Sunday, April 22, 2012

random items

I'm reading an article by Lewis Lapham in the May Harper's. Lapham used to be the magazine's formidable editor in chief. Under Lapham, Harper's was icily brilliant almost every issue, in my opinion. I miss his voice and I think the mag has slipped rather a lot since his retirement. His article is on the peculiar American trait of historylessness, which provides the basis for our political discourse's constant doomsaying and constant nostalgia. Hep stuff.

I'm also listening, as I have done a lot lately, to Chopin solo piano works. I have come at last to the conclusion that Frederic Chopin is not allowed in the house. I mean: "Funeral March"? Are you kidding me? (Lauren didn't even bother to point out that he's long dead, this morning. She sort of chuckled.)

Today I am going to attempt to read a "work of philosophy" by a French "collective" active in the 1990s. There's a guest lecture on campus on Wednesday about them. I am deeply suspicious.

I am also going to try to read one of the papers I have to comment on in Canada in June. This one is on the McGurk effect. No, I'm not making that up.

But what I really think I ought to do is get back to writing something about porn.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


I'm reading Merleau-Ponty's essay "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence." He suggests that a history of painting that seeks to reveal a Reason underlying its history would be a kind of "Hegelian monstrosity." Merleau-Ponty criticizes Hegel's apparent accumulation of the totality of philosophy or of history, and his presumption to say affirmatively what that totality means to say. Hegel, he says, is a museum, in that the works collected there are converted, are perverted, by their juxtaposition and placement within walls, into an inevitable history dictated by a monstrous Reason or Spirit.

Yet later, he seems to suggest that language is such a monster. For instance:
The transparency of spoken language, that fine clarity of word which is only sound and that meaning which is only meaning,... and its would-be power of recapitulating and enclosing a whole process of expression in a single act -- are these not simply the highest point of a tacit and implicit accumulation of the same sort as painting? (Signs, 76)
Later, he tells us that the ambiguity of all literature, of all language really, is the price we pay, "that is, a conquering language which introduces us to unfamiliar perspectives instead of confirming our own" (77). This "conquering language" is also "the presumption to a total accumulation" (81) -- that is, an accumulation of meaning and of words.

It's as though, when we speak, while we simply engage in the act of speaking, at the same time (and indeed, for it to be possible for us to say anything), we are conquered by the tacit language, the presumption of a total accumulation.

The key difference is that, unlike the Hegelian monstrosity, language only pretends to total accumulation, and what makes it obvious that it is only a pretense, is ambiguity. Nonetheless, the tacit language is monstrous, conquers us in our attempts to speak, and aims to accumulate all words and all meaning. We forget this every time we speak, Merleau-Ponty claims, because every time we speak we intend to say exactly what we mean to say.

The tacit language is a silent monster, or else a monstrous silence, lurking beneath "our" language, every time we speak.

Friday, April 06, 2012

performativity, tenure, and administrative power

Reading excerpts of The Postmodern Condition with my class, I was reminded of Lyotard's claim that the drive toward system efficiency has gaps - spots where the efficiency criterion creates inefficiencies. I tend to think of the lack of content in education as one of those efficiency gaps. From the system's standpoint, my job is to generate enrollment. Beyond that, what I actually do in my classes is irrelevant.

So, I might teach a fairly standard curriculum on Professional Ethics or Logic or whatever, or I might spend almost all of class time on radical political thought, leading several of my students to become loud activists against exploitation. Oops! The performativity criterion created the potential for counter-performative discourse.

There's another area where this is happening. Tenure has long been identified as a source of inefficiency. Tenure is a check on the maximization of arbitrary administrative power. Faculty with tenure are supposed to have a right to due process with regard to decisions to terminate them. If this is true, then administrators would have to invest resources in the effort to fire tenured faculty they want fired. An obvious solution to this problem is not to hire tenure-track faculty, and indeed, this is exactly what university administrations have done for 35 or 40 years.

Tenuous-track faculty have no due process rights worth speaking of. Perma-temped faculty are fully commensurable units of managerial power, and hiring them in lieu of tenure-track faculty has the added effect of minimizing the number of tenured faculty who offer any institutionally-protected resistance to that power. From one standpoint, this could also look like an erosion of protection of academic freedom, on the hypothesis that tenure protects academic freedom.

The problem with that interpretation is that, under performativity, tenure does not protect academic freedom at all, since in order for a faculty member to earn tenure, that faculty member must produce according to the standard of performativity. The research areas must be sanctioned by performativity, the teaching and other work the faculty member does must meet efficiency standards, etc. No faculty member has academic freedom.

The perma-temping of university faculty continues apace. But while this is going on, the real performativity standard applied to university "teaching" - generating enrollment - creates the very spaces needed for the subterranean discourses of dissent. This is because, from the system efficiency standpoint, education has no content - or, rather, the content is irrelevant. The faculty in the best position to produce these discourses are the faculty the system considers most efficient as "teachers."

Of course, we're doomed anyway, but the tenuous-track faculty are in a much better position with regard to that, too, since we have never imagined we were anything but doomed, while our unfortunate tenure-track colleagues dangerously misrecognize their own positions and roles, and waste so much of their energies insisting upon academic standards for managerial decisions that can no longer be relevant.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

do I work hard?

I frequently use my own career and experience to illustrate issues in my Professional Ethics class. Today, after a discussion of ethical problems in academic publication and conflict of interest, a student approached me and asked about my own record of academic publication. (I have had a handful of run-ins with questionable publication practices, not surprisingly.)

What he asked, in fact, was how he could find the things I've published, so he could read them. I replied that he might not find them all that accessible, since they are, after all, academic publications (which is an ethical issue in its own right), but if he was really interested he could search for them. He mentioned Google. Hmm.*

Anyway, it led me to think about my CV and how up-to-date it might be. I checked it out this evening. There are things missing, and I'm editing it, but what this brief exercise has really made me think about is my record of academic and scholarly achievement, and what it means.

I've presented around 40 papers at academic conferences. Almost all of them have been international conferences of philosophical scholarship or phenomenological investigation. Is that a lot?

I've had several peer-reviewed publications. Only three or four have been peer-reviewed articles in academic philosophy journals. The rest have been in little off-beat publications I thought were cool, like the late, lamented Journal of Mundane Behavior. I guess that's pretty good, considering where I work and what the mission of my university is.

I've served on a dozen university and college committees, served on the academic senate for 10 years, and have been a peer reviewer for several conferences, and editor of conference proceedings, a board member of a couple scholarly societies, etc. etc. etc.

It looks like a lot of work, all listed up like that.


* The "Hmm" is due in some small part to the fact that, if he actually does look me up, he might find not only this blog, but a reference to my Journal of Mundane Behavior article on the phenomenology of pornography, or some of the other weird things I've published. He might also find some of the terrible things that people have, no doubt, said about me on teh Interwebs.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


In a random fit of public service, I present, for the edification of whoever stumbles by, the basic formats for titles of academic publications in the humanities. If you are looking to start, or advance, a career in academia, you would be well advised to adopt one of the following for each and every paper, article, chapter, or book title.

As is well established by this late date, the humanities is our culture's last, best bastion of the defense - nay, the celebration - of diversity. The diversity of your opinion is sure to be well-received and given a fair and honest hearing, provided you adhere strictly to the exceptionless, unavowed, unwritten rules. To help you along, here are the officially accepted title types.

Word, Word, Word

This looks especially good in Times New Roman centered on the 10th line of a cover page. Do not get cute and put this title in a larger font. 12pt TNR has passed the test of time. Besides, no use calling undue attention to yourself. You'll only make yourself look uppity.

Word and Word

Also good, and also translates well to Palatino Linotype.

Adjective Noun

(See also: Adjectival Phrase Noun)

Most commonly used as for books, this title format juxtaposes two different parts of speech for added interest. Handy for incongruous or non-sequitir titles that drive sales up. (Who wouldn't buy a copy of Lithe Feminism? Or Reconstituted Community?)

These title types have spread through academia, predominantly in the US, by way of the insidious influence of so-called Continental philosophy on lit crit and other quasi-disciplines.

Pithy Non-self-explanatory Phrase:
Lengthy, Verbose Explanatory Phrase that Entirely Defeats the Aesthetic Elegance Effects of the Pithy Non-self-explanatory Phrase, or that Even Conflicts with the Basic Thrust of the Preceding Phrase, Such that the Pithiness of the First Phrase is Revealed as a Failed Attempt at Hipness

This tremendously successful title type is particularly prized in cultural studies. A remarkable feature of this title format is that the catchy first phrase need not relate intelligibly to the content of the text. It could probably be chosen entirely at random, so long as it makes it seem like you're going to say something provocative or amusing. You don't actually have to be able to do either! And the long subtitle gives you the opportunity to say what the content really is, or to make an assertion that you will not defend in the text.