Thursday, June 30, 2011

how big is my body? - the temporary feeling of being taller

Here's an initial description of the experience of my own body feeling taller to me.

The other day, walking home through downtown Turlock, I had an experience of my body as taller. As I’ve mentioned, I love this feeling, and I was able to focus some attention on it and possibly prolong it. We were walking along the south side sidewalk on Mitchell Avenue, from Denair Avenue to Palm. The sidewalk there is uneven, mainly from tree roots lifting the slabs of concrete – though I don’t believe this is a necessary feature of the experience, since it happens on even sidewalks as well. Suddenly, in a single step, I felt about a head taller.

Having a proprioceptive sense of being taller is a paradoxical experience. In my ordinary physical dealings with the world, my height is appresented to me. It is concomitant with my reaching for something on a shelf, or my walking gait, or through the fit of clothing or furniture. When I feel taller for myself and to myself, I feel as though this relation has shifted, that I am stretched. Specifically, I feel the stretch in my legs, arms, neck, and particularly visually. The ground looks further away. This is almost never unnerving or uncomfortable, and does not cause any difficulty in my ongoing activity. (It almost always happens when I am walking.) I don’t feel as if I no longer “fit” the world or my clothing, or my body for that matter. Only that I am taller.

At the same time (this is the paradoxical part) I continue to move and project into the world as usual, and the distortion of my felt sense of proportion does not make much difference in the way I feel that I can move. The feeling is only of being taller. (It is not a view from above, as in some kinds of out-of-body experience. I do not feel in any way disconnected from our outside of my body.)

The feeling rarely lasts more than a few seconds, and sometimes just a split second (though sometimes it recurs several times in quick succession over the course of a few seconds). The other day, it lasted about 10 seconds or so, in part because as it happened I directed my attention on it and attempted to will it to continue. I think that may have been effective, but I have never successfully voluntarily willed it to begin.

I have written that my limbs feel longer. This is complex. When the moment of taller-ness happens, I tend to look down at the sidewalk, because it’s the best way to experience it. I walk on, watching the sidewalk ahead of me, and see my moving legs and feet peripherally. They look further away, and at the same time my legs feel longer to the hips. As I shift my gaze to look further ahead, though still down at the sidewalk – say, 15 to 20 feet ahead – my gaze feels lifted higher. The enjoyment of the experience comes in part from a feeling of overseeing, even commanding the environment. There’s undoubtedly a cultural dimension to this, but to me it’s more of a physical sensation of bodily capacity.

How is this experience given? How is my body’s height given, and even pre-given, in my experience of walking in general, such that this experience of taller-ness can arise? It is very much a visually constituted experience (part of me wonders if my poor vision is largely responsible; my astigmatism makes depth perception tricky), but not exclusively. I feel taller-ness in my legs, especially, and to a lesser degree in my arms and in the top of my head. I described it above as a stretch, and that’s exactly it: my legs stretch down further. Sometimes the feeling is of my legs stretching through the surface I’m walking on, falling further into the ground somehow. The muscles feel more taut, as when stretching a limb out to reach, and the success of the reach is evident in the feeling – each step a successful striving to hit the far-away ground. Meanwhile, my head floats higher above, and I see from greater elevation, everything seeming to be below my eyes.

Let me emphasize again the paradox: at the same moment I sense my body as taller and as “normal” in height, or, so to speak, I know better, and my proprioceptive sense of my body is unstable, un-fulfillable – I have equivocal senses of my own body’s size that I cannot fully mesh together. This is also rather pleasant, almost the way being puzzled can be pleasant.

I don’t know if anybody else has experiences like this. If anybody coming across this does and wants to make a comment, please do. Or if you’d rather say something privately, please email me.

Monday, June 27, 2011

de-legitimation and purposeless universities

Bill Readings makes what I think is the right argument regarding the de-legitimation of higher education in The University in Ruins. Previous structurally legitimating notions of the university were rational (the Kantian model) and cultural (the Humboldtian model), but these have collapsed under the weight of the university’s core function as a bureaucratic corporation.

His analysis of the bureaucratic university as an administrative institution is spot-on. Universities are measured by scales that have no referents and that are essentially meaningless – among them, rankings like that performed by US News, institutional research data like graduation rates, time-to-graduation, etc. The very concept of excellence is devoid of meaning.

Readings does not lament this. Although the post-modern university (he prefers not to use this term, but it’s what he means) has no legitimation, the nostalgic drive to re-legitimate it would only restore one or another of the not-terribly-noble legitimations of the past. Instead, he argues that the university should be treated as a ruin – a potentially interesting place to be, that still has some remaining resources to do some interesting things. He says that the university without a purpose should instead be organized around the rhetorical and ethical obligation of the relation of pedagogy, which is to say, universities should be places where teaching happens.

Now, if the teaching and other activities of university faculty are only measured via what boil down to reputation surveys, what would make teaching one thing versus another the right thing to do? Readings’ answer is: nothing. So teaching is not about disseminating knowledge, or of producing it, or of reproducing culture, or anything related to some content. Instead, it’s an ethical relation between teacher and students. So far, so good, I think.

We can’t say in advance what ethical obligations that relationship creates, because those obligations arise from and are inherent to that relation itself. What can we say about it in general? As a teacher, Readings says, my conduct should be focused on justice.

Here’s where he loses me. What we have up to this point looks like Socratic education (Socratic, not Platonic). It is not in service to the state, to the economy, to the church, or to any particular, given set of ideals or any particular, given ideology. After all, what else did Socrates do but raise questions about all of that? Instead, Readings writes something not much different from gibberish:

The referent of teaching, that to which it points, is the name of Thought. Let me stress that this is not a quasi-religious dedication. I say "name" and I capitalize "Thought" not in order to indicate a mystical transcendence but in order to avoid the confusion of the referent with any one signification. The name of Thought precisely is a name in that it has no intrinsic meaning. In this sense, it is just like excellence. However, Thought differs from excellence in that it does not bracket the question of value. (159)

Oh, for fuck’s sake! How 90s-tastic can you get?

Anyway, the actual idea he's presenting here, as far as I can tell, is something like what I've outlined above. Since (a) nobody's actually watching what I teach, and (b) the only measure of what I'm doing that anybody cares anything about is an arbitrary notion that boils down to customer satisfaction, and (c) this is the case universally in universities, (d) because their purposes are referent-less - that is, there is no legitimating narrative for university education and it serves structural economic and social purposes not linked meaningfully to any particular activity taking place within them, it follows (e) that teaching has no purpose and no essential content. From this we can conclude (f) that teachers who so choose would be able to teach according to a notion of ethical responsibility that would be, from the standpoint of the administrative apparatus of the institution, immeasurable, unknowable, unacknowledged, and unnoticed.

What disturbs me about this is not the idea that university education is, for most intents and purposes, bullshit (that is to say, everyone involved could - and many do - treat it as bullshit with no discernible effect on the function of the system). What disturbs me is not the idea that teaching is a contentless activity related to an inchoate and non-referential concept of justice. As I said, those together fairly well describe Socrates wandering around Athens making people upset. I'm fine with that.

What disturbs me is that, if universities are ruins, and there is no purpose for ruins, there's no reason to maintain them. Again, I think that's probably true, and is certainly characteristic of the long-term trend of higher education. There are very few places where it's safe to do this crazy thing Readings calls teaching. There are fewer where it's safe and remunerative. And getting fewer by the hour. I admit it: what upsets me is the likelihood that I won't have my job much longer.

Then again, maybe I will. Just because universities are purposeless doesn't mean the capitalist economic system will liquidate them. Capitalism runs on consumption, and universities are spectacular sites of consumption.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

album of the day: Nine Objects of Desire

The last year I spent in Pittsburgh I was in the habit of listening to Harry Shearer's weird weekly radio program, Le Show, every Sunday night on the local NPR station (which happened to be a unit of Duquesne). In between Shearer's bits of satire and tongue-in-cheek reading of bits from the LA Times "hot property" column and trade publications, there were delightful musical fills. Among other qualities, Shearer has excellent taste in music.

He started playing stuff that I didn't recognize as Suzanne Vega for some time. The songs were sharp, had an interesting sense of language, and often some good jazzy rhythm guitar. It turned out the songs were all from this album, which the All Music Guide has no patience for.

I dig their criticism, even if I don't agree with their overall judgment. There are some spiffy songs here. The best of them are probably "My Favorite Plum," "Head Shots," "Stockings" and the very nice "Caramel" - all of which Shearer introduced me to. Aside from "Head Shots," these all seem to describe states of desire - which has always suggested to me that the title of the album is hardly an accident, even if we can't quite call it a themed album. "Caramel" compares love to food, something I think we should always do. "My Favorite Plum" might do the same thing, and if so, it's subtly lascivious, and I approve, or else it really is just Suzanne Vega obsessing over a tree fruit, and I approve. "Stockings" would seem to be about very nearly falling into a lesbian crush, and once again, I approve (although almost none of my lesbian crushes have achieved very much).

"Head Shots" is just kinda creepy. I don't know what it's about, except seeing pictures of a boy's head all over the place. Vega does creepy so well, it's creepy. I don't think she's creepy, I just think she has a creepy ability to express being creeped out by creepy stuff. Maybe her ability being creepy, and the prevalence of creepy themes in her work, means she is in fact sorta creepy, but I'm not yet prepared to render that judgment.

Of the rest, I like "Lolita," "No Cheap Thrill" (which Shearer also played) and "Thin Man" a lot. Lauren really likes "Tombstone," which is about why tombstones are so great - namely, that they weather well. There's only one song on here I really could do without, "World Before Columbus," and even that has a nice guitar line.

A guitar line that is, unfortunately, obscured by the over-production and (AMG got this right) muddy engineering that mar the record. For my money, Vega's song-writing here is clever and smart and shines through despite the production, and that makes it worthwhile.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

philosophy and the de-legitimation of education

This week I finished reading a 90-year-old book, and wondering why I had read it, and what it had to do with philosophy today. The feeling scraped at a previously acquired irritation regarding philosophy in the academic setting.

During my recent conference travels, I ended up in a conversation about maintaining currency in the field of philosophy. I said something about feeling like I should read people like Badiou or Agamben, even though I can't see what people find so compelling about them (which is a nice way to put it). The person I was talking to said that didn't matter, that as philosophers, we specialize, and we don't need to take account of present day or contemporary philosophers, even within our so-called continental tradition.

I wonder. Perhaps philosophy does not "progress" in the way we seem to think sciences do: contemporary philosophers, even in taking account of previous philosophers in "the tradition" do not necessarily or even usually claim to be improving the state of human knowledge or wisdom. Why would that be? And if that's true, why do we expect our elite academic philosophers to publish "new" or "original" philosophical works? What would "new" contribute to a body of knowledge that does not "advance"?

One possible answer, that academic philosophers shouldn't approve of, is that the professional academic business of publishing is a sham. What that could mean about philosophy itself is a further question: What does academic philosophy have to do with philosophy?

On the other hand, what warrants philosophy as an undertaking at all? The last philosopher I can think of who claimed that philosophy was not only scientifically rigorous, but the model of scientific rigor itself, was Husserl. That is, Husserl claimed that philosophy had to do with truth. Other than a handful of very seriously addicted Husserl scholars, I don't know of anyone who continues to uphold this claim. In any case, if you have the truth, you don't have to read anyone who isn't telling the truth, and so, you can exclude contemporary pretenders. Isn't that convenient and cute?

If philosophy isn't warranted on the basis of a special access to truth (a method, or an insight - a low or royal road), then what does warrant philosophy? I believe that most academic philosophers practice philosophy as, basically, a sub-discipline of literature, with a canon of texts not grouped by nationality, but by a peculiar style and content. What academic philosophers do, in that case, is a form of literary criticism of these texts. Since there is no specific insight or method, it is harder to say why you should read some practitioners of philosophy and not others. You could say that you specialize in a particular major figure, and then your practice should involve staying current on what other specialists write about that figure's works - just like, say, Chaucer studies.

There once was a cultural warrant for this activity, but the legitimacy of that warrant ran out by the 1950s or so (as Bill Readings cogently argues), so now the only warrant for this practice is that it somehow serves capital accumulation. For instance, somehow, the practice of (to take a random name) Heidegger scholarship has the effect of preparing you to be able to train students either in some "critical thinking" or "communication" skill salable in the job market, or else to be able to produce consumers of Heidegger scholarship (i.e., graduate students). This leaves academic philosophy tremendously vulnerable to market demands for either salable skills or scholarship, and moreover, to the discovery that someone other than academic philosophers can provide the necessary products at a cheaper price - someone in another academic discipline, or someone off the street who happens to be a decent, and fairly logical, writer.

A final option is that philosophy is not warranted in any of these ways, and can only be the practice of radical questioning and doubt. No particular methodological commitment is important to this notion of philosophy, because methods are merely techniques of radicalism. There is no objective reason whatsoever to narrow or to broaden the scope of the philosophy you read, no objective reason to remain current in the published record of academic philosophy. There are subjective reasons, namely, that someone's method or book seems to work for what you're trying to do, or turns you on.

In this case, philosophy as practiced in academic institutions is completely at odds with philosophy itself. In fact, the aim of academic philosophy is almost entirely destructive of philosophy itself, for the simple reason that academic philosophy could not afford to be scandalized in this way in the contemporary university. It would be all too clear that the emperor has no clothes - that the system of credentialing and awarding of authority practiced in academia has no connection to philosophy as a practice of radicalism, and in fact works to eliminate radicalism. A "radical philosophy department" is a contradiction in terms, unless somehow a group of people have managed to extort or otherwise commandeer institutional resources in service to its own destruction. That would be very weird.

For myself, I've come to think that the last two answers are mutually compatible and close to the truth of things. It makes my status - a Phd in philosophy, teaching in a university - not very comfortable, yet - given my tenuous-track employment, in a university whose public support has rapidly diminished - more understandable.

I'm speaking of all this in terms that are far too totalizing. Obviously not every class taught in every philosophy department is either so dogmatic, or cynical, or nihilistic, as my discussion suggests. A few philosophers working in academic settings probably do manage to get away with being radical. Until one of them commits a serious felony, though, we're not likely to know their names.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ideas II

In the end, I’m a little disappointed in Ideas II. Some of the most difficult issues Husserl raises with regard to the lived Body he either resolves to my dissatisfaction or doesn’t resolve at all. From my previous experience of reading the lectures on passive synthesis, I’m pretty sure that’s where I need to go next. Meantime, I should state what I think are the key issues.

Husserl’s discussion in Ideas II is framed by Modern philosophy, ultimately by Descartes and Descartes’ metaphysical (substance and attribute) dualism. This leads Husserl to continue to work on the mind-body relation, despite his constant refrain that there isn’t a mind-body problem to solve: for the lived Body, or the personal Ego, or the living I, consciousness or spirit is always embodied, even though we have phenomenological insight of the separability of consciousness. Consciousness as such is separable from the Body, but to be a living I, that consciousness or spirit or soul (he uses spirit and soul interchangeably) is dependent on the Body.

All well and good. But the way this dependence is experienced, and why it’s significant, are not sufficiently explored by Husserl, in my opinion. This is the main thing that disappoints me. I chalk it up to the Cartesian frame of the mind-body issue in philosophy, and that disappoints me a second time (though not as much), because it doesn’t seem very phenomenological to take up the Cartesian frame of the issue. Why shouldn’t, or couldn’t, Husserl have gone through epoché and reduction of lived Body in order to reach the same ontological region, and thereby totally escaped Cartesianism? (I’m not meaning to say that Husserl is Cartesian, since he clearly isn’t. Again, I refer to the Cartesian framing of the issue.) On the other hand, would philosophers have been thinking about minds and bodies at all, or in anything like this way, unless Descartes had come along? Would it have occurred to Husserl, or anyone else, even to investigate consciousness in relation to lived Body?

There are experiences in everyday life that do suggest separability of consciousness and lived Body, from as mundane an example as daydreaming while walking down the street, to highfalutin things like meditative “out-of-body” experiences. (That might be something to consider!) We also have experiences of making incorrect judgments on the basis of perception, of pain that we can’t completely localize, of pleasure that overtakes us, of altered states of consciousness, etc., etc. There’s a tremendous range of experiences that offer themselves to potentially very rich investigations. But is it a trick of philosophical tradition, or even a trick of language, that leads us to talk about bodies and minds, and even to regard bodies as possessions or objects? What is it in these experiences themselves, apart from our ordinary attitude (objectivating, etc.), that leads to any questioning of the way consciousness is embodied?

In short, I feel as if Husserl was distracted from this potential investigation by the Cartesian “mind-body problem.” (In addition, he was clearly aiming for a clarification of the distinction between natural and human sciences, and arguing for the primacy of the human to the natural, as well as for the primacy of phenomenology as a science of consciousness – which I suppose is a version of the claim philosophy finally gave up some time ago to being the queen of sciences).

One particular way this disappoints me is that whenever Husserl gets to a point where there’s something obscure in the way we encounter the lived Body, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on it. I don’t know how much further we can investigate certain of these obscurities, but I think it has to be further than he has in Ideas II. My friend Randy tipped me on to one of them: the “aesthesiological” body, appresented as a unity in conscious acts of perception, but not intended as an object of consciousness. We “have” a lived Body in every act of sense perception (say), but not only do we not consciously constitute the unity of this Body (that is, it is “passively” “pregiven”), but we find, if we attempt to enact the conscious constitution of the aesthesiological unity of the lived Body, that we can’t do it ourselves. This is just nuts!

And terribly exciting to me. And the source of great inspiration. In Husserl’s terms, the things I’ve been obsessing over for years now are all of these obscure matters of the pregiven, passive unity of the lived Body.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

album of the day: Backatown

We heard Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews on some late-night program, and the performance was just terrific. So we bought the disc.

I ain't got much to say about it. It's terrific. My only criticism is that I wish at least a few of the numbers were extended jams instead of the tight 3-minute jobs they are. I'm not sure if that would defeat Trombone Shorty's purpose here: he might well have a sort of point to make about musical economy, or jabs, or the state of recorded pop music in the fatal stages of capitalism. I don't know.

If you're into that kind of thing, you might enjoy playing "what genre is this" with the album. I had initially stuck him in jazz, before we played the CD, because of the TV performance we'd seen. He was dressed kind of jazz then, too. He looks sorta jazz on the cover. But I moved him to the general mishmash section of our CD collection, because I've decided that the more central vibe here is funk.

But really, what this is, is music. That whole genre-definition game is overdetermined by capitalism, class, and culturally snobbery. At bottom, the only thing that holds a genre together is usage. Certain traits of musical performance and composition keep getting called "jazz" until the family resemblance fools us into imagining it has an essence. By then, it has a cultural cachet, the main significance of which, especially these days, is its brand-identity.

Anyway, you should listen to Trombone Shorty and have a good time.

phenomenological ethics

Today I've been reading Ideas II, on the constitution of the world of nature and of the human world. It led to some probably not terribly novel thoughts about ethics, of all things, in relation to what Husserl was doing on the general question of world-constitution.

So, three quotations from Husserl that frame my thoughts.

What is educational in the phenomenological reduction… is also this: it henceforth makes us in general sensitive toward grasping other attitudes, whose rank is equal to that of the natural attitude … and which, therefore, just like that latter, constitute only relative and restricted correlates of being and sense. (§ 49 (d), p. 189)

[For a person who knows nothing of physics, the] sense-content of physics does not belong to his actual surrounding world (p. 195f).

Speaking quite universally, the surrounding world is not a world “in itself” but is rather a world “for me,” precisely the surrounding world of its Ego-subject, a world experienced by the subject in his intentional lived experiences with the sense-content of the moment. (§50, p. 196)

Posit: A fundamental problem in ethics is the incompleteness of our ethical regard and acknowledgment. That is, a basic motivation for acting unethically is our failure to acknowledge someone or something’s ethical claim on us.

The instance I have in mind is the rejection of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage, in particular on the basis of religious dogma. In my opinion, a person who denies that same-sex couples should have the opportunity to marry on the basis of one’s own religious belief is doing something unethical. It’s difficult to think of it as motivated by anything other than blind hatred or fear, and I suppose, in many cases, that is as far as it goes. But perhaps there are people who believe sincerely that it’s perfectly good of them to do this unethical thing – that they have good reasons for it, that it’s the right thing to do, etc. They have as little doubt about their rectitude as I have in their blameworthiness.

The world of such persons is, as Husserl puts it, simply the world for them, the surrounding world of just those Ego-subjects, and is therefore relative to their position, their constitution of the world, etc. The sincere denial of the right of same-sex couples to marry on the basis of religious dogma makes sense in a world in which a certain sense-content of ethics is missing. Dogmatism rules out the limitation of one’s own perspective, it denies that one’s perspective is a perspective. The dogmatist takes his or her own world, the world for his or her own Ego-subject, to be the world in itself.

Now, there’s at least two ways we could go about ethical discourse. One, the most common, is to engage ethical discourse as a contest of arguments. Understood that way, we could deal with our religious zealot by demonstrating the circularity of the argument based on religious dogma, or by pointing to the obvious question-begging. We could also marshal a better argument in favor of the right of same-sex marriage. (At least, that’s how I see things, because in my opinion, if we held this contest, the pro-same-sex-marriage-right argument would be objectively superior, given that we live in a pluralistic, democratic society under a republican form of government and a system of law that holds, as a fundamental principle, the separation of church and state.)

It seems fairly obvious that the religious zealot, even upon losing the argument, will not concede. Very often, the fallback position taken is that permitting same-sex marriage is somehow violating the rights of religious dogmatists to be religious dogmatists – a position that requires, as part of its defense, that it is somehow inherent to the free practice of religious dogmatism that the dogmatic religious faith of this particular individual person become public policy.

This is a slightly exaggerated example by which I intended to show that ethical beliefs, especially false ethical beliefs, are not strictly rational in the sense we take to be at issue in logical arguments. They are more fundamental than logically fixed beliefs – which makes sense to me, given that for the most part our ethical conduct in the world does not follow from logical processes but is, precisely, ethical conduct, habituated ways of addressing the world and others and acting. Ethical conduct arises in our fundamental attitudes, which means, following Husserl somewhat loosely here, that ethics is constituted within the Ego-subject’s own relative world – as though that world had been built to correspond to the Ego-subject’s own ethical perspective. The problem of dogmatism is that, for the dogmatist, the everyday world constantly addresses that dogma, because that dogma is constitutive of that everyday world. The dogmatist on this issue is like the person who has no knowledge of physics, in Husserl’s example. The sense-content of ethical regard and acknowledgement of the full personhood of same-sex couples is just not part of the world of the dogmatist.

My everyday world is no less relative to my own Ego-subject, of course. At that level, everyone is, if not a dogmatist, at least someone who has faith in one’s own world and the attitudes and sense-contents that have constituted that world. No one’s ethical regard and acknowledgement is perfect.

This leads me to a second way to go about ethical discourse, a phenomenological way. Instead of arguments, we would learn how to bracket the general ethical positings we make that are constitutive of our everyday ethical life-worlds. (I know, I’m mixing my Husserl terminology. I don’t care.) I’m not suggesting this will magically convince anyone of anything. But a genuine insight into the constitution of ethical worlds, and a genuine understanding of the relativity of those worlds to each Ego-subject, should convince someone not only that dogmatism can never be right, and that dogmatic intolerance can never be an ethical orientation to take toward others. It should also show that logical arguments about ethics are not the complete story. Perhaps, as Husserl claims, it will teach us to be sensitive to grasping other attitudes, and therefore to understanding ethical perspectives, including our own, as perspectives.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the empty university

I'm reading a book by a guy named Bill Readings, called The University in Ruins, published in 1996. It's the book I've been waiting for, examining the contemporary situation of universities, basically through a Situationist lens, with a good dose of Lyotard. I’m amazed that this book is 15 years old, and yet none of the current discussion of university crisis in the US refers to it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be amazed, since this book makes almost all of the current debate absolutely pointless.

A key term for discussing universities in the late 1990s was excellence. It is, as Readings explains and illustrates, an entirely empty term. Excellence is not a criterion, has no referent, and is not a unit of measure. It does not define an ambition or an achievement. It is not ideological, because it does not name what sorts of things should be said or done (and what should not be said or done). It is distinctly anti-cultural, because it refutes any reference of the activities of universities to culture or nationality.

The term gained its currency because universities, especially in the United States, are now bureaucratic corporations, and are expected to operate entirely as bureaucratic corporations. The best analogy, he says, is to compare contemporary universities to the National Basketball Association. The NBA organizes activities that are entirely self-referential. Although fans of the sport attach themselves to particular teams and players, and provide financial support for the activities the NBA organizes, as he says, the won-loss record of the Philadelphia 76ers has nothing to do with the city of Philadelphia. Universities, like sports teams, are branded enterprises whose sole purpose is to get consumers to give them money because of their brand name and the consumers’ desire to associate with the brand name. There is, otherwise, at present no other purpose of universities.

What the use of excellence to name the activities of universities achieves is provide a bureaucratic rationale for managerial decisions. Since it is precisely not a criterion for judgment, but an empty qualifier, it can be used rhetorically in any situation to provide what looks like a justification for any decision. Since universities have no purpose, every managerial decision is essentially an arbitrary exercise of power – the power of the administrator (as Readings says, in the contemporary university the major figures are the presidents and provosts), or of market capitalism.

We’re hearing less about excellence these days, for which I’m grateful, because it had long ago lost its amusement for me (when Marvalene Hughes was president, she could almost literally not utter a single sentence without saying it. She also never figured out who I was, despite seeing me in Academic Senate meetings for several years). The word that seems to be replacing excellence is the equally empty success, especially in the phrase student success.

All of this is making me want to write something called, approximately, “A Lousy Essay on Student Failure.” It’d be tongue-in-cheek, you see.

Monday, June 20, 2011

my body with your body

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh . . . . And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new

And it’s not just sex… (I like e.e. cummings. If you think he's immature or a purveyor of cheap poetical tricks, well, screw you, pal. By which I mean, I think that's probably true, but I like him anyway.)

One way the experience of the size of my Body can begin to become strange and therefore to reveal itself, is to consider our Bodies with other people’s Bodies – or, I suppose, we could consider our Bodies with animal Bodies of any sort, or even with inanimate things. Possibly my pure subjectivity, the subject-I as zero-point of orientation, is unavailable to you – possibly we cannot share experience immediately. And possibly, therefore, how my Body feels for me is unavailable to you. It does not follow that my Body remains unchanged in the presence of your Body – and I don’t mean to refer to physiological or biological changes, but changes precisely as a Body, that is, as a lived-Body, as my-Body-for-me. As cummings shows us, our Bodies become new with one another.

Setting aside all the very stimulating possibilities for exploration of this topic that this introduction offers, since I’m inquiring about how big my Body is, I’ll look just at my Body’s size with another’s. You are shorter than me by several inches. That’s just how it is. Being with your Body, my Body is newly tall, stretching and extending, as though you urge me to reach just by being there with me. As I’ve said before, this is a feeling of my Body that I find pleasant and desirable. It is a particular kind of stretching that my Body undergoes – lacking tension, stretching through unraveling or unwinding, "uncoiling," "unfurling."

With you just now, I am just barely lighter, less dense, my mass more diffuse, again pleasantly, and also like being stretched, stretched upward. I want to be able to say what about this experience is affective or emotional and what is physical or relational. I don't feel that my longer, lighter Body-experience is due just to you "sweeping me off my feet." My experience is of a re-orientation to the world through your presence near me, a lightening and lengthening you and I effect in my Body through our close proximity or contact.

Now sitting in another room, that reaching urge is missing, and my Body settles lower into place. Or, walking away following an embrace, I feel my Body shrink to “normal” size.

(I'm going to adopt the usage of Husserl's translators and refer to the animate, living body with the capitalized Body. This is their translation of Husserl's Leib, which distinguishes a quickened body from a merely physical body, or Körper. Too bad we only have one word in English. I hope the capitalization isn't too annoying. Obviously, cummings should have used the capital B as well, but he was a bastard, and also didn't capitalize much. Poets rarely do, if you think about it. Capitalize, that is. You know, on their poems. Cuz, you know.... poems.... uh....)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

how big is my body?

I’ve decided to spend some time this summer considering the question, “how big is my body?” I like this question. It strikes me as sounding peculiar, and I think it’s a good thing for philosophers to consider peculiar questions.

One way it seems peculiar is that, from a certain overly literal and physicalist standpoint, there is a very simple series of answers that puts an immediate end to the question. I am just over six feet tall and weigh something in the neighborhood of 160 pounds. That’s how large my body is. (To these I could add various other data like the length of my reach, my inseam, the circumference of my chest or my head, or the size of my hands. My head and my hands are both notably largish.)

Phenomenologically, answers of this sort miss the point pretty much completely. I may be, in an objective sense, six feet tall, but to leave it at that does not address the experience of my body size. For a start today, I want to name several dimensions of the experience of embodiment that I believe are relevant for fully answering the question of how large my body is.

(1) I experience my body’s size as varying. In different conditions – rest, movement, health or illness, different postures, even different mental moods – my body feels taller, shorter, heavier, lighter, longer, etc.

(2) I experience my body’s size and limit variably. That is to say, my experience of embodiment is sometimes focally about the limit of my extension – when I can’t reach far enough, e.g. – and other times is so diffuse that the limit is indefinite to me. This particular aspect opens a number of phenomenological considerations related to perception and sense experience. In so far as my body is a seeing body, its extension is in fact indefinite, because there’s no definable limit to the distance I can see, just the acuity with which I can see at that distance. The size of my phenomenal body is related to what can affect my senses, and many of them are affected by things far away from the core of my body. I certainly don’t have to be touching the crow squawking outside my window to be bodily aware of it. (Some difficulties here with wording: in a literal physical sense I am contacted by the air which vibrates with the waves produced by the crow’s vocal apparatus…)

(3) Experiences of varying body size have affective dimensions. I prefer almost always to feel tall and very light. I tend to feel heavier when I am physically tired or sick, or under stress. I tend to feel shorter when I’m in poor spirits. When I am at my peak of physical and mental condition, when I look down at the ground it seems further away, my head feels open to the sky, I am nearly unaware of any sense of my body’s weight.

(4) Experiences of varying body size occur relative to others, objects, and the world. I would not have an experience of my body size without these relations – I feel my body’s size always correlatively to something. I take the measure of my body from the street I walk down, even while I take the measure of the street by my stride. As my body moves with yours, both our bodies size one another up.

(5) My experience of my body size can be at odds with another’s experience of my body size. To some people, my body most likely is experienced as tall, even when for me my body may feel short at that moment. This is a fairly common experience, I believe: people comment on how tall or short they feel relative to one another, even people they’re accustomed to being near. Also, depending on what we’re doing together, our experience of relative body size could vary between us. How far I can reach, or how large my hands are, for instance, could not only vary between us but make a significant difference for us. I’m inclined to say, further, that my body’s size has a public dimension, meaning that my body’s size is experienced by whoever happens to be near enough for my body’s presence to matter. My body can also contribute to the mass of a crowd, and in that situation my body and the crowd’s body are intertwined or enjoined such that I take on some of the largeness of the crowd.

(6) My body’s size can also be considered from the standpoint of its impact on others, objects, and the world. I do not carry all of my weight myself. I do not reach only myself. That I take up space in the world and with regard to others means that my body’s size is part of the world itself. I don’t know how far I can phenomenologically clarify this, but part of what this aspect addresses is how my body’s size affects the world. Asking how much of the world I occupy is asking, among other things, how much noise I’m making (and where), how much of the world I’m consuming (and where), etc. So, a phenomenological inquiry into the size of my body has an ethical and political dimension.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

when is a sex scandal not a sex scandal?

I turned on my hotel TV this morning, like I always do when I’m alone in a hotel room, and the first thing that confronted me was the Andrew Wiener “sexting” scandal. Not only did he tweet his underpants to a woman somewhere or other, but he also apparently had an ongoing text flirtation with a casino card dealer. On my screen was an outpouring of moral revulsion and condemnation. It was quite festive.

I don’t care about Anthony Wiener. Nonetheless, it’s disturbing that we’ve become so culutrally obsessed with this bizarre romantic/moral expectation that no reasonable person could ever engage in extra-curricular fantasy, flirtation, or even attraction. I heard Wiener’s texting equated to “cheating” on his wife. Really?

To me, this looks more like an attack on imagination than anything, which is no great surprise in a society that demands simplistic black-and-white moral distinctions. A spouse is either faithful or faithless – and to be faithful apparently means having no other attractions or affections of any kind outside of the marital bond. There is no room for ambiguity, and no forgiveness for even the mildest flirtation or shared fantasy.

On one hand, that attitude is frankly and utterly stupid. I can no more refrain from haphazard and random attractions than I can stop seeing. It doesn’t mean I’m faithless. Beyond that, I can’t begin to fathom why it’s become an unimaginable moral monstrosity that anyone could possibly get erotically entangled in fantasy with someone not sanctioned officially for it. Our culture has a driving need to judge, I guess.

Not that I’m sending anyone pictures of my underpants – because I’m not quite that stupid or foolhardy. Besides, sometimes a few words are worth a thousand pictures.

Monday, June 06, 2011

more on faculty ethics - add Foucault, shake, pour into cocktail glass, and add a twist

I've been thinking that my presentation at the AAUP conference on Thursday needed more bite. On the plane from Newark to Portland, and then again on the flight back from Newark to San Francisco, I took some notes. Here's a bit of the 2000+ words I've added to the behemoth paper I'm presenting. (By the way, I'm doing this without including what will now have to be a massive scholarly apparatus. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.)

The destructive argument

Like most professional codes of ethics, the AAUP Statement on Professional Ethics addresses relatively powerful people, and does so in total abstraction from their actual working conditions. It functions as an expression of professional ideology – what the official ruling establishment of the profession says about itself in order to create a normalized reality effect. Like most professions, the ideology emphasizes the profession’s alleged authority and self-regulatory autonomy, standards of conduct, as well as its commitment to the public good. While its application to the majority of those serving as faculty is clearly doubtful – since the majority simply are not professors in the sense denominated in the Statement – it is also not clear how well it applies even to those who otherwise appear to be professors.

What I think this means is that, at present, there is no operative faculty professional ethics whose legitimacy anyone regards, or should regard, as binding. There are documents, there are utterances – mostly high-minded or hypocritical, whether stated by faculty, administrators, politicians, or culture-warriors. All of those utterances that I’ve heard or read strike me as, at best, ethically bankrupt. No one can say knowledgeably either what faculty do or what they should do.

One obvious thing to say is to make the political claim others have already made – that faculty – all faculty, but especially the faculty majority – need to organize, and need to organize all the faculty. This is the political solution. It does not address in a direct way the ethical question, and here I think the catastrophic nature of the crisis needs a radical proposal to meet it.

What is required in this situation is the free choice, taken up by each person working as faculty, of what sort of being he or she will choose. That is, the kind of faculty member one will become, how one will resist or reproduce the dominant structures of power in institutions of higher education, will have to be the leading choice, the determining choice, of what sort of “code” one may adhere to.

Faculty subjectivities, faculty power: the constructive argument

A basic question regarding faculty ethical responsibilities is, who are the faculty? The majority status of part-time faculty, and the huge majority of tenuous-track faculty, demand that we cannot take tenure-track professors as the presumed model for faculty in general.

Rather than a natural species, faculty are socially constructed, and, obviously, differentially socially constructed. Analyzed through Michel Foucault’s later work on power relations, institutions, and subjection, what would we find as the basic shapes of subjection adapted and adopted by those who become “professors,” “lecturers,” or “adjuncts,” respectively? (Not an exhaustive list.) Indeed, I have already been describing some of the key differences between these subjectivities. “Lecturers,” for instance, are subjected to teach heavier loads, accepting or even being grateful for these opportunities, and so forth.

From a period during graduate school, most PhD students in the humanities learn that taking “adjunct” work – a course here, a course there, for very low wages and no benefits – is a necessary starting point for most aspiring professors. Despite the fact that this “starting point” is for most of these PhD students an ending point (that is, that the majority will never have tenure-track “jobs”) , we take on this subject-position, continue to work the conference circuit as much as our dire financial conditions allow, revise and submit papers to journals, hustle for book contracts and continued “adjunct” employment (in order to continue to have the basic legitimacy that a college affiliation offers) – all under the normalizing framework that this is how academia works, and that if I am going to get a “job,” I have to keep at it. (And wow, they're pathetic. I know because I was one.)

The longevity of this “adjunct” subjectivity depends on a number of factors, including an individual’s personal exhaustion point, competing interests like starting a family or paying ever-looming debts, and of course, getting hired tenure-track. My observation is that, for most of us who occupy either the subjectivity of aspiring to tenure-track employment, or the subjectivity of tenure-track professors, there appear to be no alternatives. Thus the imputation that those who never make the leap from this kind of “adjunct” work to tenure-track work have “failed” in some respect, or the alternative analysis that blames either “the job market” or “the over-production of PhDs." For those thus normalized, ethical responsibility means adhering as much as possible to the values and behaviors of the tenured elite.
Any analysis of the state of the academic “profession” which accepts this simplistic binary, and implicitly accepts the notion that faculty employment is accurately characterized as dividing the small minority of academic “winners” from the undeserving “losers,” fundamentally misinterprets, or ignores, the daily working lives of faculty, and the subjectivities, interests, perceptions, and intentions of those working as faculty. In short, it denies ethical responsibility to the majority of faculty, by denying their subjection.

I’ll use myself as an example. I am completely pessimistic about my prospects for a tenure-track “job” at this stage of my career. My PhD has passed its freshness date. I earn too much to be an attractive entry-level employee. I carry baggage as an activist/troublemaker. I continue to research and write, I continue to present my work at national and international conferences, and I continue to stay as much as possible up-to-date in my field. If I do all this without hope of a tenure-track “job,” and if my work looks very much like the work of a tenure-track faculty member, then what sort of faculty member am I, exactly?

I’m a “lecturer,” but that means so many things that it means nothing. I’m an academic outsider in many respects, because my status, and my aspirations, do not adhere to the dominant ideology of the academic profession – the ideology of the professoriate so eloquently stated in the AAUP Statement on Ethics. What shall we say are my ethical responsibilities, if I have reasons that I find compelling to be suspicious of my field of expertise (academic philosophy), to withdraw my compliance with my institution’s rules; if I am unable to seek or state the truth as I see it, or to encourage or model intellectual honesty for my students; if the public at large sees little value, or simply does not see what I do to contribute to the public good?

By and large, every day, I have no problem understanding what I should do, because I have already settled, for myself, the issue of my ethical responsibilities as a faculty member. That is, I have a relatively stable subjectivity which directs my actions according to a relatively stable, though tacit, code. In relationship to the dominant ideology, my own code is one that variably adopts, adapts, and resists – and so does yours, and so does the “adjunct” whom you have never met, who teaches one class each semester at your university’s remote campus.

If I accept that I have some responsibility to my discipline, to my students, to my colleagues, to my institution or to the public, this takes place for me every day in my classroom. If I am honest about my or my discipline’s limitations of wisdom, if I question the dominant power structure of my institution or classroom or society, if I make my primary concern the state of my students’ souls, or the state of their judgments, or their development of critical thinking skills, or their satisfaction of institutional requirements to advance to the degree — and in turn, if I don’t make one or another of these my concern — in any and all of those free and deliberative actions, I commit myself, though not irrevocably, to an ethic, and express that ethic.

This is an ineluctable faculty ethics, I think — one that cannot be codified (that precedes all codifications), and one that does not dissolve, no matter how much my power is diminished by my status, because I walk into the classroom, or go online, and I am a certain “faculty member” then.