Tuesday, October 30, 2007
[Testimonial Note: As far as I know, I have not been abducted by aliens since reading this book.]
So imagine my delight when today, stopping to grab a cup of coffee on my way home from the office, I see someone reading my little lost treasure. I no longer own a copy of the book, since I bought it and then gave it away over a dozen times back in the day, but some things I remember distinctly. The book is divided into 9 chapters, each concentrating on a specific "Resistance Technique." The techniques are as follows: (1) Mental Struggle (2) Physical Struggle (3) Righteous Anger (4) Protective Rage (5) Support from Family Members (6) Intuition (7) Metaphysical Methods (8) Appeal to Spiritual Personages (9) Repellents. My favorites were (1) and (3), but in particular, the finer distinctions that the author makes between the two.
"Resistance Technique #1: Mental Struggle" involves what the author calls "righteous indignation." She distinguishes this from "righteous anger" (Resistance Technique #3) in the following:
Anger differs from the sense of indignation that the experiencer must feel in order for Mental Struggle to succeed; that technique, in its simplest form, is purely mental, while Righteous Anger surges into the realm of the emotion. It is related to certain aspects of anger's more intense forms-- rage, wrath, animosity, hostility, fury and ire-- but differs in significant ways. When used as a technique to drive away harassing entities, it is a more deliberate and calmer emotion; it must be carefully controlled by the experiencer if it is to be effective. Otherwise, it can boil into the uncontrolled rage and depression that prevented abductee Billy Wolfe from successfully ridding himself of continued violation. It might be likened to the attitude of the badgered news anchor in the classic movie Network, who states in unequivocal terms, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore."
Now, I don't know if you've seen Sidney Lumet's classic film Network-- I must admit that it's been years since I've seen it myself-- but I don't know that the character of Howard Beale (played by Peter Finch, who is mad as hell) is exactly what I would describe as a man possessed by a "more deliberate and calmer emotion." I mean, he's suicidal in the beginning of the film, and destined to be executed at the end. Nevertheless, it is true that this very anger, righteous as it is, proves to be a highly effective form of "resistance" which, I suppose, is the point we are supposed to take in our battle against aliens.
Of course, that's not to say that Righteous Anger (or it's more "mental" counterpart, Righteous Indignation) are not ultimately effective in defending yourself against alien abduction... I'm just questioning the nuances of this description.
And, I figured, there was just one more day left in October, so I could afford a "throwaway" blog.
I am fascinated with the secret. [Insert your own psychoanalytic interpretation here.] So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the PostSecret project. Frank Warren, the inventor of the project, invited people from all over the world to write down their secrets on a homemade postcard and mail it to him. He posts those anonymous, clandestine revelations every Sunday on his website, and has recently released A Lifetime of Secrets (the fourth in a series of books collecting the postcards he has received over the last three years).
Many of the secrets involve garden-variety social transgressions: infidelity, exhibitionism, addiction, familial irresponsibility. Some of the postcards record those fleeting, but joyous, personal epiphanies (e.g., "I know that I was placed in this world to achieve something great") that we only keep "secret" for fear that sharing them would involve displaying an otherwise unacceptable level of hubris. Others are attempts to recover some moment that should have been done differently, if only we could do those moments over.
There is something about the anonymity of these postcards that, in my mind, inspires compassion and empathy despite the often horrible secrets that are uncovered. I don't know why that is. In general, I think, we are less inclined to be compassionate when confronted with something that offends our conscience in a general way. That is, it seems to me that we usually require some personal contact with some person who has offended in order to assuage our repulsion at the offense. (For example, homophobes are much more inclined to be sympathetic to a homosexual whom they know.) But there is something about the absence of an author of the Postsecret secrets-- and, consequently, the absence of authority-- that mediates, universalizes, and somehow humanizes these revelations.
Is it nothing more than the fact that we all have "secrets"?
Saturday, October 27, 2007
[This is me chuckling.]
I think I'm going to use the fable by 17th C. poet and fabulist Jean de La Fontaine called "The Wolf and the Lamb." (It's a short poem, so you should click on the link and read it yourself. If you're familiar with Jacques Derrida's Rogues, you will remember that he also uses this fable to talk about democratic power/sovereignty.) The fable begins: "The strong are always best at proving they're right." La Fontaine goes on to recount the "trial and judgment" of a prey before its predator. In any other context, the arguments of Fontaine’s wolf concerning why he must devour the lamb would be, no doubt, humorous. We all assume, after all, that “power” and "violence" in the animal kingdom do not require justification. However, Derrida employs the fable to demonstrate a particularly democratic concept of power or sovereignty, in which the “law of giving reason(s)” and giving them in a universal medium (like language or law) works to mask the brute force of the strongest. To provide reasons or justifications for power/violence is always already to compromise it by subjecting it to rules of discourse, to a code of law, to concepts. But, Derrida suggests, democracy requires these compromises, despite the fact that in the end-- that is, to the lamb--they make no more justificatory sense for (politically) sovereign powers than they do for Fontaine’s (natural) brute. They are just as much disingenuousness and dissimulation. Hence, the aporia of democratic sovereignty.
At least since the introduction of liberal-democratic theory during the Enlightenment, the concept of political sovereignty has existed as a kind of specter of pure power, which is to say it has never existed or fully presented itself at all. This is a well-rehearsed theme among postcolonial theorists: those states that purport to represent liberal political ideals still resort to violence and brute force, in the name of those same ideals, to sustain themselves and (more often) to prosper. (The paramount case may be the French colonial program mission civilisatrice, or “civilizing mission,” which the ostensibly liberal French Republic used to justify the violent “repression”—in both the psychoanalytical and political sense—of its colonial dependencies.) The fact that they do so under the auspices of modernity’s most enlightened and “reasonable” political form—and we should hear in this all of the deliberative resonances that democracy entails—does not exempt them from opting in favor of the violent power that is constitutive of that political form.
The “reason of the strongest,” then, turns out not to be the “strongest reason” but, as in Fontaine’s fable, the reason that the strong deploy to safeguard their strength. That is, “the strong are best at proving their right” not because the strong are always the most right, but because in the realm of trial and judgment, where rights are measured, the strong are best at wielding their powers of proof. “Pure sovereignty” does not exist, Derrida claims in Rogues, because “it is always in the process if autoimmunizing itself, of betraying itself by betraying the democracy that nonetheless can never do without it.” The moment one speaks in favor of democracy—which is required above all of the democrat—when one gives reasons to or for democratic power or violence, “democracy” is compromised and its internally-motivated destabilization and self-destruction is activated by this unavoidable aporia.
Derrida’s point is not simply to illustrate a "bad" form of democracy. In order for actual democracies to be effective, to generate, sustain and enforce a system of law that can secure "democracy," they need power--and often violent power-- within their ranks. They need what Derrida calls the cracy of the demos, which is most often manifest in the same kind of justificatory narrative that Fonataine's wolf provides, that is, in giving reasons for the right to one's might. In every democracy, this requires the emergence of a kind of preeminent sovereign force--a spokesperson, a statesman, a President-- that can represent and protect "democracy” as such. Such a force, necessary but indispensable, will inevitably betray and threaten the democratic order at every turn, but s/he will also keep it secure.
There's a lot more to say here, obviously, but my intuition is to answer the implied question of the colloquium ("Is violence the American tradition?") affirmatively. Only with this caveat: it is an "American" tradition because it is a constitutive part of the "democratic" tradition. It may be most pronounced in America because we are no longer bothered by (if we ever were) the tensions and auto-deconstructive tendencies inherent in our political form. We're like Fontaine's wolf.
And we're living in a world of lambs.
Friday, October 26, 2007
Several weeks ago, when my class was still reading Homer's Iliad, I tried to goad my students into making comparisons between the Trojan War and our current war in Iraq. That didn't go over so well, and at the time I wasn't sure why. I suspected that it was still early in the semester and perhaps the students were a bit tentative about showing their moral and political cards... but I also secretly worried that my students sensed my own critical position in the way that I framed my questions. So, I let it slide.
We're reading The History of the Peloponnesian War now and, apparently sometime between Homer and Thucydides, all of my students' bodies were snatched and replaced with a group of young folks who can't seem to talk about anything but Iraq. When it rains, it pours.
Once again, the kids have not failed to impress. And, in retrospect, I think they were right to resist the comparisons earlier in the semester. Thucydides' text lends itself so much better to an analysis of war in general and, in particular, "our" war in Iraq: the questions concerning what constitutes patriotism, the ambiguous relationships between "allies", the difficult duties of a beleaguered citizenry to its warring state, the fine line between democracy and empire. I haven't tried to temper their enthusiasm for talking about Iraq in the slightest, even at the expence of making sure that they actually "know" much about the Peloponnesian War. The truth is, it's as much to my benefit as it is to theirs. These kids' friends will be our next generation of war casualties and war veterans. I want to know how they're processing all of that. In deference to Chet and his excellent insight about the garbage-in/garbage-out dilemma of young people, I'm happy that my students are processing the crisis of their generation through a great piece of literature. (On that score, I want to also recognize Booga Face, who processes the Iraq War through the televesion series Deadwood on his blog.)
I should also note that my students have, on occasion, reached back into the Iliad to make their point from time to time, which is some comfort to my pedagogical pride. War is war, after all.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
Our last film was Sam Mendes' 1999 masterpiece American Beauty. I remember being moved to tears the first time I saw that film-- and completely unable to account for my visceral, mostly unreflective, and exceedingly vulnerable reaction. I also remember at some point having an elaborate argument about how American Beauty and Fight Club (which was released the same year) were essentially the same film with different ethical payouts, but unfortunately I can't remember how that argument went. I've got to start writing these things down...
Anyway, on this viewing, I found myself just as moved by the fragile, weary, neurotic and human-all-too-human characters. Mendes managed to strike just the right chord in this film, a delicate balance of suburban arrogance and suburban angst. But this time, unlike any time before, I was terribly disappointed with the ending. [**SPOILER ALERT** Stop reading now if you haven't seen the film!] Of course, I'm not talking about the fact that Lester, the main character played by Kevin Spacey, is murdered in the end. I was disappointed in the film's "epilogue"-- where Lester, in his voiceover narration from beyond the grave, assures us that if we have yet to see the "beauty" in this life, we shouldn't worry, because "someday [we] will."
This is what I don't like about that: the entire film seems to suggest that developing a capacity to see what is beautiful in our otherwise mundane, often very ugly, existence is a remarkable achievement. It's as close to a "virtue" that one can find in Mendes' spiritually-empty American suburbia. So, when the tragic (anti-)hero curtails the miracle of that achievement by assuring it to everyone from the point-of-view of some happy afterlife, the whole tragic beauty of the film seems cheapened.
But, then again, maybe that's what makes it an "American" beauty.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
Of course, we still have "trains"... but today's commuter rails don't seem to have the same je ne sais qua. For one thing, people just aren't on them long enough. Not long enough to strike up a conversation and develop a mysterious-cum-complicated relationship. Not long enough to write a work of some length about an existential crisis. Not long enough to pine for a stranger who wears his hat at a jaunty angle or who swishes her skirt in a sassy way. Not long enough to rue the day one was ever born. And commuter rails don't have that old, world-weary, lonesome sound-- the chugging and the hissing and the whistling-- that old passenger trains did. No, we're definitely missing something with the absence of the train.
It's ironic that the passenger train, which at one point in history represented modernity and speed, has become a wholly un-inspiring, even archaic, symbol of slowness and inefficiency. Now, trains are only good for moving around stuff that is in no particular hurry to get where its going. Grain. Steel. Timber. Pallets of crates of boxes of stuff.
I live near a train track and often hear the whistles in the early morning and late evening. I think they seem even sadder now.
Monday, October 15, 2007
I wasn't as familiar with Edmund Burke's work on the sublime, so I was interested to learn that Burke (who also, naturally, finds the ocean sublime) argues that the feeling of "terror" or "fear" inspired by the sublime involves some speculation about the possibility of one's own death. That is, we find the ocean sublime partly because its vastness exceeds the powers of our understanding, but more so because that vastness prompts us to imagine our own death by drowning in it. This marks an interesting difference between him and Kant. For Kant, judgments about the sublime (qua aesthetic judgments) must be universal and necessary, which would preclude any considerations of the subject's (particular) death. The sublimity of the ocean is an instance of what Kant would call the "dynamical" sublime, that is, a judgment about the magnitude and might of the ocean, which exceeds human understanding, and not about the particular threat that magnitude and might poses to me. I think Kant might also describe the sublimity of the ocean as "terrible"-- inasmuch as he recognizes that the "feeling" inspired by the sublime is the opposite of the feeling inspired by the beautiful-- but that terror cannot be grounded in any particular empirical psychology.
In the past, I have often heard people talk about Kant's sublime, though explain it in a way that is much closer to Burke. The reasons why these two ideas may be potentially confused seem obvious, but since the distinction between the two is so significant, it seems crucial to try to situate Kant's sublime far, far away from Burke's.
This led me to wonder: is there another (perhaps, better) example of the sublime that doesn't allow for this confusion between Kant's description and Burke's description? In other words, can we think of an example of sublimity that would still inspire the negative feelings that Kant associates with the sublime without those negative feelings being potentially associated with our own death, even if only in a latent way?
Thursday, October 11, 2007
(That's the lovely Jean-Paul Sartre in the photo above. If one could transform the noun "French intellectual" into a gerund, that is what Sartre seems to be doing in that Parisian cafe, in black and white, with his pipe and MontBlanc pen, looking pensive and slightly perturbed... which reminds me of an insight by John R. that didn't make it onto the last discussion board. John reminded me that we should also consider a parallel category for the teachering-teacher, who is more concerned with learning the tricks of authority and perfecting the teacherly-image than in facilitating learning.)
To review, we will recall that Sartre's café waiter is described in a section on "Bad Faith." Sartre argues that human existence has two modes-- facticity and transcendence-- and we are ever negotiating a kind of "metastable" oscillation between the two. One is in bad faith when one tries to exclusively occupy a single pole of that pairing; either one "flees his or her freedom" and acts as if s/he was an object, or one "denies his or her facticity" and pretends to be unencumbered by the givenness of his or her situation. The café waiter, as Sartre decsribes him, is guilty of the first. He believes that he can "be a waiter" in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell. Sartre describes the waiter "waitering" in the following:
"His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the persons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer... He returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope-walker by putting it in a perpatually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand... He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café." (Being and Nothingness, 101-102)
When I teach this section to my students, I always ask them to imagine the affects and movements of a TGIF or Applebee's waiter, which I think is the closest American equivalent to the French café waiter. The point is, of course, that the waiter is in bad faith because he is "fleeing his freedom." He is trying to realize the being-in-itself (en soi) of "the café waiter." But he can never simply be a waiter in that way because he always has the freedom to transcend that situation (even if he denies it). As Sartre points out, there is nothing stopping him from waking up one morning and deciding not to go to work, or not to perform his job so eagerly and solicitously, save his denial that such actions are real possibilities.
Sartre's point is to emphasize the instability of this facticity-transcendence relation. We are what we are in the mode of not being it. Everytime we attempt to reduce ourselves to our facticity, we immediately realize that those facts can be transcended. Correspondingly, every time we pretend that we are unencumbered by our facticity, we find ourselves confronted with the limits of our freedom.
Back to the "student": I don't think studenting is (exactly) an instance of Sartre's bad faith. That is, I don't think that the student-who-students is simply "faking it" or "playing at being a student." I think studenting is a whole other activity than learning. That is not to say that one can't also "play at" studenting, but that wasn't the point of making the distinction between the student-who-students and the student-who-learns, as I understand it. Studenting isn't necessarily in bad faith in the same way that the waiter-waitering is, because the student-who-students isn't merely attempting to achieve the en soi of a student, but is trying to achieve a host of ends for which studenting is a means. Hence, studenting invovles a kind of pour soi.
On some level, I think we want to believe that studenting is "inauthentic" because we want to believe that our students should only be learning. But isn't that just objectifying, in a way, our students by expecting them to be "learners" in the way that an inkwell is an inkwell?
Monday, October 08, 2007
"That is, one can be a student, but one can also student. To student is to be engaged in a series of performances whose form and substance are primarily shaped by the institutional and organizational properties of the school setting. Thus, the term ‘student,’ employed as a verb, may be distinguished from the term ‘learn,’ where this latter term might be defined as a series of performances that are, in considerable part, formed by the properties of a discipline or subject matter as well as the methods of inquiry appropriate to that subject matter....
Many of us think that the task and the achievement of being a student are to learn. Consider, however, the possibility that what a student (noun) does is not learn, but instead student (verb). That is, the student becomes proficient in doing the kinds of things that students do, such as ‘psyching out’ teachers, figuring out how to get certain grades or ‘beat the system,’ dealing with boredom so that it is not obvious to teachers, negotiating the best deals on reading and writing assignments, treading the right line between curricular and extracurricular activities, and determining what is likely to be on the test and what is not.”
First, I want to say, why oh why has no one ever thought of this before??!! The idea that the activity of "studenting" now mostly involves getting one over (on the system, on the professor, on the constructors of standardized tests, on the bursar)-- and vey seldom involves actually learning--seems so manifestly true that I have decided to put this new verb to immediate use. Sadly, I do not expect that it will need much explanation.
A supporting anecdote: My college has a "Fall Break" that is maddeningly, but brilliantly, scheduled from 5:00 pm on Friday through 8:00 am the following Wednesday. Of course, what that means is that the break is really only Monday and Tuesday. But one of my students was studenting this afternoon and explaining to me that she would be absent on Thursday, because she needed to leave a day early for break. Mustering all the patience I could, I explained that, in fact, leaving Thursday would mean she was leaving two days early-- technically, it would mean she was leaving four days early, but I didn't want to belabor the point-- since the entire "school day" of Friday isn't part of the break period. She said, "Well, since the break was scheduled for Friday through Monday, I didn't think it would be a big deal to leave a day early"... ignoring my thorough and crystal clear explanation altogether. You know, in the way that students student.
I wonder whether or not the hyper-bureaucratic systems that produce students-who-student bear the brunt of the responsibility for this unfortunate phenomenon. I mean, have you looked into what it takes to register for classes these days? What students may or may not want to "learn" plays a very small part in the courses they choose-- it's all about time slots, requirements, and savvy selection of professors. That is, it's all about learning... but learning how to student.
Friday, October 05, 2007
I was tied up with Merleau-Pontyans shortly after the Columbia University speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but I did actually watch his speech in its entirety on CSPAN and wanted to offer my $0.02 on some of his criticisms (and the way it was subsequently taken up in American media).
A prefatory remark: if I wasn't already disciplined and conditioned by our domestic media to be suspicious of Ahmadinejad, I think I would have been very impressed with him on the basis of his Columbia University speech. He certainly wasn't the raving lunatic that we've been trained to expect. He showed poise in the face of significant hostility from his hosts--you may remember that he was introduced by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger as "exhibit[ing] all of the signs of a cruel and petty dictator"--and he repeatedly insisted on framing the forum as a conversation between intellectuals, frequently appealing to his audience's sense of academic integrity. Of course, we all know that rhetorical skill can easily mask what is otherwise repulsive content, but Ahmadinejad should be credited for his restraint.
You can read the entire transcript of Ahmadinejad's visit to Columbia here. There's too much there for me to attempt a point-by-point commentary, so let me just address the two main issues that were taken up in the media after the event. First, contrary to media reports, Ahmadinejad did not deny that the Holocaust happened in that speech. The majority of his remarks in reference to the Holocaust were framed in the context of an appeal for "responsible" scholarship. Ahmadinejad claimed that the Holocaust has become so sacrosanct in our (global) culture that intellectuals are forbidden from investigating the "truths" associated with it. He noted that no other "truths" are protected with the same vigilance--not in history, not in physics, not in economics, nowhere. By his reckoning, what academia desperately needs is to fill the void in scholarship surrounding the current situation and plight of Palestinians. Such scholarship, of course, would inevitably call into question the policies and right to existence of the state of Israel. As touchy as this subject may be, he is probably right about that.
Second, although Amhadinejad did in fact say that there are "no homosexuals in Iran," the context of this statement was elided. The American media reported this clip from his speech as if Ahmadinejad actually believed that homosexuals didn't exist in Iran. But what he said was "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon." As much as it horrifies and disgusts me to think of the manner in which homosexuals are treated in Iran, I can understand how what Ahmadinejad said was, in a sad way, true. In Iran, they don't have homosexuals like in our country. That is, in Iran, they don't have a homosexual "problem"-- because, in Iran, unlike in our country, homosexuals are not allowed to rise to the status of a "problem." Think of it this way: Most people here in the United States would say that "we don't have slaves in our country. We do not have this phenomenon." Of course, that's not true. (If you don't believe that human trafficking and slavery are still a "problem" in the United States, see here, here , and here. Or read Kevin Bale's excellent study Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy.) Most of us know, somewhere deep down inside, that such atrocities still occur here, but we would have probably answered the question the same way that Ahmadinejad did.
Last point, tthe media failed to address any of the legitimate criticisms that Ahmadinejad leveled against the U.S. in his speech and chose instead to focus on these two points that seemed both ignorant and ridiculous. The fact is, though, that the majority of Ahmadinejad's address was aimed at calling into question the United States' (political, economic and ideological) hegemony. This reminded me of a similar phenomenon a few years back after South African President Thabo Mbeki claimed that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. The way that was reported was as if Mbeki was simply a "backward" and ignorant simpleton, who refused to grant any authority to Western science. But the truth is, there was another omission of context going on. What Mbeki claimed was that AIDS was not merely caused by HIV-- he said that AIDS was a "disease of poverty." This, of course, is also true. And Mbeki's suspicion of Western science and Western medicine turned out to be prescient, as a couple of years later the U.S. was forced to admit that the ARV (anti-retroviral) drugs we had been sending to South Africa were experimental and were causing an immense amount of damage to the HIV-infected population we were purporting to help.
We have lost an ability to hear critical voices. Especially when those voices are coming from Africa or the Middle East. Of course, I cannot endorse a large part of Ahmadinejad's address, nor can I endorse many of the things that Mbeki said, but it frightens me that we are so comfortable with turning them into buffoons or madmen, and then muting them altogether.
Wednesday, October 03, 2007
"We're in trouble. And we need a place to be invisible for a while."
The news just came out that Memphis is the most violent city in America, so neither we nor our trouble are invisible anymore. I heard this story last Monday, after a long weekend of hosting people who were here in town for a conference. Some of them had been to Memphis before, some had not, but I pitched my usual hard sell of this city, which I love dearly. Given the disturbing report, I thought I might make that same pitch more broadly here...
Here's the thing: Memphis is a complicated place. We have a complicated history. Memphis has been the red-headed stepchild of Tennessee for years and, to be honest, the rest of the state would be perfectly happy lopping off the whole of West Tennessee just to get rid of Memphis. (Or "giving" us to Mississippi or Arkansas, in the way that you would re-gift a hideous sweater for Christmas.) But we're also a city of over a million people, with a rich musical and cultural heritage, not to mention the home of Graceland, Stax, Beale Street, Sun Studio, the National Civil Rights Museum, a world-class zoo, one of the biggest annual BBQ cook-offs in the U.S., and some really talented ducks. Where is the love?
The things I love about Memphis are not the tourist things. Actually, most of the things I love about Memphis are the things that are intentionally left out of the tourist maps. (Except for Wild Bill's juke joint, which is now sadly included in the tourist stuff. and, hence, overrun with tourists.) I love that Memphis is gritty, run-down, and unpredictable. I love that our dive bars are heavy on the "dive." I love that time seems out of joint here, almost as if the last 50 years or so didn't happen. I love Memphis for all of the reasons that people employ to claim that it's not a "real" city. I love that things like this can happen to you in Memphis. And I love that this is a place to get in trouble, and then to disappear with those troubles for a while.
Of course, I'm not happy about our newfound infamy, but I realize that it is an inevitable consequence of all of the things in Memphis that most tourists wouldn't find "cool": poverty, strained race relations, a past that has not passed. These are our albatrosses, but they're also our muses.
So, if you want to feel cool, I suggest a trip to NashVegas.