Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Wherein I talk smack about my governor over on the Guardian's opinion page.

The Guardian was kind enough to post my piece on what's wrong with Kasich's education proposals:

Unfortunately, it is often the rhetorical flourishes of Kasich’s anti-union diatribes that get the most attention. But what looks like a populist attack on the intellectual elite turns out, on closer inspection, to be a boondoggle for the propertied class. 

 I'd generalize this point to the entire Republican field.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Praise of the Ontometaphorical God(s)

Because he could see the future — because his name, after all, means Forethought — Prometheus had a knack for staying on the right side of history, and his brother Epimetheus was happy to follow his lead.  That’s how they wound up arrayed alongside their cousins (those upstarts who’d later become known as the Olympians) against their own Titanic forebears.  Call it the demand for justice, if you like.  After all, their uncle Kronos was the first but one tyrant, whose scythe turns up everything the earth produces and whose teeth grind all grain to dust.  And when Gaia unleashed her destructive powers in the form of giants and monsters bent on dragging Olympos itself back into the omphalos of the earth, Prometheus’s help again proved decisive.  Here, the chief assistance he provided was to have created something capable of worshipping the gods:  mortal human beings, whose lack alone of all the great lacks in the cosmos (for lack is both the first and last word of all that there is) were capable of experiencing their lack as lack.  It was only with the assistance of we human beings, we limitless lackers, we constant fantasists, we inconstant, restless lovers, we betters on all the bad horses, we pathetically limited, weak, pathos-laden, frankly a little pathetic, certainly quite ridiculous human beings, that the Olympians for all their might could manage to eke out a victory against the Earth’s overwhelming desire to return all that she’s ever made in her infinite creativity back to the even more infinite embrace of her own slumber.  We came to the gods’ aids by letting their powers come to enough presence to assume an effective form.  And we did this by worshipping them, by looking up to the heights of Olympos and choosing the divine attributes arrayed thereupon from all the infinite possible divine attributes (that Spinoza assures us there are) and saying:  “This, we worship.  These are the things we aspire to.  They are ours, these powers we identify with.”
You might think I’ve just repeated the same basic idea three times, obeying, no doubt the dictate of some overblown, high-falutin’ rhetorical theory, inspired equally by my lack of adequate sleep and the just human enough grandeur of foothills of the the Italian and French Alps parading themselves outside my train window.  But don’t let yourself by fooled.  Every one of those claims is different.    

And in this, I’m simply following Prometheus’s lead.  Prometheus, who had a knack for staying on the right side of history.  This does not always mean: remaining faithful to the Gods.

Moreau recalls the ruse of the Muses
Hesiod tells us that Prometheus eventually betrayed Zeus.  First, by stealing fire for his human creations and then (after that first betrayal had eventuated an equably Epicurean settlement) by tricking Zeus into taking the worst cut from the flesh of the animals the gods commanded that we mortals sacrifice to them, and which they taught us to eat.  This is all true, of course.  It happened just like the Muses told Hesiod it did when they appeared to him on the slopes of Parnassus.  But Hesiod wasn’t one for irony so he missed the import of the bit when the Muses paraphrased without explicitly citing Plato.  And so he failed to identify the deepest lie they told, in the grips of which they were in collusion with Prometheus.  (Let’s call this not the most noble, but the most human lie:  the myth of the truth).  Hesiod, then, failed to notice the rebellion by the youngest Olympians against the very idea of Olympos, in the name of the idea of the idea itself.

Prometheus stole fire so we could compensate for our awareness of our own lack.  In what at first appeared to be the compromise of sharing our meals with the God, Prometheus in fact taught both us and the Gods that we were locked in a struggle with them for the best bits of that of which there is never enough to share.  But Prometheus, the first transcendental philosopher (here I follow the Muses in paraphrasing without citing a philosopher we would all do better to cite less), had already set up the condition for these conflicts in the very first gift he gave us, the one he tricked Zeus to ask of him.  Our capacity to feel lack, our ability to worship the gods, was premised on our sharing with Prometheus — something even the gods for the most part lack — the capacity to see the future, not in the sense of predicting it accurately, but in the sense of seeing that there’s such a thing as the future at all.  In this, he was colluding with the young Olympians who he knew would someday eclipse the tyranny of their parents.

Because Hesiod failed to identify Prometheus’s original betrayal, he also failed to notice Prometheus’s revenge.  Aeschylus had intimations of it, but because he failed to recognize that the reason Prometheus knew the root of Zeus’s eventual (inevitable) downfall, was that he was a coconspirator, perhaps its primary author, he imagined the story ending with a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus.  Thousands of years later, Shelley finally heard Prometheus’s laughter.  But he too, in his triumphant humanism, in his conviction that surely the justice that motivated Prometheus was recognizable as justice to we humans, failed to hear the echo in that laughter, in which Prometheus and a few of the younger gods had hidden themselves.

And so it was we who were the ones who offed the Olympians, as we finally proceeded to realize our ideas were either simply in the world by virtue of its nature, or else perhaps of our making.  As we proceeded to emancipate ourselves of the last vestiges of the superstitious worship of that more than human natural world to which, our mother/father/progenitorbeyondgender though it may be, we owe absolutely no worship, a force of whom we cannot fail to notice that justice is lacking, we have failed except in a few glimpses to notice the ominously but entirely immanently divine nature of the forces by which we effected this liberation, in whose mighty nature the youngest, most human of the Olympians hid themselves:  the Muses, whom I’ve already mentioned, and their dreamy bandleader, Apollo, and his sister Artemis, who scorns the safety of fire at night to master  the darkest corners of the wild, and wise, crafty Athena and slow but cunning Hephaestus, and yes even savage Ares and, okay, I’ll concede to you mad Dionysos, and madness making Aphrodite (but watch out!  They’ve just tricked you with their young looks as they are in truth the oldest, least human divinities of all) and alongside them, Prometheus, deliberate philosophical architect of this cosmic Trojan horse, this world deprived of the divine in which the most human gods have smuggled themselves.

To what end?  To join us or to have further sport with us?

And what of Prometheus’s faithful brother?  Was Prometheus really so faithless and fickle as to have abandoned him?

Or, in cosmic history, in the long genealogy of phantasms Gaia jealously dreams, are we really the final thought?  Is our victory so assured as we are inclined to think?

Friday, February 27, 2015

In Lovely Blueness: Protagoras's revenge.

I'm not going to summarize the issues in the "debate" over whether what you are seeing here is white and gold or blue and black, because I'm sure 24 hours or so in, you're all up to speed. At Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg asks what philosophers will make of this as an opportunity for public philosophy  My prediction (and this already seems to be playing out), most philosophers will tell you that this is really a conversation about color perception, and descend into a discussion of qualia.  Is there a difference between what color something "is" and how we "experience"color?

I'm hopeful for something slightly different.  Maybe this will be a chance to redress a long standing wrong in public philosophy. Maybe the time has finally come for:

Protagoras's Revenge!

Protagoras was, of course,  the most famous of the sophists and the person with whom the worst sort of relativism is often associated.  His claim that "The human is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not" has been taken as early as Plato's Theatetus to be a claim that truth and reality are subjective functions of perception. If you experience a certain wind as hot, and I experience the same wind as cold, we aren't particularly bothered by this.  (We're willing to ascribe contrary properties to the "same" wind.  I'll return to winds at the end of this post).  It was, of course, also Plato who put this idea definitively to rest.  The problem is that the very ideas of truth and reality are normative, and universal in scope.  That is, Protagoras seems to be saying that when I say (say): that dress is blue and black, what I'm really saying is that that dress is blue and black for me. But if I go into any discussion thread on the internet right now, I'll see that that's untrue: what I seem to really want to claim is that everyone should see the dress as blue and black.  Now, Protagoras can of course come back and say: "yes, but you shouldn't want that" (this, after all, is the movement my students want to make in their lazy relativism*).  But here's where Plato's trump card comes in, because in order for Protagoras to make that claim, he needs to appeal to the normative, universal properties inherent in our understanding of truth.  (He's making a prescriptive claim).

Fine, Plato.  The dress is really blue and black.  Depending, of course, (to go back to another famous blue dress) on what the meaning of is is.

There's another philosophical problem that enters into discussion here, and that's the problem of the image.  Because we aren't talking about the dress.  We're talking about one particular image of the dress.  Now, presumably because that image is of a photograph, it merely reproduces the property of the actual dress, but science (of the "I fucking love science" variety) can tell me why it's actually more complicated than that.  There is, of course, a rich philosophical conversation about the image, which (again) goes back to Plato, but which isn't immediately connected there to the issues of perception and truth where Protagoras comes up (the line between these issues is short, of course, but I'm not going to traverse it right now).  More recently, Kendall Walton has considered the difference between the kinds of claims that "photographic" images make from, say, "drawn" images, although I think that that discussion needs to be updated in the light of digital photography.  (A person less lazy than me would go research that topic now, but although that's a detour I'm interested in, it's not one I need to take right now as I've reason to be confident it wouldn't for a major revision of my point here).  Walton's point is that when we take something to be a photograph, we take it to be an image of that thing, so that we take the photograph to be reproducing the properties of the thing.  (It makes sense to have a debate on the basis of a photograph about what color a dress really is, but it wouldn't make sense to have that debate on the basis of a painting of it.)  (I'm leaving to the side Walton's views on fictionalism also for now).

Why this detour into a discussion of the image?  Because as much time as we spend with images, we don't linger on images nearly enough.

At Daily Nous, I summarized the "debate" about what interests me about the dress as follows:

"1) the first debate is over what color the dress really is, not what the colors in the picture are
2) but once they’ve been told it, people will be willing to grant that the “real” dress is blue and black.
3) the question then becomes whether the picture is “really” white and gold or blue and black.
4) eventually pop-science is brought in to explain why our eyes might “over compensate” for a “bad” picture.
5) at this point, both sides can see how the other side can hold their “mistaken” views, and can identify the terms of the “debate,” without being able to actually make their eyes see it. [I know what the brains of the white-goldies are doing, but try as I might I can’t make my brain do it.] except for a squishy middle who now says they can see both (or sometimes vacillate between seeing both.)
6) descent into aporia ensues (LOLs, emojis, etc).
7) consequently the linguistic turn is never made, whereby people realize that the problem is with the realistic and normative biases in our ordinary concepts.
8) and the realization that “debate” is less important than the education/experimentation of one’s aesthetic sensibilities.
9) my prescription is that people ought to read more Protagoras, Hume, and Nietzsche."

In the previous paragraphs, I've tried to start fleshing out what I mean in claims 7, 8 and 9.  (I presume everyone is familiar enough with the first 6 that I don't have to go into too much depth).  I can't help but notice how bad we are at talking about images, and I suspect that's because we seem to be congenitally inclined to have realist intuitions.  That is (and here I'm granting Plato's point), we tend to think that when we speak, we're referring to universal, common and shared properties, and that consequently agreement can be reached about the truth or falsity of the claims about these properties through rational dispute.  Protagoras's mistake seems to have been that he tried to neutralize that shared ground, and that's what philosophers across the spectrum have been giving him shit for for nigh on 2500 years now.

I exempt Nietzsche, and Hume and a few others from this gross, but forgivable error.  After all, most of us have to interact with others, and we spend a lot of time dealing with bad, inconsistently applied versions of Protagoras's argument, with that lazy relativism that is in many ways indistinguishable from fanatical absolutism insofar as both of them aim to neutralize any grounds for rational debate.

But, of course, when it comes to images, we're willing to grant that things might function differently.  This, is why it's so important to salvage our realist intuitions to emphasize what a shitty picture the original blue dress picture is, and show all the ways that we can "correct" it (without acknowledging that we are thereby changing the terms under discussion).  If it turns out that the image really can be blue and black AND white and gold, and that we can understand what the other person means when they say it's white and gold (because c'mon you guys, it's obviously blue and black), it's because we're willing to suspend some of the universalistic and normative properties of our ordinary language when we're talking about images.  We're even willing to grant that there might be room for aesthetic education here.  (I can learn more about an image by trying to experience how others see it.  I can appreciate food and music that I didn't before if I learn about what the properties in it are that other people are experiencing).

It's too bad we can't take this point about aesthetic education further, because frankly I think this particularistic, anti-normative sort of experiencing is of far more importance to how we can live happily together than any normative ethics.

You might think I'm advocating extending imagistic thinking beyond the image.  But, actually, I'm simply advocating for us to follow Nietzsche all the way down the imagistic rabbit hole (Plato's forms/ideas are themselves forms of images).  Call this revolutionary fictionalism if you like.

But I'll call it Protagoras's revenge.

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how we can bend philosophy away from its normative biases.   (How we can, like, just let it be, man.)  But this post has already gone to long, and so I won't trouble you.  But I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't offer you some form of edification on that question.

We began with a click-baity, manufactured internet controversy.  By way of apology (or to reward you for your patience in getting to the end or to punish you for your prurience)** let's end by imagining dialogue in the context of one of the great poems of the twentieth century, Celan's Sprachgitter (or Speech Grill).***

Eyeround between the bars

Flittering lid
propels itself upwards,
sets free a glance.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and drab:
Sky, heartgray, must be near.

Athwart, in its iron socket,
the smoldering chip.
By lightsense
you hit on the soul.

(Were I like you.  Were you like I.
Did we not stand
beneath one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The flagstones.  On them,
Thick on each other, both the
heart gray pools:
mouthsfull silence.

(Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden >
herzgrauen Lachen:
Mundvoll Schweigen.)

[UPDATE:  Leigh Johnson responds to this post, here and here (see the comment thread in the latter link also.]

* in an ensuing discussion about this post with Johnson, I was reminded that she was the person who originally started calling this view lazy relativism. (I used to just call it "weak relativism").  

**there's another hint about aesthetic education, hidden in the form of a rickroll in the links I've put in this blog.  You're welcome.

*** my translation.

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.