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.



Mikhail Emelianov said...

Why are you wasting your time reading Leiter's blog? Everyone knows that it's only value is the latest para-philosophical rumors and abuse of authors Leiter does not like for some reason - our abuse was moderate in proportion to the man's deserve, trust me...

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I guess I just don't see the point of all the hatin' (on either side)...

Jennette said...

For what it's worth I think you're pretty hot-shit with or without a tenure track position, especially after reading the story about your first APA experience (civvies in the elevator). Personally I think you're too good for academia. And by good I don't mean better than (although I would probably argue that as well), I mean you are too unwilling to turn into a db/kiss ass in order to get more interviews. You should take the summer to write a novel that will become a best-seller and solve all your problems.

Jennette said...

PS, we are blog neighbors now.