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.

Monday, July 23, 2012

sex, sweat, taste, flesh

This summer, I've been tracking down ideas of normal and abnormal, as ways of describing bodily experience. This is inspired, as I've said repeatedly, by a very good book called Queer Phenomenology, by Sara Ahmed, who has still not paid me a nickel for this. Anyway.

Theory sometimes gets in the way. This happens, for instance, when an apparently earnest trans-gender/sexual writer (name omitted politely) spends tons of ink on theorizing about bodies, sexuality, gender, and the politics and academic understanding of all that, in an attempt to get at the experience of gender and sexuality.

Let me be blunt: sexuality and gender are not the same thing as the interpretation of sexuality and gender.

Because I present/pass as a straight man, I don't have street cred to say a lot of this. It is clearly suspicious for me to claim to have direct access to sexual embodiment in its most carnal and un-gendered, un-disciplined, un-enforced manifestation. I'm going to claim it anyway.

The problem with all the theorizing about sex/gender/identity/orientation/etc. is the way it departs from the carnal experience of, for lack of a better word, flesh. By flesh, I don't mean some theoretical concept. I mean that stuff I can touch and smell and taste. I mean the stuff whose sweat I can see, feel, smell, taste, and that makes me sweat in return. I mean the stuff I desire without will or thought.

There's too little sweat, too little smell and taste, in the discourses of feminism and queer theory. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to know about sexuality and gender, that's what you need to know about: whose flesh, whose sweat, do you long to taste?

Thus my <300 word rejoinder to this 200 page book I'm slogging through.

Monday, July 16, 2012

orientation, habituation, passivity

My favorite stuff Husserl wrote was about what he called "passivity," which is not as passive as it sounds -- it's about the basic receptivity we have through our sense perception. Our sense perceptions, Husserl contends, are not just a collection of data, but are already "given" in a unity -- a unity that we do not actively constitute, hence given by "passive synthesis." In other words, our sense perceptions give us a sort of whole world already, and our conscious, attentive, thinking egos root around in this given world and make judgments about it.

One big-time implication of this is that our perceptual orientations to the world -- what we tend to pay attention to, what we put together as "objects" of perception, what we return to again and again as objects we ought to pay attention to -- are also built up "passively." That is to suggest that we are, as it were, primally orientated to the world in certain ways.

To take this beyond Husserl, and to give a concrete example, I'll recall my first experience of eating Swiss chard. It was in a very strange social setting, and a friend was whipping up a (vegan) stir-fry that included Swiss chard as an ingredient. Never had it before. It was deep green, cooked up quickly, tossed with the rest of the stuff, tossed onto brown rice, and set in front of me.

From the first taste, I liked it. How? The taste attracted me. As we say, it tasted good. How? How did I undergo the experience of it tasting good? At first, I couldn't say what about it I liked, or even identify the Swiss chard itself very clearly out of the mishmash of stuff.

The second time I had it, I was able to start to taste it. There was a dark greeniness, an earthy taste, a rooty bitterness balanced with a clean sweetness. I was developing a taste for it, as we say. I was learning how Swiss chard tastes, learning how to taste Swiss chard, and -- most intriguingly for me -- learning how to enjoy it.

From Husserl's perspective, what's happening here is, I am forming predicative judgments ("I like Swiss chard"; "Swiss chard tastes earthy, and a little bitter if it's undercooked"; etc.), but at the same time, those predicative judgments are forming and shaping my perception of Swiss chard. It's way more complicated than saying that if I tell myself I like it, I'll start to like it. I already was predisposed to it, before I'd ever had it, without knowing it. My first taste revealed that I had a "tendency" toward it. The more I experienced it, the more I followed out this tendency, the more I developed my affinity, and my acknowledgment of my affinity, for chard.

This has by now led me to have a chard-orientation toward the world. If there's chard around, my eyes are drawn toward it instantly. I look at it, and I almost taste it. I want it. I don't even think about it. I have a Swiss chard habit.

In stages:

1. My passive receptivity toward Swiss chard (my being able to taste it) and passive tendency toward enjoying it.
2. My conscious attention to Swiss chard, and my repetition of experiences and alert, deliberate attention to the taste of it... leading to judgments about it (like, "Swiss chard is really good wilted, then steamed, then buttered and seasoned").
3. My orientation toward Swiss chard, my habit of desiring it.

The first and third stages are two stages of passivity, it turns out. This is the cool thing: habituation is a "secondary passivity," where conscious attention fades away. I don't think about it, I just do it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

imaginary and actual worlds

It makes no sense, e.g., to ask whether the Gretel of one fairy tale and the Gretel of another are the same Gretel, whether what is imagined for the one and predicated of her agrees with or does not agree with what is imagined for the other, etc... Within the same tale I can certainly ask such questions, since, from the beginning, we have a single imaginary world...
In the actual world, nothing remains open; it is what it is. The world of imagination "is," and is such and such, by grace of the imagination which has imagined it; a complex of imaginings never comes to an end that does not open the possibility of a free development in the sense of a new determination.        -- Husserl, Experience and Judgment, p. 173
Most of the chapter I read today was about the temporal unity of objects and worlds that is necessary for relation and comparison to take place -- which I won't get into here. But this page, and especially the reference to imagined worlds, caught my eye, for a couple reasons.

The first connection was to something I'm cooking up as another writing experiment for NaNoWriMo this year. We can ask questions within the same tale, Husserl says, of whether Gretel is the same Gretel. Sure: and in fiction, you can strain realism to the breaking point, or past it, by making these questions the center of the story. I was working on that, in a way. (I promise I haven't written a word of the novel; I have some notes on how I want it to go.)

Now I'm wondering how that kind of problem in fiction could be turned around by having two different stories taking place, with two characters with the same name. Especially if the stories each raised questions about whether the character was the same character within the story, what would happen if both stories, with a character of the same name, each raised those questions? (Comedy of Errors does this to some extent, if you take the two plots as two stories in this way. And obviously, The Bald Soprano knocks this mutha out of the park.)

The other connection I drew is to the notion, in fanfic, of writing within a particular "universe."

There's an important difference. For fanfic writers, as I understand it, "universe" refers to the basic characters, the presupposition of that universe being founded upon what has been written by the originator(s), and the basic furniture of that universe (i.e., if they have space ships, they have space ships; if soap is unheard of, then, to quote Husserl, "it is what it is," and there's no soap).

These ideas aren't so far apart, though. What Husserl means by nothing remaining open in the actual world is that, for there to be any relation and comparison of objects in the actual world, there has to be an objective, unified time to that world -- it simply must be in the same actual world. It's ambiguous: does that mean this world is like a story? Or is this world more like the fanfic concept of a "universe"?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

stars, constellations, experience and judgment

I tried to come up with a good analogy to help explain to my non-phenomenological-philosopher friends why reading Husserl's account of meaningful perceptual experience is so exciting to me. I started to write it out, drawing out all the little teeny micro-analogies that make the overall analogy so excellent. That meant I was writing in and explaining technical Husserlian phenomenological jargon.

So I'm not going to share the whole analogy, just the broad outline. We can talk about the rest.

Husserl's goal is kind of like this: Why do we see constellations, and not just stars? (To get even closer, what he's asking is more like: why do we see stars, and not little weird imperfections in the black velvet night sky? -- but constellations will work better.)

Constellations, physically speaking, aren't out there. For one thing, we perceive them from a viewpoint that places stars in close relationships or groupings that have no astronomical basis at all. Besides which, from the stars' standpoint, there aren't constellations, because they're just big balls of fiery gas (but enough about Newt Gingrich).

And yet, from our terrestrial spot, and from our various cultural spots, there are constellations. Why do we see them? Or, to put it a little closer to Husserl without getting too technical, why are we led from our seeing stars to make the judgment that they're grouped into constellations? What goes on, from mere awareness on up through active perception, to imbuing with cultural significance, such that we end up with constellations?

(At this point in Experience and Judgment, Husserl is dealing with some not very heavenly examples, like a red ball, or a pen in a penholder next to a pencil. In terms of the phenomenological investigation of meaning, those are still very interesting examples, but I realize constellations are a lot groovier.)

Where this is going in this book is pretty cool, too. Not only do we see constellations, but our seeing them becomes the basis for our saying things about them that can be true or false:

"Hey, look," (I could say to you), "it's the Big Dipper!"

"You doofus," (you could reply), "that's the Little Dipper."


"Ah, there's lovely Cassiopeia," (I could say). "I forget, was she one of Zeus' illegitimate kids he had pretending to be a goat or something?"

"No, no, no," (you could say), "she's Cepheus' wife, the one who pissed off Poseidon because she was hotter than the sea-nymphs."

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

why I love reading philosophy

Today I've picked up Edmund Husserl's Experience and Judgment for the first time in many years. It's crazy as hell.

The book has two main topics: why and how is it that we have not only experience, but also judgments about experience -- i.e., something that we could call truth-claims; and why and how it is that our judgments come from something or are about something. Husserl is not for everyone, not even for every academically trained philosopher, but when he's at his best, he deals with stuff like this in a thrillingly without-a-net fashion.

I know, it doesn't sound that exciting, especially when Husserl writes things like:

What is thus apprehended has, accordingly, its own empty horizon of familiar unfamiliarity, which is to be described as the universal horizon "object," with particular indications or, rather, prescriptions -- namely, prescriptions of a style of expectations to be realized, with explicates corresponding to them.
Trust me, though, this is incredibly sexy. By implication, people who read this and are excited by it are also incredibly sexy.

Monday, July 09, 2012

shazam, I think

After much hand-wringing and angst, I believe I have successfully revised "the goofy paper," per the occasionally-apposite reviewers' comments and a decidedly excellent conversation with the journal's guest-editor for this issue. It's still approximately 62% loony, and still contains three absolutely egregious puns, so I think, on the whole, this is a win.... presuming they actually publish the damn thing and anybody reads it.

My favorite pun is the most brutal. I compare phenomenological description to "extraordinary rendition," and suggest that certain ways of conducting phenomenological description are violent, and even that they commit vivisection. Nasty, eh? And do you know who'll get that? My loveliest, who read the whole damn goofy paper, and to whom I've read this version, maybe two or three friends of mine to whom I've sent this abomination, and, almost literally, nobody else.

(Here's a secret about academia nobody wants you to know. In the humanities, the so-called "discussion" taking place through publication is a crock. Of the 40 papers I've presented at conferences, and the half-dozen or so peer-reviewed articles I've published, people have contacted me to discuss them almost three times. I have emailed several folks whose articles I use in my classes, and every time, the authors are thrilled and somewhat startled that I've responded in any way.)

(I digress.)

Makes ya wonder why I do it, eh? Answer's in the question, bub. If they can't be bothered to read and respond and carry out this alleged conversation, rather than just throw bombs, then, I say, screw these people.

And that's my fundamental attitude toward academic publication and the big time conference circuit. And that's likely why I'm so rarely invited to join in.

(For instance, has anyone else noticed that Jacques Derrida never had any pants?)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

update and unbearably adorable kitten pic

This morning, Alexander lay on my lap, seeming comfortable, for about an hour while we watched the Tour de France on the tube (sucks to be Janez Brajkovic the last couple days). Then he crawled up into the kitchen chair he's basically lived in for a week.

But then, when Lauren made pasta salad, and started making apricot jam, Alex was roaming the kitchen with her, perched for a bit on the step-stool, scored a piece of pepperoni, and then he and Valentine took off after a fly. A few minutes later, once Valentine had successfully bounced himself head-first off the front window trying to nab the fly, Alexander chirped at it excitedly.

That's more like it.

This is Alex and Arthur as kittens.

cat anxiety

We've brought Alexander to the vet twice now since Sunday. He's lost hair on his abdomen and backs of his hind legs. On Sunday the first vet (one I don't particularly care for) told us it was just stress or anxiety related. We had already been giving Arthur an herbal anxiety remedy, because for several weeks the cats have gotten more hostile to one another, and have spent less time playing. The herbs seemed to be working. The vet suggested we give it to everyone, to calm them all down.

Yesterday morning Alexander didn't look right to me. I called and got him a late afternoon appointment, with a vet we do like. I fretted all day about Alex.

Finally the appointment came, and the vet concurred with the prior diagnosis, but I asked for blood tests anyway. That came back negative only a few minutes after we got home. The urinalysis may take another day, given the holiday today.

Last night I lost it. I was terrified. Alexander seemed wrong - lethargic, less affectionate, and not talkative and drooling on me, as usual. By the time we got to bed, I was overwhelmed. I thought Alex was going to die last night.

This is what Alexander is supposed to look like (he's the one on the right).

You have to add the drool to the picture for yourself.

We still don't know what's wrong. Maybe he is just depressed and anxious.