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.

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