Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Tie That Binds

At the beginning of the 2008 film Doubt (an adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's play by the same name), a priest challenges his congregation with an unorthodox sermon about the nature of the ties that bind us together. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks his flock: "What do you do when you're not sure? " The setting is a Catholic parish in the Bronx in 1964, and Father Flynn's sermon recalls the national tragedy that his congregants experienced the year before in the assasination of President Kennedy. "Think of that," he says, "your bond with your fellow being was your despair. It was a public experience, it was awful, but we were in it together." Crises of faith constitute the darkest of hours for the human spirit, Father Flynn speculates, and the hopelessness of that darkness is infinitely compounded when the crisis is borne alone. We tend to think that there is an isomorphism between our strength as individuals and our strength as a community, that we are bound together most solidly when we are the surest of our own identity and the identity of the collective to which we belong, but Flynn suggests that there is also a special kind of solidarity among the lost. In fact, it may be when we are the most unsure about whether or not we are lost that we find ourselves most in need of others. In the experience of not knowing who we are, not knowing where we are, not knowing in which direction to steer our ships, Flynn finds a simple and subtle moral truth:

"Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty."

I plan to use this film in my Existentialism course this semester, if only because that is the course in which I have found students to have the most profound and palpable experience of real doubt, of being "lost." But, upon re-viewing the film the other day, it occurs to me that this would be an excellent film with which to begin most philosophy classes. A good philosophy course ought to challenge our certainty of our own certainty, I think, and that experience is a deeply unsettling one that many students shy away from. I cannot count the times I have heard a student say that he or she didn't ask a question or speak up in class because s/he didn't want to sound "stupid"... by which they mean, I think, that they didn't want to sound like they didn't know the answer. Nevermind that, most often, they are sitting in a room with a lot of other people feeling the same uncertainty. Perhaps the best salve for this dis-ease is a quite simple one, that is, the fundamental reassurance: you are not alone. None of us are certain, really.

Acknowledging that doubt-- the very common vulnerability to uncertainty-- can itself be a tie that binds is not only a prerequisite for good philosophical discussion, but also a basis for the kind of moral and political posture that I want to encourage in my students. What do you do when you're not sure? Hopefully, the answer to that question-- tentative and unsure as it may be-- begins with a recognition that doubt is a powerful and sustaining bond. The finitude of human experience and our knowledge of that experience is a universal weakness, a universal vulnerability, even if the acknowledgment of its commonness isn't.

If you haven't seen Doubt, I highly recommend it. Here's a short clip of Father Flynn's sermon that opens the film:

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Gender Trouble: See Semenya Run

Sure, we all know that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man, but who is the world's fastest woman? That seems to be a matter of some debate...

South African runner Caster Semenya (pictured left) recently ran 800 meters in less than two minutes, more than 2 seconds faster than the next-fastest female runner. But instead of generating awe and fanfare like Bolt's record-breaking runs have, Semenya's feat (and feet) has resulted in a swarm of controversy about whether or not she is really a "she." Gender verification tests in sports are nothing new, and although the tests themselves have become more sophisticated over the years, what they are meant to determine has only gotten more complicated. The issue for Semenya is not whether she's male or female, but whether or not she's "entirely female" (as opposed to hermaphroditic, intersexed, or suffering from some other hormonal anomaly, like congenital adrenal hyperplasia). Many skeptics are pointing to Semenya's lightening-fast speed and athletic prowess as evidence for their suspicion of her, but there are also articles like this one out there, which seem to question Semenya on the basis of her violation of more socially-constructed, normative gender roles. That article cites Semenya's "ripped muscles, a solemn demeanor and grooming perceived as dowdy in the post-Flo-Jo era" as her most egregiously "masculine" characteristics. (Really? A "solemn demeanor"?) At least on the surface, what is at stake here is the issue of fair play, perhaps the cardinal virtue of amateur sport, but there is so very much below the surface...

Let's face it, elite athletes like Bolt and Semenya already trouble everything we think about what is "natural" for the human being. At their level of competition, most athletes are practically scientific specimens-- they do not exist in the world in the same way that the rest of us do. Their hearts, their lungs, and their limbs are tributes to perfection, pushed beyond the limits of what most of us think is humanly possible. These are people for whom milliseconds matter. and whole industries have been built around creating the most technologically-advanced clothes for them to wear and food for them to eat. Even still, we want to pretend that they are as nature made them. We don't allow them to take steroids, we don't allow them to lie about their age, and we insist on distinguishing between the "entirely male" and the "entirely female" among them.

The problem, of course, is that nature doesn't always make us that way. Conservative estimates of intersexuality put its occurance at something around 1 in every 100 births-- making it more common than cystic fibrosis (1 in 2,500 "Caucasian" births), Down Syndrome (1 in 800-1000), or even Albino births (1 in 17,000). Nevertheless, as a culture, we are invested in perpetuating the myth that gender is natural, biological, or genetic in much the same way that we are invested in perpetuating the same myth about "race." But Nature, for her part, couldn't care less about our social constructions.

Here's hoping that the controversy surrounding Semenya brings some of these more nuanced issues to the fore... though I have very little confidence that it will.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

District 9 and Science (Non)Fiction

I went with a friend to see the new sci-fi film District 9 last night, despite the fact that, as a rule, I'm not a huge fan of science fiction. It was a great film. It was produced by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame), and South African writer/director, Niell Blomkamp, makes his first depature from the short-film format with this venture. (District 9 is actually an adaptation of Blomkamp's short-film "Alive in Jo'burg".) The story of District 9 is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, a city that (in the film) was "invaded" by aliens twenty-eight years ago when their spaceship stalled in the air over the city. A fictional (but oh-so-close-to-reality) security corporation, Multi-National United (MNU), quarantines all of the stranded aliens in a Jo'burg ghetto ("District 9"), where their existence and their treatment slowly deteriorates to the level of, well, that of the residents of former South African bantustans. There are obviously a lot of political undertones to this film, but it is absolutely impossible not to see it as a commentary on apartheid. Blomkamp does an amazing job of subtlely calling forth all of the bureaucratic insidiousness of South Africa's former apartheid state, right down to the constant harrassment of the aliens about "permits." (South African Blacks were required to show dompas or "passes" almost constantly as a way of keeping the bantustans under constant surveillance and control.) Unfortunately, there are too many contemporary analogies that can be drawn with "District 9"-- Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, Gaza and the West Bank, immigrant detention centers here in the U.S.-- all of which serve to demonstrate our tragic inadequacies when it comes to co-existing with the "Other."

It's difficult to talk too much about the film without revealing spoilers, so I'll try to refrain. However, the problems with a certain kind of group identity-formation-- and, in this case, a certain kind of (bad) humanism-- really struck me, especially in light of recent discussions on this blog and elsewhere (and even elsewhere) about the merits and demerits of humanism. The variety of humanism represented in the film, and epitomized in the image above from the film, is definitely of the circle-our-wagons-in-the-presence-of-perceived-threat ilk, and I hope it is clear from the discussions so far that this is NOT the kind of humanism that I am advocating. When we see this mindset exhibited within human groups, we call it racism or sexism. When we see it exhibited toward non-human animals or the natural environment, we call it anthropocentrism. But the funny thing about science fiction is that it can pose the question of the tout autre in a radical way-- the metonym and metaphor of the "alien" is taken literally-- and maybe this is the best way to test "humanism," even if only imaginatively.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In Praise of Bulgarians

My good friend (and one of my favorite bloggers), Petya, recently moved to Memphis with her husband, who is my new colleague at work. I have been anxiously anticipating their arrival all summer, and especially anticipating introducing them to Memphis. Now, I love this city and I love showing people around here, but after many years of doing so, I've come to (regrettably) acknowledge that, well, Memphis just isn't everyone's cup of tea. You kind of have to appreciate the beauty of the less-than-beautiful in order to appreciate this town, and you most definitely need to have an open mind about what sorts of down-and-out places might harbor within them something truly great. For the most part, I try to take my friends to those place when they visit here for the first time... but I know that it takes a special kind of person to let go of his or her predispositions and prejudgments and really enjoy the majesty of diamonds-in-the-rough.

I really had no worries about these two when it came to Memphis and, thankfully, that intuition was confirmed last week when they arrived. We went down to Ground Zero last Wednesday night to catch my old friend Ms. Nikki singing some blues, and a few nights later they accompanied me to Wild Bill's, which is my home-away-from-home. (That's the two of them dancing at Wild Bill's in the picture above.) I just want to say that it's soooooo nice to have friends like them, who are ready and willing to try just about anything. So far, they seem to have gotten on well with all of the Memphis folks (mostly musicians so far) that I've introduced them to, and the reverse has been equally, if not more, true.

Petya is from Bulgaria, a country about which I know very little apart from the accounts that I have heard from her and her husband. So, I'm really interested to see her testimonials about navigating Memphis, some of which are pretty funny and which you can read on her blog. One story which I find particularly funny (and which is not included on her blog) is her first interaction with a repairman from MLGW (our local utility company). I was over at thier house when the guy came to turn on their utilities, and at one point Petya came over to me and whispered: "I can't understand anything he's saying." (For the record, Petya is an excellent English-speaker, and even attended college at Sewannee, aka The University of the South, so this was not necessarily her fault!) But the MLGW guy had one of those slurring, rambling, chaw-in-lip accents that can sound about as far from standard English as... well... Bulgarian. So, I have to admit that I got more than a little bit of a chuckle from having to translate.

Thankfully, Petya also found a connection to her home within her first few days here (read that story here), and hopefully that will reassure her that this is not an utterly non-cosmopolitan city. The best thing about them being here so far, in my humble opinion, is that they are both lovers of Memphis music. That's a great place to start.

On Puppies, Trees and Fetuses... or, What I DON'T Mean By "Weak Humanism"

I've gotten some interesting feedback from my "Digital Dialogues" interview with Chris Long on weak humanism, including several questions about my work (and its implications) that I had not anticipated. So, I thought I'd take an opportunity here to try and clear up some things. I may need to split my response to the concerns and objections into several posts, so stay tuned...

One of the things that came up in my conversation with Chris, and also in the comments on his blog in response to our conversation, was the issue of how a philosophical commitment to "humanism" (of whatever sort) positions one in relation to the rest of the natural world, non-human animals and those beings whose status as "humans" might be debatable (like the unborn). This is not an un-anticipatable concern, but I think that my response (which was, basically, "those are not my primary questions") left many people unsatisfied at best, suspicious at worst.

First, I should say that I really do get the question about puppies, trees and fetuses, and I am not trying to evade the deep ethical issues involved there. But, as I said in the interview, I think these sorts of questions are subsequent to-- and in fact dependent upon-- how one answers the question: "what is the human?". It is only possible to ask these questions in the way they are asked if one already has some latent manner of distinguishing between the human and the non-human. So, for example, I can only ask the question: "which is more important to you, oak trees or labradors?" if I already have some tacit or explicit way of separating oak trees from labradors. It wouldn't make any sense to you if I asked about the difference in status between trees and trees, or labradors and labradors. The way that I have framed my project is by beginning with the fact that disavowing traditional philosophical "humanism" (which attempts to give some definition to "the human"), while at the same time posing questions about the moral or political status of human beings in relation to the discourse of rights or to non-human beings, involves one in a fundamental philosophical problem. One may have legitimate problems with the way traditional humanism has defined and valued the human, as I do, but that does not mean that one is not still operating with some concept of the human. What I'm trying to do is find a better concept of the human, that is, one that won't later put us in a position where we are forced to endorse or permit conclusions to be drawn that are contrary to our moral or political sensibilities.

Secondly, I think with any philosophical question one has to start somewhere. As I've said many times on this blog and elsewhere, I think that human rights concerns are one of the most important issues of our time. So, I start there. (That's not to say that I don't think that issues of the environment or animal rights are important, only that they don't strike me as the most important. I'm glad that there are philosophers out there who do find those issues to be the most important, and my hope is that the work that I'm doing allows me to recognize the importance of that other work without inconsistency or disingenuousness.) As I said in the interview, I think that the philosophical critiques of Enlightenment humanism (what I call "strong humanism") does show that that sort of humanism tends to force one into a position of disregarding or disrespecting the ethical and political concerns of the environment and non-human animals. My "weak" humanism, on the other hand, doesn't. In brief, here's how I think it doesn't...

Let's imagine we're playing a game of Ethical or Political Poker, and each player is allowed one "trump" card. (Yes, I know there are no trump cards in poker, but just work with me here.) You can use your trump card to determine how to proceed whenever your opponents play a particularly difficult ethical or political hand. So, for the strong humanist, his trump card might be something like the "Rationality" card or the "Autonomy" card. As a weak humanist, my trump card is going to be the "Vulnerability" card. Now, let's imagine that the hand we're playing requires us to make a determination about the moral or political permissability of industrial chicken farms. Obviously, the strong humanist is going to have a limited number of options at his disposal for play. Chickens aren't rational beings (or, at least, not according to the Enlightenment tradition out of which strong humanism grows), and so the poor chickens are going to lose that hand if the strong humanist opts to play his trump card. I think most of us would agree that the rest of us are going to lose out as well, depending on how rigorous our opponent decides to define "rationality."

However, if I play my "Vulnerability" card, everyone wins. Animals are certainly vulnerable to pain and exploitation, so even though I may still be playing the Ethical/Political Poker game as an avowed "humanist," I have not committed myself to ethical or political positions that cannot recognize the interests of non-human beings. That's not to say that, if the question being played were a matter of choosing between legistlation that mandates intervention in industrial chicken farming and legislation that mandates intervention in an ongoing genocide, I might already be pre-committed to the latter... but, at least, I have what I think is a more sensitive and robust arsenal of "responsibility" criteria at my disposal for deciding that question. This is the advantage of my "weak humanism" over the "strong humanism" of the Enlightenment, in my opintion.

Obviously, I don't have all the answers. So, when AnPan asked me where my weak humanism thesis leaves me on the question of determining between "weak" human beings, as is arguably the case in questions about abortion, I don't think that my position has a pre-fab answer for this. My own position on abortion is that I am both pro-life and pro-choice. That is, I generally believe that the unborn are (at the very least) potential human lives and ought to be accorded some of the same kinds of considerations that we accord atual human lives, but I think the issue is still fuzzy enough NOT to warrant overly-determinstic legislation about it, especially as that legislation impacts non-debatably "human" citizens. (Incidentally, there are all kinds of other reasons why I am against legislating abortion issues too much, not the least of which is that-- in this country, at least-- most of our legislators are neither women nor fetuses, and so are not in the best position to be making those determinations.) But the important point is that the criteria I use when determining my own stance on this issue are matters of vulnerability and weakness, that is, matters that address how to do the least amount of harm to whomever (or whatever) might be the most susceptible to harm.

To sum up, then, I don't think that my weak humanism suffers from the same sorts of critiques that are levelled at traditional, strong (Enlightenment) humanism, because what I am attempting to do is re-focus our attention on matters of vulnerability and susceptibility when we are deciding about ethical and political concerns. So, although my focus is going to be on human rights-- that is, the vulnerabilities that are peculiar to human beings-- I am also constructing a more general ethical world-view that encourages the analogous association between human vulnerabilities and non-human vulnerabilities. This is in sharp distinction, I think, to the "capabilities" or "strengths" approach of traditional humanism, which tends to restrict-- and even predetermine-- what sorts of concerns rise to the level of consideration in ethics and politics.

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UPDATE: Scu over at CriticalAnimal has posted a sensitive and compelling response/critique to my interview entitled "Strong Humanism, Weak Humanism, Beyond Humanism"

Thursday, August 06, 2009

"Weak Humanism" Interview on Digital Dialogues

I recently had the good fortune of doing an interview with Chris Long (Penn State University) for his "Digital Dialogues" philosophy podcast discussing my work on "weak humanism." (You can listen to my interview here.) I've been working on the Weak Humanism manuscript all summer now, so it was a welcome respite from that work to be able to actually talk to someone else about it. I hope that readers of this blog will give it a listen and feel free to ask questions or provide feedback here. Chris Long also keeps a blog related to the Digital Dialogues series, and I'm sure he would welcome discussion there as well.

I'm a big fan of Chris' new undertaking, and encourage you all to subscribe to the Digital Dialogues podcast through iTunes by clicking here.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Video Killed the Philosophy Professor

As some of you know, I got to film a music video for my original song "Heart of Stone" last week with my best friend from college, Dana Gabrion (Co-Executive Producer of America's Next Top Model) and musician/composer/videographer and all-around artistic genius, Chris Morgan. I should say, first, that the whole idea of shooting a music video couldn't be further from my normal, "real" life, but I thought that since most of us don't get a chance to see the behind-the-scenes process, I'd share a little bit of my experience here. I was really shocked at how much care and creativity it takes to put images to music, and I'm so glad that Chris was there to bear the brunt of that responsibility. He had a clear vision of what he wanted to capture on film, and an impressively intuitive sense about how to get it. I've seen some of the rough footage from our shoot and was, quite simply, floored by his work. I can't wait to see the final product.

For a few months when I was an undergraduate, I worked for a special-effects guy (Steve Wolf), so I thought I had a vague idea of what filming was going to be like. My memory from working with Steve all those years ago was that the movie business involved a whole lot of hurry-up-and-wait and was almost unbearably bo-ring work. (We worked on the John Grisham film The Client, and my entire contribution was just to "waft smoke" for hours into a scene that I can't even remember now.) A little of that was confirmed with the video shooting as well, although things definitely moved along much more quickly and smoothly under Chris' direction and in the absence of a large crew. What really shocked me, though, was how much raw footage is actually shot for what will eventually only be a 4-minutes-or-so final product. We shot for 6 hours straight on Thursday (in the midst of a tornado, no less), and Chris said that the whole six hours would probably only comprise about a minute of the video. Ditto for Friday, when we had the "actors" with us. I can't imagine what the editing process must be like.

Another surprising thing to me, as the songwriter, was how much could be added to the song through its re-telling in images. The song itself is a fairly straightforward story, and my rather dull imagaination pretty much saw the video as attempting to recreate that story literally line-by-line. Chris and Dana, thankfully, have much better imaginations. We actually had conversations on set several times about "motivation" with the actors and even disputed how one or the other character would really look or respond. This may have been the most enjoyable part of the process for me because it was like watching the stories and characters of my songwriting imagination become "real" and, to some extent, independent of me. It also made me respect the craft of acting a lot more.

I have to be honest and say that the whole experience of traipsing around downtown Memphis doing a video shoot was really fun, too. When people would walk by and say "what's going on here?" and we got to say "we're shooting a music video"... well, I'll admit it, even I felt pretty cool. The whole experience is old hat to Dana and Chris at this point, but definitely not so for the rest of us. You wouldn't believe what you can get away in the company of a camera crew. One of the bars that we shot at actually let our bartender-"actor" pour real beers for all of the takes of the scene she was in. And, yeah, we drank those beers. For free. We had less success with the scenes that we shot on the downtown trolleys. Memphis trolley drivers were unimpressed.

Finally, the whole experience made me love Memphis in a completely new way. Because our time and resources were so limited, we had to call in a lot of favors in order to find actors, shooting locations, equipment, etc.. So, let me take this opportunity to give a shout out to my good friend (and excellent chef) John Bragg, for letting us film at his restaurant Circa. And also to Judy Peiser and her crew at the Center for Southern Folklore, which turned out to be an absolutely wonderful place to shoot. We also filmed at Rhodes College's McCoy Theater, but only under the condition that no one would be able to identify the location. Even still, the McCoy folks let us move a lot of stuff around and gave us a great space to work. The final shots were done in the hotel that Dana owns and which is run by her parents, the Talbot Heirs. (Seriously, if you ever visit Memphis, you should stay there!) I picked a few of my best-looking friends-- Max Maloney, Marlinee Iverson, Emily Fulmer and William Harwood-- to play the characters in the video, and they all were exceptional. I couldn't have done what they did, and it would be a gross understatement to call them "amateur" actors (except for the fact that they were grossly unpaid!). I'm not thanking the Memphis trolley system... the shots we got there were entirely the credit of Chris' guerilla filming. But the trolleys are really pretty on film.

When it's all done and edited, I hope to be able to post the video on this site. Rest assured, however, that Dr. J has no plans to quit her day job!

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UPDATE: You can view the finished product here: "Heart of Stone" music video
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