I usually want to start the semester by telling my classes something about what I do that will enlighten and entertain, but mostly that will prepare them for the course to come. The problem, I believe, is that what I want to tell them is not something most of my students would understand, and instead of preparing them for the course, it would bewilder and alienate them.
This semester, what I want to tell them is about the way my ethics classes incorporate existentialism, poststructuralism, feminism, queer theory, and critical disability theory. I wouldn’t just say that, of course. I would like to explain why I keep bringing in more and more approaches to ethics, which is, mainly, that I keep falling in love with new theoretical approaches myself.
Last year, I went to a panel on pain at SPEP (the big European philosophy conference in North America). I’ve been interested in pain for a while, and had started to read a few things. At the panel, I was taking down names, absolutely delighted, like a kid going through the toys section of the old Sears Christmas catalog. Afterwards I cruised the book display, and the title of a book leaped out at me: Feminist Queer Crip. What the Sam hell?!
I read feminism and queer theory all the time, so I felt I knew what those words would mean in the title. Crip was what struck me. Was this a lesbian street gang member using high-concept theory to discuss juvenile violence or something? I picked it up and started paging through it. It is, of course, about disability, and the author, Kafer, is putting feminism and queer theory together with disability theory.
Like the appropriation of queer by queer theory, and more importantly by people who identify as queer, Kafer was picking up crip. This was shocking to me. I grew up with Richard Pryor standup and with NWA on the radio when I was in high school, so I am accustomed to the critical appropriation of words of derogation by identity groups and by social critics and philosophers. Still, crip was shocking. I had to have this book immediately.
I’ve always been like this. I have a pressing need to read stuff that bends my mind. (I remember when I was 16, the clerk at my bookstore in Greensboro shaking his head and telling me Freud’s Three Case Studies would give me nightmares. Later he sold me his own copy of Beckett’s Three Novels, and made me promise not to tell anyone where I got it.)
But take any reasonably complex situation that would call for some questioning in a Bioethics or Professional Ethics class. Let’s say lawsuits by former professional athletes over effects of brain injuries. It’s easy to identify that team-hired physicians who treat the athletes have a conflict of interest. I can’t help but hear a feminist or queer voice as well, asking about the construction of masculinity in sports, about the hazing of injured athletes through name-calling by coaches and other players. I can’t help hearing a Foucauldian voice asking about the subjectivity of the athletes themselves and the forms of power-knowledge and disciplinary regimes that have produced their own values and decisions. I can’t help hearing all three asking about the social meaning of sports and the responsibilities and involvement of fans. I hear a disability theory voice asking about the notions of “normal” baseline tests of brains, about the shapes and capacities of bodies and their display as exemplary objectified bodies. To say nothing of psychoanalysis, or critical theory (of pop culture, e.g.), or situationist critique, or semiotics, or Baudrillard, or Bataille.
So, you know, I suppose I’ll just explain the stuff in the syllabus.