Thursday, January 29, 2009

Can You Hear Me Now?

Over at anotherpanacea, there's a really fascinating and mature consideration of what AnPan calls "Critique in the Age of Hope." The basic concern underlying AnPan's essay, as I read it, is that the general ethos of good-will and hope that has accompanied President Obama into the White House might find its expression in an unwitting subordination, by the American citizenry, of the role of critique. (By "critique," AnPan means the basic Kantian exercise of public reason, of deliberation and debate concerning matters of shared/public interest.) That is, he worries that the dramatic-- and dramatically positive--change from the last administration's practices of suppression, secrecy, lies, and general mismanagement of the public good will lull us into believing that we shouldn't criticize the current administration. Or, rather, he worries that Obama's symbolic representation of (what AnPan calls) "post-factional politics" may convince us that we all really are on the same page, so we can put away our soapboxes and rest assured that we are being heard.

Solidly couched within the long and storied tradition of enlightened (and Enlightenment) "critique," AnPan's essay is a warning: Don't be bamboozled. All is not yet well. He offers his own specific criticisms of government-business-as-usual, including three very astute platforms (1. Restore the Middle Class, 2. Make War on War, and 3. Shrink the Penitentiary) that the Obama administration ought to adopt post haste. On those counts, I have no issue, as I wholeheartedly agree with AnPan's analysis. But the real crux of his post is centered on the following question, in his words:

So what is role of political theory in the age of hope? When progressive politicians gain power, what role does critique still have to play? What is to be done, if Obama’s already doing it?

AnPan's answer is, as might be expected, to insist that we be cognizant of the fact that Obama may not be "already doing it," and consequently to keep pressure on just the sorts of real, and really legitimate, ideological disagreements we have about how to best manage the public good. Interestingly, he references Foucault's (critical) definition of "critique" in the course of making his case, in which Foucault defines critique as that which teaches us "how not to be governed." I am very sympathetic with this appeal: the appeal to resist, as much as possible, the battery of practices and institutions that train us to be docile, passive, non-critical subjects and citizens. The fear, of course, is that criticisms of Obama--especially this early on in his Presidency-- may be taken as abrogations of allegiance to his administration. But that fear is a fear that was instilled in us and cultivated as a civic posture by the last administration, in which critique was synonymous with treason. That sort of comportment towards our civic responsibilities will be, in the words of the 80's band Chicago, a hard habit to break. It may be time for the reintroduction of serious philosophical inquiry, of the Socratic sort, into the public sphere.

As unlikely as this seems, it is a possibility. Remember that for the last eight years we saw an unrelenting assault on science, only to hear in the Inaugural Address that it was now time to "restore science to its proper place." Philosophy needs the same restoration. This is the Age of Hope, after all.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Leveraging Another Kind of Truth

Those pensive-looking guys to the left are 20th C. philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. Although they come from different ends of the philosophical spectrum-- existentialism and literature for Sartre, mathematical logic and analytic philosophy for Russell--they did share a passion for and commitment to the life of that long-lost animal, the engaged intellectual. It was that common interest (and the Vietnam War) that prompted Russell and Sartre, in 1967, to organize and preside over what was "officially" called the International War Crimes Tribunal but popularly known as the Russell-Sartre Tribunal (or just the Russell Tribunal). Because the Tribunal was not backed by any official government's mandate, it was really the purest form of a truth commission, seeking to uncover the facts of "war crimes" committed by the United States (and, secondarily, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea) during the Vietnam War.

In his Inaugural Statement, Jean-Paul Sartre offered a preemptive response to critics of the Tribunal, many of whom questioned its legitimacy and potential for effectiveness given the fact that it had been described as a strange organization of "all jurymen and no judge." Sartre acknowledged that the Tribunal had not been given a mandate, and hence could not act in any official capacity as a "judge," but he argued that "neither governments nor the masses" were in a position to mandate an investigation like the one they were undertaking. The Tribunal, according to Sartre, was "not invested with real powers by governments" but was rather "created out of a void and for a real need." Then, in his characteristic fashion, Sartre offered the following:

The Russell Tribunal believes... that its legality comes from both its absolute powerlessness and its universality.

In the background of Sartre's claim was the debate over the merits and demerits of the Nuremburg Trials some two decades earlier, which many people criticized as kangaroo courts conducting show trials. Where the Nuremburg courts were powerful and partial--that is, victors exercising victor's justice--Sartre saw the function of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal as an attempt to "resuscitate the jus contra bellum" by virtue of its non-association with any particular power and, correspondingly, its true representation of "the truth" that "the people" need in their pursuit of legal and ethical laws that could contravene what Satre called "the laws of the jungle."

What I have always found fascinating about truth commissions is that they regularly subordinate the truth that needs to be punished to the truth that needs to be known. That is not to say, of course, that such commissions do not aim to facilitate the "regular" operations of retributive justice or that their work does not often result in traditional "punishment," but only that they recognize that justice without truth, like Kant said of intuitions without concepts, is blind. And historically-blind justice is unjust.

There is a lot of talk these days about the possibility of bringing former President Bush (et al) to account for war crimes, human rights violations, and the like. The truth is, that will probably never happen in any official capacity. And yet, the whole truth of that history still needs to be known. President Obama, on his first full day in Office, welcomed his senior staff and Cabinet members with some remarks that included the following:

But the way to make a government responsible is not simply to enlist the services of responsible men and women, or to sign laws that ensure that they never stray. The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they're being made, and whether their interests are being well served...

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

This is exactly the sort of historically-sensitive commitment to truth that I think we find in the work of truth commissions. That is, it is a commitment to the concept of a truth-in-common, which serves as the foundation that constitutes and legitimates truly democratic polities. When that truth is no longer shared or, worse, when it is intentionally disavowed and covered over, it is the responsibility of we, the people--powerless but universal, to borrow Sartre's formulation-- to insist upon its reintroduction into the public space.

To that end, I hope that we keep pressure on the issue of our former administration's war crimes and human rights violations. That pressure may have to come from non-governmental bodies without a mandate, a constellation of jurymen without a judge, like the Russell-Sartre Tribunal a half-century ago. But we shouldn't underestimate the promise of those bodies. Again, from Sartre:

This session is a communal undertaking for which the final term should be, as a philosopher said, ‘une verité devenue’. If the masses agree with our judgement, it will become truth, and we, at the very moment when we step back so that they will become the guardians and powerful supporters of that truth, will then know that we have been legitimized. When the people show their agreement they will also show a greater need: that a real ‘War Crimes Tribunal’ be created on a permanent basis, that these crimes may be denounced and not sanctioned anywhere and at any time.

Friday, January 23, 2009

At Least You Did The Reading...

A friend of mine forwarded me the following video, which is apparently a part of some series sponsored by the website Rate My Professors in which professors are allowed to comment upon students' remarks about them. The retorts are called "Professors Strike Back" and this is one from Peter Fettner, Professor of Intellectual Heritage at Temple University.

I seriously cannot stop laughing at this:



And then there's this, from Ohio State Chemistry Professor Rob Coleman. This is the kind of no-frills advice that all professors really do want to share with their charges:



What? No partial credit?!! Okay, how about extra credit?

"A Good Day for the Rule of Law"

As one of his first acts in Office-- a long overdue one-- Obama signed an Executive Order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center within the year. What's more, Obama's order also included directives to end torture (such as waterboarding) in U.S. interrogration practices, shutter CIA "black site" prisons abroad, and end the practice of "extraordinary renditions." In my class on Tuesday, we were discussing what sorts of things we would like to see our new President do first, and I said then (on Tuesday) that I wanted to see Guantanamo Bay shut down tomorrow. I only had to wait one extra day.

Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, called it "a good day for the rule of law."

Goodbye, and good riddance, Gitmo. We won't soon wash the stains of that offense from our record.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

My President Is Black

It snowed yesterday in Memphis. Not "real" snow, just some flurries in the air, but it added an unreal sparkle to the morning... a morning in which so many other things seemed so unreal.

I watched the Inauguration ceremonies in our campus pub, surrounded by rapt colleagues and students. People cheered and clapped and laughed, and a couple of times I almost cried. I kept saying: I can't believe this. I can't believe this is happening.

Immediately after the benediction by Rev Lowery, I went back to my office to get ready for my 12:30 class, Philosophy of Race. The last time I felt so totally unprepared to say something significant was when I had to give a toast at my brother's wedding rehearsal dinner. I went into class, paused, and began: I suppose it goes without saying that what just happened was positively historic. Like many of you, I thought that the most important thing that ever happened in my life happened on September 11. Don't think that anymore. It's what happened today. The President of the United States, President Barack Obama, our President, is a black man.

We spent the next 75 minutes talking about the Inaugural Address, what needed to be done (and not done) first by the new Administration, the wonders of our nation's peaceful transfer of power. My impression was that they were, in fact, filled with hope... but also caution, a little suspicion, a palpable fear. It was uncannily similar to September 11, when it seemed as if everyone knew something really bad had just happened, though none of us were equipped to wrap our heads or our hearts around the sheer enormity of it. But this time, something really good had just happened.

I thought: This moment is so big, so powerful, so significant. And we are so the opposite of all those things.

In his Address yesterday, Obama noted the "other" crisis that our country presently faces. It's not an economic or political crisis, but what he called the "sapping of confidence across our land-- the nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights." Of all the great things about our people that have been truncated, contaminated or eliminated over the past eight years, our individual and collective political imagination is one of the most damaged targets. I feel fortunate to have a job where I can help to restore that imagination. Because we are not yet so small, so powerless, so insignificant that we cannot imagine a way to meet our moment in history. Yes we can.

Our black President took his oath yesterday on the steps of a building that was constructed by black slaves. Great things, seemingly impossible things, are imaginable. But, as President Obama said yesterday, "greatness is never given."

Today, we begin again.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address


Text of President Obama's Inaugural Address:

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because we the people have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted — for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things — some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions — that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions — who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them — that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works — whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. Those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account — to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day — because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart — not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers ... our found fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.
To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Monday, January 19, 2009

History

An excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have A Dream" address to the people assembled on the Washington Mall, August 28, 1963.

...In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

...We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

...I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

...I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

...This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

25 Random Things About Me

So, there's a thing going around on Facebook that asks people to list 25 random things about themselves. I usually delete messages like this immediately, but for whatever reason I actually filled out the list this time. I suppose that the point of this exercise is to show something revelatory about what the author finds "random" about him- or herself, and in this case, I was actually a little intrigued by my own list. Of all the random things that one could say about oneself, what makes it to the top 25? And why those 25 things and not others? There are all kinds of idiosyncracies that might explain the list, but the truth is that the way it is set up really does make possible a closest-to-actually "random" list.

I've reposted my list below. You'll probably notice that I somehow overlooked the fact that I listed numbers 17 and 18 twice, so there are actually 27 (and not 25) things listed here. Just count that as another random fact about me-- I am not numerically-inclined. Here's my list:

25. I was a Preacher's Kid. Although I'm not particularly religious anymore-- or, at least, not "religious" in any traditional sense-- I think that being a PK played an essential role in shaping the person I am today. I also am totally fascinated by how many philosophers were/are PK's. I met 6 others just while I was in grad school, and many more since.

24. I lost 3 of my 4 grandparents while I was in graduate school. I miss them terribly. All the time.

23. I love children and I'm really, really good with children.  However, I would never, EVER, want to be a mother. I think I would be an awful mother. That said, I'm an awesome aunt.

22.I've never been to a drive-in movie or a rodeo.

21. I believe that we never know what kind of baggage people are carrying around with them. We should try every day to lighten the load, not add to it.

20. I'm a complete sucker for the underdog. And also students who cry.

19. My favorite numbers are 19 and 3. 19 because it's the day of my birthday. 3 because it was (Atlanta Brave) Dale Murphy's number, and my number in every sport I played up through college.

18. I think I'm better as a behind-the-scenes player than a leader. Kind of like Dick Cheney. People are suspicious of me when I'm in charge... probably because of things like that Dick Cheney comment.

17.  I don't think tolerance is a virtue.  At most, tolerant people are merely refraining from being vicious.  You don't get moral credit for that in my book.

18. Scary movies really scare me. As do haunted houses. I know it's irrational and I know other people think they're "fun," but I think that being terrified is one of the most miserable human experiences. There's nothing fun about being really scared.

17. I wish I could write a song as good as Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright."

16. I failed "Public Speaking" THREE TIMES as an undergraduate at The University of Memphis. They only let you retake a class for a higher grade 3 times, but you still had to pass the "Public Speaking" class to graduate, so I actually had to take it 4 times and I still had it as the only "F" on my transcript. People find this hard to believe, but it's true.

15. I think my little brother might be the greatest human being I know. He's smart, compassionate, wickedly funny, generous, tough, loyal, and he is the first person I would call if I was in trouble.

14. I hate to tell strangers what I do for a living. I wish there was a way to say "I'm a philosophy professor" that indicated that I'm not that kind of philosophy professor. I love my job and am really proud of what I do, but we live in a viciously anti-intellectual culture. I do my best to break down the presumed wall between academics and everyone else, but it's unfortunately made of (in the parlance of Lucinda Williams) concrete and barbed wire.

13. I love "reality" television. Even and especially the really bad varieties.

12. I don't remain friends with my exes. Never have. Probably never will. It's complicated.

11. I believe in love. I don't care who somebody loves, if they want to ceremoniously sanctify that union-- in whatever way they choose to do that-- we should let them. However, I do not believe that marriage is a "right" and I do not believe that fighting for the "right to marry" is a progressive political cause.

10. For all of its problems, and there are many, I love and will defend the South for as long as I have energy and breath to do it. This is the most complicated, maddening, and yet culturally rich part of our country. I love the food, the music, the people, the traditions just as much as I hate the racism, the provincialism, the backwardness, and the pretense. I absolutely CANNOT STAND to hear ignorant, regionalist summaries of the South from people who aren't from here, who have never spent any significant time here, and who know nothing about it.

9. Wild Bill's Juke Joint (in Memphis) is my church. When I die, I want my funeral to happen there.  And I want everyone to get sloppy drunk, eat a lot of fried chicken wings, dance, fill up the band's tip bucket, and laugh. Then, I want them to forget me but remember their awesome night at Bill's.

8. I concede that Derrida was a one-trick-pony. But I think it's a pretty amazing trick.

7. I find Sartre's account of "Bad Faith" in Being and Nothingness to be the most intuitively true account of human consciousness I've ever read.

6. I am absolutely positive that I will not outlive my parents. And that makes me sad for them.

5. There are very few things that I enjoy more than showing visitors a good time in Memphis.  The 901 is my home and I love it more than anything. If I could get paid to be an Memphis Ambassador, I think that would be as close to a dream job as I can imagine.

4. I ALWAYS feel judged. (See #25.)

3. I'm far less confident than I may appear. (See #4.)

2. I'm a humanist... something that is very difficult to reconcile as a person who works on the philosophies of race and gender. I really do believe there is something different and unique about human beings that ought to be protected and valued. I don't think non-human animals are the same. That doesn't mean that I think we should mistreat non-human animals, that they don't need their own protections, or that we don't have special kinds of obligations to them, but I really can't consider them on a par with human beings. I also think that "Enlightenment" humanism is deeply flawed, though not rotten to the core. I've been working on a manuscript that is an attempt to resuscitate a viable humanism. Will get back to you on that.

1. As much as I hate to admit it, I really do want you to like me. Whoever you are.

"24" Is Like Television Crack

Despite my real and abiding passion for the figure of the antihero (see here and here), I had never seen a single episode of the television program 24 before last week. Everyone-- and I mean everyone-- told me that I should watch it, that I would love it, and that I was really missing something... but I had pretty much resigned myself to my ignorance about this little cultural phenomenon, since I had already missed the first six seasons and my understanding of the show was that it wasn't something that you could jump into midstream. But, last week, I was experiencing the pre-semester jitters and needed something to occupy my mind, so I went down to our local video store and picked up the first three discs of 24's Season 1.

Then, I basically lost two days of my life.

Seriously, this show is like crack. I was up until 2 or 3 in the morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted, barely staying awake and yet still totally unable to not watch Just... One... More... Episode. The next day when I went back to the video store to get the remaining discs of Season 1, I felt like one of those pathetic, jonesin' creatures that visited the corners in The Wire. I suffered through two more sleep-deprived days, but made it to the end of Season 1. Still didn't feel like I had gotten my fix. Went back for Season 2. Already beginning to build up a tolerance to my lack of sleep, finding ways to cover for the lost time, carrying around a little bottle of Visine to ease the blood-shot eyes, referring to my video-store dealers by their nicknames...

[The first step is admitting you have a problem.]

The show's protagonist, Jack Bauer, is only just emerging as a proper antihero in Season 2. (He wasn't really in Season 1.) But he is already rivalling Dexter, who sits at the top my antihero list. The whole construct of 24 is truly brilliant, taking place in real-time and (and often split-screen), which makes for clever-bordering-on-ingenious storywriting. And, now that I've begun watching the show, I completely understand all the talk about 24's role in prepping America for a black President. I don't want anyone to tell me any spoilers, becaues I'm really hooked. I just want some advice on how to break the addiction to serial-cliffhangers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

For Posterity

President George W Bush's Farewell Address (Parts 1&2)





You can read the full text of the address here.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Inauguration Day Quandary

This semster I'm teaching a "Philosophy of Race" course that meets on Tuesdays/Thursdays from 12:30-1:45 in the afternoon... which means we will be meeting in the middle of the Obama inauguration next week! I'm debating whether or not to cancel class, or at least to forego my syllabus schedule (would've been Bernier and Kant) in favor of watching the inauguration in class with my students. I mean, it's a Philosophy of RACE class, for crying out loud! The problem is that our classes only began on Wednesday of this week, which means that next Tuesday is only our second class meeting... which means it's really our first substantive class meeting since I'm one of those profs who does "syllabus and overview" on the actual first day of class. According to MSN anyway, all kinds of people are skipping work to watch Obama.

Any advice?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

More Medical Mysteries

I've mentioned my fascination with medical mysteries before on this blog (see: my post on Apotemnophilia). I suppose that part of that fascination is simply grounded in the strangeness of some of the conditions, but I am also particularly interested in the way that medical knowledge is stymied. A couple of years ago, I read Dr. Atul Gawande's Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, which documents the myriad ways in which the myth of medical infallibility is wrong, wrong, WRONG. As a Type 1 (insulin-dependent) Diabetic, I spend way more time with doctors and their minions than most people, and though I generally trust them--because I have to!-- I still wonder at the unquestioning ease with which we all hand over that implicit trust. The human body is, as we all know, a complex and often idiosyncratic organism, so it shouldn't be a surprise that we know so little about why it does the things that it does. And still, the myth that medical doctors always know what they're doing prevails...

There's an interesting story about mysterious sleep disorders on MSN right now, some of which are familiar and several of which are not. We all probably know about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), but how many of us know about SUNDS (Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome), which apparently only affects Laotian Hmong refugees? We all know about sleepwalking (somnambulism), but how many of us knew that you can also have sex (sexsomnia), assault people (parasomnia), and even murder (homicidal somnambulism) in your sleep? We all know that insomniacs have trouble sleeping, but who knew that so did people with Chiari Malformation or Fatal Familial Insomnia? We've all heard of narcolepsy, but how many know about hypersomnia? What do all of these conditions share in common? Medical science has ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how or why they occur, save a collection of what can best be described as "educated guesses."

Anyone who has suffered a severe lack (or excess) of sleep knows how miserable this can be. Even if your experience hasn't reached the edges of hallucinations or death, everyone knows that sleep disturbances are truly crippling, affecting their sufferers emotionally, physically, and mentally. Even mundane changes in one's sleep cycles can be disorienting. An example: about 5 years ago, in what seemed like an overnight adjustment, I began waking up very early in the morning, without an alarm or anything. I am generally a kind of night-owl, and have been for most of my adult life, but no matter what time I go to bed these days, I still wake up sometime around 7am. Around the same time of this adjustment, I completely lost the capacity to stay up all night and "work." (Since I was a grad student a the time, I mean "work" here in the way that students think of work... that is, I could no longer stay up all night and write a paper or finish a book.) This is still my condition now: I can't work productively past a certain hour in the evening (usually around 7 or 8pm) and I always wake up early. I don't have any explanation for this rather dramatic change, and neither do any medical experts that I know.

Like food, we philosophers don't talk enough about sleep. But both food and sleep are necessities for human life and, without them, we are weak, vulnerable, helpless, and at risk. The article on mysterious sleep disorders has prompted me to think about adding this to my "weak humanism" thesis... something I should have thought of before, since one of the ways that human rights are being violated these days include torture via sleep deprivation. I wonder what it might mean to say that we all have a human right to sleep?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Leaner, Meaner, Angrier Art World

The painting to the left is Akt Elke 2 (Nude Elke 2) by the German artist Georg Baselitz, who is famous for painting figures upside-down. When Baselitz was asked by a reporter recently whether or not he felt any guilt about the "astronomical prices" his works were fetching at auctions, Baselitz took a long drag on his cigar, blew the smoke into the reporter's face, and remarked: "What is better than a painting? Nothing."

Well, that may have been true last year, but I suspect that these tough economic times are going to produce more than a few detractors to Baselitz's speculation. Waldemar Januszczak, New York Times art critic, thinks we're way overdue for a value "correction" in the art market, which he sees as terribly over-inflated and badly managed. In his article "Time for a cull in the art world," Januszczak claims that "the whole tottering art-world edifice has grown soft, blubbery, arrogant, self-congratulatory and decadent." Art prices have gone up in almost direct proportion to its decline in value. There are too many galleries and not enough of what Januszczak calls "fire-in-their-belly" artists. Aesthetic value is not recession-proof, Januszczak argues, and this recession has come just in time.

I don't really have the eye (or the income) to count myself among the owners of fine art, so I can't remark upon the accuracy of Januszczak's claims that the art world-- and espcially the Tate Modern-- has become bloated. But I am both intrigued by and sympathetic with his insistence that we be suspicious of any kind of Warhol-esque conflation of buisiness and art. It's not that art isn't a business, which of course it is, but when it becomes only a business, then I can understand his welcoming the sorts of market corrections that make good businesses good, and bad businesses fail. Januszczak thinks that this recession will produce what he calls a "leaner, meaner, angrier art world," which he acknowledges will undoubtedly be bad for artists, but only bad artists. That last part makes me a little nervous, since it is just as likely that plenty of good, "fire-in-the-belly" artists will also get lost in Januszczak's proposed "culling." Even still...

What is better than a painting, Baselitz? Food. Rent. Heat.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Vox Populi

With only 8 more days to go before the Inauguration, Slate magazine (in collaboration with MixedInk) has invited us, the people, to help write Obama's inaugural address. The way it works is as follows: when you click on this link, you will be taken to a site where you can begin writing your own speech. But you won't be writing alone, since MixedInk will simultaneously be searching for similar words and phrases from all 55 previous inaugural addresses as well as contributions from other users. If your words and thoughts overlap with others, you can incorporate them into your speech (or just stick with what you have). When you're done, others can read, comment upon and "rate" your speech. Slate promises to publish the speech with the highest rating when everything is said and done, and I suppose the pipe dream here is that maybe, just maybe, Obama's actual address might borrow from the vox populi.

As soon as I get some free time--hrumph!-- I'm definitely going to try this. If I weren't a professional philosopher, my second choice as a career would be to be a speechwriter. (Third choice: soul singer.) Seriously. I briefly entertained my Speechwriter Dream years ago when I fell in love with the television program The West Wing, but I quickly realized that the political speeches delivered on television and in movies are a far cry from the ones delivered in "real" life. (With some obvious exceptions, that is.) I suppose, in a way, being a professor involves a little bit of speechwriting, but the truth is that we can't in good conscience write lectures that involve all of the same rhetorical flair and shameless didacticism as my romaticized notion of real political speeches involve. Or, at least, I can't do that without risking the possibility of making it onto one of Horowitz's lists!

As a side note, I'm also glad that I ran across Slate's little experiment because I had never heard of MixedInk, which is an online collaborative writing tool. I'm interested in trying this with some philosophy... anyone want to join?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Gross Stuff

A couple of interesting stories that caught my attention this week... and also made me throw up a little in my mouth:

First, a book review of Raymond Tallis' The Kingdom of Infinite Space: An Encounter With Your Head. Tallis-- a poet, philosopher and professor of geriatric medicine-- considers the relationship between the various operations and secretions of the human head and what it means to be a human being. What is interesting, and unique, about Tallis' approach is that he avoids focusing on the brain (which he claims is "absurdly overrated") and instead replaces questions concerning neurology with questions concerning... well... tears, snot, vomit, sweat and earwax. Did you know that your tears are richer in manganese when you're crying out of grief than when you're crying out of (physical) pain? According to Tallis, the story told by our head's gross stuff is far more interesting, revealing, and ultimately more "human" than the story told by mapping the activity of neural centers. In fact, Tallis argues that "neuromythology – which claims that neuroscience can explain far more than it can – seems halfway plausible only if it is predicated upon a desperately impoverished account of [human beings]." As someone who is also increasingly bored with the brain, I'm fascinated with Tallis' project. His is a book I plan to pick up very soon.

Second, the new body spray by Burger King, "Flame." Yes, you read that right. According to the promotional material: "The WHOPPER© sandwhich is America's favorite burger. FLAME© by BK© captures the essence of that love and gives it to you. Behold the scent of seduction, with a hint of flame-broiled meat." Meghan Daum at The Los Angeles Times summed it up best, I think, when she wrote that "as unconventional as Flame may sound at first, the fact remains that it's tapping into one of our most primal relationships: the relationship between man and meat." Unlike Tallis' book, I'm not going to pick up BK's Flame anytime soon... though I could be persuaded to reconsider the wisdom of such a project if it were taken up by someone like Charles Vergos or Gus.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Horowitz at the MLA

Anyone remember the "culture wars"? Now that we've got all this change we can believe in, people don't talk about them very much anymore, but the battle is far from over. One of the leading soldiers on the conservative side for years has been David Horowitz, who has a blog here and a "Freedom Center" here, and who is author of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. Horowitz founded the activist group Students for Academic Freedom, a group that (somewhat disingenuously) claims that "you can't get a good education if they're only telling you half the story" and works tirelessly against the supposed "liberal bias" in higher education. Horowitz and his supporters advocate a terribly misnamed platform they call "Academic Freedom", a freedom allegedly secured by their proposed "Academic Bill of Rights," which has been the subject of much heated debate over the years. It also has been the catalyst for websites like this, which encourages students to "report" professors who they deem to be (liberally) partisan.

For those of you reading this who have never heard of Horowitz or the Academic Freedom movement, a word of caution: One of the more complicated issues surrounding this campaign is the gross disparity between the ideal being ostensibly advocated ("academic freedom") and the practical implementation of that advocacy (which is largely directed at purging the Academy of "liberals"). Not surprisingly, the Modern Languages Association (MLA) constituency has been the prime target of Horowitz's movement for many, many years. The MLA is the professional organization for English profs, Lit-Crit profs, Comp Lit profs, and the like. Many spirited, sometimes ugly, volleys have been launched between Horowitz and the MLA over the years, and its safe to say, I think, that there is no love lost between them.

So, it was surprising to read in the recent Chronicle of Higher Education article "Impasse at the MLA" that Horowitz appeared on a panel at the organization's conference last month. Reportedly, there were security guards present and strict time limits enforced for speakers (12 minutes for comments, 30 seconds for questions). Really, security guards! (Does the APA even have security guards?) I suppose for non-academics, this probably sounds comic, but I'm confident that no one at the MLA was laughing. Acording to the article, some audience members directed their frustration not at Horowitz directly, but at the MLA for inviting him. But, of course, many did direct their frustration at Horowitz directly, including one who gave him the finger and another who sat and "repeatedly mouthed an obscenity" at Horowitz. 'Cause that's how they roll in the MLA.

This story has me wondering whether or not there is anyone that the American Philosophical Association (APA) could invite to its conference who would inspire the same sort of response that Horowitz did? The only person that comes to mind immediately is Donald Rumsfeld, originator of the (in)famous epistemological speculation: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know." I'm open to your nominations for other candidates, though.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Foodies

Over on KHG's blog, there's a really interesting post (Titillating Food) about her experiment with trying to make "caramel sea salt." Reading it, and amazing at all of the care and thought that went into such a project, got me thinking about that odd-variety of human being that we call the foodie. The foodie differs from the gourmet in a couple of significant ways: (1) the gourmet is an epicure of refined taste and hence only wants to eat the very best foods, where as the foodie loves all food and is fascinated with its consumption, preparation, study and news; and (2) the gourmet is usually a professional chef or food critic, whereas foodies are usually amateurs. I wouldn't say that I'm a foodie myself, but I know a lot of them (including KHG). I do have some foodie-like tendencies, though, inasmuch as I like to cook (and cook some things quite well, I think) and I am fascineted with molecular gastronomy showcases on television like Top Chef.

At any rate, the discussion following KHG's blog post made me realize that food is a grossly under-represented topic in philosophy. This is particularly curious given the importance of food for human life and well-being, as well as the myriad social, political and ethical issues surrounding food (like world hunger, animal rights, industrial farming, genetic engineering, and the concentration of food-related diseases in lower economic classes). Also, food can not only taste delicious but also be really pretty, especially when prepared by people who love it, making it a far better object for aesthetic analysis, all due respect to Heidegger, than Van Gogh's shoes. Finally, the history of Western literature and philosophy is literally busting a gut with food metaphors that are just waiting to be thematized.

One problem, of course, is that philosophy has a long history of denigrating food, stretching all the way back to the Phaedo, in which Plato claims that neither "truth" nor "thought of any kind ever comes from the body." The body is a distraction to the philosopher, according to Plato, "keeping us busy in a thousand ways" because of its need for food. According to Wittgenstein's biographer, Ludwig "did not care what he ate as long as it was the same"; Schopenhauer reportedly praised still-life paintings unless, of course, they contained food. And for all of the confidence with which Descartes presented his famous mind-body dualism, one wonders how he got through all six Meditations without ever getting hungry. In the last couple of centuries, philosophers have come around to admitting that we are bodies after all, and folks like Nietzsche and Dewey asked directly after the peculiar abesence of food in philosophy. But it's still amazing that, after 2000 years of eating and drinking-- and, trust me, philosophers can drink!-- the subject remains so marginal.

What I like about foodies is that they think about food. Unlike gourmets, they think about it in all of its complexity, not just whether it tastes good or whether it challenges the most refined palate. They think about it as a social function, a beautiful thing, a source of nourishment, an activity, an experiment, a political tool (or weapon), a manner of carving out one's personal identity. Those are all clearly evidence of "philosophical" thinking, despite their much-maligned object of analysis.

One last thing. A good friend of mine recently introduced me to one of the greatest food-related neologisms I've ever heard: hamtasty. "Hamtasty" is a synonym for "awesome" or "spectacular" or "amazing," as in the following (real) conversation that he and I had recently:
ME: How did your class go today?
FRIEND: Oh man, it was hamtasy!
I'm such a fan of this word that I've started using it all the time now. It's almost as perfect as the neologism that Christophresh came up with last August ("blogspossier") , which was also hamtasty. I encourage you all-- even my veggie friends-- to try out "hamtasty." I can guarantee that you'll never need to explain yourself.

Food glorious food - Nancys & Olivers

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Picture This...

I recently discovered wordle.net, which generates "word clouds" from text that you enter. The program gives greater prominence to words that appear more frequently, thus producing a kind of shorthand-image of what is emphasized in the original text. I know that readers of this blog probably don't need yet another Internet distraction, but this one is really fun. Also, according to Carl over at Dead Voles, it's a good way to visually demonstrate to students the importance of "ordering" information. (Just in case you're still in the habit of actually trying to justify your Internet time as somehow vaguely work-related.) Anyway, after playing around with the site a few times, I decided to enter the text of my entire dissertation (all 346 pages of it) to see what the word cloud would look like. Here's the result:


Too bad you can't just send one of these things in as a book proposal.

Dangerous Disorder

James Baldwin, a 20th C. African-American novelist and parrhesiastes, wrote a letter to his nephew in 1963-- on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation-- that was later published under the title My Dungeon Shook. In that letter, Baldwin tried to persuade his young nephew not to fall prey to the more insidious temptations of assimilation, not to feel as if he had to "become white," and not to believe in white people's "impertinent assumption" that blacks needed to be "accepted" by them. In one of his characteristic expressions of both judgment and sympathy, Baldwin speculates that white people are trapped in a history that they do not understand, and from which they cannot be released because of their lack of understanding. That history, of course, is the United States' history of white supremacy, in which everything in this country ostensibly confirmed the "impertinent assumptions" of whites and their superiority. To let go of the impertinence and assumption of superiority, according to Baldwin, would entail a loss of identity for most white people, something which seems to them not only frightening, but also dangerous. Baldwin continues:

Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shining and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.

There is a chorus of voices these days singing the significance of President-Elect Barack Obama's upcoming inauguration, but perhaps none capturing that significance so eloquently as Baldwin's letter. In all the excitement about hope and change we can believe in, I suspect some of us have forgotten that for many (many!) Americans, January 20th will be a day when nature suddenly seems disordered, frightening, and unreal. It will certainly seem to them like a "disaster"-- which literally means "without a star to steer by" (from dis- "away, without" + astro- "star, planet"). Because I reside in the part of our country where many of those people live, I am perhaps extra-sensitive to the importance of remembering their plight. It won't be enough to simply dismiss them as ignorant and racist. It will behoove us all to help them reorder their universe, to make it make sense again, to make it seem livable.

From everything he has said on the subject, it seems as if Obama understands this. I hope his supporters do, too. And I hope we all remember that this country really never did have that "national conversation on race" that President Clinton suggested back in 1998. There is so much about race that we haven't talked about or thought about, so many things that we do not understand but still effect even the most quotidian elements of our lives, so many ways that we have not yet acknowledged the role of race in "ordering" our world. The old world is about to be disordered, and that disorder will undoubtedly frighten many people. With all of the other things there are to be really frightened about right now, I suspect it will take some serious reflection and preparation to ensure that the movement of this particular fixed star is not the thing that blows us, hopelessly lost, out to sea.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cultivating Weirdness

I wasn't surprised to find among the list of "local weirdos" featured in the article "How To Be A Local Character: Five Basic Examples" Memphis' own Prince Mongo (pictured left). Prince Mongo-- né Robert Hodges, changed his name to King Mongo, then Saint Mongo-- has been a fixture in Midtown Memphis for as long as I can remember. He claims to be from the planet Zambodia, also the home of some very interesting fauna, if you believe Mongo. He's a very wealthy, very eccentric, and for the most part totally harmless oddity, who takes in and feeds homeless people at a mansion that he owns. He's run for local office a few times, but never won, and he regularly tortures his upscale neighbors with the flotsam and jetsam that he displays in his yard as "art." In short, he really is the archetype of a local weirdo.

Like the antihero, I suspect that we all secretly love the local weirdo, sometimes in spite of ourselves. When I was at Villanova, there was a guy who walked around campus (always in shorts and sandals) with a fake lightsaber (or, at least, I presume it was fake) and engaged in epic battles with foes that none of the rest of us could see. Now, I suppose it's possible that he spent years "cultivating" that kind of weirdness... but if that were true, I don't think the rest of us would find it half as interesting or endearing. The weirdness of real weirdos sort of needs to arise in the world unbidden in order for us to appreciate it as authentic. Otherwise, it's just obnoxious and "simply" transgressive, which is something that, by definition, we do not tolerate.

The "local weirdo" is a special phylum of the kingdom of weirdo. Local weirdos, strangely, really belong to their "locale," despite the fact that they appear so out of place in it. They indicate something about their (and our) space that the rest of us repress, ignore, or disavow. They're like that little tray that you put in front of your George Foreman grill that is supposed to catch all of the grease and fat and other undesirables. They collect and absorb our social and cultural detritus and then embody it in a way that seems curious, harmless, laughable... but also necessary, like the homo sacer.

I don't think local weirdos "cultivate" their weirdness. But I do think that the rest of us, subconsciously, cultivate the local weirdo. I mean, what's a town without one of these figures? My guess is that it's a very weird town.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Yes I Did

... change the format of this blog, that is. I'm going to give this look a trial run for about a week before deciding whether or not to dispatch with it. Comments welcome, even encouraged.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Antiheroes (Again)

There's an article in the current issue of Newsweek by Joshua Alston entitled "Too Much of a Bad Thing" (without a question mark, but I'll come back to that later) that claims we are all suffering from "Antihero Overload" and bemoans the fact that "no one on TV can be merely good or evil anymore." A little more than a year ago, we had a fascinating discussion on this blog about antiheroes-- like Tony Soprano, Dr. Gregory House, Dexter, Patty Hewes, Jack Bauer, and most of the guys on Mad Men-- and why we love them, in response to my post titled "Why Do We Love the Antihero?", so I was particularly interested in what Alston had to say on the matter.

[An Interesting Aside (that might also be classified as a Delusion of Granduer): For the last 3 weeks or so, I noticed on my blog traffic feed that I was getting a lot of hits on my antihero post, which seemed rather odd since it was over a year old and the conversation there had long since died. Then, lo and behold, this Newsweek article appears... replete with striking similarities to my earlier post on the same subject! Ultimately, Alston takes the opposite position in his article than I did in my post-- he obviously does not love the antihero-- but he references all the same characters that I did and many of his descriptions parallel mine. So, whatever, that's that. Deduce what you will.]

Anyway, Alston wants good guys and bad guys back, rather than what he calls "morally ambiguous" guys. Although he tries very hard to avoid it, there's a little bit of hearkening-back-to-simpler-times nostalgia in his article that seems a little too precious and a lot too naive for my taste. But one good thing that he does in his article is question why it is that this phenomenon has arisen now. Alston writes:

"You could argue that the political climate of the past eight years primed audiences for antihero worship, that in the midst of a war started with faulty intelligence, suspected terrorists sent to black sites and a domestic eavesdropping program, it's no wonder we would be interested in delving deeply into the true motives underlying the actions of powerful people."

That seems right-on to me. One of the things that I (and many other people) have said about 9/11 was that the most terrifying and terrorizing thing about it was that the acts of that day exceeded our imagination. That is, something happened that we literally could not have imagined happening. The world actualized a possibility for which we were not prepared and could not be prepared. The result of this, as we know from Hegel, was that the world no longer made sense to us, it was in conflict with our Reason, and we no longer felt at home in it. Unfortunately, as Alston rightly notes, the events of 9/11 were not the last of such shocks. For the last 8 years, no matter how hard you might have tried to look rationally upon the world, the world has not looked rationally back.

So, it's not surprising to me that we love the antihero in the way that television ratings these days seem to suggest. Pace Alston, we don't want characters to be "merely good or evil" anymore, because that sort of reductive simplicity is what now strikes us as unimaginable, unreasonable, and not-at-home-in-the-world.

In the conclusion to his essay, Alston paradoxically makes an appeal for "characters who aren't trying to save the world or plunder it, but are just trying to subsist in it," and it is there that I think Alston reveals that he really doesn't understand the antihero. What we love about antiheroes is that they are trying to subsist in the world in just the same way that the rest of us do, which means that they often plunder when they are trying to save, save when they are trying to plunder. They aren't heroes and they aren't villains, because there is no such thing as a hero or a villain in the world that we look rationally upon. These television shows are able to bring about what Aristotle claimed was a central component of the kind of education that art accomplishes: anagnorisis (from the Greek, meaning "discovery," "recognition," or "identification"). We discover some truth about ourselves and our world when we recognize or identify with the antihero, a truth that neither heroes nor villains can indicate.

I think Alston should have titled his article "Too Much of a Bad Thing?" (with a question mark). My answer is "no"-- and if the TV ratings are any kind of indicator, I think more people agree with me.

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UPDATE: One of my favorite fellow-bloggers Anotherpanacea weighs in on this same topic over at his blog in a post titled "Subsist or Save?". Feel free to join in the discussion there, too.
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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Pleasure Reading

On my way to the APA conference last week, I had a layover in Detroit that was extended a couple of hours by bad weather. Like most people in my line of work, I did (of course) have a couple of books with me, both of them related to my current research, and I had the files of several candidates who we would be interviewing at the conference. Needless to say, neither of those things seemed very much like "relaxing" airport reading at the time. So, I wandered over to one of the bookstores and browsed around until I found a novel that looked interesting (Gods Behaving Badly by Marie Phillips), then parked myself to read. By the time I got to Philadelphia, I was more than three-quarters of the way through the novel... and for about a half-second, I wondered to myself: why can't I read that fast all the time?

Now, there are obvious answers to that question, the first of which is that the novel was "easy" reading. But my guess is that the real answer is rather that the novel went faster because it was "pleasurable" reading. For better or worse, the other reading material that I had with me at the airport in Detroit was "work" reading. That doesn't mean that it wasn't also, in its own way, pleasurable to read, but only that it fell into a different subconscious category of things-that-I-am-compelled-to-do. (Incidentally, this is one of the drawbacks of becoming a professional philosopher, in my view. That is, what used to be "pleasure" reading becomes "work" reading. It doesn't cease being pleasurable, but now it has to fight that uphill battle against the ought. Like broccoli, which is delicious, but obligatory.) I suppose its always been the case that I read faster the things I choose to read, but I really have noticed this past semester that my non-leisure reading seems to be slowing down.

Throughout graduate school, I was always reading a piece of non-obligatory fiction or nonfiction in addition to whatever I was reading for my studies/work. My reasoning behind this was that it was a healthy habit to cultivate, to constantly remind myself that reading really is pleasurable for me, but also because it was a particulary effective way of keeping my Anecdote Arsenal (aka, Cocktail Conversation Depot) well-stocked and up-to-date. My old grad school roommate and friend, Trott, and I used to trade non-work books all the time, and we were often reading the same novel at the same time. I don't know when I let that practice slide, but it's something that I need to begin again.

So, consider this an open invitation for reading suggestions. If you want to get a sense of what I like to read, you can check out the earlier reading-related posts on this blog here, here, and here. Also, please tell me why you're suggesting whatever book you're suggesting, instead of just sending a title. Thanks in advance!

Friday, January 02, 2009

Clean Slate

It's funny how a simple and arbitrary change in the calander date can give us all the impression that something has really started over, that we have begun a new project that is in some way really distinct from the one we were in only a couple of days ago, that the weight of 2008's patterns of habituation and sedimentation can be shrugged off more easily now. There is something about the metaphor of a "clean slate" that signifies real possibility, as if there is no restricting context, no prior plot or character development to which we have to adhere, as if anything could be written. Believing that the slate will be filled this year with a story that is better than the one last year is a kind of exercise in faith, even for the non-religious. As Saint Paul described it in his Epistle to the Hebrews: "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." I've always been particularly fond of that formulation by St. Paul, in part because of his suggestion that hope is "substantial," that is, hope is a real thing. And the thing that makes it real is not the thing at which it aims, the thing hoped for, but rather the reverse is true. The thing hoped for is substantial only by virtue of our belief in that thing's possibility.

After months and months of the Rhetoric of Hope in this country, we are rapidly approaching the time when we will see what all that hoping has (or has not) been able to produce. In a little more than two weeks, President-Elect Barack Obama will become President Barack Obama, and although we know that the slate won't really be wiped clean, it certainly will feel like a new beginning for many of us. My guess is that "change" will be slow and hard to learn. I doubt we realize how habituated our cynicism has become, how sedimented our despondency. If only it really were the case, as John Locke and others speculated was true of the tabula rasa, that our minds contained nothing but what we derived from experience, and if only January 20th marked a real rebirth... perhaps we all could begin to accumulate experiences that trained us in the habit of hoping.