Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Descartes in love

Descartes is bugging me. In the second meditation, he argues that because he is able to perceive and judge that he perceives wax, this demonstrates (1) that he exists, and (2) that his knowledge of himself is more certain than his knowledge of the wax. Whether or not he perceives and judges the wax accurately, that he perceives and judges shows that he must be capable of so doing, and therefore, that his mind “exists.”

I understand the argument for (1) as a proof that subjectivity as such must be, in order for there to be experience, sensation, perception, judgment, etc. One could be deceived by absolutely everything that one encounters, but never be wrong in concluding that one has a subjective being, because otherwise, one could not be either wrong or right, about anything. This position opens the door to transcendental philosophy, and seems to me simply to be the correct position. I cannot fathom an alternative to the transcendental philosophical idea that there must be a subject for whom there are experiences, in order for us to make sense of any experience, or in order for us to understand anything about understanding or knowing.

But the argument for (2) is unclear. In Cress’ translation: “… if my perception of the wax seemed more distinct after it became known to me not only on account of sight or touch, but on account of many reasons, one has to admit how much more distinctly I am known to myself. For there is not a single consideration that can aid in my perception of the wax or of any other body that ails to make even more manifest the nature of my mind.” Descartes does not claim merely that he knows that his mind exists, but that he knows about it more than he knows about the wax, and this seems also to be the case regardless of whether he is deceived about his supposed perceptions of supposed external objects. Now, what exactly tells him this?

Let’s imagine that Descartes has badly misconstrued his experience, and that he is nothing other than a figment of the imagination of his notorious “evil genius.” The argument for (1) is that, if he can be deceived in this way, and if he can undergo being deceived, he must exist as, minimally, something that can be deceived: a mind. But the argument for (2) seems to me to say that he knows about himself more than about any of his experiences, on the basis of this same evidence. How can he know that he is not a figment of the evil genius’ imagination? What about his experience, his subjectivity, could tell him so?

This is the starting point of Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” image. Putnam proposed this as a challenge to the unity of mind and body: if we can imagine ourselves as properly hooked-up brains in vats, through which hookings-up these brains are fed what they interpret as “experiences” of wax, fires, copies of Descartes’ Meditations, or whatever, then we will have a hard time proving that our minds/brains are “in” our bodies.

But Putnam is not answering the more fundamental question, which is, what is the source of, the evidence for, and the basis of judgments about our self-knowing? Do we know our own minds?

One of my favorite approaches to this question is a very uncomfortable one. Every once in a while, we hear someone declare something like “I thought I was in love, but I was wrong.” Well, how about that?

Here you are, merrily going about your fawning and praising of this god in human form with whom you are thoroughly and terminally smitten, and then, one day, you awake to a different set of circumstances, a different alignment of stars perhaps, and realize that your undying love was in fact stillborn all along. How does that happen? Are you wrong about your judgment of the things—the person, that person’s charms, etc.—or are you wrong about yourself, about your judgment, about your own perceptions? What is the difference?

That we are capable of self-consciousness of our own subjectivity seems to me patent and undeniable. That we are capable of self-knowledge in any deep sense seems to me uncertain, at best.

Where does this leave old René? Those of us who read this crapola know that he will use the self-knowledge idea in order to construct “certainty” a bit later on in the text. Uh oh.

I used to think I was in love with Descartes.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

philosophy of mind -- yeah, right

I’m teaching Philosophy of Mind this semester. It’s odd that the philosophy department has a course called Philosophy of Mind. It’s throwing me for a bit of a loop, despite the fact that I’ve taught the course several times.

The phrase “philosophy of mind” connotes, at least to me, an analytical philosophy approach, which here means an approach that takes up philosophical “problems” to be “solved.” Among the problems in philosophy of mind are such matters as the “mind-body problem” and the “other minds problem.” The debates include whether “mind” can be reduced to physical brain events, whether we can have definitive proof that other minds exist, and so forth.

But the Cow State Santa Claus philosophy department is, and has been for many years, a continental philosophy department. Unlike analytical philosophy, continental philosophy emphasizes “questions” that elicit “answers,” but more importantly issue more questions.

The big difference between the analytical and continental approaches to philosophy is really this: analytical philosophy regards “mind” as a set of problems, and continental philosophy regards “mind” as a tradition of ideas dating to… Maybe Descartes? Maybe Parmenides?

That’s what’s driving me as I teach this thing. I don’t know what “Philosophy of Mind” is supposed to be. I believe I have a duty to provide my students some basic background in the debates about the analytical philosophical “problems,” because anyone looking at an undergrad transcript would think that’s what “Philosophy of Mind” would be about. But I’m also trying to undermine that containment, to question what I think is a broad petitio principii at the root of “Philosophy of Mind.”

In effect, I plan to teach a course in opposition to itself. I’m doomed.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

an old poem

Every so often something overtakes me and I try to write poetry, or, more accurately, something like the following happens. This is from about 12 years ago. It is about a life I left behind. I just re-read it and a few others from that period, and I think some of it is kinda okay. So, for what it's worth...

I’d tried a thousand ways 
to worry through life,
caught in the romantic 
allure of despair, bemoaning 
our Heehaw anxieties,
bad luck and gloom, the 
cartoon violence of drunks 
bouncing each other off 
the walls or searching 
for mermaids in the bay 
like Prufrock heroes.

But I gave up on the ghost 
at last, and tossed out spare 
skeletons to boot, and if I 
didn’t smile at least I felt it.

Not all those empty bottles lined 
up beside the sink belonged to me,
lest you forget; and you know 
the dirty plates aren’t mine; but if 
you insist we both spoiled the nest 
at least we worked together. I’ll 
cop to that, alright. And I’ll take 
some blame for wreckage, and 
that will surely make me smile.
I can’t be made to fret about it.

What’s fair, what’s deserved, what’s 
to be done, what’s to come - I used 
to believe in answers to these 
unlucky questions, but I was 
older then and felt the stakes 
driven further and further up. 
I’ve wised up to the risk.
Now I’m never certain and 
I’m certain that it’s best.

I’m not alone. I’m not weary.
I’m living off the dividends 
of misspent youth: pointless 
delight and days with no end,
careless concern and grave hope.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

consciousness, the imaginary, ideology, the real, sex and violence

Consciousness is a funny thing. Late modern and postmodern theories have attempted to establish, variously, that consciousness is an insignificant epiphenomenon of biochemical events in the nervous system, a technology of oppression and control through ideology, a grotesque product of the imaginary, a relatively self-aware if not entirely self-transparent absolute, or just the difference between what it’s like to be you versus what it’s like to be a goat.



As I start to gird the loins of my consciousness* in preparation for the Spring semester, Althusser’s theory of ideology and what I understand of Lacan’s account of the imaginary keep coming up. (In some ways, Althusser + Lacan = Baudrillard, but that’s another story.) Althusser says that ideology is how we represent to ourselves our imaginary relationship to our real conditions of existence. Lacan says something that to me suggests that the imaginary is how the subject of desire is constructed, so that we are able to live despite the occasional upsurge of the real. In both cases, ordinary everyday consciousness is at closest a couple removes from the real.

This bothers a lot of students. It has bothered me, but mainly because I didn’t get it. Recently I’ve realized that any time we encounter the real, our apparatus of imaginary relations, desires and fantasies, that is, “reality” as we live it, crashes down around us. The real is unbearable.

In fact, the real is unlivable for a sane person. The real is a huge pile of shit, mouldering garbage, the doom of civilization, your own personal doom, all the lies you’ve told, everyone you’ve ignored, everyone you’ve fallen in love with, and everyone you’ve hated. And they’re all having an orgy of sex and violence. 

Even that isn’t real enough to be the real, because I’ve imagined it (and I hope you have too, fair reader). 

What the hell am I doing writing this? Well, it’s like this…

I write always to someone. The someone changes, depending on the time or the writing. I believe I’m at my best when I have someone I write to for a while. (And yes, it’s you. You know who you are.) So this is a secret message to that someone, while also masquerading as a public message about how I am thinking about consciousness.



Now, you don’t want to know all that, or be thinking about it when you read this, probably. I certainly don’t. When I do think about it, the imaginary relation I have to the one I write to, and to writing, and to myself, starts to come undone, and the real situation begins to appear, and it is not pretty at all. 

This writing is an orgy of sex and violence. Read it again from the start if you don’t believe me.

Where was I? Ah yes, consciousness, ideology, and the imaginary. 

I’ll give you another example, one that is more embarrassing to me personally, but less to you. Whenever I play the guitar, a part of my consciousness becomes a rock star. It is essential for me to have this imaginary relation to the guitar to be able to play. (And of course, I play to someone.) Ideology is the set of beliefs through which I interpret this imaginary relation: what I mean by “rock star,” and how I theorize the cultural position of “rock star.”  

Without the imaginary, I’m just a doofus with imprecise and weak fingers, plunking along. That’s hardly tolerable, let alone an engaging way to spend a couple hours. 

We need the real, and ultimately cannot avoid it. But we can’t bear it. Consciousness is where this gets worked out, and that’s why we’re always so goddamn tired.


* Does consciousness have loins?

Thursday, September 08, 2016

vertigo and reconstructing 3-D visual space using an old Renaissance painting trick

Shortly after eating lunch, after a longish bike ride that felt good, I realized I was starting to experience spinning in my visual field. Any time I looked at the top of the TV, it began to rotate slowly clockwise. Every blink, it would return to the more-or-less horizontal and begin rotating again at the same rate. The corner of the two walls was doing the same, but perhaps because of the prism of my glasses, the wall was bent toward the top and rotated more quickly. By about 4 o’clock, and then again after a brief period of feeling better, at 6, for about an hour, the symptoms were worse.

Proprioceptively, it was difficult to feel the orientation and position of my body. I say “my body” specifically because there was a certain alienation going on. While embodied, while there, while feeling that my head and legs were somewhere, and somewhere in relation to one another, there was a feeling of this being abnormal, and not normalizable, not correctible. Even eyes closed, lying like a corpse with my arms folded over my chest as I do when the vertigo strikes, with no visual twisting of the world to relate to, the world was not there for me and I could not tell how to enter into it.      

So I lie there. Every so often my head would seem to be in the wrong place, and I would shift slightly. The wrong place here means that it would feel unbalanced, one side lower or higher, or caving in, losing density or else imploding in density. No matter what, my legs felt like they were not straight out from my torso. I asked Lauren to straighten my legs for me, because, lying on my back, I felt them to be angled at the hips to the left. She moved my legs to the left—meaning, if they were angled, it was to the right.

After a while, I was able to get up. Drugs I’d taken earlier may have been kicking in. As I stood up, I caught myself about to fall again. I couldn’t balance spontaneously. I also couldn’t look out to determine how to balance myself, without seeing the slow rotation effect among the visual world, which would make balance impossible.


I made a discovery later on, that I could stabilize visual space by holding my hand about 10-12 inches from my face, allowing my eyes to avoid focusing on objects in my visual field. While I held my gaze at my hand, without focusing on it, either, other objects came into view in the periphery, obviously not in focus at all, but holding steady. I interpret this as a re-construction of 3-d visual space, like the use of perspective grids in Renaissance painting. As I adjusted further, I was able to focus more on the visual field and even on objects at distances from 2 to 10 feet, as long as my hand was still in my visual field to anchor it and produce the perspective effect. That is, the construction of 3-d space was not permitted by the mere stabilizing of visual field by having a piece of it that seemed to rotate counter-clockwise (i.e., with my vertiginous body) against the visual field, putting a kind of brake on it, but by giving a spot around which to re-organize space, a reference point.

3-d visual space is not usually constructed actively. We who are visual spontaneously occupy it, but not strictly visually, and this is something we don't usually understand about it. One value of the phenomenological account of perception is to help us notice the projection of being-in-the-world that is responsible for there to be a world of things that solicit our attention and action. This world we enter wholly, of a piece, rather than piecemeal. 3-D is not merely visual; it is aural, tactile, atmospherically tactile (e.g., sense-feeling of air pressure, current), and above all, oriented through the embodied orientation that our living perception is

When something has gone wrong in our ordinary orientation, then we have to construct this world actively. (This effort is exhausting, it turns out.) 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

futility work

Even before traffic stopped on the freeway on the drive up to Sacramento on Friday afternoon, I was in a funk. The entire route I could see nothing but the detritus of industrial capitalism, which is to say, the world in which we all live. I was thinking about all the concrete and steel everywhere, not only around me but worldwide. Not only is so much of the world built by industrial capitalism ugly, it’s been built by ruthlessly exploiting resources and labor. 

I suppose the horrible effects of industrial capitalism are familiar. We have lived our whole lives steeped in pollution, poison, and garbage. No one really has to read Marx to understand that working people are exploited. All of that is plain to anyone who just looks around and thinks. 

At times, what upsets me most is the futility of it. In that mood, when I consider what I do for a living, what it enables other people to do for a living, and how our lives intertwine socially and productively, none of it seems worthwhile. Some students of mine have told me that my classes have deeply changed their outlooks on the world, and that they feel benefitted by this. I appreciate that, but then I am sometimes struck by the fact that all of us are forced to live by means of the monstrous enterprise, and having a changed outlook on it does not seem helpful. Some faculty I have represented have told me that they were grateful I helped them through whatever jam they were in at the university. But my help is a way of assuring that they can continue to function in a system that destroys. 

I come to believe that people are committed irrevocably to a life of plunder, rushing to consume more, with the only possible end result making the world uninhabitable. I become suspicious of pleasure, not out of guilt but on the basis of understanding that our pleasures are disastrous. I think of the unfathomable quantities of liquor or cotton or paper we produce, how wide spread they are, how they are made, and what they ultimately do for us. It’s as if we have a psychotic notion that if we produce and consume ever more, we or our species will survive forever. 


Even if that were true, the logic of this form of civilization commands that our survival is at the expense of the planet as well as ourselves. We somehow trick ourselves into believing otherwise, but still have no way to respond to the question: what for? After all, it makes just as much sense to conclude that the ultimate goal of industrial capitalism is to make me stuck in traffic.

Monday, April 25, 2016

what to do when you're doomed


It’s evaluation time for non-tenure-track faculty at the university. That’s the time I get the most faculty rights work, because when it comes to evaluating contingent faculty, there are no holds barred. 

Under the collective bargaining agreement the faculty union has with the administration, contingent faculty in the CSU (a.k.a. “lecturers”) have something contingent faculty nationwide generally don’t have: rights. The rights are procedural only, and are guaranteed by the amazingly thin concept of “careful consideration” for recommending future re-appointment, but they are rights. Contingent faculty get to see the procedures and criteria for evaluation, and the evaluating persons can’t deviate from them or simply write nice letters for people they like and rotten ones for people they hate. 

But the creativity of people stuck with bureaucratic requirements finds ways to produce fruit, however strange it may be. Already this season I’ve seen evaluations that use hearsay for evidence, lack of evidence as evidence, or ignore evidence of overall positive assessments of their work in favor of single complaints. Some departments don’t have, or don’t explain their criteria. Some departments impose higher criteria demands on lecturers than on tenure-track faculty. A fairly large number of departments go through nominal evaluation procedures with the result that whoever is chair decides which contingent faculty to re-hire on an entirely subjective basis. 

In a lot of cases, when a faculty member with a lousy evaluation letter comes to me, it’s too late. Because they are unaware of their rights, or even that they have rights, they don’t follow the rebuttal process, lose their chance, and end up losing their work. Worse than that is when it’s obvious that the evaluation is being done unfairly, in order to get rid of someone the evaluator doesn’t like, or in order to carry out a proxy war against a colleague by not rehiring that colleague’s pet lecturer. 

Today this reminded me of my last weeks teaching in Pennsylvania in Spring 1998. The university I was teaching at part-time had already informed me I was not going to be re-hired. They said this was because of the way their union contract was written, but I didn’t believe them. I had had a run-in with a dean at the satellite campus I worked in, over the temerity with which I assigned failing grades to students who had deliberately flunked logic, making the satellite campus, and hence the dean, look bad. 

I was teaching a class through that university conjointly with Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, for a cohort of students who were training to be school teachers, and had taken a deal that gave them loan forgiveness in exchange for a minimum of four years teaching in poor inner-city schools. I was teaching a class that was called something like Ethics of Race that I was totally unqualified for. 

During the semester it had become clear that the students really could not understand the philosophical texts I had them read. I got into the practice of writing extensive notes on all the readings, so that we could spend class time actually trying to discuss the relevance to race issues and their future endeavors. And when I say extensive, I mean extensive: for an excerpt of Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, my explanatory notes were often longer than the text itself. I provided the notes on a web site I had through Geocities (remember Geocities?). 

The situation was this: I had no future job prospects. I had every reason to believe this would be the last time I taught philosophy. I was doomed.

Before every class session, I drove over to the North Side, to the weird CCAC campus made of decrepit mansions of the managerial bourgeoisie that had been donated but couldn’t be kept up, and modern multiple-use boxes. My class was in one of the old mansions, and I loved it. I didn’t have an office, so I held “office” hours in the formerly grand, currently unheated foyer. I would get there and start prepping, and look around to see all my students exchanging the copies they made of my notes and talking about the notes, the text, and their questions in hushed voices while they milled about trying to stay warm and waiting for the classroom to open. 

It was ridiculously intense work. I had that class, and two others on the other campus of the university, a total of three totally different preps, all for students who were not ready for prime time. And I was doomed.

Class would start with their questions, then the text, and finally a set of uncomfortable questions about ethics, race, class, and teaching. Then I got back in the car to drive to the university satellite campus to teach Intro or Ethics or whatever it was. 

On the 90 minute drive, I could only think, I am doomed. This is the last semester I will ever get to teach. These are the last students I will ever teach. 

Late in the semester, the administrator involved in the cohort program (among a million other things) asked me to meet with her. The only time we could meet, because of my commute, was just before the class, around 8 AM. My recent experience of administrators had taught me that a meeting with an administrator is not a good thing. It means what so many things mean to contingent faculty: I’m doomed. 

She asked me what was going on in the ethics and race class. I asked what she meant. Well, she said, she’d never had students make comments about a class or an instructor like this before. I asked again what she meant. The students had been in for advising, and individually and in groups had been telling her that the class was amazing, that I was an incredibly dedicated teacher, that our discussions in class made them understand philosophical ideas that they had never imagined before, all kinds of wonderful stuff. The administrator said she wished she had a job for me, and would hire me on the spot if she had. She asked if she could write a letter of recommendation for me. 

It was mid-April. The vast majority of jobs teaching in colleges and universities had long since been filled. The last Jobs for Philosophers was printed on two pieces of letter size paper. So I turned down her offer. I didn’t have any jobs to apply for, so a letter of recommendation wasn’t going to be very useful. I was doomed.

When I walked through the hallways today on campus, I thought about all the lecturers I know here who are doomed, and wondered what they’re thinking, and how they manage to keep doing their jobs.