Wednesday, August 20, 2014

what I won't be telling my students as the semester begins

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.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

pain and orientation

I had a bicycle accident yesterday. As a result, I have a bad bruise on my left shoulder, another on my left thumb/heel of hand, and a minor scrape on my knee. I’m also in day three of a relatively minor attack of Ménière’s syndrome.

The scrapes and bruises have different feelings of pain, but none of them is quite like the Ménière’s. The scrapes are most superficial and least constitutive of a sense-perceptual world for me. They are found in a location on the surface of my body, and in that way, phenomenologically, are objective, corporal appearances. The bruises, especially the deep one in my shoulder, appear ambiguously. I can objectify them as such, feel them, delectate in the pain that is “in” “my” shoulder as I might enjoy the sensuous delights of a glass of good whisky. On the other hand, the shoulder moves differently and my motions are changed, not through an objective or mechanical error, but as motions-I-can-make. My range of motility, of intention to move, is limited, and in this way the shoulder bruise appears constitutive of a world for movement, hence subjective.

The Ménière’s symptoms are entirely different. What is objectified as Ménière’s syndrome is a loss or distortion of hearing, loss of balance, vertigo, and feeling of pressure around the ear. From a third-person perspective, that’s somewhat accurate as an account of the symptoms. Subjectively, what’s happening is existentially significant. I realized I was an aurally-oriented more than a visually-oriented person, compared to many people, but that’s not even half of it. I haven’t “lost hearing” or “lost balance.” I have lost a great deal of my sense of spatiality. My orientation to spatiality is not just a matter of (visual) appearance of things having normal up-down fixity (of being “true” or “plumb”). The “pressure in my head” is a loss of my sensitivity to waves of air of all kinds. I have lost the buoyancy of my orientated place in the world. Instead of bouncing along on waves of sound, I’m sunk like a rock under them.

Not enough is said in phenomenological circles about buoyancy as a dimension of flesh and orientation in our perceptual projection into the world. In fact, I don’t recall ever reading about it or hearing anyone talk about it, and I don’t think I would have realized how important buoyancy is to my orientation if it weren’t for Ménière’s.

I’m not thankful.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

what college is for

I think often about what college is for. If it is not a gateway to professional career and prestige—which it never really was, especially not for students like ours at CSU Stanislaus—, and not a means of increasing individual wealth, then what? In brief, if all the (mainly crude) economic justifications for higher education are not true, what could be a good reason to go to college?

I reject the citizenship rationale, because not only do very few of my students aspire to this in any meaningful way, but it is not clear what citizenship would mean, and whether developing citizenship would be good for students (unlike the economic rationale).

I think I can say honestly that I believe the following.

College education is the best way to learn to understand how knowledge, information, and power work at the level at which they work to control the world. What college educators can do is explain how knowledge functions as a shape of power, how knowledge shapes social institutions and practices, and how it shapes us. The practical use of understanding all this is to be able grasp how the people who own knowledge use it, and what they do to manufacture reality with it.

Yes, there are people who own knowledge and information. These are not your teachers, but the people who, ultimately, determine what your teachers teach. They are not researchers at Stanford or Cal Tech. Instead, they are the owners of knowledge, information, and power in our society. For instance, the research professor at an R1 institution must get funding for research, and competes to get it, from those who have a vested interest in that research—the funding agencies, which are government and corporations. They own the products of that research. They literally own it. They control to a great degree whether the researcher can publish the research, profit from it, make changes to it, develop it along new lines, or anything else. In grant contracts, this is laid out specifically: who owns and controls this new knowledge. The Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, Monsanto, Dow, and Chevron use this knowledge to maintain and increase their power. This is not power wielded repressively on us, not power that coerces us by threats of violence. This is power wielded by controlling the shape of the world, the shape of reality—and by controlling reality, the people who own knowledge shape everything that anyone can do in the world.

Knowing how this happens means you are more free, because you understand what your own choices and actions in life mean, and what they don’t mean; what you can and can’t do; and what could matter and might not matter about what you do. Knowing how knowledge, information, and power are distributed, and how the owners of them build the world we live in, makes it possible to consider strategic options for living in that world.