Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Political

When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who regularly bemoaned the habit, common among philosophers, of referring to (questions, theories, problems and issues of) "the political" or "the ethical." His objection, as I understood it, was not to engaging political and ethical questions qua philosophical questions, but rather to the use of the "the" to mark off some indepedent metaphysical or intellectual domain in which political and ethical questions are engaged. From a different vantage point, feminist philosophers also have long been critical of positing "the political" as independent from whatever realms to which it might be opposed (i.e., the private, the personal, the non-political)... though feminist philosophers have, traditionally, been more invested in blurring or erasing the boundaries between those realms, rather than evacuating "the political" of its status as a noun. I'm actually sympathetic with both of these complaints-- (1) the use of "political" as an indefinite, inappropriate and inadequate noun instead of an adjective, and also (2) the presumption that whatever that noun is meant to refer to is somehow a wholly independent realm of existence or consideration-- and I am guilty of using "the political" in both ways.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to abandon it, despite its over- and mis-use by many philosophers-- myself included-- who often employ it as a shortcut, ready-to-hand, generic gesture in the direction of something they intuit but do not want to articulate. (For the record, there are far too many other over- and mis-used phrases that I would advocate abandoning first. Among them: "calling into question x," "problematizing x," "toward a reconsideration of x," or any other manner of vaguely oppugning anything. But that's a matter for another post.) As a rule, I am inclined to agree with the feminists that what we usually mean when we refer to "the political" is not easily (or productively) distinguished from what we usually mean when we reder to "the ethical" or "the private/personal." I am also inclined to think that, as long as we are talking as a "we," then there really isn't anything that we're talking about that is excluded from "the political." So, although certain ways of positing "the political" may indeed amount to the positing of a fiction, none of those fictions are as false as positing the "non-political" (or the "a-political" or the "pre-political").

The non-sense of "the non-political," in my view, is ultimately derivative of the sense that I make of "the political." When I refer to "the political," I mean the following: that realm of human existence where meaning and interests are at stake. In that realm, as I figure it, meanings and interests are always (really or potentially) in conflict. That is to say, I understand meaning and interest to be human ideological investments-- "ideological" investments with real, material, physical, environmental, personal and interpersonal consequences-- and as long as there is more than one human in the mix, more than one set of invesments, then some of those meanings and interests will be mutually exclusive. I understand "the political" to refer to a domain in which deliberation and decision are necessitated. Consequently, I understand "the non-political" to be non-sensical in the same way that a "private language" is nonsensical. It's entirely solipsistic, and nothing that is so hermetically sealed in privacy can be said to have sense... because it cannot be said. This is, I realize, a fundamentally Hegelian position, an understanding of the un-say-able as essentially untrue. "The political," on my account, refers to everything and everywhere that kind of solipsism is disallowed. It refers to everything and everywhere that a human being understands him or herself to be obligated to make sense.

I want to distinguish my sense of "the political" from some rudimentary Hobbesian account, however, in which "the political" assumes a necessary and real conflict of interests, rather than a merely (logically) possible one. When I say that "the political" refers to a realm in which meanings and interests are at stake, and also that multiple meanings and interests will always be (potentially) in contest, that is only to note the rather mundane observation that all meanings and interests are not absolutely reconcilable. That is not to say that all human investments in meaning and interest, or in making sense of those meanings and interests, are ultimately reducible to self-interested investments. It is certainly the case, logically speaking, that two people with entirely altrusitic concerns can still find their interests to be mutually exclusive. Nevertheless, what makes that contest of interests a part of "the political" is the conflict that their mutual-exclusivity necessarily entails, which is always a conflict that requires deliberation and decision. (I would draw back just short of Arendt here, who claims that "the political" also requires action. Would that it were true, though!)

As is no doubt obvious, I consider "the political" to refer to a uniquely human domain. I do not think that Nature or non-human animals, without the superaddition of human consideration, consitute or can alone constitute "the political." Of course, it is the case that the questions and concerns that take into account Nature or non-human animals are "political" questions, but only inasmuch as they are taken up as such by what Aristotle would call zōon politikon (ζῷον πολιτικὸν), or animals of the polis, which is always-already human.

For these reasons, at least, I want to hang on to the unfortunately-ambiguous formulation "the political." And for the same reasons, I want to refrain from being too critical of those who might use it to actually posit some formulation of that to which it refers, as I have attempted to do here.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Mirage

Recently, NPR had been hosting a contest that they call the "3 Minute Fiction" contest, in which contestants were challenged to write a short story that could be read in 3 minutes (less than 600 words). A couple of my friends and I said that we were going to try and enter the contest. Ideas Man and Chet actually submitted an entry, unlike myself, and all three of us have posted our products on our blogs. (Ideas Man's entry is called "Pentaccosted" and Chet's is "Digging Holes." Both of them are excellent.) Anyway, the most recent qualifying round required authors to write a 600-word-or-less piece that included the words "fly," "button," "trick" and "plant." (According to the official rules, those words could be used in any way, i.e., as nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc.) I tried very hard to construct a fictional story that met all of the requirements before the deadline, to no avail. But, since I've got a sort-of piece written anyway, I thought I'd share. Fastidious readers will notice that it doesn't include any variation of the word "button" (strike one) and also exceeds the 600 word limit by a few words (strike two). I'll leave it up to you whether or not the actual quality of the piece costitutes a third strike. Anyway, here it is:

"Mirage"

Often you said that I was too old to be behaving the way I do, but you didn’t mean it. What you meant to say, in that characteristically maddening and stubborn way that you have always not said what you meant, was that you were too old. I was not that old at all, nor was my behavior in any special way incongruous with whatever count you may make of the rings inside me, should you ever have bothered to cut me in half like a Virginia Pine and number my years by that vivisection. This particular time, though, the time right before I opted for rage in the form of betrayal, you also said you were disappointed. I believed that part. I believed that you weren’t tricking me, this time, into believing there was some secret approval, coy but affectionate, hidden behind your judgment.

You’ll remember, I’m sure, that we were to fly to Philadelphia together for the weekend. I was to leave my laptop and ungraded papers at home. You, as promised, your spreadsheets and files. But then my friend died, and there was the funeral. Your client balked at your committee’s proposal, and meetings were rescheduled. One of us probably fell ill, in that vague and undiagnosable way that people like us often do, victims of stress and exhaustion, not real pathogens. Our best-laid plans were derailed. And so we agreed, yes, it’s better to just travel separately. We’ll meet in Philadelphia, we said.

The seduction of that mirage was our siren song.

Of course, I’ll never know what really happened. And because we haven’t spoken of it since, because we haven’t spoken at all, because we most likely never will speak again, you cannot possibly know what really happened, either. My decision, the fateful one, was like a dive off a pier into an unfamiliar lake. Its unplumbed depth, its hidden dangers, invisible and unknown as they are to the jumper, inspire in equal parts seduction and apprehension. I was always like a moth to the flame of both those parts. You, or so I thought, never.

This is how I remember our last conversation. It wasn’t even a real conversation. We communicated with each other, that last time, through text messages. Curt, instrumental, ungrammatical, insensitive to nuance and need, all that the medium allowed. The last conversation always, unfortunately, stains the memory with a kind of chromatic deadness. I think it went something like this.

You said, “After the meeting, I’m going to happy hour down the street with my colleagues. I won’t be late. Stop by my place, since otherwise I won’t see you tonight and your flight leaves tomorrow.”

I said, “I’m going out with friends. We’ll probably drink a lot and stay up late playing music. I likely won’t make it to your place tonight.”

You said, “You’re too old to be behaving like that. I’m disappointed.”

I didn’t respond.

What I did do, instead, was feel guilty. As a consequence of that, I went to surprise you, or so I thought, by showing up at your happy hour. I saw you there that night, though you didn’t see me, and I had already had too much to drink. And so, what I thought I saw, though I’ll never know for sure, was a betrayal. I was enraged. I was enraged by what I thought I saw and I was enraged by your pretense of disappointment.

I didn’t board my flight in the morning, on purpose. And I thought to myself, as I did not board:

Stupidly, sadly, even when we don’t really believe it, we will still traipse through a desert to drink from a mirage.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Cadavers, Immortal Souls, and the Rest of Us

I just want to take a moment to sing the praises of Mary Roach, essayist and author of the trilogy of books pictured here. Her first was Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, which dealt (as evidenced in the title) with all the strange things that we do with the dead. Her second, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, took an amateur-scientist-cum-skeptic's approach to the possibility of human "souls," seeking verifiable evidence that our future may hold more than that of mere cadavers. And her third, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is an unorthodox, unconventional and unreserved survey of the often bizarre history of the "science" of sex. I read Roach's books out of order, beginning with Stiff (which I passed off to almost everyone who would dare to read it a few years ago), then on to Bonk, and now to Spook. (Interestingly, Bonk is the least interesting of the three.) Roach's prose style reminds me a lot of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, which is a good thing, as they all evince a kind of unapologetic curiosity in things unknown, as well as a hubristic confidence in the merit of the intutions of the unlearned.

When it comes to "real" science, I definitely count myself among the unlearned laity. So, I am happy that there are people like Roach out there, who will track down the experts, dig through the archives, survey the scholarly (and non-scholarly) literature, and trace the genealogies of those objects and activities of real wonder: death, sex, the afterlife. Plus, her books are an almost bottomless well from which to draw cocktail-party anecdotes. Go buy these books. Right now. You're welcome.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Americana the Beautiful

Apologies, readers, for the paucity of new material here on the blog of late. In a couple of weeks, I'll be back with more regularity. In the meantime, however, I have re-added a link (in the column to your right) to the archive site for my now-defunct old Rhodes Radio program "Americana the Beautiful," which used to air on Sunday nights, so you can go listen to some of Dr. J's favorite music. Which is ALL good music. Download the programs to your iPods, because life is always easier to manage with a soundtrack.

Here are some of my favorite episodes, if you can't stand the quiet of your world no more:

-- "Dr. J's (Almost) Birthday Mix (Part 1)" and "(Part 2)": This is the show I did a few days before my birthday in 2008, which includes a greatest hits compilation of all my favorite music. There's plenty of grooves that will put some pep in your step here. A healthy helping of good old rhythm & blues, a dash of gospel-infused secularity, a generous seasoning of country and alt-country, some straight-up singer-songwriter brilliance, and yours truly providing the play-by-play commentary.

-- "Sad Songs Say So Much (Part 1)" and "(Part 2)": I'm a connoisseur of sad songs. I love them. I study them with the intensity and rigor of a scientist. I have an unofficial PhD in the musical stylings of the desparate, the lonely, the downtrodden, the heartbroken, the broke, the lost, the rode hard and hung up wet. This episode is a Master Class in hermeneutics of sad songs. WARNING: Do not listen if you don't have a strong constitution. These songs are not for the faint of heart. Nor for the heartless.

--"Valentine's Day Love Song Mix (Part 1)" and "(Part 2)": If you're trying to woo someone, this is the episode for you. It originally aired just after Valentine's Day, and was meant to be a prepatory exercise for those who might be trying to assemble the perfect mix for "next year's" V-Day. There's always next year, lovers!

-- "Memphis IS Music": You would be surprised how many songs are either about Memphis or have "Memphis" somewhere in the lyrics. I mean, there are hundreds of them. This episode assembles some of the best from that long, long list of Memphis-lovin' songs. Everybody knows that the best music around is IN Memphis, but it's good to remember also that some of the best music around is also ABOUT Memphis. This episode is a love letter to my one true love, my town, the city that sits on the banks of the Big Muddy, that weathers all the vicissitudes of its weather and its people and its sicknesses and its sometimes-secret virtues. And it is a celebration of everything that makes this place holy.

-- "Depression Ain't ALL Bad": Originally aired in February 2008, this episode memorialized the end of the print version of the alt-country music magazine No Depression. (There's still an online version of No Depression, but oh how I miss getting those oversized copies of it in the mail... sigh...) Next to blues and soul, alt-country is the most gut-grinding music there is. This episode features some of the best of the best of alt-country. Neophytes take note: there's a whole lot of learnin' to learn here.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Omaha (Somewhere in Middle America)

I'll be giving the keynote address at the 12th Annual Midwest Undergraduate Philosophy Conference next weekend, hosted by Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. (That's the Creighton campus in the image to the left... or so says Google Image Search, anyway.) You can see the full conference schedule here. The title of my keynote is "Human Rights and Weak Humanism," and I'll do my best to post the text of that address here when I return from the conference. I've never actually been anywhere in the Midwest before-- or, I should say that I've never actually stayed in the Midwest any longer than it takes to drive through it-- but my good friend Dr. Wendling tells me that Omaha is one of those places that warrants more than a drive-through. Looking forward to it.