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).