Thursday, June 28, 2012

publication provision: revision

Last time I heard back from a journal about a submitted paper, it was the Journal of Academic Ethics asking me to revise and resubmit my paper on the decline of the professional status of college faculty and the lack of opportunity or authority to follow our professional ethics. The blind reviewer earned this name in a way he or she probably didn't mean to, by clearly not reading the paper for its actual argument. Instead, the revise and resubmit letter said I should basically write an entirely different paper on a topic that this reviewer would find more agreeable: how university administrations constantly seek meaningless public image advancements.

(I emailed the JAE editor back and said I would not be resubmitting to a journal so obviously lacking ethical commitment to the principle of peer review.)

Just last week, while we were down in LA, I finally received word back from the journal of the Romanian Society for Phenomenology, Studia Phaenomenologica, saying that my paper had been accepted pending revisions. The revisions listed by their reviewer seem to miss the basic ironic stance in my paper, and the reviewer seems unfamiliar with the pursuit of phenomenology of the body in French existential phenomenology, in particular Merleau-Ponty, Henry, and Marion (and more recently Barbaras), despite my having quoted Ricoeur freaking explaining it in precisely the same terms.

So I've added voluminous footnotes citing dozens of sources to show that, indeed, there is a pretty constant and still ongoing phenomenology of the body. My criticism of this is, briefly, that this fetishizes the body in a way that does two things phenomenology shouldn't do: (1) presupposing that there is a theoretical level of analysis that we must go to in order to explain experience, and (2) relating phenomenological description to a specific metaphysical problem - the mind/body problem Descartes gave us - despite the avowed intent of phenomenologists from Husserl onward to dispense with that metaphysics.

There are some quite valid and difficult criticisms. I write very elliptically at times, and this does not help. I blame Merleau-Ponty. (Obviously, I can't get away with it, because he's Merleau-Ponty, and I'm not.) Plus, the version of the paper I sent to them was edited down to 5000 words from a 8000 word screed I wrote last summer, which I ended up calling "the goofy paper," to express my total disgust with Michel Henry and Jean-Luc Marion. Minus some of the screedy elements, the argument is not very explicit (whereas, with the screedy elements, the language would have been all too explicit for a family journal like Studia Phaenomenologica).

(I curse at my food when I cook, and I curse at my books when I read. Mostly in good fun. I am far more forgiving of disobedient foodstuffs than disappointing philosophers, so some of the cursing at books is a little less joyous and collegial.)

I'm having a very hard time keeping the gumption up for this task - hence this post. I have until 15 July.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

pleasure, motion, rightness

I’ve been on two bike rides today. The first was on an errand: we went to the pet store to buy some anti-anxiety drops for Arthur. The second was a junket, up to and through the campus, into the environs thereof, and back down home, much of it at high speed. It feels good to fly. Why? Glad you asked!

Another example of the phenomenon of pleasure in moving comes from dance. Much of dance involves moving in a way that “feels right,” that gives one a sense of bodily pleasure. What type of pleasure is this? One aspect of a dancer’s pleasure in movement seems to be shared with the athlete, for dancers enjoy that simple ineffable pleasure of movement as well. But professional dancers also seem to enjoy a more cognitively enriched pleasure, a pleasure that arguably could be classified as aesthetic. Perhaps athletes have a similar experience… (Cole and Montero, “Affective Proprioception,” Janus Head, 9:2, p. 303)

Undoubtedly there is a “right” feeling to hauling ass on my bike. (A student once commented on seeing me cycling to school: “You ride so fast!” I said, yes, I do everything with maximum possible intensity — which is more or less true.) Their connection of dancing to athletic movement makes a great deal of sense to me — playing guitar fluidly and harmoniously feels good physically and proprioceptively in the same ways as riding very fast or cooking when I have the moves. I see no reason to interpret this experience as necessarily aesthetic. I don’t dance, but I can relate: when I’m playing well, I feel as if my hands move beautifully. And yes, those movements have an additional cognitive dimension when it’s a series of movements I know produce something beautiful. But for me, the affective core of this experience is erotic, rather than aesthetic. My food, and sometimes my guitar playing, is gorgeous, I won’t be falsely modest. The pleasure of the movement is more visceral — which is not the right word. They awaken and open my erotically, fulfill and perpetuate a desire, to do it all again (I know we should).

One significant aspect of this experience is the feeling of effortlessness, of the body moving almost on its own without any need of conscious direction. When absorbed in movement there may even be what might be described as a loss of self, a feeling that, at least as a locus of thought, one hardly exists at all. And of course the best performances are those where one is not thinking about the steps at all but is rather fully immersed in the experience of moving itself. (Cole and Montero, 304)
There’s a phenomenological technique called “free imaginative variation,” the purpose of which is to help identify the essential core of some experienced object. One way to do this is to consider how adding to or subtracting from the object would alter its being perceived and meant as the object it is. If Cole and Montero had been better phenomenologists, they would have noticed that the feeling of effortlessness is not an essential characteristic. On the contrary, it is sometimes the very feeling of effort that gives us pleasure. Now, as to the movement overtaking us and needing no conscious directing, they could be on to something.

When I’m on my game, cooking, I bound around the kitchen, merrily swearing at my food, stirring four pots without a thought of the spoon, the room, the place, the time — and my mind is in a creative space, in the spice rack, in the garden, in the spinach, even. Beyond even immersion in the experience of moving, the moving carries itself out through me. It is no longer my own moving, that is, I am no longer moving myself, but the movement is moving me. Sometimes the movement demands more effort than I think I can give, and somehow do. And meanwhile, I’m cussing out the basil.

So, does the body “disappear” in these experiences, as Gallagher and Leder have suggested? Here, Cole and Montero miss Gallagher’s point. It’s not that the body fails to be present, it’s that it fails to be present in an objective way. It is no longer “the body,” but has become the movements themselves. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

bunnies (and phenomenological ontology)

 Lauren knit this object. What is this object? Why and how does it appear as this object? Phenomenologically, two things are going on here. First of all, my perceptual experience intends this object: it is the focus and the correlate of my conscious activity of perceiving. Secondly, my perceptual experience means this object: it is a specific, typical thing of a particular sort.

(1) As intended, this object is the synthetic unity of series of adumbrations, whose unity is achieved, mainly passively, by the contiguity, concatenation, internal referentiality (self-sameness) of the presentation of these adumbrations. It can appear as the one, single, object of several acts of conscious perception through its constitution as that same thing, through the harmonious, unbroken interconnection of perspectives.

(2) As meant, this object is far more complex. It is not merely a synthetic unity of perspectival perceptions, but also a specific thing — in this case, a thing called Walter Bernhard Bunny. That is to say, I do not perceive this thing as “plushy white soft fibrous blob” but as a stuffed knit representation of a bunny. (Possibly more remarkably, given the stylistic representation here, is that I can also recognize this as “Walter Bernhard Bunny.”)

The problem of normal and abnormal is raised significantly here. For, it is normal that I or anyone would (1) intend a selfsame thing through the harmonious unity of ongoing perception. It would be abnormal to fail to experience this synthetic unity; that failure would suggest that my consciousness or my senses are inhibited by something. But then, the big question in phenomenological ontology is, how much does (2) the meant object foretell that perceptual unity? That is, does to what extent does the unity of the intended object, as the correlate of a harmonious, ongoing series of perceptions, depend upon the meant object, as the typical thing recognized as something-or-other?

Imagine someone who has not seen a stuffed, knitted representation of a bunny. Even better, imagine someone who has not seen a bunny, either. What does this object appear to be, to that person? Clearly, not “a stuffed bunny,” and decidedly not “Walter Bernhard Bunny.” But is that somehow necessary for this object to appear as anything at all?

In my opinion, the phenomenology of constitution lets us down at this point. That kind of analysis is concerned with how meaning and objectivity are built up from subjective, indeterminate, individual percepts. It helps us account for how this bunch of stuff can come to mean “Walter Bernhard Bunny.” But it doesn’t let us know how much of the unity of the stuff depends on the meaning, and how much of it depends on the synthetic, passive synthesis of perception. That’s why Husserl said we needed genetic/generative phenomenology. Agreed. But that only tells me there’s another level of analysis to go: it does not tell me that the passive synthesis accounts for the appearance of “something” without there already being “Walter Bernhard Bunny,” or at least “stuffed, knitted bunny” to hold the object’s unity together.

This was Hume’s problem, wasn’t it? He asked his readers to suppose someone had seen every shade of blue but one. That one missing shade of blue could be analytically and imaginatively filled out, but the authentic and vivid idea of that shade could only come from experience. My question is whether, for this object to appear as a unity, I don’t need the experience (the cultural experience) of some things being stuffed knitted representations of bunnies.

If you think all that’s complicated, imagine what it would be like to try to unpack the cultural concept of “cute”!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

zany madcap food post

My loveliest made kick-ass Russian food on Friday: mushroom, potato, and ground beef peroshki (the ground beef is local, grass fed - HAH!), Russian cole slaw, a cucumber salad. Yummers.

I had to double-down. So yesterday, while Lauren was knitting in public, I put together a little repast of my own.

A couple years ago, as part of my bi-annual innumerable-course, birthday blowout, I made a savory mock-tiramisu - turning construction of the dessert into a truffle and gruyère bizarro-world entrée. Over tiramisu at the best Italian restaurant in Turlock, Villa Napoli, I remembered that, and started thinking about reversing the field.

Hence, last  night's dessert: blueberry and cream cheese "ravioli" in lemon cream sauce.

In place of the ravioli pasta, I made pie crust, but deliberately mistreated it, so it built at least some gluten - and thus behaved a little more like pasta dough. The filling is blueberries, cream cheese, an egg, powdered sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon juice, flour, and love. The sauce is lightly whipped cream, lemon zest, lemon juice, triple sec, sugar, vanilla, and more love. In place of grated parmigiano reggiano, the tops are sprinkled with grated white chocolate. In place of fresh ground pepper, that's more nutmeg and cinnamon. In place of chopped parsley, that's mint. And love.

If you leave me alone in a kitchen for long enough, something like this is going to happen. (That's not fair: I just about kicked Lauren out of the kitchen in order to do all this in secret.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

normal, abnormal, queer theory, and phenomenology

I figured out what I want to write this summer. Last year I did a ton of stuff on the phenomenological concept of normal, in part responding to Sara Ahmed. I'm going to try to turn that into some kind of reasonable essay, but more excitingly, I'm going to work on contrasting it with other ways of looking at normal.

So, here's a start. I hope some of this is intelligible. It's just notes on the fly.


I’m going to use the term “queer theory” to name a broad category of perspectives on numerous academic and scientific disciplines that are generally linked by a common interest in critiquing and undermining the cultural and political status quo, in which LGBTQ folks are, in the main, excluded. That’s pretty rough, but I don’t care.

Queer theorists often deploy the term heteronormativity to call out and problematize what they regard as the exclusionary and oppressive status quo with regard to sexual orientations, identities, practices, social and political expectations, etc. Implicit in the use of the term is a concept of normal, which is a central target of queer theory critique. To me, this requires a careful determination not only of a definition of normal, but also of to what ontological domain we assign a particular definition of normal. That is, what is normal in a cultural sense could be defined in terms of limits of social acceptability of traits, behaviors, etc. On this level, heteronormativity is losing a lot of ground in many areas of US culture and society: even to raise the question of same-sex marriage and have it seriously considered and debated shows this. This sense of normal is grounded in institutions that are at least somewhat dynamic.

What Sara Ahmed seems to do in Queer Phenomenology, in part, is to let this concept of normal into the domain of phenomenology of experience. Does it belong there? What is the phenomenological concept of normal? I believe it will turn out that there are several layers to it, and that there will be no causal relation, and at times only a resemblance, between the phenomenological and cultural concepts. Drawing from Husserl, I would say that the most basic phenomenological encounter with normality is perceptual, and that further investigation of perceptual experience will discover a pre-perceptual level of normality that, at least Husserl says, cannot really be investigated further.

One chief difference: heteronormativity has to be defended as a political and cultural practice, and is being defended today with vehemence and violence, because it is increasingly clear that it’s only based on an accrual of practices. Normal cultural interpretation of the practices in question has shifted rapidly, such that it is harder and harder to define what normal sexual orientation or identity is. Phenomenologically, I believe, we would have to say that it is normal that in our perception of the world we become attuned more toward some objects than others. In short, I don’t believe the so-called normal experience of sexual attraction could ever mean “heterosexual attraction” from the phenomenological standpoint. It would simply suggest that the normal experience of sexual attraction is to perceive certain others and objects as appealing to a person as a sexual subject.

The cultural concept of normal relates to a social and political determination of something or other as within bounds, of being included or accepted. The phenomenological concept of normal relates to an attempt to understand how it is that we experience anything at all as being something of a certain “kind” or having a certain meaning or value.

The two have something to do with one another. Merleau-Ponty discusses the history of human visual perception obliquely as he discusses art history, for instance: cultural norms make a difference in how we perceive. But that’s consistent with the phenomenological idea of perception as being a transcendence into the world. Our perception is of the world in two senses: it is a perception that takes in the world, and is a perception that is founded upon and needs the world to support its transcendence.

Monday, June 11, 2012

gender, orientation, normality

I'm jut getting into my summer philosophy reading list, on the broad themes of orientation and the "normal." In November, a couple friends and I are presenting a panel on orientation, disorientation, and being in and out of place. My own approach to it has come from reading the very good, and often delightfully exasperating book Queer Phenomenology, by Sara Ahmed.

So I'm paging through articles about experiences of orientation, disorientation, gender, sexuality, sex, and other stuff. I've just read a provocative piece from a while back by Kate Bronstein that includes some lists of questions having to do with the experience of gender (and she means gender, as differentiated from sex and sexuality and transexuality). They were appealing questions for me.

In part, what they made me consider, and remember, is the ways I - how shall I put this - the ways I don't do masculinity "right," in the culturally normative sense round these parts. There are some obvious things I don't do right, including insisting on wearing very bright colors, having long hair, sometimes in braids, and, as my loveliest says several times a week, being "an eight-year-old girl" (viz. the tiara and princess wand).

It's not that I consider myself particularly "liberated" from the constraints of compulsory masculinity and heteronormativity. It may seem odd, but I don't think I'm in the right position to judge that. All my life, I've been white and male, and the presuppositions about me that accrue to those characteristics have made my own gender, sexuality, and identity unproblematic. That is, I can always pass,* and I almost never have been subjected to assault because of someone else's perception of my gender, sexuality, or identity -- not since high school, at least.

It's obviously not only an academic philosophical interest driving me. A recent acronym groups people as LGBTQQ, where the first Q stands for queer, and the second for questioning. The lesson I've learned from reading queer theory, feminist philosophy, and related stuff, is that anyone who's self-aware really ought to be questioning, on one level or another. I forget who wrote it: Why don't we ask for an explanation of someone being "straight"? (This assumes, falsely, that everyone is either "straight" or non-"straight," and I'm not sure I can tell what that distinction means in the first place.)

This all means I'm a good philosopher. No one who is a good philosopher should take presumed definitions of sex, sexuality, gender, or identity for granted. They are some of the most violently defended pieties of our day - and there's nothing better for a philosopher to question than pieties.

* This is why I say "partner" or "mate" to refer to my loveliest, and also why it confuses my students. It's also why, despite having been "shotgunned" by the State of California, I avoid using the m word, the h word, or the w word.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

no deal

For as long as I know, the California Faculty Association has bought time from the CSU administration, and used that time to allow faculty to do work for the union. Not any more.

After weeks of delays, we finally got word at Cow State Santa Claus that the chancellor is hereby forbidding campus administrations from allowing this arrangement any more. This is due to one of three possible motives: (1) the administration does not know how much stress and undue pressure CFA activists endure as faculty and union reps, or (2) the administration does not care, or (3) it is the express intent of the administration to stop CFA from being able to defend the contract, or (4) they hope to cause faculty activists grievous harm. I am inclined to believe 3 and 4.

I plan to change my class assignments to reflect the undue pressure that five courses, let alone additional unpaid work on campus for the university, let alone union work. I'm going to give my students less of my time, energy, and effort.

I'm also going to have to give less of my time and energy to faculty rights work, but I'm going to try not to reduce my effort. I haven't even begun to work out details of that.