Friday, December 30, 2011

solid, air, etc.

My National Novel Writing Month project began with a simple premise. What if major corporations decided that planned obsolescence wasn't aggressive enough a strategy for provoking consumer purchases of new goods. What if, instead, they had teams of people who broke into our houses, broke our stuff, and made it look like normal wear and tear?

I wrote a brief scene of this last summer sometime, and then it turned into this novel.

And then the novel turned from being a goofy little satire on consumerism, into a black comedy about corporate capitalism. It's become a Kafkaesque satire, which is to say, it's funny in the way that things are funny when your choices are laughing or doom. It's the kind of funny people will appreciate who also appreciate the humor of these lines from the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

I know! And that's Karl Marx, not Groucho!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

mood, typography, cognitive therapy

Mood's been uneven. The Christmas trip down to LA was good. The Penguins keep winning.

I'm knee-deep in a gorgeous book, The Elements of Typographic Style, by Robert Bringhurst (an acclaimed Canadian poet as well as a typography nut). It's not quite a textbook, and not quite a treatise, on the art of typography. The book follows its own stated axioms, and does so beautifully. Even the paper is beautiful.

Consequently, I'm dreaming up ways to re-format all the documents I used in classes. I'm being playful and ridiculous with the Professional Ethics syllabus, for instance.

One dilemma I already know I have regards the use of ligatures. In a lot of typefaces, they are very nearly obligatory. But since I provide documents online as well as well as in hard copy, I need fonts that are good screen fonts, and ligatures are not very clear on a screen. This is a good problem to have, because it keeps me off the streets and out of my head.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

a little help from my friends

Thanks, everyone.

Elizabeth, whom I believe I know through the kind auspices of Sharon and Dave's famous annual cocktail party, suggested a connection between depression, fear, and capitalism. I'm not super hip to Marxist analyses of the phenomenon we call depression, and with regard to myself, a psychiatric account makes so much sense it's hard for me to see past it. I mean, I was first depressed when I was 9. No kidding.

Yes, even 9 year olds raised in capitalist society experience its contradictions. I think what I mean is that the obvious effects of capitalist economics on my life have grown a lot stronger and more direct since then.

I have no doubt that this recent bout has something to do with the constant assault of the people pushing the corporate/privatized/Friedmanized university (and society). "Torture" may be a gross exaggeration of their way of treating people, but otherwise, their behavior is captured awfully well by Naomi Klein's thesis in The Shock Doctrine (as many in CFA have pointed out). The creation and exploitation of crisis, and the constant application of techniques to undermine my ability to understand the reality of my situation, play very well into my own psychiatric condition. After all, one of our administrators did research on fear as a marketing tool.

(By the way, in my National Novel Writing Month project this year, the Marketing Division of the Corporation is not only the investigative wing, but also arranges torture - i.e., "focus groups" - but also assassinations, in an effort to thwart the underground movement of people who repair things rather than throw them out and buy new ones.)

Lauren was pointing out just the other day how our society trains everyone to imagine that their economic fates are their own doing, and how this ideology really helps the corporate capitalist elite seem to be meritorious, despite their being constantly rewarded for failing. To a certain extent, I fall into that too, blaming myself for my failures in academia, when that's largely discredited by a more objective analysis - say, just pointing out that 75% of faculty that we can count in the US are non-tenure-track faculty.

(Another random aside: I feel like I know and have known a suspiciously large number of people named Elizabeth or Leigh, or versions thereof.)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

2011 can't end fast enough

This has been, all told, a terrible and painful year for me.

Nothing in particular has happened, not among what we might call the objective facts of my life.

Seven years ago, due almost entirely to Lauren's being wonderful and lovely, I was able to make the biggest leap of faith I ever had. I turned my life around, and became happy, deeply happy, for the first time. The demonic rage in my mind was subdued, and I had a chance to like myself.

I did not know at the time, and no doubt would have denied it, that that rage would return. I have spent almost all of 2011 caught up in it. It is a rage directed at myself - a constantly undermining, constantly terrifying anger and hatred. Not usually aloud, but in my head, I am almost always screaming at myself.

Not a nice thought crosses my mind, that is not shouted down by this yelling snarling beast. It hates what I do, it accuses me every instant of fraud, of dissembling by every thing I say or do, or even think. It will not permit me to believe in myself, in my perceptions, and therefore will not let me believe in the reality of my everyday life. Every pleasure and joy are shredded by this monster inside me.

It has been eating me alive all year. I am so sad, and so ashamed, that the only way I can think of to do something about it is to confess my agony and fear on this stupid blog. I haven't even been able to tell Lauren, because I'm ashamed to have ruined her good work and been so careless with her love.

I'm sorry, my friends, for disturbing you with this - I assume it is disturbing. It must be a bit shocking to imagine that as I smile and joke with you, or coolly reply to a comment, or even entertain or delight you with silliness or insight, that I am ruining the experience for myself, and when we depart, I spend all the energy I can muster destroying the event and re-interpreting it as a horrible lie. It is a continual oppression.

I don't get to have an easy answer for this. I don't think therapy or anti-depressants ever freed me from it. I don't believe in god. I can't. It's often hard for me to believe in anything, because I am constantly telling myself that I don't believe what I say and think. So it's very hard to make any kind of effort to change this.

A few weeks ago I woke up full of this rage, just a terrible cursing of everything about me, and I started to cry, and then stopped myself. I told myself I was being an idiot. And I said to myself, aloud, without meaning to, "Please stop hurting me."

I can't take any more hurt from me. I am going to try to stop it. The only thing I can figure to do, now that I've told all of you about it, is ask Lauren to help me, again. I guess that's a new year's resolution.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Twelve:

All of your academic skills having been honed through these other steps, the last and most important hurdle is left before you.

Why is tenure so important? Why is any permanent job with no supervision and no real duties important? Why did you enter academia in the first place, to study great ideas and literature?

The process basically involves no new steps, but involves engaging in all forms of academic excellence at once. Certainly schmoozing is of the essence of the tenure process, now taken to the extreme of schmoozing your friends and colleagues, the dean of your college, your department head, and sometimes even students. It's abhorrent, but always keep your eyes on the prize.

Can anyone be guaranteed tenure? There are anecdotes told of a professor-to-be hiring private investigators to discover helpful information about the President of a major Midwestern university. It turned out the President was sleeping with the professor-to-be's significant other. Rather than sink into Victorian bourgeois morality, the prospective tenured faculty member did the right thing: used the information to advantage. Alter your domestic life only after it has been utile in winning the ultimate status of academia: an unimpeachable position in a job-for-life.

Think of it: you and Josef Stalin!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Eleven:

Teaching is a necessary evil on the track to success. To legitimate your work, you must have an institutional affiliation; and in order to maintain an institutional identity, you must teach. There are two ways out of this unfortunate situation:

ONE: Reduce your teaching work. Demand an assistant to grade exams. Settle your lectures into a standard form, timed to fill each class precisely.

You might object that writing lectures so carefully takes time and effort, and so it does at first.

But after they reach final form, they will be permanently reiterable, and if you time them perfectly there will never be any extra class time for pesky questions.

As for the teaching assistant, remember what it was like when you were a T.A. These people are getting paid to attend your lectures! What do you get in return? Never give up on Step Five! For further advice, see The Prince concerning the way to maintain power over lesser princes.

TWO: Use your institutional status to generate as many volumes, works, and publications as possible (see steps 1-7, 9 & 10). Pursue endowed chairs with no teaching duties. Repeat until you are so successful that you need never work again.

Monday, November 07, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Ten:
Your Work/Volume

Now that you have found an editor and publisher willing to "look at" your work, you need to produce it.

As has already been mentioned, no one "writes books." However, volumes are put together.
What, you may ask, does this phrase refer to?

Take all of the material you have composed in your young academic career: your dissertation, articles, book reviews, coursework, your comprehensive exam essays, your undergraduate thesis, idle notes on bar napkins -- and put it all in a 10 x 13 clasp envelope preprinted with your academic institution's address.

Insert a cover letter explaining that you have pitched your monograph to the editor, and have included it for consideration. Explain that the editor invited you to submit this manuscript.

Add to your c.v. an item stating that you have a work under review.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Nine:

Do you know how many academic books are published every year?

Do you know how these books get into print?

If you've ever read an academic book, you may wonder about these questions. But even if you haven't, it's important to note that every academic book, before being published, is proposed, or "pitched" to a publishing house. Generally, would-be academic authors pitch their books to knowledgeable editors. This can be a problem, especially if the editor knows something about your field.

Shop around for a publisher whose editors know little or nothing about your specific interest. Put together a proposal and an outline that shows how your book will:
  • sell!
  • resolve ages-old disputes!
  • become required reading for courses at universities everywhere!
  • look nifty and contain many sections, chapters, and headings!
  • be less than 300 pages!

Surely you've seen the enormous publishers' displays at major meetings of academic societies. Who do you suppose the guy is standing behind the table with the University of Chicago Press banner? He's a University of Chicago Press employee. Get information from this person. Find out the names of editors, who their friends are.

Look at the books on the display. Don't look at the titles, look at the names of the Big Shots who wrote them! Then, go schmooze those Big Shots and inform them you may soon have a monograph or a 'volume' under review there.

(IMPORTANT: never say "book." Academics do not "write books," they "put together volumes" or "work on a monograph." If you must refer to the content of your volume -- which should be avoided for obvious reasons, namely, that it might become a topic of critical or rational discussion -- use the term "my work," never "my book." Words are crucial: you should know that by now!)

Saturday, November 05, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Eight:
Hitting the Job Market

Often the most frustrating experience for young academic wannabes is the absolute despair and futility of entering the job market flooded by the excessive production of Ph.D.s by mills. (Think: supply and demand.)

Once you have an appropriate c.v., have done a thorough job of schmoozing, have attended enough conferences, taken enough drugs, won enough grants, and stomped enough others, you should stand in good stead. But that's still not enough.

All of these skills and more will be demanded of you on the market. One or more of the following is essential to earning a job:

1. Bribe the interviewers. This bears no further explanation.

2. Devise a performance that will make you an irresistible candidate. Learn to make beer and offer a constant supply of it for department functions (this can double as a bribe). Or run a counterfeiting operation. Or give brilliantly compelling lectures which argue conclusively for positions held by the interviewers. Finally, have you ever seen "Deep Throat"?

3. Kill all the other candidates. (Be sure to make it look accidental!)

Friday, November 04, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Seven:
Writing Your C.V.

Everyone must have a c.v. (curriculum vitae), which lists achievements, education, and other qualifications. The question is, what should you put on your c.v.?

Assume that the person reading your c.v. does not know you, and has not attended the same conferences, nor met you in the restroom. You need to be memorable and impressive. Of course, only the people who were actually at a certain conference can tell in what way you participated.

What you need, then, are several versions of your c.v., each of which will contain different information, depending on the following:

1. Whether the person you send it to knows you, or knows Big Shots in the organizations and societies whose conferences you claim to have addressed.

2. How many plausible-sounding journals and conferences you can think of. (GOOD EXAMPLE: Journal of the Method of the History of Methodological Studies; BAD EXAMPLE: Playphilosopher)

3. Nothing else.

It may sound as if this step advocates that you dissimulate. Not at all. We intend, rather, that you outright lie. Be creative.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Six:
Follow these Conference Attending Guidelines

There are two kinds of conferences: extremely large, concurrent-session conferences, and small, plenary session conferences. In larger conferences, more Academic Big Shots attend than in smaller conferences. You do the math.

Rule 1: Go to sessions with the biggest names. Do not attend sessions, or indeed conferences, where less than half of the participants are Certified Big Shots.

Rule 2: Ask questions. Say something in every single session, about every single paper, regardless of whether you understood the paper, have anything to say, have studied or even considered the problem at issue, or paid any attention. In asking your questions, mention books and articles published by the Big Shot who gave the paper, even if you never read them, and even if they weren't about the same topic.

Rule 3: Be noticeable. Sit in a location which makes you clearly visible from every vantage point in the room. Wear eye-catching clothing. Develop a style of dress, a posture, and a way of gesturing that is distinctive and cerebral. Use effusive body-language, whisper to your neighbors.

Rule 4: Be familiar. If you have met a Big Shot even once, say, at a urinal, use the Big Shot's first name. It will appear that you know the Big Shot personally, and no one will question that you have earned the right to this familiarity. By association, then, the audience will conclude that you are at least a quasi-Big Shot yourself.

Rule 5: Ignore the proles. No matter which rung of the ladder of success you stand upon, do not bear the intrusions of the hoi polloi. Turn away; go stand next to Alasdair Macintyre until he notices you.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Five:
Stomp On Others

Look, it's you or them.

Human beings are animals, animals of great tenacity, cleverness, and savage viciousness. It's part of your genetic makeup.

You can send your emotions to the cleaners, but you can't make anything but hot red blood flow in your veins. Kill or be killed. Take no prisoners.

EXAMPLE: "Professor Ratbag, I would like to ask you a question, but I don't know whether I can find a way to put it that doesn't seem condescending in the light of your childishly naive view of epistemological certainty. Any child of five can tell you that certainty does not entail prescience or metaphysical commitment, and it seems extremely strange to me that you would want to develop a position on the basis of a puerile view that is counterfactual to the simplest and clearest consciousness. Do you wish to modify your position, or shall we all just suck our thumbs and make wee-wee?"

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Four:

The importance of schmoozing can hardly be underestimated, and it hardly ever is.

The true questions are when, how, and to whom to schmooze.

WHEN: Always schmooze. There is no inappropriate time. For men, one of the best times is when you happen to meet your schmoozee at a lavatory urinal. This is ideal, because obviously the schmoozee cannot make too hasty an exit. He is, as it were, all ears (he certainly won't let his eyes wander).

HOW: Introduce yourself, giving your name and your academic affiliation. If you have ever seen the schmoozee before, mention it (e.g.: "Professor Whitehead, nice to see you. My name is Chris Nagel, from Duquesne University. I saw you catching a bus once, in February of 1937"). Mention any publication of the schmoozee that you have read -- in case the schmoozee asks about it --, regardless of its importance. Also, in mentioning the schmoozee's published work, be sure to indicate how it has advanced your own (e.g.: "I read your limerick about the man from Nantucket in the middle toilet stall the other day. It has made a big difference in how I interpret ideal essences!"). Finally, end your conversation with an open-ended allusion to a deeper, continued relationship; however, be cautious not to appear too subservient or obsequious.
DO: "We should discuss this in more depth later. Enjoy the session on 'Evidentiary Ethical Postulates and Undecidability in Relation to Really Uninteresting Stuff'!"

DON'T: "I'm in room 1409. If you'd like, tonight, if you're feeling... lonely... you could come up. Any time. I'll be there... alone... all night."

TO WHOM: Appropriate schmoozing depends on your own academic position more than the schmoozee's. Say you are a graduate student Ph.D. candidate at a second tier (at best) private, Catholic university east of the Mississippi that is not named "Loyola." From this vantage point, everyone is good to schmooze (e.g.: "Say, you work for the custodial crew of the hotel, don't you? I just wanted to tell you that your interpretation of vacuuming and emptying ash-trays has genuinely helped me understand Sartre's third ekstasis of being for-self. I was wondering if you could score me one of those leftover boxes of Zinfandel").

Monday, October 31, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Three:

Go On -- Take Drugs!

The initial euphoric and mind-expanding effects of intoxicants are often considered beneficial by liberals and other perverts.

But the serious aftereffects of long-term abuse of dangerous and mind-altering drugs -- bipolarism, paranoia, mood swings, death, and chronic withdrawal -- these are the true benefits.

Whereas in most fields of endeavor these personality problems are a major source of difficulty in securing a future, in academia they are a positive boon!

We heartily recommend at least four consciousness-addling binges a week for maximum effect.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

the step-12 program for academic success!

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step Two:
Hire Out Your Emotional Life

The pressures of Big Time Academia have crushed many otherwise happy marriages and relationships.

Your perpetual motion of publishing, conference attending, hustling, and schmoozing will inevitably destroy your soul.

The process is painful and can cause skin irritation.

But you need not suffer, or indeed feel anything at all. The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other trade publications, now offers a convenient classified advertising service, operated on the same principles as telephone personal ads, to match would-be Academic Big Shots to discreet, well trained affective agents.

YOU stomp all over the likes of Richard Rorty, Joe Margolis and Daniel Dennett,

THEY feel the guilt, angst, and yawning spiritual emptiness!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

the 12-step program for academic success!

Back in grad school, I wrote this satire, mainly as a response to some rather overly careerist behavior I witnessed. I'll post one step per day for the next, let's see, how about twelve days? I won't change name or dates, because there are no innocents, and some of this stuff is clearly dated (for instance, the antiquated references to something they used to call the philosophy "job market").

Without further ado,

The 12-Step Program for Academic Success
Step One:
Writing A Grant Proposal

The following example should give you some ideas:

Chris Nagel
Philosophy Department
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh PA 15282

Chair, Grants Committee
National Endowment for the Humanities
Washington DC 20031
May 5, 1995

To the Chair of the Grants Committee:

Enclosed please find the text of my grant proposal to study "Phone Sex Lines in the Postmodern Context."

My research work will fill a gap in the body of our understanding of sexuality. It's hard to get good, hot information from the usual sources, since phone sex is spreading so far so fast. We can only get what we need orally. In my work, I will push and push for more and more clarity. I am already thrusting into the field, but I crave the chance to mount a more systematic study.

I know the NEH has a reputation for being quite stiff. But I'm sure you will feel the pressing nature of my work. You can give me the tools I need to touch the depths of telephone relations. Then it will be my job to reveal the naked truth.

Thank you very much,

Chris Nagel

Friday, October 28, 2011

why i won't get published

I have just now submitted an article on body/embodiment to Studia Phaenomenologica. I am fairly confident I won't get published, and here are some reasons why.

1. What I wrote is a critique of the orthodoxy in the field. This might be publishable, except that...

2. I do not have sufficient academic clout to publish something critical of the field's orthodoxy, plus

3. I do not have a lengthy... resumé... of academic achievements, which, in English translation, means that...

4. I have not paid my dues, in as much as I have never published anything telling the world how great the orthodoxy really is, plus...

5. All that I have achieved in my academic field has been overwhelmed by scholars working tirelessly to contribute to the orthodoxy.

Besides which,

6. I'm not sure I'm right, and I don't have a strong argument making my case, and in addition,

7. really, nobody's ever heard of me, and

8. you can't just criticize academic shibboleths, because, what are you, nuts or something?!

Yet I've submitted it because:

9. I happen to think I'm right, and

10. I have nothing to lose.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

philosophy jobs panic

Before coming to school today (and installing my new column - check it out on Facebook!), I collected a couple days' worth of mail from our box. In it was my copy of the American Philosophical Association's Jobs for Philosophers. I'll refrain from a lengthy diatribe on the moral cesspool of the academic hustling market, because that wasn't the first thing on my mind this morning.

In fact, the first thing on my mind this morning was that the APA has finally noticed that I'm a dues-paying member. I've had a long-standing feud with the APA. I pay membership dues, and they stop sending me publications. I complain. I stop paying dues, and they start sending me publications. I don't complain. They stop. Undeterred, I continue not to pay. Coquettishly, they start sending me every other publication, leading me on, and I succumb, and pay my dues. They immediately stop sending me anything.

Yes, the APA is a filthy, and unfair, whore. But we already knew that.

(Oh, and a further diatribe on the incredibly snotty conversation I had with an APA person one year when I had - she swore, though I knew better - failed to check the box indicating I wanted to receive the JFP on my dues notice, and so, she explained, I had irrevocably refused to receive it and this problem could not be fixed until dues were paid for the following academic year.)

So, I got the JFP in the mail, which must mean I haven't paid my dues this year. It's exactly like Arthur Dent's relationship to the utilities service.

I haven't opened it yet. I've barely smelled the newsprint. It's in my backpack on the floor of my office (with newly installed column), tell-tale-hearting at me. I can't face it. When I consider applying for an academic position, I am faced with the certain futurity of my own death. Truly: for me, applying for an academic position has always been a moment of insight into the uncanny, in the Heideggerian sense - a moment of authentic Being-toward-death. So I'd much rather idly write a blog post about it...

Will my so-called academic career survive? Will I survive my so-called academic career? Will anyone survive my Bioethics class, set to begin in ten minutes' time?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

pregnant drug-users and other fun ethics topics

Today with my classes I'm reading a 2003-ish article about public policy and ethical responses to pregnant women who use illegal drugs and alcohol. The main line of argument is what the author deems a feminist approach, focusing on the experience of the women instead of applying abstract rationalistic ethical principles on their cases. What this reveals, she argues, is the states of oppression the women undergo.

This morning, what struck me particularly was an example of a prosecution of a woman for failing to get adequate bed rest and to refrain from intercourse during her pregnancy. The author makes the point very succinctly: these are not actions totally under the control of women. Moreover, these kinds of prosecutions are directed more toward minority and poor women, who often lack social support networks, or are undergoing various conditions of instability and deprivation, and, oh yes, are also being discriminated against in the law.

Then she says something splendid: blaming the drugs, or worse, blaming the women who use the drugs, is a convenient way to hide the conditions of oppression under which these women turn to drugs. I sometimes ask my classes, "what kind of pregnant woman suddenly decides to use drugs?" to point out how bizarre it is to consider the drug use a simple, straightforward, totally rational, perfectly free "choice."

This morning, I'm remembering one of the experiences I've had that has made me more sympathetic to this than a lot of my students say that they are. In my senior year of high school, I quit my Spanish class (for reasons I won't pursue here), and started to have a Study Hall during that period instead. I spent the hour in the library reading absolutely anything - though mostly religious texts, Freud, Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, and Tom Stoppard. One day - for some reason I remember I was reading the Koran - another student approached me and asked if I knew where he could get some drugs. He was a skinny, twerpy black kid, I was a skinny, long-haired white kid, so I guess he figured, the dude in the ripped jeans and the flannel shirt will know. I didn't, because I wasn't interested in drugs, and I told him so.

We got into a long conversation about drugs, poverty, hopelessness, and the future. We were on more or less opposite sides of the educational spectrum of that school. He was one of the ghettoized black students in my nominally desegregated Southeastern high school, and I was one of the ghettoized white honors students (roughly 95% of all the black students took all their academic classes in one wing of the school, and roughly 90% of all the white students took all their academic classes in another wing; the school also basically policed the honors program such that only a handful of token non-white students were part of it). We had both learned some terrible lessons in social justice by then. But we shared two attributes: we were both hopeless about the future, and we were both very bright.

I tried to argue with him that it would be stupid for him to escape into drugs, as he wanted to do, because he was smart and could do something better with his life. I think that's valid, to this day. He argued back by referring to our social situation, the inherent injustice and oppression he was experiencing, and made the case that, objectively, there wasn't a lot for him to hope for. Damn if I don't think that's valid, too.

We didn't reach any consensus. Eventually he gave up on the argument, because it wasn't getting him any closer to his goal, and asked what I was reading. I showed him the book's spine, and he said he read it, or large parts of it, and he liked it better than the Bible. Then he turned and walked back over to the table occupied by his friends, and I noticed they'd been snickering at us, and they laughed and jostled him when he reached them.

Monday, October 03, 2011

sure sign I'm trying to work on an article

I went on a brief walk just after my office hour this morning, since I had been reading about phenomenology of the body and wanted to clear my head and re-orient myself. Plus, I wanted to see if I had something right in my own analysis of the way the lived body "disappears" from awareness.

Naturally, I spent a lot of the time mentally critiquing the university's entry signage.

A few years ago the new administration announced it was getting rid of the old "books-S" logo.

The admin thought it was corny, which it is. I never thought much about it until it was gone, and in retrospect, it says something about this institution: it's humble, simple, unassuming, and in a direct way says something about education. The new logo, which I won't link to, is a generic Your College or University Here design that could be from any institution from a county community college to frickin' Harvard.

Underneath it, on our entry signs, is the name of the institution, in Palatino font:

Cow State University, Santa Claus

(I hope you have Palatino installed on your computer, or at least Microsoft's commissioned knock-off, Constantia, so you can see this thing.)

Now, I adore Palatino. It's one of Hermann Zapf's two masterworks (the other being Optima), both of which involve a brilliant resolution of contradictory elements. Like Optima, Palatino owes a large measure of its design to Romanesque, monumental fonts, like the kind of thing chiseled into stone. The pointy serifs on the capital C and S have a three-dimensional depth and weight to them that's most noticeable, for instance.

But these aspects are almost totally overcome by the humanist elements, like the varying weights on the uprights and the cute little tails on the lower-case uprights. This makes the font approachable and warm.

Yet it works to brilliant effect. That may be why Palatino was the font of choice for 1990s post-structuralist publications (check it out iffin you don't believe me): humanism and anti-humanism somehow co-exist.

As a font for brass lettering on a red brick sign outside a small comprehensive public university in the middle of the Central Valley, they are totally inappropriate, even obnoxiously so. Because Palatino was commonly used, including in university documents, until the dreaded Calibri epidemic began, the font on the sign looks like it was copied and pasted from an old memo. Yet because it has those monumental aspects, it looks like it's out to be grand, but can't be, left there as a mere caption to the proudly displayed Your College or University Here emblem. In this usage, Palatino is in a losing battle with itself, Zapf's perfectly balanced resolution - or better, Aufhebung - is split into impotently struggling thesis and antithesis.

(Don't even get me started on the siting of the sign at the main entrance, where it occupies what might be the geometric/linear center of the span of the roadway, but is permanently off-kilter in the visual field of a driver or pedestrian approaching the campus.)

You might be wondering if I have a recommendation for changing the font, if I'm so smart. And I do. Comic Sans.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

long time, no blog

After bouts of stomach flu and grading, I'm having an average weekend.

Following a gratuitous Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet reference, I shall return to struggling with my conscience and my philosophical consciousness over whether and how to proceed with writing a paper to submit to Studia Phaenomenologica's special issue on "the phenomenon of the body/phenomenology of embodiment." Submissions are due November 15, which essentially means I have to write it this month, because this November will be taken up with organizing, rallying, picketing, and other union activities, and, just maybe, a new National Novel Writing Month project.

This may be insane.

I may also have little hope for publishing something in this special issue, especially given my predilection for iconoclasm. In this specific instance, I'm thinking of re-working a lot of the text I wrote in August, which I now call "the goofy paper," that says that "the body" is the fetish of existential phenomenology. I started writing it intending it to be my submission to SP, but soon I was basically just venting about Michel Henry.

I believe that the chance of being published in a serious academic philosophy journal is inversely proportionate to the quantity of snide dismissive remarks one makes about honored members of the academic establishment. So, a lot of what I wrote directly about Henry will have to be redacted. Also, I'll probably follow my friend Valerie's advice and change the section heading that currently reads "fuck" (even though I cite my source for the term in a footnote, which gives it a proper academic setting).

I'm having trouble getting over the idea that I would be trying to get published and doing what people think of as scholarship. I've always had misgivings about academia, but was pretty active in a few circles for a while, largely because I felt I had to be. But I gave up on being anything like the usual type of scholar in 2002 when I was screwed out of a tenure-track job, and I haven't tried publishing anything in a peer-reviewed philosophy journal since then, either. I like to think this was in part a matter of principle, since so much of academic philosophical writing does nothing for anyone but the authors themselves. Not having a real academic career, I told myself, I don't have to make any Faustian bargains with the academic world.

It's hard, too, to face the fact that I need to be more visible in that world, in case I suddenly find I need to scramble for a job - a job I know I'm an increasingly poor candidate for as 1996 fades away in the distance. Ph.D. degrees have freshness dates.

As usual, or a little more than usual, another major obstacle to getting started is that I can't settle on a font.

Friday, September 16, 2011

intentional consuming

Jackson asked me what my ethical position is, in relation to the practice of consuming the flesh of non-human animals. I realized that it wasn't something I'd taken up and thought about in a while, so I asked my loveliest why it's okay for us to eat animal flesh. She laid out what we regard as our position, and I think she's more accepting of it than I am on the whole.

It goes like this.

Humans evolved as omnivores, and we continue to live, as a species, as omnivores. Obviously, we're not biologically determined to eat animal flesh any more than to eat, I don't know, rutabagas. Just as obviously, when there were a few thousand humans trying desperately to avoid starving to death, being an omnivore was useful, rather than the problem it has become. Yet this evolutionary history has predisposed us to be delighted by the taste of meaty things.

That's important because we believe that living well, happily, and pleasurably is practically a commandment (if there were commandments). Lauren often articulates this as a form of responsible hedonism. Not to enjoy life, for the sake of an abstract moral commitment or political aim, seems wrong to her. As she put it this afternoon, if you mean to live in a completely unharmful way in our society, you must run naked and eat nothing, and that won't last long or be very enjoyable.

We limit how much animal flesh we consume, because we recognize that its primary role in our lives is for delectation, rather than sustenance. We tend, as far as possible, to eat the flesh of animals that have lived better lives than many in the US food chain. We avoid eating feedlot beef or caged chickens, for instance. (We also think this meat is healthier for us, and firmly believe that it's more delicious, so it better serves our hedonistic mission, and our intentional ingestion of meat for the purpose of delight instead of mere sustenance.) We literally never buy chicken that is not free range. Until recently we only ate range-fed, grass-fed beef.

We're concerned about the sustainability of our consumption habits, and try to find more-sustainable options, which is another factor driving our limited consumption of animal flesh. We eat fish and seafood that is more sustainable and really strictly avoid poorly fished, over-fished, or poorly farmed fish (like that disgusting stuff they call Atlantic salmon).

After talking about it, we realized we have slipped in our habits, and we've decided to be more conscientious about what we consume.

I notice that I haven't said anything about sentience, and only alluded to suffering. Here, our positions definitely differ. My position, for now, is that sentience and suffering are important ethical considerations for any decision, but that they aren't the final and absolute considerations. I can't say it's immoral for lions to eat a yak, even though the yak is sentient, and the method of killing the yak employed by lions is probably going to cause the yak to suffer. It probably doesn't enter the minds of lions to be concerned about it, and it does enter my mind, and so it's a consideration. That's why the way animals that I eat are raised matters to me.

This may seem like a strange analogy, but I feel about eating animal flesh somewhat the same way I do about driving a car. Driving a car makes a lot of things much more comfortable and feasible, and in that way makes life more pleasant for us. Clearly, the US consumption of gasoline, like the US consumption of most kinds of food, is not ultimately sustainable, for the planet or for us. We two can't do a lot to change that, but we can choose to reduce how much we consume, and to be attentive to how and why we consume. I'm calling that "intentional consuming," to imply that the consuming I do is still self-conscious and reflected-upon.

That means, it's always open to change. I said earlier I'm less accepting of our current practice and thought about eating animal flesh than Lauren is. It's fraught. I'm not satisfied with our reasoning. But I think it's good that we do reason about it.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

thoughts and words

I have a prevailing dissatisfaction with Western philosophy: its obsession with words. In a basic way, philosophy is how we grapple with meaning - with how and why there is meaning, with how and why we could be said to create or constitute meaning, with the meaning of experience, and so on. Overwhelmingly, the tradition of Western philosophy has discussed meaning in terms of words. Semantics, grammar, syntax, logic, even metaphysics and epistemology, and in some circles even ethics and politics, have been boiled down to words.

I have nothing against words. I like words a lot. But I am suspicious that when meaning is construed in terms of words, that there may be something significant left out. Let me give you a f'rinstance. In an article about Eugen Fink's text referred to as the Sixth Cartesian Meditation, which Fink meant to extend the analysis in Husserl's Cartesian Meditations, Ronald Bruzina says this:

From the beginning philosophy has been an affair of the word. Putting insight into language and working out reasons in speech have always been of the very act of rational thinking. And even though this is frequently done in the stillness of solitary reflection, nevertheless that it be done in words at all has always meant that it be in principle accessible to someone else, needing only the appropriate practical conditions to make the accessibility actual. So it is that from the beginning what philosophers have thought, and therefore said in words, others have heard and discussed-and sometimes discussed with that thinker; so that thinking itself and its wording have long been taken to be also a matter of dialogue.

So, according to Bruzina, whatever "insight" is, apparently, putting it into "words" (whatever "words" are) has been the first impulse of philosophy "from the beginning." Now, first of all, let's be clear that "words" include things like "numbers," because "words" doesn't mean words, it means symbolic or abstract representations of concepts. It means Saussure-like signs. "32" is as much a word as "contingency," and a complex mathematical function is as much a sentence as "All men by nature desire to know." There is simply a near-universal consensus in Western thought that meaning is what language does, or seeks to, capture.

My shortie Maurice Merleau-Ponty repeatedly quotes Husserl's Cartesian Meditations to this effect. In the English translation of the French translation of Husserl's German (there's a point to my doing this, which I shall not go into here), Merleau-Ponty tells us: "It is the experience… still mute which we are concerned with leading to the pure expression of its own meaning" (The Visible and the Invisible, 129) - that is, the problem is to figure out how to translate the mute into words.

I have always, always, resisted this impulse. I have never been that impressed with words, even though I do like them a lot, and I have never been impressed with the human monopoly on meaning implied by this view. I never read a poem that could express the poetry of ice skating or the particular kind of flying one can experience playing tennis or riding a bicycle very fast. I think this philosophical echolalia leads us to imagine that only that which we can or have translated is within the purview of philosophy or has the status of "meaningful experience."

When philosophy, as a verbal enterprise, begins to talk about bodies and embodiment, about suffering and pain, about joy and pleasure, about the sensuous, it tends to translate, to violate, to vitiate, or to poetize, and in all these ways loses its love of wisdom to its dalliance with words. I'm not saying I'm better than that. I'm also hoping this isn't a point where I'll ultimately have to invoke Wittgenstein and say that of this I should say nothing. Because it's not meaningless, because there are things to say about it, to invoke and to indicate it.

Monday, September 05, 2011

well, here goes nuthin

Today I submitted an article to an actual, honest-to-Pete peer-reviewed academic journal, something I haven't done in nearly a decade, for a variety of highly complicated reasons.

A main reason I haven't done is a main reason I finally did. (If you are already having trouble with the logic, or indeed the syntax, of that sentence, then the actual article might not be your cup of tea.) The paper is this thing I've been working on for a couple years now about how contingent academic appointments undermine the ethical responsibilities of "lecturers," because lecturers are not provided any of the professional opportunities that would enable us to act responsibly. It's a cruel, terrible, catastrophically destructive argument, and it happens to be right.

So, I sent that fucker off to the Journal of Academic Ethics, whose reputation I know not (it's a Springer Verlag joint, which means it's at least prohibitively expensive!). I have such mixed feelings about this.

I make the case in the paper that academic ethical responsibilities and the social contract of the "academic profession" has been voided by the bureaucratization of faculty work. I sincerely believe that. But one way this manifests itself is that faculty submit articles and books for publication always under a conflict of interest, because of the doctrine of "publish or perish."

The unremitting irony of the sitch is that I've sent this out for consideration because I need to get on the job market. I have a conflict of interest: I want to get something published. That obviates against my AAUP-articulated duty to "seek and state the truth as I see it." I've tried to do that, no doubt, but my main reason for trying to publish my results is not about an ethical obligation to state the truth, but entirely about an economic motivation to seek ongoing gainful employment in a profession I have just argued (and I hope to argue in print) has become ethically bankrupt.

My brain hurts, and I wrote the damn thing.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

on becoming a monster

I've spent some time this morning looking back over notes I wrote this summer on phenomenology and embodiment, in a typescript and in a bound notebook I keep as a kind of commonplace book.

In my book, I reserve the last two or three pages to list things I want to look into - there's a list of phrases, titles, or potential lines in a song or poem; there's a list of music, books, and other media stuff to look into. It's a long list, and I was surprised this morning to realize how much of it I had consumed this summer, and really, over the last couple of years.

And "consume" is the appropriate verb, I think - not in the Baudrillardian or "consumer society" sense, but in the sense of using and eating. I am consuming books and music at an especially alarming rate. I don't mean I'm in danger of using them up - one of the basic operating principles of consumer society is that the production of consummables must always be so excessive that consumption becomes an end in itself and continues without let or hindrance, so there's no worry we'll run out of stuff to consume.

I'm concerned about what it means about and for me. I am concerned that I am consuming far too much, and that my consumption of all these things - books, ideas, music - now threatens to make me monstrous. What if I become an eating machine that feeds on all this? That can't be good for me, or for the world, can it?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

do cats live in worlds?

Towards the end of summer I started writing what I thought was going to be an article to submit to the journal of the Romanian Society for Phenomenology (yeah, no kidding) about phenomenology, bodies, and embodiment. It got weird on me. I now refer to this document as "the goofy paper."

As I was writing it, my appellation of the audience shifted, from the Romanian Society (and academic philosophers in general) to two specific people: my friends Dave and Randy. That made for a pointed shift in style, from the academic to the profane (take that, Mircea Eliade!), as well as in content. I ended up writing several paragraphs comparing human and cat perception and human and cat worlds, for instance.

Randy wrote a lovely and generous reply to the goofy paper, and I'm still trying to digest it. In particular, I'm having trouble swallowing his assertion that, whatever else fate has in store for the goofy paper, I should get rid of the cats. (Not exactly. He told me I should get rid of the analysis of cats provided by an interlocutor in the goofy paper who shall for now remain nameless.)

The point in question: If one were to ascribe "meaningful experience" to cats, would that be a mere projection, or analogical reasoning, or is there, in our encounter with cats, enough of a "pairing synthesis" (to use Husserl's Cartesian Meditations lingo) with cats to institute authentic intersubjective empathy for us to intuit the meaningfulness of cat experience? To take all that out of the language of academic philosophy, what it boils down to is this: do we recognize cats as living in meaningful worlds?

My overwhelming personal conviction, based on years of worship disinterested observation adoration worship living with cats, tells me the answer to that question is yes. But that's precisely the kind of answer phenomenology tells me to set aside, so I can't presume it.

Let me offer a for instance.

Arthur (a.k.a. Arthur, King of the Kittons, a.k.a. Arturo, a.k.a. Arthur Tyrone Kittois [his New Orleans name]) is frequently disconsolate. He wanders around the place meowing his fool head off, clawing guitars, grabbing stuff from tabletops, smacking picture frames, and in general doing everything that earns him negative attention. He will do this continuously for an hour - which is a long time for a domestic cat to engage in any activity other than sleep. To help him out, and to stop the racket and destruction, we'll do most anything - pet him, feed him, throw him hair clips to bat around (his favorite toy), pick him up and stick him on his brother, give him catnip. Sometimes, it doesn't seem to matter, he just gets into the mood to be upset.

Can I not intuit in this display that, however vaguely, Arthur is projecting a meaning in the world, projecting a little Arthur-world where absolutely nothing is right, a world that we describe by ascribing to Arthur the expression, "What the crap, man?!" What would be missing from this encounter with Arthur that I do have with other human animals, that tells me unequivocally that other human animals live in meaningful worlds? Is there something not present in my encounter with Arthur?

The only thing I can see is that Arthur doesn't speak. Be they as robustly expressive as they may, Arthur's caterwauls are not a language. Is lack of language a valid basis to deny a critter the status of being-in-the-world? Isn't it inexcusably humanistic, prejudicial, dogmatic, and speciesist for us humans to say that?

There's a subtle dimension to this, and that's what I really want to explore. It strikes me as silly to make this a dichotomy. Why should I say "either cats have worlds or they don't"? Couldn't cats have cat-worlds while humans have human-worlds? What's really interesting to me about this would be the points of intersection and overlap - where cats and humans are not merely occupying adjoining meaningful worlds, and not merely concurrently constituting meaning in the world, but actually co-constituting it.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

some extremely dark thoughts for the start of the school year

Yesterday I spent the day at the CFA Fall Kick-Off, where we learned of plans to protect faculty rights through contract bargaining and political activities. It's a fairly dire situation, because the CSU administration's hired union-busting consultants are taking advantage of the bad economic times to attempt to gut basically every protection of faculty. Most frighteningly, their attacks have a coherence that previously the CSU didn't seem to have, or to be so all-in for.

Overall, what we're facing is an attack on education. Absolutely consistently with what I've been calling the legitimation crisis in education, the CSU's proposals contemplate faculty labor as though we were course-delivery mechanisms. No: badly-designed, noisy course-delivery mechanisms. The reason for this, in turn, is that the CSU administration, and apparently also the board of trustees, believes that knowledge is not only a commodity, but one that is available in equivalent modular packages. Now, if there are two competing packages, one of which costs the university in terms of tenure, enforceable rights, benefits, and so forth, and the other never complains because it's a software package sold by a publishing company, then the better option is clearly, from this standpoint, the software package.

What this says about the value of faculty labor is insulting, demeaning, dehumanizing, and ignorant. But most of what the public at large understands about faculty labor coincides just about exactly with the CSU's position, because in general the public, I would venture to say, believes the same thing about knowledge. This is the source of CSU's tremendous advantage over CFA, when bargaining our contract turns to the more arcane issues of faculty rights over curriculum, workload, class size, tenure protections, evaluations, and other non-fiscal issues.

Never mind that the theory of knowledge operating in this approach is absolutely absurd. One does not come to know something by purchasing information about it. That this is a prevailing view, dismissing completely the significance of critical thinking, being able to communicate, or being able to understand in broad and integrative terms - the kind of terms that would help a person understand complex systems like economies or ecological environments. If Pearson textbook publishers can sell the university a package that it can turn around and sell to students, called "Economics" or "Ecology," for less than the cost of hiring an expert to teach those courses, then, from that crudely economic perspective that understands all goals in terms of bottom-line "throughput," that's the best "delivery mechanism."

Delivery, I always want to ask, of what?

Face facts: As a delivery mechanism, a person with a PhD in philosophy is about totally useless. I can't deliver much of anything, excepts a set of not-very-compelling facts about the biographies and histories of a few philosophers. Nothing in philosophy beyond that is, really, a fact. Theoretical thinking is not reducible to monologue, and there is no consensus in philosophy about anything - not even how to interpret the basic works and theories of great philosophers.

But Pearson's philosophy-in-a-box would solve all those problems by simply eliminating any ambiguity, or reducing it to a statement that "it's complicated," and presenting students philosophy as a set of facts about philosophy. The relevant analogy here is whether presenting a person a series of facts about you would be equivalent to knowing you, and I think it's not.

Philosophy is not so unlike other disciplines. If it were, then sciences would never change.

Ergo, whatever is being sold to students in prepackaged courses, it is not knowledge, as understood within the learned disciplines themselves.

So, faculty clearly win the argument. Experts are experts precisely in so far as non-experts do not know or understand what the experts know and understand. You need experts to explain their expertise for exactly that reason. QED.

None of which matters at all, because the typical college administrator knows the typical college student sees only per-unit cost, time-to-graduation, and the cash value of the diploma, as relevant measures of "college." The typical college student is not in college to learn, and many do not understand what learning is or how to do it, and administrators understand this. So it is easy for administrators to sell Pearson's cheaper prepackaged non-education, to a great degree, because it's exactly what most people want from college.

I was going to conclude with a statement of hope, but I don't wanna.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

birthday, Vegas, fall semester, writing

Yesterday was Debra Messing Day at the House About Town. That's because yesterday was Debra Messing's birthday. Mine too. I got dozens of birthday greetings, which was very nice and made me feel well-stocked with friends and loved ones.

Last week we hit Vegas for a sort of Duquesne philosophy alumni bash, and I am slightly abashed to say that "bash" is an appropriate term for it. I don't care much for Vegas, because I don't gamble, and I find the architectural kitsch more than overwhelming. The best parts of those days were spent in a poolside cabana carousing, like old times.

Saturday I finally bought the bike I've been threatening to buy for nearly two years. It's not the bike I wanted, but it'll do. It's a cheapo 15-speed mountain bike. My fall schedule is so weird, that the bike seemed finally not merely warranted, but necessary. On Mondays and Wednesdays I have a class at 10, then I'm next in class at 3 pm.

That mess begins Monday. Today, I took stock of the 37 single-spaced typed pages of notes I've taken this summer on phenomenology and embodiment, to see what kinds of papers or articles I could block out of it. I think I have three legit ideas.

(1) "How big is my body?" This is what started me off this summer, as it came up in a conversation in New Brunswick. That'll lead to some nifty stuff on the phenomenological concepts of normal and abnormal, both of which are equivocal, both of which are targets of post-structuralist critiques that almost entirely miss the point, and both of which are, I think, absolutely indispensable to the phenomenological analysis of embodiment. I'll get at all that in part through describing and contemplating the wonderfully weird sensation I get of being suddenly taller.

(2) Unnamed item on "the body" as the fetish of phenomenology. At the end of summer, I wrote a 5000+ word essay that began its life as a potential article to submit to a special issue of a phenomenology journal, on "the body" and embodiment. My essay went in some directions I didn't predict, and I now call it "the goofy paper." The theme of "the body" being a fetish of phenomenological writers is really a way to critique "phenomenology of the body" as a way to examine embodiment, life, perception, etc. I think phenomenology of "the body" misses the mark completely. What's needed is not a clarification of "the body," which could only be a clarification of "the body" as a constituted object. What's needed is a clarification of embodiment, which is to say, in the lingo of the later Husserl, of the passive synthesis, or of the aesthesiological-physiological body - that which "pre-gives" "objectlike formations" to and for the ego. Cazart!

(3) Another unnamed thing, on the origin of meaning in non-meaning. So, when we get through with understanding passive synthesis and embodiment as fundamental origin of the ego having anything to make meaning with or upon, if we consider the pregiven as pregiven, we can't help but notice that it can't "mean" anything. Meaning is constituted/projected by an active ego. Meaning is a meaning precisely of an experience or experienced object. But meaning is not a pure invention of the ego: idealism is wrong. If that's so, then the source of the raw material of meaning is not itself meaningful but proto-meaningful, or, to make the point more, er... pointedly, the origin of meaning is non-meaning. (I'm certain, in retrospect, that spending time in Vegas helped me to understand that.)

Monday, August 01, 2011

5 reasons Americans should want the economy to collapse completely

Now that the debt deal has passed, promising more restrictive domestic spending and not much economic hope, it's time for the good news about the US economy. The good news is, it looks like the economy is going to get worse again! Here's why Americans should not only embrace this fact, but get ready to delebrate!

(1) The economy is what makes Americans have to go to their lousy, stupid jobs. Americans hate their jobs, and hate their rotten scumbag bosses. If the economy completely collapsed, these problems would go away.

(2) This one is a little complicated. The US economy is driven entirely by consumer spending on credit. That means the economy depends on people getting into more debt, and banks getting richer and richer (I'm looking at you, HSBC). If the economy tanks, the banks go with it. Sure, last time the federal government bailed out the banks -- but if there's a strict spending limit and no new revenue, obviously that's not going to be an option. Bye-bye, banks!

(3) Because the US economy depends on consumer spending, and most of what we buy is crap made in China, the US economic collapse will weaken Chinese economic power. In fact, it may be the last, best way to restore US economic independence from China!

(4) As the economy collapses, more retail giants like Borders will go into liquidation - and pass the savings on to you!

(5) Economic collapse will bring about unpredictable shortages, skyrocketing prices, inflation, deflation, and utter fiscal chaos. This will allow savvy Americans to make a killing on the inevitable Fiscal Chaos Futures & Derivatives market!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Phenomenological accounts of pain invariably regard pain as abnormal and aberrant. Perhaps my own life experience, of nearly constant physical pain, makes me a bad phenomenologist of pain, but I find the move to “abnormalize” pain is made just a bit too quickly. Ultimately, I agree that an appropriate way to interpret the experience of physical pain phenomenologically would draw from the analysis of normal and abnormal perception, but I think this has to be very carefully brought into discussion.

Drew Leder discusses pain in The Absent Body, a book whose basic point of view I have some trouble with already. His analysis of pain focuses on (1) the abnormality of pain; (2) the felt alienness of the body in pain; (3) the disruption of ongoing embodied projects by pain; and (4) the search initiated by pain for restored meaning, restored projects.

As I was reading, I was brought into acute awareness of several pains happening at once. This morning I had blood drawn, and I can feel a slight irritation at the point of the needle prick. My arms are sore from a little over-straining in the pool yesterday. The tip of my tongue is sore from being burnt by hot coffee we bought after the blood test (it was a fasting test).

First, as to normality and abnormality. Because I am in almost constant pain, and almost constantly aware, at least in some marginal way, of pain, the normal feeling of my body involves pain — normal here meaning, accustomed, ordinary, but also normal in the phenomenological sense: normal as concordant with an ongoing act, of perceiving, or of moving in some goal-directed way. The pain that Leder discusses seems always to intervene and disrupt such an ongoing act, rather than being a concordant moment of it. That’s simply not my experience of such ordinary activities as walking. That said, I am susceptible to abnormal pain, in both the disruptive and non-concordant senses. In the former, more mundane sense, I am able ordinarily to distinguish the pain in my feet from walking and from not walking, from having cramped recently and from being about to cramp, etc. I have a sort of mental catalog of foot pain and register the changes in feeling by its general categories. All of these pains are “normal” in the sense of being concordant, as well. What’s abnormal in the mundane sense is the disruption caused when a cramp pain intervenes in a walking pain, for example – then my project of walking is interrupted, canceled out, etc. But an abnormal pain in the phenomenological sense would have to be one that is non-concordant, a pain that does not fit any longer as a moment in the ongoing synthesis of an act — unexpected and disruptive, yes, but also unaccountable, unassimilable.

There are pains that are abnormal in that phenomenological sense, but Leder’s analysis seems to me to conflate mundane and phenomenological description. That he does indeed conflate the two becomes clearer when we turn to the notion of pain as a felt alienness of the body. Elaine Scarry suggests this as well, and Leder cites her. As an ordinary experience, if a part of my body that does not ordinarily experience pain suddenly does present pain, then, yes, I might feel that part as alien, as we express when we say “my arm is hurting me,” e.g. But the phenomenological sense of alien means something more like “outside the sphere of what I can relate to my ‘I can’ and its normal range of activity, meaning, etc.” The alien presents itself to me as having come from a region of meaning that I cannot find meaning in. Again, no doubt, some pain may present itself this way, but very much of my daily pain does not. I am at home in my painful feet, I am accustomed to them, and they are as familiar to me, as painful, as any other part of me. Not so the burnt tongue, I’m finding. This is alien in the phenomenological sense, because it disrupts the ongoing meaning-synthesis of my oral/tasting life. It is alien, furthermore, in that it issues a sort of demand to re-orient my oral/tasting life. Ice cream would really hurt right now, for instance, so if my oral/tasting life were to propose ice-cream-eating activity, the I can taking up this project would endure a very difficult experience to orient around a normal, or the oral/tasting values it holds so dear.

If I want to undertake a clarification of pain, I think I’d want to distinguish normal from abnormal pain, “home” pain from alien pain, and finally, the pain that accompanies projects from the pain that disrupts them.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

how about a periphenomenology of perception?

I'm back to Shaun Gallagher's book How the Body Shapes the Mind. He seems to be doing what Michel Henry forbids, namely, taking clues from natural science in order to understand human embodiment and perception. Strangely, there's some similarities regarding their conclusions about perception, even if the language is totally different. I think Gallagher is easier to understand and has his head screwed on right, whereas I'm increasingly of the opinion that Henry was a kook. Some samples of Gallagher, on proprioception and perspectival perception:

More specifically, proprioceptive awareness is not itself a perception of the body as an object; for if it were, it would require an ordering system, a spatial frame of reference, that was independent of the body. Generally speaking, the proprioceptive spatiality of the body is not framed by anything other than the body itself. In other words, proprioception is a non-perspectival awareness of the body. (137f)

Proprioceptive awareness does not organize the differential spatial order of the body around an origin… Proprioception operates within a non-relative, non-perspectival, intra-corporeal spatial framework that is different from both egocentric and allocentric frameworks. Neither proprioception nor kineasthesia offers a perceptual perspective on my body. If they did, they would require a second body, or perhaps a homunculus that would act as an index. Our pre-reflective, kinaesthetic-proprioceptive experience thus plays a role in the organization of perception, but in a way that does not require the body itself to be a perceptual object. (138)

If the body itself is doing the perceiving, then such prenoetic operations provide specific conditions that shape perceptual consciousness. The body and its natural environment work together to deliver an already formed meaning to consciousness. (139)

Both Henry and Gallagher claim that proprioception is not perception and that the body as perceiver is not an object. But where Henry argues for a dualistic ontology where the subject as absolute life is always separate from the entire realm of the world and objects, Gallagher's understanding doesn't require taking any stance at all on that kind of metaphysical issue. Instead, as implied by his taking clues from neuroscience, he's more or less just describing and interpreting what we could call facts.

Both positions seek to reduce, or explain, what Merleau-Ponty left ambiguous, in particular given that, in Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty continued to use the language of Cartesian dualism - the whole business of the body being subject and object, e.g. There's a lot to be said for being more clear about this, but there's still ambiguity in experience.

So, proprioceptive awareness isn't perspectival, but it is through proprioceptive awareness that our perspectives become intelligible as perspectives. I don't see myself seeing (as Henry says), yet when I see, the point from which I see is tacitly present. Or, to use Merleau-Ponty's famous/notorious example of the hand-touching/hand-touched, I don't feel my touching, but when I touch something, the posture of my touching, since it makes all the difference in the experience of touch, comes into awareness. Gallagher's argument regarding the non-perspectival character of proprioception is airtight (and "non-relative" hints of what Henry called the "absolute" knowledge the body has of itself), and it leaves us with the implication that, ultimately, neither neuroscience nor phenomenology can tell us why we have experience and not just sense data. Again, Gallagher's attitude toward this seems to be that meaningful experience is just how it is for human beings.

A bit further on the ambiguity of perception and proprioception: if the body's proprioception is its way of structuring pre-given meaningful perception, then, I would argue, we may not be able to take a perspective on perspective-taking, but we can get a feel for it, sort of peripherally.

Monday, July 18, 2011

notes toward a do-it-yourself transcendental phenomenology of embodiment

I finished reading Michel Henry's Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body. The conclusion very unhelpfully develops a theological position on the finitude of the body and the infinity of the transcendental life (i.e., the body that I am as a transcendental subject) in relation to the Christian concept of sin. Henry seemed particularly miffed about sexuality being taken as a naturally occurring need that, as subjects, we can't determine actively.

What I am able to take away from reading this thing is his challenge to the more received view of embodiment in phenomenological philosophy circles. I have come to agree with Henry that the typical view is fairly confused. For instance, taking Husserl's position to be transcendental idealism, very like Kant's - which it is, in the first book of Ideas - the body appears to be an object of experience. This makes it very difficult to (1) resolve Cartesian dualism, which seems to be an important goal, and (2) understand why my body is experienced differently than anything else.

The typical reading of the phenomenological tradition leaves Husserl right there, staring at his Albrecht Dürer woodcut in confusion, and turns to Merleau-Ponty as the so-called "philosopher of the body." Merleau-Ponty very cleverly kept reading Husserl, and even more cleverly re-wrote much of the second book of Ideas and some of the passive synthesis lectures, under the new title Phenomenology of Perception. There, Merleau-Ponty interprets subjectivity as always embodied, as the very famous "body-subject" that is ambiguously subject and object, both for myself and for others. For instance, when, while slicing a peach for arugula-white peach-pignola-chevre-white pepper salad, I cut into my finger, I have an ambiguous experience of my finger as profoundly me (cuz the pain is mine ineluctably), and as a weird sort of object, obtrusively getting in the way of the perfectly fine plan I had all worked out, and bleeding on my peach like the stupid fleshy blood-filled sack of stupid bloody flesh my stupid finger is.

Henry, by asserting that the transcendental phenomenological ego (the "one who experiences" that is at the origin of everything that a consciousness undergoes) is not a ghost in a machine, but is instead living flesh itself, takes up Merleau-Ponty's later re-conception of the ambiguous body-subject, and pushes it, in a way, an ontological step backward. Now this "life," or "absolute life" is the living body itself. Henry has thus resolved the ambiguity of the body-subject being a subject and an object by denying the objectivity of the (transcendental) body.

This is a great move, because it forces us to reconsider the starting point of phenomenological philosophy, consciousness, as living instead of thinking, as affectivity instead of cognition, and so corrects the idealist tendency of Husserl's earlier work. Henry makes this move at great theological expense that I am unwilling to pay, however, and he makes dogmatic and altogether unhelpful stipulations about the ontology of this transcendental body. What I've decided is necessary is to begin phenomenology all over again (and damn, does it creep me out how Husserlian that is), and just start with a phenomenological reduction to embodied consciousness.

Here's what you'll need for this project:

* a body (that is, a living body, yours, currently occupied by you, and I assume preferably only by you)
* consciousness


Wait, something's missing here. Henry has us re-open phenomenology on the basis of the ontological origin of experience in the transcendental life of this embodied consciousness. But for this kind of life to experience, to have meaning, it can't be alone, can it? The fundamental thing about embodiment is just that: it's never alone. The transcendental body is just as much an idealism as the allegedly disembodied transcendental ego, unless that body is not only always already an embodied consciousness, but also always already a body in the world. And that's where Henry seems obviously to go wrong: his "life" exists ab aeterno and sui generis, and it is very hard to imagine how that body could find itself unless already in a world - otherwise, nothing would ever happen to it.

So I think we need:

* a world
* others

And now we have Merleau-Ponty's set-up from the Phenomenology. Or, you could just say, we need to understand life as flesh that is of the flesh of the world itself, as in The Visible and the Invisible.

All that is to say, Merleau-Ponty had something essentially right with ambiguity.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

the ambiguity of embodiment and the paradox of the transcendental subject

I've been poring over Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Michel Henry's weird, insinuating, slantways critique of the phenomenological philosophy of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty. These are rambling notes, but I wanted to post them anyway because it's been driving me crazy today.

Henry seems to interpret “classical” phenomenology as making the body an instrument of the ego’s act of perception, as though (I think) the ego reflects upon the body’s sensuous engagements with the world and thus comes to perceive. The ego that would “constitute” the body, he suggests, would be disengaged from the world by that constitution, and the body would be disconnected from the ego, and a mere thing among things. His solution is to assert that the transcendental ego is already a transcendental body: the body is immanent to the transcendental ego and vice-versa, in the form of transcendental life. “Absolute subjectivity” must be already a body and life, rather than to “have” a body as a mere mass, or else, he says, it’s impossible to understand how a subject could move a body. This of course is the problem Descartes’ dualism leaves behind. But I think that, as a critique of Husserlian phenomenology, this attacks a straw man. Furthermore, in Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body, Henry doesn’t provide a very clear argument, and rarely provides a concrete enough phenomenological description, to make his case very compelling. Instead, he takes up ambiguities in certain phenomenological accounts of embodiment (implicitly, Merleau-Ponty’s as well as Husserl’s), and pushes them to become paradoxes — that is, he imposes an interpretation on the ambiguities that insinuates their authors asserted the two sides of the ambiguity as each an ultimate and exclusive truth. Further, he takes up the paradoxes in their thought and pushes them to become outright absurdities — that is, he takes what they express with profound perplexity as paradoxes their thinking has led them to, and insinuates that they merely contradict themselves.

So, I want to get back to a basic level, and back to the things themselves. What about the embodiment of subjectivity/consciousness presents problems for phenomenological philosophy? One is, the constitution of objects, on the basis of what must be, for embodied consciousness, a series of passively traced adumbrations. A familiar problem. One that I think is more à propos to Henry’s work, is the relationship between consciousness and sense perception. The reason sense perception is so difficult (especially if you either impose the metaphysics Henry claims Husserl presupposes, or else presuppose the metaphysics Henry does), is that sense perception appears in our ordinary mundane experiences to be both under the command of consciousness itself, and also subject to “external” forces. (The overwhelming use of vision as a metonym for sense perception obscures this — another story for another day.) In my daily life, my sense of hearing is both under the command of my consciousness in my attending to particular sounds, i.e., “listening,” and subject to the “external” forces of noise. I can’t have one without the other: unless I am subject to noise, I can’t listen. (Here belongs all kinds of stuff about affect, desire, and so forth, that I’ll skip over for now.)

I interpret this, as a starting point, from Merleau-Ponty’s notion of the ambiguity of embodiment. As embodied, my consciousness/ego is subject and object, an active perceiver and a passive receiver. This obviously doesn’t go far enough, because it doesn’t say how this is possible. Merleau-Ponty later went back to Husserl’s later work, and found there, I believe, the clue to working this out more fully: passive synthesis. Husserl seems to have regarded the passive synthesis as an underlying, pre-conscious or unconscious, affectivity whereby consciousness has something to perceive. To get back to my example: I can’t listen unless there’s a field of sound for me to listen into for that which, already as I begin listening, is attracting my attention. That ongoing passive unity of the field of sound is what I have been calling my subjection — affectively, it subjects me both to desire and to “revulsion,” to what I would constitute as melodious, euphonious, and to what I would constitute as noise. But here’s the paradox: those unities within the field of sound draw my attention as sounds already anticipated “to-be-melodious,” and those others strike me as already anticipated “to-be-dysphonious.”

I can’t see any way for Henry’s account of the absolute subject as transcendental life to adequately address this twofold relation that hearing establishes, let alone the subjection to the passively synthesized field of sound already having an affective dimension. The subjection I’ve described would, I think, have to fall to Henry’s category of the merely objective body — I would be subjected to noise insofar as my body is an object among objects, and my capacity for listening would have to be more properly “mine.” Or else, in his other mood, he would have to say that such an account asserts as equally absolute a subject whose body is itself and who listens, and a subject whose body is, absurdly, an object, and thus declare the whole account absurd.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

intentionality and receptivity
Michel Henry is in my pants!

Regular readers of this feature, and some people who just know me, and a few people whom I've grabbed at random and told about it, know that for several years I've been trying to work out a phenomenology of subjection. What I mean by subjection are all the ways that the conscious active subject or ego is susceptible to suffering and affectivity of all kinds. In relation to the phenomenology of consciousness or intentionality, what I've been poking around with is what Husserl called the "givenness" of sensation, or, elsewhere, passivity, and even, most weirdly, "pregivenness."

A standard, unhelpful, criticism of Husserl is that his idealist resolution of epistemology means that his phenomenology cannot account for the materiality of givenness. That the senses are materially conditioned by biological bodies seems to disappear from his explanation of consciousness. This is part of Michel Henry's criticism, and the impetus for Henry's ontological inquiry. I say this is wrong because Husserl speaks directly to givenness of sensory "hyle" in both Ideas II and in the analyses of passive synthesis (presented as lecture courses in the 1920s - and the spot where he coins the bizarre term "pregivenness"). Henry ignores this outright. However, part of Henry's and others' criticism of Husserl still seems right to me, in that Husserl's concern in the passive synthesis lectures is not to account for passive synthesis in any extensive or thorough way, but to use it to show how consciousness can have intentional objects and proceed to make judgments and to know them. In other words, Husserl's analysis is directed always toward the teleological endpoint of knowing, presuming, as he does throughout his work, that consciousness is a little knowing-machine.

That seems obviously false to me, or else trivially true. Either Husserl means that knowing in a serious, scientific way (and that seems to be the case), and he's wrong that consciousness primarily aims at knowing; or else Husserl means knowing in a very thin way, as in, e.g., judging merely that the keyboard is there, and judging merely that the letters I'm typing are showing up on my screen (and he doesn't seem to mean this), and then indeed every act of consciousness aims at a kind of knowing, but it's a trivial sort of knowing. In my view, consciousness does all sorts of things that aren't knowing, and even most often engages in non-knowing acts. Most of my wakeful consciousness is spent thinking about food, sex, and music (in approximately that order), not in a judicative way, but more in a state of generalized lust.

(If you think that's too much information, then you clearly have not been reading this blog, or don't know me, or aren't one of the random passersby I've grabbed and talked phenomenology at.)

Henry's answer to this problem is provocative, but ultimately can't be cashed out phenomenologically. He says the basic foundation of consciousness, that would explain what Husserl leaves unexplained about "pregivenness," and would counter Husserl's teleology, is Life. Life is characterized by its pathos (a notion I have deep affinity for): to be a living conscious subject is fundamentally to be a living subject, which is a hungering, suffering, loving, etc., subject, rather than a judging, knowing one.

Yet there's all kinds of problems with Henry's critique, and he smuggles in a whole lot of metaphysical baggage. Plus, I don't think the foundationalist move Henry makes is either necessary or a good solution to the gaps Husserl leaves. Henry is too eager to fill those gaps, and Husserl is too eager to leave them behind. I want to explore them, and the dilemma I have at the moment is a startling one: I don't know whether what I'm doing fits into phenomenology (Husserlian or otherwise), but I don't know what method other than phenomenology would provide any kind of rigor for exploring subjection. I do not want to be caught up in ontological speculation, and wouldn't be caught dead adopting a theological explanation (like Henry does). I'm not sure where that leaves me. It's unsettling.

Monday, July 11, 2011

album of the day: Dire Straits

Dire Straits were, of course, a seminal post-punk, roots-revival band, at least in the first phase of their history. Their first album was released in 1978, when the top-selling album in the US was the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever. That is to say, Dire Straits came on the scene at the height of, and at the beginning of the end of, disco. Good timing, boys!

It's hard to imagine an album more diametrically opposed to everything disco. Apart from a couple of double-dubbed guitars, every cut on the album is just four instrument tracks and vocals, the basic kit of rock. And unlike punk, Dire Straits obviously featured Mark Knopfler's virtuoso guitar work and odd impressionistic snapshot lyrics.

I didn't know any of that when I bought my first Dire Straits album (in fact, the less well-regarded second album, Communiqué), or even when I went back and bought this one. All I knew was Douglas Adams had recommended them in the only sex scene in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. That's a weird connection, because although the music is gorgeous on this record, it's not what I would call sexy, since a lot of Knopfler's stuff is kinda morose. That probably says more about Douglas Adams than about me.

As for me, I took instant liking to Dire Straits, because I was developing my taste for mopey music back then.

And with the exception of "Southbound Again" and "Setting Me Up" - neither of which is really joyful - this is a pretty damn mopey record. Not everything is a gem, of course. "In the Gallery" is a somewhat heavy-handed criticism of trendy arty types and a lament for the artists and art they ruin. I also have the nerve to think the giant hit "Sultans of Swing" is a tad overwrought - but I read it as moping over how unrewarding and uninspired the pub rock scene can be, especially for true artists yearning to breathe free.

My favorites are, as I've tipped my hand already, the contemplative portrait pieces: "Lions," "Wild West End" and "Down to the Waterline" (despite being uptempo), and, when I can get past the artistic-struggle vibe, "Sultans of Swing." Here's a representative stanza from "Lions":

Church bell clinging on just trying
To get a crowd for Evensong
Nobody cares to depend upon the chime it plays
They're all in the station praying for trains
the Congregation late again
It's getting darker all the time these flagpole days
Drunk old soldier he gave her a fright
He's a crazy lion howling for a fight

(Line breaks, and indeed lyrics, are approximate, as Knopfler was at the time a strict adherent to the mumble-something-approximating-what-you-wrote school of folk-rock singing.) While the song pretty clearly tracks a working woman through her commute home, we get a picture of her somewhat vulnerable, and certainly lonesome, state of mind, by way of atmospheric details - as though the city was the outward expression of her emotional state. And that's just cool.

Something else that really strikes me about this album is Knopfler's range as a musician. I mean, duh, right? He's easily one of the 10 best guitarists in rock music of the era - and for pure musicianship, just out-and-out being able to make his guitar do anything, I'm not sure anyone's better. On Dire Straits he's all over the place - tight grooves, anthemic melody lines, lilting, definitely some weepies - and it's absolutely perfect, not a note out of place, not a note too many or too few.

the disappearing body

As I've been thinking about how big my body is, and especially about the phenomenon of feeling myself to be taller than normal, I've hit on two fundamental difficulties of phenomenological description of embodiment. One is the huge issue of accounting for a norm in experience. I'm working out something on that. The other is the ambiguity of embodiment.

One way it is often put, that I don't find particularly helpful, is by distinguishing "having" a body from "being" one's body. In general, it is said, we go around "having" or "owning" a body: wakeful conscious life consists of just going out and doing stuff, and "the body" is an instrument of that conscious life. "I use my body" to take out the trash or to type a blog post about embodiment. "The body" is said to disappear for me in those circumstances, because the focus of my attention is on the action at hand. That is, I am not aware of or attentive to the movement of my hands and arms and torso and legs and feet as I bend over, grab the extended flappy things on the garbage bag that you tie at the top, and proceed to bind off the bag, etc., etc. I just go and do it, and my consciousness spends its time worrying about the bag's structural integrity.

On the other hand, when conscious attention is drawn to the body itself, this is most often in a situation of dysfunction, disease, or pain (or, drawing from an intriguing analysis I read yesterday, when traits of that body subject me to social stigmatization). If, as I'm pulling the bag out of the trash can to carry it out to the dumpster, the weight and the twist of the plastic top of the bag presses against the index finger of my left hand that I cut last night paring a peach, then I experience myself as "being my body." Its direct affect on me is, in a moment like that, obtrusively palpable, my embodiment reveals itself as inescapable, etc., etc.

Obviously, the body only nearly disappears from us, and can always come back into the forefront of awareness, mostly by the unbidden event of the passivity or suffering of the body. But the normal condition, according to this standard phenomenological analysis, is of the body's relative disappearance.

Two things about this bug me. First is that I can't ever quite understand what is meant by saying we "own" our bodies. This phrasing comes into phenomenological writing in English, I believe, by way of translating Merleau-Ponty's term "corps-propre" as "my own body" or even (as I've seen it) "the owned body." Maybe I'm just weird, but I can't think of my body as owned in any but a weakly analogical way to the way I own other things. My everyday experience of embodiment is more intimate than that. Even taking out the trash, I have a strong sense of my body's presence in the action.

Like I said, perhaps I'm just weird. There could be autobiographical or physiological reasons for my having more constant everyday awareness of my embodiment, which would line up well with the common phenomenological analysis I laid out above. Since early in elementary school I've had a kind of body dysmorphism, and for as long as I can remember I've had pain caused by the bony skis I have instead of feet. I'm pretty constantly aware of my posture and movement as a result.

In any case, I don't know how normal it is for our bodies to "disappear" into the background of our actions. But even to the extent they do, what's interesting about this is not the disappearing, but that even the disapparent body (my coinage, as far as I know; I suppose I could say disapparated?) is still co-present in those actions. Even if I don't consciously feel the weight of my arms in lifting the trash bag, I do feel the muscle contractions that are the bracing of the weight and force of my arms against the weight of the bag. To me, that co-presentation, always passively synthesized into the action, is the point of interest. That's the sense in which embodiment is ambiguous, and I object that the "having/being" dichotomy obscures that ambiguity by superimposing that hermeneutic binary on the phenomenon.

In other words, one reason I'm interested in the phenomenon of suddenly-feeling-taller is that it tells me something about the constant co-presentation of the background phenomenon of my height. I always have a height, even in the everyday when no one is specifically asking how tall I am or when I'm not specifically reaching for something up high, etc. It is constant in my perspective on everything.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

the ethics of teaching ethics

I had an interesting, brief conversation with one of the proprietors of the horse trail ride outfit we patronized in Sonoma County yesterday, about what I do for a living. He said he thought everyone should take a course in ethics, that people needed it, he said, in order to understand that what they do matters and that they should always be thoughtful about what they do. That sounds about right to me, I said. I mentioned my great experiences with nursing students in Professional Ethics and Bioethics, and he mentioned his own great experiences at UCSF hospital.

That got me thinking about the conclusion of The University in Ruins and my feeling that Bill Readings' postmodern excesses needed to be amended with something more substantive, more concrete, even - dare I say it - more practical. (Afflicted as he was with the 1990s pomo academic disease, he wasn't able to come out and say anything for fear of being accused of having said one thing to the exclusion of the other thing, or, still worse, of having pretended to have said everything! Lawd, help us! I digress.)

Readings says, as I mentioned before, that under the regime of "excellence," that is, in ruined universities, teachers have an ethical obligation to students, something related to justice, but which cannot be determined in advance. Removing the pomo posturing, what I think this boils down to is: college faculty, as teachers, have ethical obligations to our students. What exactly is the nature of these ethical obligations?

I think I know what it can't be.

(1) It can't be an obligation to prepare students for a career. Many folks in higher ed, especially in administration, and most folks who form public higher ed policy (most often, in blissful ignorance), would be absolutely scandalized by that remark. I remember well the radio program we heard once on a trip somewhere. A high-tech industry bigwig and a CSU exec were both on, talking about the way higher ed serves or fails to serve industry needs. The exec said that by the time skills and knowledge bases are taught at universities, they're outmoded, but that wasn't the problem. The company will train employees in the new stuff. But what they really need from the universities are to educate students in how to think for themselves, how to interact and communicate clearly with others, and in particular, how to communicate with non-experts. In turn, the CSU exec said he felt that industry needed the CSU to train future employees in the most up-to-date skills and knowledge bases, so they could jump right into the front lines.

The broader lesson, at least as far as I'm concerned, is that university education is not reducible to, and not even an appropriate place, for career training. Not even my PhD program trained me to be a faculty member. It credentialed me, but I learned how to be a faculty member on the job, the way everybody else learns to do a job, by doing it.

(2) It can't be an obligation to lead students to become specialized experts in a field of knowledge. Many students seem to expect this, and some (especially first and second year students) think they are wasting any minute of time outside of major courses. There's two reasons university education should not make people experts in a field of knowledge. First of all, any reasonably complex field of knowledge is too immense and evolving for four years (or so) to make anyone an expert. Second, I think it's naïve to the point of preposterousness to imagine that an expert should or can know only one narrow field - not out of some "well-rounded person" silliness, but because it's epistemologically naïve.

(3) It can't be an obligation to serve humankind.

(4) It can't be an obligation to serve the good of the nation.

(5) It can't be an obligation to serve Truth.

I won't comment further on these three. They're the subject of Lyotard's and of Readings' critiques.

(6) It can't be an obligation to liberate students. This would scandalize bell hooks and other Freireans, I suppose, and it hurts my soul a bit to say so, too, but I think it's the truth. First of all, as Readings actually pointed out nicely, taking this stance is just a leeeetle bit messianic, eh? Professor with a Christ-complex? I've slipped into this now and then, and it's embarrassing in retrospect. First of all, 99% of my students would have to be hit over the head with a club and dragged by their hair toward liberation. Secondly, the remaining 1% generally don't need my help to be liberated, and of the few who might be helped along in their own project of liberation by my teaching, I can't say I benefit any of them by giving them help.

(7) It can't be an obligation to model, and to provide opportunities, for virtue, or for citizenship. Who the hell am I to present myself as a paragon of anything - virtue or vice? Most of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is. (Okay, that's exaggerated for comic effect: 40% of the time, I have to ask my students what day it is.)

Okay, that's fairly complete. So, what's the content of the ethical obligation teachers have to students? The terms I want to use strike me as overly aesthetic, and I'm deeply suspicious of aestheticized politics, so with that caveat . . .

Meeting classes. The Cow State Santa Claus faculty handbook actually specifies that faculty have an obligation to meet classes. This is a policy initiated by a 1969 Chancellor's Office Executive Order (really! You can look it up!). But I'm taking it in an extended sense: we have an obligation to meet our students in the sense of acknowledging them, acknowledging their humanity, their difference from us, that they are not us, but them; we have an obligation to be present in a full sense in class, for reasons I may cash out in a later post; we have an obligation to be there.

Challenging students. By "challenge," I don't mean "make the class hard." I also don't mean "make the class intellectually demanding," at least, not to the exclusion of other challenges. We can, and should, challenge assumptions, challenge beliefs, and especially to challenge comforts - of all kinds. This is extremely difficult, in my opinion, for both students and faculty, and it can only happen if faculty abide by the obligation to . . .

Honesty. Here, I don't mean "telling the truth." In fact, you can be more honest while lying, sometimes. I mean honesty with regard to what we know and don't know, what we think and what we think no one should think, even if we don't have very good reasons for it. If you challenge students without honesty, you're bullshitting them, and yourself, and you're doing tremendous damage to everyone involved. I can't think of anything that shuts students down more than dishonesty.

Humility/Compassion/Not Being An Asshole. You'd think this would go without saying, unless you've been to college. The title of expert conveys a sense of self-importance that academia encourages academics to deploy in every arena as a weapon. A classroom is no place for a weapon. More than that, though, teaching, as I am trying to articulate it, can't happen in the context of the presumption that what the teacher is saying or doing is the most important thing in the room, let alone the world. What I do is far less important than what my students do, if what I want to do is teach. This is also hard, because ego defenses are just that. Between this obligation and honesty, I prescribe a lot of exposure to potentially painful experiences as the key to teaching and learning. (Oh, did I mention students have the same obligations? Cuz they do.)

Surprising. This might simply follow from challenging. Surprise here means saying or doing the instructively unexpected. You can't just spring out from behind a lectern yelling "Surprise!" - it has to offer something to think about. The surprise can't be dismissible as your insanity or quirkiness; it has to lead to wonder beyond that.


Is there some overall purpose to all this? It certainly makes life more interesting, which might mean it makes life more fulfilling. It might help people develop mental and emotional flexibility and strength. But I don't have a grand narrative to organize and give a foundation to this. I don't know where it leads, necessarily, since, for instance, surprise is essentially open-ended, and not being an asshole doesn't have a direct object. I'm also short on argument here. I just think I'm right.