pronounced Beeel Reechardson --- just ask Al Gore); and Hispanics have been trending almost as much to Clinton as blue-collar whites but they apparently don't matter as much. Now, you might say that this is racism --- I won't, although I'll think it --- demographically, the more interesting thing is that it shows that Democrats still can't buy onto the notion that if they sweep the West they can lose the South... I like him, and he really fills the "experience gap" the best of three I've mentioned. Plus, I was favorably impressed by his early-ish endorsement of Obama when I had written him off as a Clinton hack (Beeel Reechardson Super Star ....)

Now let's move into earlier supporters of Obama.

Here, we include. Janet Napolitano, the popular governor of Arizona. I'll follow the news media in pointing to the two most salient facts about her: she is a woman (would this heal the "rift" without including a Clinton supporter? Certainly partially, but I doubt fully b/c I think that the rift is as much about the internal divisions of Democratic politics as gender. But I've been taking to task for this elsewhere so I won't push it). Don't know much about her except that she's done well in a conservative place without becoming a "blue dog Democrat" but I don't think I need to research much more b/c now that McCain is the Republican nominee she is a remote pick.

What about Jim Webb? Obama's representative among angry white Appalachian men. As a Democrat turned Republican turned Democrat again, good cross-over appeal (might do better among some Southerners than McCain --- depending on who he nominates for Veep and how much Veep actually matters). Great integrity and smart enough, but a little too conservative for my taste. Despite being part of the post-90s democratic party, he has good experience; but I"m not sure he breaks enough with the demographics that have scarred our party. And lets not forget that he was vocally against women in the military when he was Undersecretary of the Navy, and although he's been open about the fact that he's mistaken, that wouldn't do great things for the gender issues that have plagued the party ...

Ok, so what about the uncategorizable candidates?

Here, first we have John Edwards who might parlay his third place into the veep slot. I like Edwards a lot and probably think of my own politics as the closest of anyone I've listed. Of course, there's the "been there/done that" thing and he claims he doesn't want the vice-presidency (inside money says he wants to be A.G. which I think he'd be great at and would hopefully use to start more vigorously enforcing labor laws and business regulations).

Then there's Michael Bloomberg. I have to admit he's my favorite choice, assuming he wants the job. Unlike Rudy Guiliani, he's actually done a great job as mayor of NYC; he's been a technocrat in the best sense of the term: someone who tries to use the tools of government to solve problems in a non-partisan way. Even so, I'm not sure that I'd want a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent for President but I think that both in terms of what he brings politically to the ticket and as a future shaper of policy, he'd make a great vice-president.

Granted neither Edwards nor Bloomberg will get rid of the "elitist" charge, but it's a bogus charge in the first place. . .

Finally, there

Joe Lieberman. Of course, there's the been-there, done-that phenomenon. AND THE FACT THAT HE SUCKS. Fortunately he is not really in the running (too busy kissing McCain's ass and stirring up controversies over non-issues like whether or not to talk to Iran).

Any favorites on this list? Anyone I'm leaving out?

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ideas Man's First Annual Open Discussion Forum

Something over on Dr. J.'s blog recently got me thinking once again about one of my favorite philosophical questions: the meaning and value of the future (those are, of course, two different questions, even if they are often confused).

As I said there, I agree with Dr. J. that the issue of celebrity adoptions is a troubling one and one which ought to stir up ambivalent feelings in anyone concerned about (understanding or ameliorating) relations between the first and third worlds. And I also agree with the comments that followed. But while accepting the substance of these claims, I nonetheless found myself a little disconcerted. Now, maybe that's just because I'm a melancholy person. But if it is, it's a melancholia that often unsettles me when I engage in discussions with people who share my progressive politics: faith that we can properly understand the way in which our actions are oriented towards the future (readers of this blog familiar with contemporary continental philosophy will note that what I'm voicing here is a suspicion of any form of messianism --- weak or strong). Bentham addresses this problem by making the certainty of a pleasure as well as its proximity to the present elements in his hedonistic calculus. That's all well and good assuming that we can quantify certainty and proximity; and sometimes we really can. Global warming is a good example; another is disease prevention. But note that both of these are primarily scientific problems where social conditions present an impediment to their solution. Genuinely social problems pose a much thornier problem. Because when it comes to the future, such quantifiability is just the tip of the (quickly melting) iceberg. And when Mill suggests a qualitative corrective to Bentham's utilitarianism, it utterly leaves out the uncertainty of the future.

One of my favorite quotes is from Milan Kundera:
"Once upon a time, I too thought that the future was the only competent judge of our works and actions. Later on I understood that chasing after the future is the worst conformism of all, a craven flattery of the mighty. For the future is always mightier than the present. It will pass judgment on us, of course. And without any competence."

In an article that I wrote about him, I argued that a good deal of his work can be understood as responding to the trauma that the future delivers to us (I might call my earlier melancholia anticipatory melancholia). Elsewhere, I argued that there are in fact two forms of futurity that philosophers often conflate: the futurity of our anticipation (an extension of what Husserl call's protention; or in a Heideggerian vein, the future of our projects) and the futurity that we cannot anticipate but that will nonetheless happen (my extreme nominalism is entirely compatible with this realist claim ....) It's a conflation that is, I think, politically dangerous, and it's a conflation to which progressives are just as prone as reactionaries. It's also one of the reasons that I am much more sympathetic to ameliorative politics than to revolutionary politics.

But to keep things friendly, I'll give an example that we all can agree on (it's a very far-fetched example).

Let's say that there emerges a leader in Iraq who is genuinely capable of bringing peace and stability to the country and (let's be really imaginative here) of reconciling the different ethnicities and factions within the country. And let's say that a future U.S. president isn't so dumb as to get in the way of this leader bringing about this reconciliation. Democracy blooms in the Middle East and the wet dream of the neo-cons comes true...

Let's say that if S. Hussein were still in power he would have been able to keep this leader from emerging.

In this outside possibility, would the neo-cons original rationale for invasion be justified? (We might pose this question to the decidedly liberal George Packer, who supported the invasion on humanitarian grounds but later said he was wrong --- essentially because of the results of how things unfolded).

We all know that the answer to this question is no, but the only way that we can justify this answer is by asserting that the present (even a bad present, an untenable present) has some claim on any possible future no matter how wonderful that future would be.

To come back to reality, although we all know that things are going terribly in Iraq and are not going to get any better, we also hope that things will get better. If things get better before November, John McCain will probably win the election because the very same majority of people who claim that the war is a mistake will revert to their initial position of supporting the war and McCain will say he was right all along.

Those of us who know this is a fallacy will insist that even if things are going better now it doesn't justify the horrors and atrocities that we've (Americans and Iraqis) already committed and endured. But we will lose that argument.

I have lots more to say about this subject, but Ideas Girl wants me to play with her now. So back to the original purpose of this post:

In my First Annual Open Discussion Forum, I invite the tens of readers of this blog to respond to the following question:

"How can we have a progressive politics without presuming that we know the future and without ignoring the value of (even a shitty) present?"