Monday, December 31, 2012

resolutions in the form of a resolution

RESOLVED: That New Year's resolutions are basically worthless.

RESOLVED: That forming new resolutions does nothing but perpetuate the absurd cultural trope that we can, in fact, change who we are overnight, as though having thrown a switch.

RESOLVED: That the tradition of New Year's resolutions does no one any good.

RESOLVED: That I should be more patient and kinder in the New Year.

RESOLVED: Oh, and floss more diligently.

RESOLVED: And stop punting puppies.

RESOLVED: And quit doing that other thing.

RATIONALE: It's the friggin' New Year. Evidently, this requires us to make resolutions we either won't keep or have no intention of keeping, and also to drink fizzy liquids, preferably with alcohol in them. Who am I to judge?

Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012: year in review in review

I've stumbled onto a handful of year-in-review stories published by major nooz media, as probably most of those stumbling here have done.

The LA Times published top ten lists (how extremely creative and unique!) of what we'll miss and what we won't miss from 2012. Genius!

National Public Radio spent listener contributions on reviews of the year in politics, music, and Twitter--in order to prove NPR has cultural cachet.

The New York Times presented 2012 in pictures, without a hint of irony.

I've said it before, and I'll repeat it here. What these all have in common is that they mean reporters don't have to report news during the end of December. This year, they are also benefitted from the actual events, in that right now a nooz story can be generated by an old BASIC program randomizing the words shooting, fiscal cliff, and drone attack. In other words, not much has happened this year.

Tuesday morning we start the whole damn thing all over again. Stupid Mayans!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012: the year in food

Sometimes, I cook. I cooked a few things this year.

I planned, and cooked a portion of, the big birthday bash/debacle/party, including beef Wellington, yet another sorbet, and the main course that roused an ovation--halved cornish hens roasted atop potatoes, carrots, and all kindsa other stuff. That was a weird event, because I had a panic attack halfway through preparation on the day, and felt sick through much of the night. My Loveliest got me through it, as she has most of this year, and our diners did their best to muddle through all of the obstacles. Really, who serves beef Wellington as a mere entrée?

I made an old stand-by for the first time in a while: prosciutto-stuffed chicken breasts. This time, with sides of Swiss chard and potatoes with additional prosciutto, cuz why not?

Butternut squash ravioli with sage butter sauce? Check. With local squash and sage from the back yard. (We don't churn our own butter. Yet.)

How about fusilli buco with shrimp and vodka sauce? Yip. This whole vodka sauce thing is a figment of American "Italian" food, but what the hell, it's tasty. (It wasn't really vodka sauce, but I faked it with lemon juice. We don't make our own vodka. Yet.) It's especially satisfying to make it from homemade tomato sauce. Fusilli buco is my favorite pasta.

Another thing to make with homemade tomato sauce is a meatloaf sandwich, in particular, if yer meatloaf, like mine, is made from ground pork, lamb, and beef, and spiked with cumin. Slice o' that, tomato sauce, mozzarella, melted in the oven, perfect. I recommend this heartily to people who eat animal flesh.

Iffen you don't, then, how about the notorious gorgonzola sauce pizza? Made about a dozen of them this year, typically with diced tomatoes, chopped kalamata olives, and a little chopped scallion (chopped artichoke hearts are strongly recommended). If you happen to be Xina or Che, and you happen to be reading this, and you happen to be wondering about New Year's Eve, you would be well advised to prepare for this pizza.

I already have plans for an Epiphany supper early this January. It'll be mind-expanding.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012: three differing views

Like any good parents, we would invade our children's privacy by reading their email, Facebook pages, and of course their diaries. Since we don't have human children, we practice our good parenting on the cats, with the help of cross-species linguists from Stanford whom we pay exorbitant sums. (It's worth it, and you'd know that if you were good enough cat parents to be suspicious enough to need to know what terrible things your cats did or were planning to do, so that you could steer them onto the path of righteousness. I digress.)

Like most Year in Review nonsense, this will focus on major events in 2012. For cats, these "events" break down into two fundamentally paradoxical categories: (1) immediate, urgent, random events of [a] noise, [b] lack of food, [c] lack of humans, [d] appearances of UFOs (unidentified feathered objects), or [e] things that need to be stalked and potentially started at; and (2) home invasions. We shall focus only on (1)[c] and (2).

Since we have invaded all three kitties' privacies, we'll be able to review the year's events from each document.


We intended to go to a conference in Canada in June, but my passport had run out. Nonetheless, we took a trip back East, visited friends and family, so the plane ticket didn't go to waste.

From Valentine's diary, Les passions de Valentin

They've left - Earlobe and Food. It's been -- it's been some time. I'm left with no choice now but to climb to the highest heights in search of something -- anything -- to eat! My great friends and I have already consumed every bit of food, and every gram of catnip, we could find. We are all out of our minds now, we the beautiful, we for whom there are no rules, no laws, no commandments! Now, what care have we for Food, or for Earlobe?! We are free! Come, brothers! There's catnip in the cupboard for us all!! Or maybe in the laundry!! It could be in the stuff in the triangle room!!!

My mind is reeling, my soul is afire!

From Arthur's Diary, Letter to his Father

I'm sure you believe this is some discipline to improve the condition of my soul. My soul! As though you cared for my soul at all, and not for your beloved discipline. And this is what the whole affair comes down to, does it not? With the cruelty only the devout can conjure, to treat their own, their flesh and blood, as sacrifices to an Order, a Matter, an Eternal, you abandon me to live among these wretches, and will refuse even the merest request for an allowance to find more suitable accommodations. HSSSSSSS!!!!!!!

From Alexander's diary, Scientifical Works

Those we call "the humans" have been away now for -- a time. (If only we had more reliable chronological instruments!) Valentine and Arthur have taken two distinct approaches in their response to these new stimuli. In my observation, while both of them seem to achieve equivalent results, their behavior diverges markedly. I took samples from each of the subjects after -- a time, and another time, and sometime after that. My results have been inconclusive. More trials are necessary, no doubt, but I believe there must be some connection between the absence of the tall, awkward, bald cats and the rest of us. In particular, Arthur's behavior has been altered, and aside from the sample I've taken, he has refused my repeated requests for a simple physical examination.

Oh, no, where's my daddy? where's mommy? where's mommy? (my other mommy?)

I have to keep myself together, maintain my objectivity.

Are they home yet? Brreoowww?? (I've trained them to respond to this for the desired result.)


Just before Thanksgiving, a shih-tzu showed up in the neighborhood, in the rather chilly November night. It was just before we planned to leave, and we had no option but to bring the dog in for a night, and another night on the other end of the trip. 

From Arthur's diary, Letter to his Father

Of course, you would bring in a stranger, treat him like royalty, appease him and give in to his every whim, before considering my own comfort, or even my future. This beast -- "animal" is too good for him -- you place above me in your moral hierarchy. I see what you mean, I must be a lowly and terrible thing, as you confirm for me every -- in every interval of time that I recognize. The stench of the thing! The horrible noise it makes! This is not even a beast, it is a creature of the lowest bowels of the earth, and you, yes, you, father, you bring this terrible thing before me, to what end? To prove to me again my inferiority, my unworthiness? Do I need yet another proof? It stinks. Is that the point? HSSSSSSS!!!!!!

From Alexander's diary, Scientifical Works

Those we call "the humans" have today apparently captured some poor creature and trapped it here in our manse. It seems to amuse them.

It is a pitiful thing, incapable of any form of intelligent behavior, and makes a repeated chirping sound, as if trying to mimic a bird and thus get my attention as a gentleman and hunter, rather than a scientist. It scurries without direction or purpose, and is obviously one of the lowliest and most worthless things in the world. Still, I approach with caution, for the sake of my own safety, but moreover, so that I do not interfere in this sad relic's progenitive destiny -- no doubt, to succumb to a superior species.

The whole incident gives one pause. Though clearly the entirety of creation exists for the sake of the advancement of our command of all in nature, the wastage of such as this debilitated unfortunate seems a heavy price to pay for our knowledge, our culture, and the rightful place of felinity.

Plus, daddy loves me. Mommy too. And mommy.

From Valentine's diary, Les passions de Valentin

He's there! I can smell his foul presence! Vile, despicable, hideous presence!

I would challenge this -- thing -- to a duel, but it is unworthy of my challenge, unworthy to exist, unworthy to breathe!

For no reason but to affirm the right of we who know how to breathe, who know how to eat, who know how to climb, and leap, and live -- for we, we few who are truly alive! For we, I smite thee! I smite thee!!

He's still there! I smell him! Horrid, repulsive, repugnant detritus and stain upon the world of brilliance and life!!

No, he's still there! Don't tell me he's not! EARLOBE! FOOD! Get him out!! Oust the blackguard!

Still here! I must have catnip. I will never make it through the night without --


Saturday, December 22, 2012

2012 in review: the 10 most

Another cheap trick of lazy media hucksters is the top 10 lists for a year: 10 Most Influential Bunnies of the Year, 10 Most Underreported News Stories of the Year, 10 Most Exciting Youtube Videos of People Flossing, 10 Best Looking Pasta Dishes, 10 Indispensable Teabag Tag Wise Sayings, whateverthehell. A main problem with such lists (aside from the minor ethical problem that, instead of doing their jobs, said media hucksters are yanking our chains), is that they get tedious, because each list is so exclusive and limited.

The great advantage of my 10 Most of 2012 is, thus, that it does not specify of what it is a list of the 10 Most. My list will also direct our attention to the capriciousness of similar lists. Like the media whores, I will begin with #10 (that's number 10, not hashtag 10, whippersnappers).

10. Most Drug Interactions. I got back on Wellbutrin in January, and as a result I've just about given up The Demon Bean. Caffeine and Wellbutrin do weird things to my brain chemistry. Caffeine, alcohol, and Wellbutrin do even weirder things to my brain chemistry. We're pretty sure brain chemistry contributed to the series of panic attacks I've had this year, but things are settling. Could been way, way worse.

9. Most Rain. It has been about the rainiest early winter I've seen out here, which bodes well for our having water next summer. The rain washes all the chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that major agribiz dumps all over the Central Valley, into the aquifers that are tapped for our increasingly allegedly potable water. The Turlock Irrigation District's annual water quality report detailed high, but legal, quantities of arsenic and various pathogens. Coulda been way, way worse.

8. Most The Tour de Turlock. I've never been so popular on Facebook. I have kept up a log of all the streets I've ridden my bicycle the length of. It's over 800, and I still have about 20% of the city to go, including some very unpleasant industrial tracts and some very undesirable residential tracts. Fully half of Turlock's streets are barely passable on bike. And the last time I was out on tour I thought I might get mugged. Coulda been way, way worse.

7. Most Flying Kittois Brothers and Valentine. Alexander the Great and Arthur, King of the Kittons, might be adjusting to Valentine's presence. I think they're suspicious of him because he hasn't a last name. Arthur continues to freak out and hiss at everything in the world from time to time--which he never did before Valentino's arrival. Then they all lie on top of us on the sofa at night in a pile. Coulda been way, way worse.

6. Most New Collective Bargaining Agreement. After a massive organizing effort, an overwhelming strike authorization vote, the usual failed negotiations, the CSU administration and the CFA agreed to a new contract. This contract is a win for faculty, even though it provides no raises for faculty for yet another two years (by my count, that'll make six years, the last four of which also included no cost-of-living adjustments, because alone among California state agencies, the CSU charges these as a real cost, despite repeated failures to pass the laugh test on this point with fact-finders). Coulda been way, way worse.

5. Most Not Going to Canada, After All. Packing the day before flying out to Detroit for the annual Canadian Smarties Confab, I realized my passport was expired. We decided that the risk of my not being able to return to the US was worth not going to Canada. We visited our pals Sharon and Dave, then my parents, and I was able to present a commentary on a paper about intrusive technology via Skype. Coulda been way, way worse.

4. Most Alleged Election. I don't do electoral politics stuff as a rule, and I never do the door-to-door stuff. Partly that's a social anxiety thing, but I also don't know how convincing a long-haired bearded atheist intellectual would be. We did our part calling folks to get them to vote for Proposition 30, against Prop. 32. We won on both counts. Coulda been way, way worse.

3. Most Strange Publication. I had put together a long, bizarre essay on phenomenology, fetishism, and embodiment, in a fit of pique against somewhat eminent French philosopher Michel Henry, in August of 2011. I found a random opportunity to submit that, in expurgated form, as an article for a peer-reviewed academic journal, something I hadn't done in about 10 years, for reasons many people should know. They accepted it, to my great surprise, since the article is an absolute scandal.  Coulda been way, way worse.

2. Most Gigs. We actually played actual music in front of actual people in actual public, twice. We're incredibly stage-frightful. I lost it completely on a song I know at the start of the second gig, abandoned the song, but basically recovered--although we haven't been invited back. Coulda been way, way worse.

1. Most Classes. It's all a blur. I've never taught ten classes in a calendar year before. It made me feel like I couldn't and didn't give any class the amount of energy I wanted to. Somehow, I made it. I still haven't been fired. I never said "fuck" in class, excessively. Only a scant few of my students are receiving treatment. Coulda been way, way worse.

Friday, December 21, 2012

2012: end of the end of the world in review

No matter what happens to the world today, I think all would agree that it's been a rough year for predictors of doom. One could explain all the technical errors that led to mistaken pronouncements of imminent doom, like that preacher dude from early this year I can't be bothered to look up just now. Like him, one could parse and subdivide and render each grave error innocent.

I would suggest a simpler approach, having more to do with observable astronomical and physical phenomena than with speculative numerology.* For instance, it's possible that the sun will start to become a red dwarf, and eventually suck up the earth, in around 7.6 billion years. To borrow the latest world-not-ending-after-all joke, I think that means it's safe to do your Christmas shopping.

What's really bizarre about all this is that, when I was growing up, it felt like there was a real possibility of the world ending--the human world, at least. I'm not certain, but I believe I am among the last generation in the US who had nuclear bomb drills in grade school. In retrospect, I imagine they were mandated by some profoundly ill-conceived law. From what little I know about nuclear combat, our hiding our seven-year-old heads under our desks, according to the class seating chart, would have the total effect of any survivors being better able to identify bodies. Words just cannot express how soothing that experience was for my seven-year-old sense of doom. Ronald Reagan was like that, too.

I presume there must be money in the end-of-the-world racket, although I never made any. People write and say all kinds of things for cash, and only 28% of them are pundits on TV.

Could it be, that what the Mayans and Nostradamus were really warning us about was the rise of the pundits? Is Glenn Beck the Beast mentioned in Revelation? And if only 28% of the people writing and saying all kinds of things for cash are pundits, then that has to mean 72% work in other bullshit industries. Maybe "lake of fire" was a metaphor!

Book it. The world will end today, the result of drowning in punditry, damn punditry, and statistics.

* I was so tempted to impute to Luce Irigaray having written a book called The Speculative Numerology of the Other Woman, but cooler heads prevailed. That's one of those deeply multilayered jokes that either precedes a spit take or does nothing whatsoever, and at this late date, I can't afford to risk it. Though I certainly agree with Steve Martin that comedy isn't pretty, sometimes the key is to know when to say no, or perhaps listen to other people who are telling you no.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2012 -- the year I forgot how to sleep

We went to bed at a perfectly normal time. I was extremely sleepy. I fell asleep. I then woke up at four AM, feeling a little sick, and somewhat anxious. I must have woken up my Loveliest as well, and we talked a bit about my condition lately.

I had seen my psychiatrist earlier in the afternoon, and that, I believe, got me thinking further about how I'm doing. I came to the conclusion I had fabricated answers on the little depression/anxiety inventory they give me every visit. What I said was that I had lied on the item about having normal interest in enjoyable activities. We talked about what we could do to help me with that. Lauren suggested that I email my psychiatrist to tell her that I retrospectively wanted to change my answer. I felt guilty about it, and not being diligent with my homework. But I also believe that the stress of the semester (including events like the election) has broken me down. I felt guilty about that, then noted that it's ridiculous, because everyone gets broken down by the semester.

I proceeded not to sleep for another hour and a half. First, because I resent having to do homework, I started thinking about my general resentment of (and resistance to) medical and psychiatric surveillance. Thus, of course, I ran through an interpretation of Foucault's work on power/knowledge as a way of having us pay attention to the cost of this form of social order and civilization. Then I imagined a conversation with someone who rejects what he considers postmodern thought without clear understanding of it.

I got out of bed, walked around, sat down to read a couple pages of The Art of Happiness, and came back to bed, with my brain suddenly running through causes and instigating events of the Civil War. South Carolina's secession weighed on my mind.

I lay in bed, now trying consciously to bring about sleep, by doing what Merleau-Ponty suggested in Phenomenology of Perception: people fall asleep by imitating the behavior and situation of sleeping people. The problem then was that I couldn't figure out what people who are going to sleep think about other than causes of the Civil War.

At 5:30 I gave up and got up again. I read more of The Art of Happiness -- a book I think is an excellent choice for that trick some people do of getting up and reading for fifteen minutes when they can't sleep (ironic, isn't it?) --, glanced at a couple news items, worked a relatively unchallenging sudoku, and have been working on my sneezing.

A week ago or so, someone asked me what my plans were for the break between semesters. I think I'm going to try to learn how to sleep.

Monday, December 10, 2012

2012 -- a year in eighteen words or less

Let's see (that's two four six already!)

Not too comfy. Lacking thematic coherence, yet stressful. Didn't like it.

Friday, December 07, 2012

2012 -- a year, or just a rumor?

This is the first in what I hope will be an increasingly irritating series of year in review posts. In this post, I will suggest that 2012 did not actually happen, but was only a series of badly contrived conspiracy theories.

First of all, there was apparently some kind of "election" going on. Oh, yeah, for sure.

Secondly, according to many unreputable sources, "events" happened. Come on. Really?

Then there was that whole thing with the thing and the thing and the guy with the thing. I can hardly believe anybody believed that at all. I, for one, was never duped. I knew the thing and the guy with the thing, and the chick that had the thing over the guy that had the thing with the other thing, was all a bunch of hooey. I mean, seriously, nobody can eat that much molasses.

The world ended, repeatedly, for most of this year. And yet I'm still paying rent. Coincidence? I hardly think so!

Some say it rained. I won't honor that with a response.

Look at where you are, now, as "2012" comes to an end. Remember how you were planning to clean up that garden plot? Remember how you intended to reduce your intake of various comestibles? Remember how you vowed not to think extraordinarily discourteous thoughts about your neighbors? None of that happened. (Damn those neighbors!)

Did you lose weight? Did you make that big career move? Was the best movie of the year actually memorable? Did you finally read Ulysses? Nope.

iPad 3? Same as iPad 2. iPhone 5? Bupkis. How's Facebook treating you? Made a killing in the stock market? How about your Prius?

That's what I thought.

Truthfully, isn't it as if "2012" never happened? Isn't it obvious that this is because "2012" never did happen?

Thursday, December 06, 2012


This has always bothered me. Is a good teacher a kind of actor? Is a good class a kind of performance?

First of all, and I would suggest obviously, we ought to be concerned about teaching being about the ego of the teacher. Our egos are involved. Our egos probably shouldn't be what most concerns us.

On the other hand, "the teacher" is certainly a role one plays, and a projection of the ego of the person playing that role. I don't think there's anything wrong with that, necessarily.

I think I want to ask whether "good teaching" requires this egoism/egotism.

The very best classes I've taught have not been theatrical, for the most part. They involved stunts, skits, and schtick, but in each session that performative aspect broke down almost immediately. (You'd have to be rather postmodern to think that personality and identity are performance all the way down.) The implications of this are kinda astounding: a class session could mean real, open exposure of ourselves to one another, and the boundaries and preconceived ethical limitations of this experience would be set aside. Let me emphasize this is rare, rarified, even magical.

The next best classes I've taught have been theatrical, maybe even thoroughly so. That's interesting to me.

Both the non-theatrical and theatrical great classes are as exhausting as they are exhilarating. I guess, or hope, that the non-theatrical are more genuinely life-changing, for all participants.

Some of the worst class sessions I've had were those I over-prepared for, but 1/4 preparation strikes me as absurdly hyperbolic. I've prepared to teach tomorrow's Bioethics class for around 20 years, in a way. (Thus do I write and bring copious notes to every class meeting and practically never look at them.)

It's a fundamental paradox of teaching: I and my students must both be prepared to be surprised.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

are students weird? -- an inquiry


I believe most faculty teach more than one section of a course in any given semester. This semester, I have had two sections of Bioethics and two sections of Professional Ethics. The two sections of each course are markedly different. Contrasting, you might say. Almost entirely unalike would not be overly hyperbolic.

One section of one of these courses has been among the very most open, receptive, and engaged I've ever had. The students took the material and issues all over the place, practically every class session. They were happy, I'd say, to be in the philosophically delicious state of mind of perplexity. Almost every class session someone raised a question that stumped us all. It is clear from class discussions that these students are seriously engaged with the themes and texts, and are genuinely facing the central struggle of ethics (for purposes of this discussion, I shall stipulate that the "central struggle of ethics" is "Shit! Now what?!").

Not the best writers, however. Somehow this serious play hasn't been translated into text.

Another section of the same course is, in a word, reticent. I have sometimes felt as if I've walked into a poker game, their faces are so inscrutable. A small group of sometimes unreliably-attending students carries the conversation. When one is missing, the class has slowed. When two are missing, the class has sometimes stopped in its tracks. I have let long moments of uncomfortable silence pass, hoping the awkwardness would provoke some hesitant comment. I have cajoled. I have joked.

And yet, their papers are pretty good. Somehow their grasp of the ideas and texts in the course hasn't prompted them to raise questions, or respond to questions.

Is one class thinking philosophically, and the other not? How shall I correlate the verbal engagement of one class with the clear writing of the other? Should I give more weight to the strength of each class? Why?

Shit! Now what?!

In the other course, the differences are somewhat less acute, and the less verbal class has become much more active in just the last third of the semester. It's just as puzzling, though. What's so different about the classes, the student population, or perhaps my own approach, in each class? Does a more reserved kind of student tend to select one particular time slot for a class? Given the impaction of our schedule and the difficulty students have getting into classes (or enough classes, i.e., to qualify for financial aid), is it even plausible that students pick a class time?

Excuse me, but I'm inclined to believe that I do not have sufficient power over my students or the classroom environment to be the main determinant of these differences. I am but one man, after all. Unless a faculty member treats every class the same way, by standing up and lecturing to them every session, the students have a great deal of responsibility for what we might call the class ethos. It develops very much as a habit, and I guess that the first half-dozen class sessions more or less ingrain this habit. In those sessions, tacit consensus is built regarding who speaks and when, about the tone of discourse. Roles become defined and assigned through this process.

The habits become a template of expectations for each session. If a contrarian or devil's advocate arises, it becomes part of the script of the class that the person in that role reliably and predictably does his/her (usually his) thing at some point in each session. Often a co-teacher sort arises, who either has or imagines he/she (usually she) has superior understanding of course material and provides it when the moment comes.

From time to time, a monkey-wrencher arises, whose role is to cause breakdowns in a discussion that make some issue problematic at another level than the class had expected. Rarely, someone like a sage arises, who is able, at certain moments, to crystalize an entire concept, and place it in front of us.

I place an arbitrary value of 10% of overall grade on class participation. Almost every semester I have a class whose participation demands far more weight, because they have taken over the class, made it their own, and gone in directions I could scarcely have anticipated. Are those classes "better"?

In short, this is one of the things I most hate about grading. It's repulsive to take a set of experiences like these and turn them into a score.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


My psychologist gives me homework. Most recently, my homework was to approach the world with faith. Faith is equivocal here.

On one hand, faith refers to believing that the world will support my weight rather than swallow it or shrug it off. It also means having confidence that not everything is on the absolute verge of chaos, violence, and madness--for instance, that the broad walkway through the campus will not suddenly become a gauntlet of brutal punishment just for me.

For the most part, this is all true. I think I can be forgiven maintaining doubt while riding my bicycle through intersections of truck routes in Turlock. And while one goal of this exercise of faith is to release me from anxiety and behaving like prey, once again I believe it's prudent to regard myself as potential quarry while cycling. I admit, also, that on campus I have never been physically attacked, and only four or five times verbally abused, and only a dozen or so times even sneered at. (Of course, I am omitting interactions with administrators from this enumeration.)

Another sense of the word faith that I particularly draw from is Sartre's usage in Being and Nothingness to name actions with regard to freedom and responsibility. It's important, I suppose, to act as much as possible in good faith--self-consciously acknowledging that every action creates values and an image of how human life should be lived. To a great degree, I see my prey behavior as bad faith, because it is obviously an attempt to avoid what makes me anxious.

I'm reading an excerpt from Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism" with my Intro class, so this is coming back to mind afresh. One problem critics see in Sartre's approach is his overemphasis on a Cartesian concept of consciousness. Sartre's stuff often reads as if he imagines that we can have entirely transparent self-understanding and complete conscious control over ourselves.* But, since anxiety is a lizard-brain response (hence its emergence out of no known or visible causes when walking on campus, e.g.), the way to fight back against your amygdala is by being more aware of anxiety, not trying to diminish it by acting on it. In fact, acting on it increases it, because your stupid amygdala watches you skulking around looking for somewhere to hide, and responds by jumping up and down and shouting "See! Danger! If there weren't, you wouldn't be hiding!"

It's tough acting in good faith, as Sartre himself would tell you. Plus, it makes me want to make my anxieties public, as a way to face them. There are certain things I really shouldn't say to people I come across on campus, and my psychologist also told me to do something to make myself noticed, as a counter-strategem. Yet I'm sure it's not the best coping strategy if I want to be regarded as (1) sane, (2) reliably discreet, and (3) reasonably appropriately professional. Maybe I'll keep a little notebook.

It's a misreading, I believe. I think freedom and responsibility come at the point of decision and action. That means that I become responsible for, say, a feeling, when I choose how to value that feeling and how to act on it. For instance, like everyone, I feel very attracted to some people and very repulsed by others. That's not super significant until I do something about it. That doesn't just mean making passes at the attractive people and punching the repulsive ones. I'm still choosing and taking responsibility when I just enjoy being around the attractive people and punching the repulsive ones.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

nano nano nano nano nano nano nano

Hey kids! It's National Novel Writing Month!

Is Doc Nagel engaging in this madness? You betcha! In fact, I'm writing a contemporary, quasi-autobiographical Don Quixote, crossed with Samuel Beckett and Charles Bukowski. For folks that know me very very well, this will make real and terrible sense. I think it's a little alarming to my Loveliest. Working titles have come and gone: Peripatetic, Peripatetics, Picaresque, Walk, and now, for what seems to be the settled version, The Solipsists. (Two solipsists walk into a bar...)

But to hell with it. I'm just jumping in, and whatever happens, happens. I'm having a good time writing about cats and walking.

I'm writing it in fragments, all in first person, that include letters, entries in a diary, and direct narration. There are two main characters, who have the same name, both have cats with the same name, are both in relationships with a woman with the same name, and who both have a best friend/cousin of the same name. At first, I had a hard time distinguishing the two main characters, their narrative voices, or their life stories. Then they became very clearly distinct, and now, they're losing distinction again. So, everything's going along swimmingly.

I am not sure their paths will cross. I kinda doubt it. So far, none of the identically-named cats, friends, or lovers are identical persons.

And this'll creep y'all out: so far, the lover has appeared on one single page. I know whose lover it is, and approximately when in his life she appeared, and disappeared, and when this event took place, but otherwise, of her(s), I've been entirely silent. This disturbs me, but it's how it is.

There's more madness. I wrote and recorded a song last night, when I meant to be writing, that I am calling "Quixotic." It's a whole lotta John Fahey goof.

There's yet more madness, but you don't get to see it.

Monday, November 05, 2012


I'm exhausted. My exhaustion has nothing to do with the content of what follows, but does for the form.

Today there was a preacher on campus. This has happened before, and about it I have posted before. I think that, on some level, campus proselytizers are precious, and I mean that in the most insulting way you could imagine.

Perhaps because of my exhaustion, political disgust, or angst, what came to mind today while this guy lambasted approximately eight students about their terrible, sinful lives, was how much I would love to see some extremely alternative preachers on campus.

For instance, I think it would be wonderful and instructive to have someone speak with absolutely no coherence whatsoever, about moral issues no one considers, for four hours without break. Imagine a preacher explaining why it's the devil's work when you install your toilet paper roll such that the new paper comes out the bottom instead of over the top of the roll. Imagine a preacher instructing the audience in the holy way to make coffee. Imagine the unfurled banner that would say: "God hates things God hates, and even though we're not certain what those are,if you have any problem with that, we suggest you take it up with God."*

Or this: "Stop making shit up about me. -- God"

Or this: "You people really like floods, don't you? -- God"

Or this: "Get offa my lawn! -- God"

Another option would be to have a preacher and anti-preacher duke it out in a barbed-wire cage. Then again, that's been done already.


* Back at UNC-Charlotte, we had the best campus Bible-bangers. One day, a terrific shouter was condemning coeds to death for wearing skirts. I jumped in, and we ended up doing a terrific Vaudeville buddy act. He called all the female coeds Jezabels, and I jumped onto the bell tower base to join him, proffered a nearby alt/goth chick's legs, and delivered Lenny Bruce's classic line: if there's a defect, the blame belongs to the manufacturer. He said God didn't create legs to be ogled (or words to that effect), and I said that settled it, and, in Nietzsche's terms, he had proved that God is dead. Great day.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


It is rather amazing that there have been only two viable political parties in the US for lo these many years, especially since they offer virtually no choice regarding policy (look it the hell up: Obamacare is practically a carbon copy of the bill Romney signed in Massachusetts, and both of them will make their friends donors in the insurance industry very happy).

So, I'd like to ask my readers for their help, guidance, and support, as I kick off a brand new venture, a new political party that I think will be a viable third option. I've been giving this a lot of thought, and I believe I have a strategy that will get our candidates elected, help us raise all-important campaign dollars, and draw even-more-all-important media attention.

It's too late to really make an impact on this year's general election, but we can get a start, and this is where you come in. What I want you to do is, on your ballot, write in a candidate of your choice, but, more importantly, state that candidate's party: Full Of Shit.

Here's what I have so far as the party platform of the Full Of Shit Party:

We will lower taxes on wealthy people. This will make them happy. It will not create jobs, but say, over and over, that it will. Call these wealthy people something like "job creators," but don't use those words, because the Republicans have a copyright on them, and that'd just get messy. How about "slave wage providers"? Or "tricklers"? (Remember "trickle-down"? Remember how that worked?)

Lower the deficit. We won't say how.

The Full of Shit Party will continue to make America a place where small businesses can thrive. The entrepreneurial spirit is, after all, what makes America great, and as we all know, America is the greatest nation on earth. It's also what has made Chevron, Walmart, and Comcast such lucrative firms. Their contributions to our economy and society need to be encouraged, through effective tax rates of zero or below.

Maintain the $7.25 minimum wage, since, obviously, any increase in the minimum wage will hurt small businesses and force manufacturing jobs, like putting together a Big Mac, overseas. If you don't want to see fast food manufacturing jobs end up in China or Bangladesh, you have to support maintaining a minimum wage that would provide a full-time income of $14,500 a year (though none of those jobs would be full-time, of course).

Cut government services wherever possible. DId I say "services"? I meant "waste," of course. As everyone knows, any time the government spends a dollar, God kills a kitten it is entirely wasted and no economic activity is created as a result. (Of course, this is not true at all regarding the defense department. Every time the government spends a dollar on the defense department, God kills three kittens God kills terror the world becomes safer for capitalist accumulation democracy.

The Full of Shit Party believes in equality and freedom. We believe it is every American's right to pursue happiness. We support the rights of same-sex couples the unborn undocumented workers donors all true Americans whose behavior we tolerate who have donated to the Party. However, we won't do jack shit to advance their cause.

Remember, on election day, write in "Full Of Shit."

Monday, October 29, 2012


I woke up at around four AM. I'm not really sure why. Between my Loveliest and I, lately, there's someone up at nearly every hour of the day at our place.

I spent the first twenty minutes of my morning lying in bed with random thoughts swirling around in my head. One recurring thought was about the likelihood of trouble in transit this week. So I got up and checked the east coast weather.

The problem isn't the weather per se, but the backlog of flights now that 9000 flights have been canceled, today through tomorrow. The Philadelphia airport is closed today. All flights are canceled by every US airline in and out of Newark, New York, DC, Baltimore...

And again, we're not going any of those places. We're going to Rochester, up on the Lake Ontario coast, where Hurricane Sandy will provide about 48 hours of constant rain. Given what's happened to Atlantic City already today, I'm hoping there's still enough Rochester above water to fly to.

But the main problem isn't in Rochester, it's in the airports. I'm not a good air traveler, I loathe and feel dehumanized by the non-place of an airport, the non-people of crew members, and the non-service they work so diligently to provide.* Perhaps we'll get lucky, and the airline employees and travelers will have gotten the mean spirit of Sandy's aftermath out of their systems. Perhaps flight schedules will have returned to normal by Wednesday afternoon when we're supposed to transfer at O'Hare.

I might be on east coast time before then. We do have to leave here a little after four AM Wednesday.


* I take these terms from George Ritzer's The Globalization of Nothing. "Nothing" is Ritzer's term for the placeless, featureless, ubiquitous crapola that global capitalism produces and sells so much of. RItzer's other concept, of "McDonaldization," helps explain how, where, and by whom "nothing" is produced and consumed. "Non-people" is a modification of Goffman's idea of a non-person, and the rest should be pretty simple to tease out.

My favorite bit is his account of the scripted interactions of non-persons during commercial exchange (i.e., overwhelmingly most of our daily, commodified interactions). It's one of the things about air travel that most offends me. Maybe I'm wrong, but when flight attendants start to run through the safety card information, their dead eyes unfocused on anything in particular, never making eye contact, I experience a sense of their icy hatred of every person in the plane. I believe we all know that the safety information is not for our safety, but that of the airline, specifically, from liability. (Remember when Southwest used to have "joke" safety information? That was just as offensive, because it was that gutless mild kind of writing that isn't actually humorous -- I'm sure they hired a writer from a sitcom on ABC Family Channel.)

Then there's the "in-flight service," a non-service in every way Ritzer talks about. It seems as though the typical non-service amounts to one 8-ounce plastic cup filled with off-tasting ice and a soft drink filled to the rim, per two hours of flight time. On flights over four hours, they sometimes provide a plastic bag containing 2 ounces of mini pretzels (approximately eight), and the smart airlines are now providing free stupefaction pacifiers television. As the plane lands and taxis, when they say "welcome to __" and "your final destination," and tell us to have a good day, I can tell they really mean "get the hell out of the plane so I can wash the dreck of your repulsive presence off of me," or, you know, words to that effect.

Friday, October 26, 2012

current events

I've been away awhile. How are you? You look well. Really? Sorry to hear that.

It's not all cycling here at Doc Nagel, Inc. No indeed: there's classes to teach, papers to grade, and proposition 30 to vote for and proposition 32 to vote against.

Times are tough for prop 30, which could mean times will become very much tougher at the CSU, at the UC, at the community colleges, and at K-12 schools. Honestly, the only way I can conceive of someone who doesn't make $250,000 a year choosing to vote against prop 30 is stupidity. To me it looks like this: either you can have a bowl of yummy ice cream, or a shiv to the neck, and about half of Californians say they want the shiv.

"Really?" I say to them in my fantasy, "'cuz, ya know, the shiv'll hurt, like, bad."

"I know. Want the shiv," says half of California.

"Look at this ice cream, though," says I. "It's way more delicious than being stabbed in the neck, don't you think?"

"I do," says half of California. "Want the shiv."

"It's a stab wound, you realize that, right?"



This is like a brief conversation I had the other day about prop 34, which would ban the death penalty in California. The pro-34 arguments are as follows: (1) the death penalty costs far more than life imprisonment would, (2) sometimes innocent people are convicted of murder, and so, when we execute those innocent people, our society effectively commits a murder of its own, (3) in states with the death penalty, it's likely that the murder rate is higher, so it does not serve as a deterrent. The student understood all these, but was still against 34. In fact, the student said that a person who has committed murder loses all rights to live -- a position I hear again and again, and which is entirely baseless in our political heritage of natural rights. I suggested that this assumes we only convict the actually and legally guilty, when things like the Innocence Project have determined that many death-row inmates are wrongfully convicted. The student repeated that a murderer has no rights -- completely ignoring my argument.

I offered that the only logical argument I could see in favor of the death penalty is if you assumed the only way to restore justice is with a reciprocal act (Kant argued this). This did not impress, apparently, because the student did not need or want a rational position. The student wanted vengeance. And a shiv.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

freedom and precariousness

Today in Professional Ethics we're discussing an article about ethical failures in accounting. The author criticizes "academic accountants" for failing either to develop a theory of Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, or to take an active role in critiquing the accounting practices exemplified by the scandals involving Enron, Worldcom, and the accounting firm Arthur Andersen. The research they do, according to this author, is mainly methodological, and mainly read only by other academic researchers. In other words, the research does not serve the public interest.

The question follows: whose interest does it serve? I can only conclude that it serves the interest of the academics themselves.

Publishing, in academic fields with which I'm most familiar, primarily serves the purposes of advancing a claim to deserve tenure or promotion. It is always carefully--not to say obsessively--recorded in a c.v. and in tenure/promotion "files" (which tend to be muliple enormous three-ring binders containing every piece of anything that academic has touched). At major research universities, the benefits of tenure and promotion are often significant financially and in terms of prestige and job security. At most levels of higher education, the financial and prestige rewards are more modest, but job security is highly prized.

This has the result that the article suggested was endemic to academic accounting research. In class, I used academic philosophy as an example. In this field, there is a tacit but near-universally recognized division between publication that "counts" and that doesn't count. The publication that counts includes publication in peer reviewed professional journals, monographs published by academic presses, and, to a lesser extent, book chapters published by invitation of the editor of an anthology.

In my view, academic publications in philosophy are, for the most part, dead letters--better yet, still born. At the moment of publication, the thoughts and ideas expire. Unless you are a highly prestigious academic, if the publication is read at all, the only response it is at all likely to elicit is to be cited somewhere. I have received no response whatsoever to the most significant article I've published (academically speaking).

Yet it is vital for candidates for tenure or promotion to generate these publications, in order to advance their careers. The situation for tenure candidates is the most dire, since career survival is at stake for many: publish or perish.

Thus it comes as no surprise that I have heard so many newly-tenured faculty say, "now I can research things I'm interested in!"

This is the price of job security. For six years of probation, and likely for several years prior to that, academics in many fields sacrifice their freedom of expression, thought, inquiry, and behavior. By the time they have tenure, how many of them have atrophied capacities for free inquiry or free expression? How many of them have been emotionally, socially, or physically crippled by the bloody-minded pursuit of security?

I am in my 16th year since completing my Phd. I am, for that and a variety of other reasons, a very poor candidate for a tenure-track position anywhere, and getting poorer by the day. The only job security I have had is a three-year appointment, from which I can be laid off with 45 days' notice.

I will never say, "now I can research things I'm interested in." I have no incentive to research anything but what I'm interested in, because the only reward for my research is the research itself. I have never had to hold my tongue, never had to attend a dinner at the campus president's house. As I've stated before in this space, I probably do not have academic freedom, but neither do those on the tenure-track; however, I have the advantage of academic license.

I am more free. I am also in a more precarious situation. So I wonder, now, whether precariousness is the price of freedom, just as freedom is the price of security.

Friday, September 28, 2012


A line in Foucault's lecture course Abnormal led me to consider the contemporary conditions of poverty. His line was about the outmoded concept of power as repressive and always wielded in the same direction, from the same source. He called that model of power "feudal." The model of power since the late 18th century, he says, is productive, and makes arrangements for production and circulation, not repression and deduction. This model of power cannot be confined to certain institutions, nor to a certain narrow range of relations.

I started to wonder if Foucault's view of power is starting to lose its explanatory power. The increasing wealth gap in the affluent parts of the world, the de-legitimation of social and political institutions, and the increase in poverty, suggested to me that the feudal model of power might be heading for a comeback.

On one level, it makes some sense to consider the emerging form of power to be feudal. The trope of the 1% versus the 99% expresses something like this: the 1% wield power over their societies, over the world, and over all resources. Democratic elections are basically meaningless exercises, because the power of concentrated wealth simply undermines any authority any elected representative might be willing to use to the benefit of citizens. Look at Greece and Spain. Look at the US.

Yeah, I thought, the superwealthy are reducing the rest of us to serfdom.

But there's a significant difference between feudalism and contemporary poverty. Serfs more or less belonged to the feudal lord, were basically required to do his bidding, and owned nothing. Serfs worked the land, the feudal lord accumulated wealth, and granted some portion of the product of their labor to the serfs -- sufficient to keep them working.

Contemporary poverty doesn't have that benefit. The very poor do not work. In a way, they are required not to work, for the profit of the superwealthy. Underemployment, part-time work, permatemped work is degraded. The work is degraded. This generates profit because the fantastic accumulation of wealth takes place these days by way of controlling how much gets produced, when, and where, and assuring that production only takes place under those circumstances. In contemporary poverty, you do not get to work the land.

Of course, there are many of our contemporary poor who do work the land, I'm aware of that. (Duh, I live in California.) Unlike serfs, they do not belong to the land they work, nor to the landowner. They do not belong anywhere except where their (note: temporary, and also illegal) work is required at a given moment. Otherwise, they are not allowed to be on the land.

Where do they very poor belong? I'm tempted to say nowhere. For the comfort and convenience of the wealthy, it is necessary that the very poor be dispatched, sent away, remain hidden. If you walk or ride your bike through enough of Turlock's streets, and pay attention to what you see, you'll find lots full of campers, in which people live. There is one in a parking lot behind a small hotel down our block. There might be 20 or 30 campers in there -- I'm talking about the kind of camper one might tow, not a 30-foot RV. The people living there are not serfs, because they have no land to work, even if they would have been granted permission to grow anything.

And this is to say nothing at all of those who do not even have a camper to their names, and who have no place at all that they have a right to be.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

ethics, education, empathy

In my Professional Ethics course, I have my students read an essay by a community college English instructor who is unsure how to deal with the confessional personal essays his students write in composition classes. His students go through all sorts of hell, tell him in their essays all sorts of private information, including details of their lives they’ve never told anyone else. His dilemma is that he can’t tell where to draw the line between responding to the essays as a composition teacher, and responding to them as a person.

I use this essay to get at a dilemma that I believe professionals in many fields face (though likely more often in education and caring professions) – negotiating the boundary between the professional-client relationship and a person-to-person relationship. I started using the essay because I was getting so many liberal studies majors (i.e., students preparing to be primary school teachers), but now that I’m getting practically none of them any more, I try to relate it to the nursing and other health-related professions students. It’s easy to imagine a physical therapist working with a patient, who suddenly blurts out information about some kind of harm or danger the patient is exposed to. What are the therapist’s responsibilities? Suppose the situation is ambiguous legally, ethically, or factually?

As I’m reading it this afternoon to prep for class tomorrow, I’m finding myself wondering why I’m so drawn to this essay. It’s good, and I think the issues it raises are real and important, but I don’t know why I think it’s all that important. I have affection for the essay and empathy for the author that go beyond my pedagogical purpose in using it in class. This is partly because I don’t think education is reducible to training, but I’m sure it’s also because of my own experience of caring teachers I had, in high school especially, who crossed that boundary, and likely (in one case at least) violated their own ethics rules, out of that empathy and care.

So here’s my confession: I love it when this happens to me. It’s impossible for me not to feel empathy and affection for my students, and impossible for me not to care about them as human beings, beyond being students. I want them to do well, to be well, and I want to help when that’s not happening. I feel like I have a responsibility not only for their learning, but also, when it comes up, for their being – in fact, their being is more important to me than their learning.

Of course, my Loveliest had been a student in a class I taught. But it would be a cheap dismissal to say I’m concerned about my students’ being because I have some sort of fascination with illicitly crossing that boundary. I’ve crossed that boundary numerous times, in mostly very minor interactions. I have listened many times to students talk about their history of mental illness. I had a student confide in me about her crisis of religious faith, brought about by a conflict over a relationship she had. I had a student come to ask for advice about what she and her girlfriend could do to form a legal marriage, in case Proposition 8 passed.

I had a colleague a few years ago who used to refer to her students as her “babies” or her “children” very often, and I think that’s going overboard. On the other hand, I do not see any reason the state of their souls shouldn’t matter to me.

(Warning: cheap punchline to come.)

This is why I am ineligible to serve in administrative positions at the CSU.

Friday, September 14, 2012

what I really need - a new philosophical task!

Right now, I've got the following balls in the air:

  • stuff about the phenomenological concepts of normal and abnormal, and the critique of these concepts by Foucault and Canguilhem
  • something about the construction of faculty subjectivity, via Foucault, in order to get at some kind of non-professional or para-professional or renewed professional ethics of faculty, given the ongoing degradation of our work and employment status
  • more phenomenology, of orientation
  • still more phenomenology, working out further the ontology of subjection
It's fun, or it would be, if I weren't teaching five classes, staring at the first of five sets of papers I'll receive between yesterday and Tuesday, and doing faculty rights work. I have also been taking all of my blog posts and turning them into Word documents, in preparation for putting them all together as a book, sort of as a gift to my mom. 

To avoid reading student papers, I was just re-reading a post about language, from a series of entries about Merleau-Ponty. In this post I said that we describe our experience using the concepts of truth and reality. It took me aback.

So now I have another thing to think about, and to try to track down, doing what could be a weird kind of Foucauldian phenomenology of the way we describe our experience using such terms, and I suppose some others. It wouldn't be a genealogy of truth like Foucault's, but it would borrow from his scholarly methods and certainly owe a lot to his philosophical spirit. It would be phenomenological: how does something like truth or reality become constituted on the basis of lived experience -- and why? And are there alternatives?

But now I have to go to class.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

crash course

Students in my Professional Ethics and Bioethics classes confront issues of social justice very early in the semester. Professional Ethics begins with outlining what professionalism consists of, and how the claims to professional status of many occupational groups are undermined by Friedmanism, bureaucracy, and technocracy. Bioethics begins with the issue of allocation of healthcare, and I frame the issue alternate as a matter of deciding how much they are willing to contribute for certain kinds of healthcare, what principle(s) of distribution are to be followed, and who deserves healthcare. 

It has to be pretty heady stuff for my students who are paying attention and being reflective. (By the way, at least this semester, that's looking to be around 33% so far - a very promising start.) The very idea of cooperative social arrangements or a common good is, I would argue, ruled out by the dominant neoliberal individualistic ideology in US politics. It's an implausible ideology, to say the least. The hardline libertarian view of social justice essentially ignores that practically everything we need for survival is produced through social cooperation that no single individual has a strong incentive to contribute to. 

In any case, I think I'm becoming more direct about this, more willing to challenge any knee-jerk view. For instance, today in Bioethics I asked "who deserves healthcare?" One student responded with what is basically the hard libertarian line on this: nobody deserves healthcare; those who can afford it through their own resources can acquire it. I asked why this was an appealing position for this student, and the student replied that people should be self-supporting and that no one has any obligation to provide for anyone else. I responded that this was a peculiar position for someone in a publicly supported institution to take, and noted that the public is contributing (around) 49% of the cost of a CSU education. I also noted that when I started teaching here 14 years ago, the public provided closer to 70% of the cost of a student's education. 

(On the flip side, there is a libertarian faculty member on campus who asserts that all taxation is theft and that the state should not be in any way in the business of "redistributing wealth" from the haves to the have-nots.* I always want to ask whether this person has, therefore, renounced the portion of salary provided by taxation, since, obviously, it's theft. I'm sure, not. "So," I would want to reply, are you a liar, or a hypocrite? Take your time.")

I am an equal-opportunity gadfly, I hasten to point out. Today another student took a stance as opposed to the libertarian as one might be, suggesting that a broad program of social and cultural change could lead us to make compassion a core value. If scarcity of resources (in this case, healthcare) is the result of decisions to distribute on the basis of what is profitable, then scarcity could be undone to some extent by taking away the profit motive and seeing people as in need of care. Great, I responded, only, this doesn't mean we'll have significantly more resources to distribute -- so we'll still have to make decisions about rationing, about "cutting off" access to healthcare (as we say, charmingly).

I suppose from my tone and arguments today it was clear I regard the hard-core libertarian position as unspeakably inhumane, socially implausible, inconsistent, and ultimately immoral. I hope that it was also clear that I regard compassion and empathy to be useless as bases for social policy. 

I will say, though, that the libertarian view is more pernicious, more prevalent, and more lacking in humanity. I don't think there's anything wrong with my saying so in class. I say so because, unless and until a student complains enough to get me investigated, nobody really cares what I do in my classes except me, some of my students, my Loveliest, and a few of my friends.


* Never mind the myriad ways that the state has actively redistributed wealth from the have-nots to the haves, e.g., Mitt Romney's effective tax rate, the amount Wal-Mart's employment practices cost in welfare and other forms of assistance without which their employees could not live even on Wal-Mart's famed low prices, subsidies to industries, etc.

Saturday, August 25, 2012


When I was 17, my list of things I wanted in life would have included pretty much the following:

  • a hot chick
  • an electric guitar
  • a car
  • a computer of my own
  • rock stardom
  • lots of tea
I think I've done pretty well. 

Obviously I've scored bigtime in the hot chick department. Hub-ba! I can't even begin to tell you, not without making most people who might read this extremely uncomfortable, in one way or another, and so, I will let discretion be the better part of hubba.

Not only do I have an electric guitar, but also an electric bass guitar, and three 12-strings, two classicals, two 6-strings, and a guitar in another state. In my house, I'm never more than 30 feet from a guitar.

Eddie Jetta just had his first major surgery, after 85,500 miles: the cooling fans and thermostatic sensor crapped out, for a total of about a grand. We drive him much less these days, of course, and I hope that extends his life.

I'm using my big-screen iMac. Next to me is my iPad and the mini notebook I bought myself because the university wouldn't buy me a computer (except they did - a MacBook Pro, which has a bum touchpad). Also on my table is the iPhone. There is approximately 2 billion times as much computer processing power and 2.5 trillion times as much storage memory on my table top as was in the computer I owned when I was 17. 

Didn't quite make it in rock stardom. My alter ego Biff Nerfurpleberger has his fans, though. Of course, so do Paper Cats.

I'm drinking tea right now

I suppose, in truth, when I was 17 I also wanted to fight the good fight, and I'm doing that. Once I started college, I never wanted to do anything but be in college, and that's going well also. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

it begins

I have only 67 more class sessions this semester.

It's taking a little while to gear up for this term. My usual level of enthusiasm for teaching at the beginning of a year is around a 12 on a scale of 2.7 to 14. This year, on a scale of π to 136, I'm only around 72.1-ish.

But, let me look back on the summer, and see how many of my goals I accomplished. I had some plans for reading and writing philosophy. A panel I submitted on the experience of orientation and disorientation was accepted by a conference coming up this fall, and I wanted to pursue those, and the concept of normal, as regular readers of this feature will perhaps recall. To that end, I intended to read Experience and Judgment, From Affectivity to Subjectivity, Refiguring the Ordinary, Assuming a Body.  Check.

I did not intend to read The Normal and the Pathological, but I did. I certainly did not intend to go back yet again into Phenomenology of Perception, but I did a lot of that, too. Four chapters worth, actually. I did not intend to read The Problem of Embodiment, but I did that, too.

I intended to read Getting Back into Place, and I read a lot of it, but got to a point that I felt like it was doing what Hegel called presenting clever remarks. Sorry, Ed. Maybe I just don't get it.

I wanted to look up stuff on the affective experience and worldhood of those who lose their memories, or a particular sense, or who otherwise undergo fairly radical alterations of "normal" orientation to the world.

I didn't think I'd be spending quite so much time revising an article. That's okay. The suckers printed it!

Unrelated to any of that, I wanted to read some of The Transgender Studies Reader, and some of The Prison Notebooks. Not as much as I'd hoped. Gramsci's kinda bitchy.

One of my worst emotional habits is comparing myself to other people, using an external criterion of my progress, and worse, my worth. Looking back at what I've done academically this summer, I think, "Um, is that good?" I don't know. I am fairly chuffed that article got published. I hope I scandalize people.

Possibly my greatest accomplishment this summer was reading all of Don Quixote. This is the kind of book, especially at this late date, that you could make a tidy academic career out of -- there are so many allusions to Cervantes' contemporary world to track down and decipher, so much to do to relate it to our own world, and it's so long that there can't be more than a few dozen people who've read the whole thing. It's perfect fodder for literature folks.

I wanted us to play a gig. We did that. I think we should have played more, but we didn't, mainly because of mental health. It went pretty good, though, and I hope we can do more in the future.

I wanted to write several songs. I ended up writing several tunes, and several very, very bad attempts at songs, that I have wisely destroyed. So much for my goal of recording a new CD. It's been two years now since Do Paper Cats Dream of Origami Birds?

Again, I dunno, is that good?

Thursday, August 09, 2012

what we've learned

Time's about to run out on summer's reading activities. Do I now understand more about orientation and the normal? Or about embodiment and subjection?

I began with wondering about orientation, again, continuing from last year. That led me to the way the concept of normal keeps circulating around in phenomenology, and the relationship between the equivocal phenomenological concept and certain other, critical concepts of normal, in particular Foucault's and Canguilhem's. (Canguilhem's critical history of the scientific and knowledge claims of medicine, The Normal and the Pathological is brilliant, tremendously insightful as a way of thinking about the development of medicine as a consumer product, and astonishingly under-read and under-appreciated, given that he wrote in in 1963!)

I haven't gone back through and done the scholarly folderol to unpack this whole business, and probably should while I have the chance. Who knows, it could result in another bizarre polemic that is unaccountably published.

I have just learned today that what I've been doing the last three summers was presaged by Gabriel Marcel in the 1910s. It's a fundamental paradox of individual human existence and our knowledge and understanding of it, and what Marcel concluded was the impossible quest to give ourselves assurance that we exist as well as knowledge and understanding of the meaning of existence. We're each assured we exist by our own subjectivity -- basically, by the self declaring itself. But we can't cash out the meaning of that existence as a kind of knowledge -- an objective knowledge -- precisely because we can't take an outside perspective on it. In a nutshell, to have both assurance and understanding of our existence, we would need a perspective that was somehow both subjective and objective.

Marcel was certainly partly wrong, and not because we have psychologists and such -- since they can only take an objective view, since no one can declare for me that I exist, and no one else can enter the world through my subjectivity and perspective. He's wrong because this metaphysical way of looking at the problem harbors a dualism. Where I've been going has been to blur the subjective/objective "line" by looking at the ways we (subjectively) undergo our own subjection: we undergo that which establishes our subjectivity. So, rather than begin with the assumption that assurance is a subjective declaration, and knowledge and understanding have to be systematic and objective, I'm performing a classic destructive dilemma. My conclusion is: neither is it the case that subjectivity begins or is assured by the "I exist!" declaration, nor is it the case that knowledge and understanding have to be, or even can be (entirely) systematic and objective.

It looks like a Kierkegaard move, but I'm not as pessimistic about human understanding or as optimistic about god and the leap of faith (to say the least).

Monday, July 30, 2012

the value of human life -- some offhand phenomenological musing

It's odd I ended up writing about this. I went on a bit of a walk to try to solve a problem about whether I could meaningfully say I am or have a body, and just what that sense of a unifying whole, apparently delimited notion of lived experience would mean. Instead.....


We think rather highly of consciousness. We presume that it is the most significant — not to say the most valuable — trait of ours.

There is a massive ongoing problem in ethics related to this, concering the moral value of human and non-human life. Every attempt I have seen to distinguish these two on the morality scale has involved a commitment either to a humanist or theological position. In other words, it is under the presumption of the specialness of human being, and of human beings, that all this ethical discussion takes place. For now, I’m going to let ethics off easy, for instance on the point that, for most world religions, the sacredness of individual human lives has proved “negotiable” (as George Carlin put it): a human life is valuable pending certain qualifications.

In phenomenological philosophy, the certitude of the centrality of consciousness is also taken for granted. This appears to be so even when phenomenologists are trying to account for something more basic, like affectivity, or desire, or being vulnerable. In From Affectivity to Subjectivity*, Christian Lotz argues that the basic ethical value is connected to this kind of affect and vulnerability. [Think a minute how this plays out in terms of Carlin's jab: if chickens can be vulnerable (to pain, e.g.), then what exactly is our negotiation? Do they somehow deserve it? Are chickens secretly commies? Or do they deserve it just because of their irritating clucking and flapping-wings behavior, and because they happen to be tasty and nutritious? Talk about negotiation!]

Where does that affect come from? How is it that we can be affected? Lots argues that for anything to affect our senses and draw us to attend to it, there must be, prior to that attention, some valuing of what draws us. He says that attention is directed by a structure of “being-able-to,” meaning, I would say, a core valuing-activity: attention is directed by some subjective determination of what is valuable — ultimately calling on Levinas’ notion that every experience is held together by the equation of life and happiness. “Being-able-to,” as a source of valuing, implies intentionality, hence consciousness in the way we’re accustomed to considering it, to wit: human consciousness. (The reference to Levinas — a deeply theological thinker — is a giveaway.)

It’s a terrible argument, but leaving that aside, there’s nothing obviously related to consciousness, intentionality, or our being human, that we can demonstrate is the final source of moral value. Without the presupposition that affectivity is connected to intentionality we also cannot finally deny that vulnerability as an attribute of non-human life, especially non-human animals. If it matters that we are vulnerable, then how can consciousness be our definitive characteristic, at least, as it comes to moral value?

*The original title was not From Here to Eternity. I looked it up.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

what is normal?

Lately, I feel like I've been led ineluctably to this question, all of my life. Most recently, I've been led there by the confluence of what I've been reading about what is normal, abnormal, or otherwise than either, in our perception, our desires, and our ways of being -- in queer theory, transgender studies, phenomenology, and post-structuralism. But I've been thinking about it today, and I realize that the normal/abnormal/pathological issue has been fundamental to my life, just about all my life.

Given who tends to read these posts, I'm probably preaching to the choir on this point. That's as may be.

I have never felt myself to be normal -- socially, physically, psychologically, or in almost any other way. (Including syntactically! The first version of that sentence read: "I have never felt myself -- socially, physically, psychologically, or in almost any other way -- to be normal

In the astoundingly brilliant -- and, I would argue, thoroughly readable for non-experts (see, I've done it again!) -- The Normal and the Pathological, Georges Canguilhem critiques several medical concepts of normal and pathological as defined by physiologists, medical doctors, biologists, and so forth, over time. Canguilhem divides the kinds of definitions into two basic, fairly rough categories, that I consider to be "statistical normal" and "normal as equilibrium."

I won't go into depth. I want to give you the provocations, and let you fume.

Statistically, if you're outside the range of data points of 68.26%* of the population for some characteristic, it's time to ask questions, because you could be abnormal. Fun upshot of this: It's possible that you have a normal non-fevery temperature of 100 degrees, but there's only a 14% likelihood that you do, absent fighting an infection.

Think of the implications of this for such phenomena as: (1) your likelihood of weeping during a performance of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, (2) how much you might potentially enjoy having sex in public, (3) whether you're left-handed, (4) your likelihood of having seen The Sound of Music more than four times. I know! This is a main reason I love philosophy.

Equilibrium-wise, consider someone who grew up in the east, especially the northeast, where there are frigid winters, a lot of rain, humidity up the [omitted -- Ed.], and you move to a hot dry place (in, I dunno, central California). A normal body will come to feel that this is in some way normal for the climate, and, upon returning to that northeastern clime, have much less tolerance for it.

So, is the body attuned to dry hot central California normal? Is the person with a daily temperature of 97.6 degrees normal? Is the person who used to prefer extremely vanilla sex who is now building a dungeon normal?


* 68.26% is the number Canguilhem takes from Gauss to describe the average of a population, in contrast to the more familiar mathematical average.