Friday, July 26, 2013

crazy people and philosophers (and other academics)

We were at a philosophy conference this past week. It was good.

A couple of papers dealt directly or indirectly with mental illness, which led to a discussion of mental illness among faculty. The group there assented generally to the idea that academics "are all OCD" and many are more significantly sick. This was amusing to all.

Meanwhile, I was reading Jung during respites from the conference itself, and came across this passage:
So the difference between [the sick person] and Schopenhauer is that, in him, the vision remained at the stage of a mere spontaneous growth, while Schopenhauer abstracted it and expressed it in language of universal validity... A man is a philosopher of genius only when he succeeds in transmuting the primitive and merely natural vision into an abstract idea belonging to the common stock of consciousness. This achievement, and this alone, constitutes his personal value, for which he may take credit without necessarily succumbing to inflation. But the sick man's vision is an impersonal value, a natural growth against which he is powerless to defend himself, by which he is swallowed up and "wafted" clean out of the world... The golden apples fall from the same tree, whether they are gathered by an imbecile locksmith's apprentice or by a Schopenhauer. ("The Relations Between the Ego and the Unconscious," The Portable Jung, 90f.)
I know a lot of academics who are quick to self-diagnose. I also know a lot of academics who are the objects of bona fide psychiatric diagnoses, myself among them.

Now that I'm reading Jung's account of the extraverted personality and its unconscious, I'm seeing this behavior in a different way. There's something weirdly self-inflating about the self-diagnosis. It places one on a strange kind of pedestal, I think. It creates a status, a twisted status no doubt, but one prevalent in academia and one with related echoes.

Academics constantly speak of how busy they are, how frenetic their work schedules are, how many deadlines they are under, and how seldom they meet deadlines because they take on too much work. We chortle to one another about our poor social skills, poorer social lives, often our poor health and eating habits, chemical dependencies, and other marks of malaise.

This is a bizarre expression of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, according to a value system we adopt to be full-fledged members of the academy. Sickness, self-imposed sickness, physical, social, and psychological deformities, are virtues in this system.

And so, we recognize ourselves and one another (to the extent we do recognize one another--see social deformities, supra) as super-functioning pathological cases, in a gesture that expresses astounding antipathy for the truly and severely ill, and profound alienation from ourselves, one another, our communities, our humanity, and, yes, our work.

I may start to experiment this fall, responding to all the myriad expressions of this habitus, by saying something about my health, well-being, and free time. I suppose that means I'll be telling stories of cycling, guitar playing, and writing music.

Friday, July 12, 2013

normal, abnormal, and problems

From the standpoint of persons who regard themselves as normally sexed, their environment has a perceivedly normal sex composition. This composition is rigorously dichotomized into the ‘natural,’ i.e., moral, entities of male and female. 
For such members perceived environments of sexed persons are populated with natural males, natural females, and persons who stand in moral contrast with them, i.e., incompetent, criminal, sick, and sinful. 
The members of the normal population, for him the bona fide members of that population, are essentially, originally, in the first place, always have been, and always will be, once and for all, in the final analysis, either 'male’ or ‘female.’

      -- Harold Garfinkel, "Passing," in The Transgender Studies Reader, pp. 59, 62, 62


This illustrates starkly why normality matters. I assume that, 53 years after Garfinkel published “Passing,” a sizable minority of the population of the US understands that the characteristics of sexed bodies range along spectra of both genotypic and phenotypic traits, as well as that sexual behavior is wide-ranging. This seems pertinent to a slight shift in attitudes toward sexual variation and what I am sorry to have to call tolerance toward abnormalities. (Easy, I suppose, for the polymorphously perverse to say.) The assumption of sex binarism remains powerfully normative.

So when Husserl analyzes the “normality” of the prevailing surrounding world, as the background horizon of all our everyday activity, it’s hard to avoid reading that word in the same sense as Garfinkel’s usage—which I think is basically also Foucault’s, and Sara Ahmed’s. Foucault’s work on power/knowledge, particularly The History of Sexuality, is usually interpreted as a critique of institutional normalization as a process of the production of regimented bodies. Ahmed, in Queer Phenomenology, develops a quasi-phenomenological critique of the phenomenology of orientation and normality. Looking back from this standpoint on Husserl’s presumably phenomenological account of normality, I see a very strange equivocation, or possibly an ambiguity.

Normality can be analyzed on three levels, to start. In my language for these, purely subjective normality is the level of my own perceptual/embodied being in the world. It would entail all that is unique to my own perspective, being six feet tall, of very acute hearing in the left and some deafness in the right ear, of very myopic but focused vision in the right and less myopic but poorly focused vision in the left eye, etc. For me, my aural, visual, etc. perception is normal as per these peculiarities. What is abnormal for me is distortion in the perceptual field, for instance when I first put on new glasses, or when there’s water in my ears from swimming. As I adjust to the new glasses, the anomalous motivates a reconstitution of the normal, that is, a new normal, which then prevails, becomes sedimented as “just how it is for me,” and disappears into the horizon.
Intersubjective normality pertains to the everyday world shared with others. For Husserl (in contrast, I think, ultimately, with Heidegger), the intersubjectively normal surrounding world involves actively as well as passively shared meanings, events, constructions, etc. Communication and community are whereby there comes to be a real world, an objective world for us, and it is in reference to this real world that intersubjective normality has its crucial significance. This is one level at which the idea becomes important that the real world is corrective.

Were I to exist solus ipse, my purely subjective normal perceptual life would obtain, always and everywhere—given the caveat that distortions, error, etc., serve as self-correctives, in reference only to purely subjective further intendings. But, obviously, others’ perceptual lives and their actions matter to me and are part of my own experience. Intersubjective normality is there for me because others are. Were I to perceive and act as if trees were murderous, or as if human beings should wiggle on the ground to get around rather than ambulate, it would matter for others that I did so, and it would matter for me that others did not. My abnormal perception and action would appear as abnormal for me and for others. How?

If we stop right here, we have the problem of normality and abnormality: for us, intersubjectively, the presence of abnormality produces a mini-crisis of meaning and the presumptive unity of the world. We are motivated by the real-world assumption to wonder and problematize the abnormal, and to seek some correction, as Husserl says. Now, Husserl resolves this problem, in all I’ve read on the matter, too quickly, in turning to what I consider a third level of normality. To me, the problem of normality and abnormality is most acutely present at this intersubjective level. A person directly in front of you, terrified that the tree is going to kill him, or you, matters right now for you and for that person. You are motivated to correct and to restore the presumptive unity of the real world, because it matters whether this person is right about the trees, and because it matters that this person in front of you has this belief, because this person’s conduct takes place in the same world. (Isn’t that how it is that “crazy people” are terrifying? They induce crises, that we must resolve, by some alteration of our concept of the world, or at the very least in our own conduct—avoiding them, helping them, realizing they are right, etc. For those moments, the real world, the horizonal context of all our everyday activities, is shaken, if only just a little.)

One way to resolve the problem of normality and abnormality is in reference to a standing tradition, or culture, and this is what Husserl does. l want to call this sedimented normality to refer to its being in the ground of so much of the real world as such, and also to allude to the use of the term sedimented in phenomenology as the institution of passively accrued meaning, via actively lived experience. This also helps articulate why I think Husserl jumps the gun: if the intersubjective problem of normality is active, present, here and now, his resolution by reference to sedimented normality reverts to a passively accrued “there is.” Adjudicating the problem of normality through sedimented normality really just ignores the problem. Maybe Husserl is right about this, when he says about understanding the foreign, that because he is raised European, German, and as a small-city resident, the foreign person’s lifeworld will only be understandable in analogy to his own. That is to say, the sedimented normality of the presumptively real European, German, small-city world obtains, because it is there.

In some ways, and to some extent, Husserl does have to be right about this. I can not undo my being raised as I was. But it does not help explain how that way of life, and that tradition, became. The sedimentation of tradition is going on, incrementally, in those minute intersubjective dealings, it seems to me.

And, obviously, traditions are revised with each generation. Normality shifts, slowly, or there is a more significant crisis, and tradition loses its traditional status as it becomes an object of deliberation, critique, understanding, revision. There is a moment in Husserl’s analysis for this critique, and he acknowledges this even though he does nothing much with it. That’s when the equivocation or ambiguity of normality matters. In that intersubjective, problematic moment, we are confronted by the fact that normality is constituted, and re-constituted, and open-ended.









Friday, July 05, 2013

abnormality, universality, reality, world

Abnormality is a serious problem for a philosophy that grounds objectivity and truth on intersubjective reality, as does Husserl's phenomenological philosophy. (Let me boil this down. In Husserl's view, I think, there's objective empirical science, and truth, because there is a world that is universally real for all people. That means, in short, that our actions always being motivated by and directed toward that same world. In turn, there is such a world because, between us, our community, our communication, and our being human is based on our being with one another and recognizing one another as human. So, the very fundamental basis of objectivity and truth is our being interconnected and sharing this common world of experience.)

If there's abnormality, as Husserl says himself in the texts collected in Husserliana XXXIX -- Die Lebenswelt [The Lifeworld] -- there seems to be contradiction within this common, universal world. In that case, its unity, and hence its universality, would seem to fail. Now, if that fails, so to does the ultimate warrant of addressing objectivity or truth.

Husserl addresses this in terms of there being normal and abnormal experience. His example in text number 16 of Die Lebenswelt is about the normality of color-sightedness and the abnormality of color-blindness. They each deal with the world in terms of their own way of seeing, even though this seems to mean the world they share in common harbors a contradiction. Husserl's extremely dissatisfying answer, in this text, is, that they acknowledge that each sees the same world, the same things, but differently. Oooooo-kay, but this isn't really resolving anything. His examples are so general that they're superficial, almost meaningless.

This matters to me as an intriguing philosophical question. But it matters more as a practical problem in the world. I'll get at this two ways, one through more academic philosophy, the other through everyday life.

I now read almost all philosophy through Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard's book The Postmodern Condition (1978). In this book, Lyotard asserts that the current state of knowledge is characterized by "incredulity toward metanarratives" that serve to give warrant to the discourses that generate knowledge. In effect, his claim is that the connection between reality itself and the discourses that claim to tell us about reality is one that is now doubtful. Physics, for instance, used to be grounded in a claim either to be able to present the whole truth about the reality of bodies in motion, or to be able to make life better for us by making nature our servant. Neither of those are claims that physics can make for itself, because they aren't claims about bodies in motion, but claims about what the study of bodies in motion can do. So, they are not scientific knowledge claims, but narrative knowledge claims -- stories about the role of physics in the world. But those stories are no longer credible, the first because physics itself has led to the discovery of the limits of objective knowledge in physics (viz. Heisenberg), the second because physics has allowed us to build bombs that threaten to blow up the world and all the physicists with it.

Here's why, in everyday life, this matters. In the postmodern condition of incredulity toward metanarratives, we have technological apparatus of scientific knowledge, including all the stuff we make out of it, but without the grounding of those claims on a reality principle. So, we live in a world of competing and contradictory claims about reality. The simplest example of this is the "debate" over global climate change. In this debate, there are 97% or so of people with backgrounds in science discourses, who all agree that there is global climate change, that it is a problem, and that human activity contributes to this change. Then there are 60% or so of US Republicans, who do not believe in global climate change, regardless of their backgrounds. Rich members of this latter group fund "research" institutions that generate "knowledge" that climate change is not real, or not significant, or not caused by human action, or not a problem, or caused by trees, etc. (I note in passing the lovely Democritean skepticism of this argument. It's like Metrodorus' On Nature: there is no global warming; if there is, we can't know anything about it; if we can know anything about it, it's not important; etc.)

Under the postmodern condition, with the connection between knowledge-generating discourses and reality severed, these competing, contradictory knowledge claims co-exist, but their co-existence is untenable. They cannot both be correct. (This is assuming that the climate change detractors are not cynically pursuing profit, which is certainly possible.) It matters very much who is right, and so it matters very much that we have some way of addressing this contradiction.

We don't. We vote on it, which is as absurd as voting on whether the things we perceive have color or not. Reality being intersubjectively grounded does not mean we vote on what's real. It means that there is a reality, a universal world, to which we can all refer for adjudicating our differences, and toward which each of us is directed, and in reference to which a perspective is normal or abnormal. Or else.

And so far, Husserl's response to this major problem is, yeah, we deal.