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!