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Philosophy

With the classic Beatles’ track “Revolution 1,” John Lennon, famously (and controversially) sends a mixed message about his support for violent revolutionary activity.  “If you’re talking about destruction yeah, don’t you know that you can count me out… in,” he sings.  Aside from being a prime example of Lennon as proto-punk, I think this juxtaposition says much about the nature of far-left politics.  In short, it suggests that political idealism, especially of the far-left variety, always contains an element of violence.  Relating this to current US politics, the question becomes, will Bernie Sanders supporters embrace this violence and vote for Donald Trump?

As I’ve written about before on this blog, all human activity takes place in the shadow of ideals— visions, however vague, of the way the world should be.  Those who profess radical political beliefs are particularly intimate with their ideals.  Ideals though, by their very definition, are situated in opposition to the world of actually existing human affairs.  This means that to embrace an ideal fully, to long for it and work towards its realization in the manner of a true radical, is to wish for the destruction of the actually existing.  After all, the real and the ideal can’t exist alongside each other.  One must give way.

So some level of violence is inherent in all idealism.  Likewise, on a practical level, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that indeed all (or nearly all) instances of revolutionary change are occasioned by destruction.  That the failure of the old is necessary for the new isn’t a particularly novel idea.  It terms of human psychology, it makes sense that things must get really bad before people embrace new options.  Simply put, if the old system is working, you’re not going to get revolutionary change.

This brings us to current state of US politics.  Imagine you’re an idealistic Bernie supporter (or maybe you actually are).  You look at the world and see inequality and oppression.  Things are bad.  Unfortunately, as the outcome of the Democratic primary shows, most people do not think things are bad enough to require revolution.  Instead, they demand only a tepid incrementalism, a politics which leaves the current elites, and the system by which they benefit, in place.  In short, the majority of the population is still tied to the real, thereby rejecting the ideal (they can’t exist together, remember)

So what has to happen for the majority to embrace a (leftist) ideal?  The answer, unfortunately for most happy-go-lucky idealists, is destruction.  For radical political change to occur, the system must utterly fail.  The real world must be shown to be degraded, incapable of supporting human flourishing.  In short, for things to get better, things have to get much, much worse.

According to the this logic, we can see how a far-left Bernie supporter could make a rational case for voting for Donald Trump.  As numerous experts have opined, a Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.  The economy would collapse, international relations would fray.  By all indications a lot of people would get hurt, yes.  I’d like to suggest though that this violence—this unmitigated human suffering—is part of the logic of the ideal.  A Trump presidency, by this thinking, is desirable simply because it would be so terrible.

Of course, much radical literature supports my claim.  Mao and Stalin (and ISIS and Al-Qaeda for that matter) recognize that the road to utopia starts with instability, with destruction.  John Lennon knew it too.  In the end though, he backed away from the ideal, choosing to live in the real world.  Like him, Bernie holdouts must make a choice: the violence of the ideal or the (slightly less intense) violence of the real.  I hope the above makes clear the necessity of that choice.

Continuing my summer reading, I arrive at Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Though I’ve rarely seen it cited, in my opinion, this is a key rhet-comp text.  I’d like to give a quick summary, then apply Davis’ ideas to a recent media event— Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones being chased off Twitter by racist trolls.  I find Davis’ work highly descriptive of the current media environment.  But does it offer a prescription to help us survive said environment?

For my money, Breaking Up, with its stylistic wordplay and utter rejection of foundations, represents the zenith of postmodern rhet-comp theorizing.  Following Derrida, Avital Ronell and Victor Vitanza, Davis argues that language is suffused with what she calls “laughter,” a form of erotic energy.  Reason and logic, along with conventional discursive forms, inevitably attempt to clean up this eroticism, to pin down meaning.  This project is doomed to failure though.  The result is that subjects and social structures (which from Davis’s pomo perspective are an effect of language) remain fluid, unstable.  Davis celebrates this sense of fluidity and excess.  “To be spoken by a language contorted in laughter,” she writes, “is to be spoken by language on the loose: no/thing is excluded, censored, or negated” (95).

I’m struck by the similarities between the discursive scene Davis describes and that which I encounter everyday on social media.  What is the meme economy but the unchecked proliferation of meaning?  New forms emerge, and with them new logics, only to immediately be submerged by newer forms and logics.  Reason, as embodied in traditional philosophical discourse, has no place here.  Same with morality.  The old rules—about who can speak, what they can say and how they can say it—simply do not apply.  Instead, laughter in its most primal and yes, erotic, manifestation rules the day.

Consider the racist trolls hounding Leslie Jones.  Working under the auspices of notorious alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulus, they swamped her Twitter feed with racist insults and forged screenshots suggesting she made homophobic remarks.  Here we see language wildly out of control.  There’s no demand for “facts” or “objective” referent, no limitations on what meanings can be conjured.  Jones is a comedian and actor?  Jones is the source of AIDS?  Jones believes we need to “gas dese faggots”?  Driven by a desire for “lolz”, and unchecked by either formal restrictions (rules regarding spelling and grammar, for example) or social/technological restrictions, meanings proliferate.  Language, pulsing with vulgar, grotesque human desire, really is on the loose.  No/thing is excluded.

So, in essence, what we have on Twitter is a world where anyone can say anything, think anything—and for many subjects, especially marginalized ones like Ms. Jones, this excess is terribly traumatic.  So what should be done?  The first impulse for many, as Davis suggests, is to try and limit potential meanings, re-erect some of the barriers postmodernity has torn down.  On Twitter, this typically takes the form of appeals to authority (demands that trolls be banned, for example).  According to Davis though, all attempts to limit meaning will inevitably fail.  Indeed, there seems to be a direct relationship between censorship and erotic power—the more we attempt to restrict certain meanings (the racism of the trolls, for example), the more erotically charged those meanings become.  Simply put, the more we protest, the more lolz.

So we can’t restrict meaning.  What then?  It’s a bit tenuous, but I would suggest that Davis does offer something like a solution.  Quoting Victor Vitanza, she suggests an “antibody rhetoric” capable of “enhancing our abilities to tolerate the incommensurabilities” which make up the postmodern condition (102).  As I read it, such a rhetoric demands a rejection of foundations, a rejection of even the pretense of objective reference.  In short, it means we must come to view language—even terrible, hurtful language– as a laughing matter.

Let’s put this vision to work.  In the case of Leslie Jones versus the trolls, we have competing desires—namely, to enjoy Twitter (Jones) and to cause pain in the name of lolz (trolls).  These desires are incommensurable.  And they fuel meanings which are also incommensurable.  Going back to the erotic power of censorship, perhaps the way to drain power from the latter is through a sort of radical acceptance.  Jones must come to “tolerate the incommensurabilities,” to laugh with the (admittedly pathetic) desire of the trolls.  If she can do so, perhaps the incommensurabilities will be rendered mute.  The desire of the trolls, and the accompanying meanings, will fade.

Breaking Up (at) Totality is a radical text, as I believe my attempt to apply it to a real-life situation demonstrates.  In short, thinking along with Davis, we come to the conclusion that marginalized, maligned subjects must somehow come to believe that words simply do not matter.  This is a hard position to accept.  Indeed, word merchants of all stripes want us to believe the opposite.  In a world without rules though—which for better or worse is the world of social media—it may be our only option.

Like many academics, I’m using the summer holiday to work through my reading list.  As such, I just finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, is at the forefront of the “object-oriented” philosophic movement.  Simply put, this mode of thought seeks to displace humans from the center of the philosophic universe.  It’s interested in things—radishes, VCRs and arrowheads, for example– rather than human interpretations of things.

Now, I don’t seek to present myself as an expert on Bogost’s work.  My only exposure to this thinker is through Alien Phenomenology and his online presence (I follow his Twitter feed).  That said, from what I’ve seen, it seems that Bogost presents a rather radical, even frightening, vision of what we should be doing as teachers and scholars.  Let me explain.

According to Bogost, at the core of the object-oriented vision is the idea that “everything exists equally” (6).  Within this “flat ontology… the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top” (17).  Put into practice, such a view urges philosophers to engage in deep metaphorical description of object-being, to speculate, as the book’s title indicates, on “what it’s like to be a thing.”

Admittedly, Bogost’s methodology makes for fun reading.  His descriptions of the inner lives of peppers and engine parts are indeed poetic.  It’s important to remember though that every philosophic position makes an implicit moral claim.  To do philosophy (or theory or criticism) is to venture that the world is a certain way and to suggest that others see it similarly.  Bogost seems to agree.  “Flat ontology,” he writes, “is an ideal” (19).

So what sort of action does Bogost’s ideal portend?  How does it suggest we relate to one another and the world at large?  The best metaphor to describe his position, it seems to me, is that of the autistic.  The object-oriented thinker is he or she who is able to tune out the messy, noisy world of human affairs and focus solely, engaged in rapt wonder, on the garbage truck or video game.  Bogost indicates as much, writing that “being is unconcerned with… human politics” (99).

Philosophy is just verbal gymnastics, right?  It doesn’t impact our daily lives.  No, not necessarily.  Bogost, like most philosophers, lives his creed.  Exhibit A.  The past few weeks have been trying times in the U.S.  On July 5 the ongoing genocide of black men at the hands of the state was made sickeningly apparent in a pair of internet videos.  A few days later, police were targeted for assassination on the streets of Dallas.  Twitter, understandably, was abuzz with pain and confusion as people tried to make sense of these events.  Not Bogost.  During this time, when nearly every post on my Twitter feed referenced our shared trauma, he kept tweeting about the design of the Amazon website and oddly shaped cucumbers.  He’s interested in things, remember.

As for me, I like things, but I’m first and foremost interested in attunement.  As an ideal, attunement demands openness to the subjective experience of others.  This openness is achieved though attention to the affective, the embodied.  So what ontology underlies such a vision?  Well, it’s definitely not flat.  Instead, as I see it, the field of being pulses with energy– human energy— with objects growing or shrinking in size as that energy flows through them.  Over the past few weeks objects such as “systemic racism” and “state-sanctioned violence” have come to the forefront of my existence.  They loom large, while things like video games and capsaicin peppers recede into the background.

Under the ontology I propose, being is relative— it’s based on context and positioning.  It’s determined not by things-in-themselves, but things-in-relation.  These means that to be ontologically aware, thinkers must always be looking outward and upward, at the world of objects and subjects, at things and the web of conceptualizations which bind them together.  This dual vision inevitably entails (unfortunately, perhaps) a deep concern for “human politics.”

At one point, Bogost describes his philosophy as a “new radicalism.”  I agree.  If we take his thought to its logical extent it demands an equivalence between the blood soaking through Phil Castile’s shirt and the system of human relations which drew that blood.  That’s a truly radical idea.  And one as an embodied, affectively attuned human being, I can’t agree with.

As both a teacher and someone interested in public affairs, I’m continually looking for ways in which the classroom can inform society at large.  One idea central to my teaching philosophy—attunement– is particularly useful.

As I use the term, attunement simply means that much of what we learn, we don’t learn directly.  Instead, subtle cues from those around us give us direction on how to think, feel and be.  If you’ve ever noticed yourself mimicking the body language of a conversation partner, or caught the “vibe” of a room, you have an idea how powerful our attunement to each other can be.

Unfortunately, it seems that US law enforcement doesn’t take into account this very basic psychological principle.  The recent spate of police shootings, and the police response to the subsequent protests, both demonstrate this point.

Regarding the latter, all over the country we see waves of police, dressed all in black, with helmets and riot shields, facing off against crowds of protestors.  Think for a moment about the message such posturing carries.  It is certainly not one of respect and dialogue.  Instead, it signals to the protestors that the situation is volatile, dangerous, war-like.  Facing off against these squads of anonymous Stormtroopers, it’s surprising that more Black Lives Matter protests haven’t turned violent.  The police set the scene.  And the scene they set is one of confrontation.

The everyday posturing of the police is equally troubling.  Consider the amount of gear a cop hauls around: firearm, Taser, body armor, various gadgets.  Police departments likely think that such a display “projects power” and helps “protect their officers.”  I’d argue that this is completely wrong.  When police dress like Robocop, it sets the stage for confrontation.  Subconsciously, it tells members of the public that when they encounter a cop, they need to be ready to fight.  This makes for bad decision making.  Consider Phil Castillo reaching into his pocket while speaking of a gun….

I write this from China.  In years spent here I’ve seen many, many interactions between Chinese police officers and the public.  Compared to America, the difference couldn’t be more striking.  Chinese beat cops are typically older men.  They wear loose blue uniforms, not unlike US postal workers, and carry sticks instead of guns.  In tense situations—confronting illegal street vendors, for example—they act utterly passive.  They stand hands behind their backs, heads bowed, faces blank.  If anything, they give off an air of being sleepy, even as the street vendor, say, yells and stomps about in anger. The end result is to diffuse tension, to “deescalate” in police jargon.

Of course, China and the US are very different places.  The presence of guns in the latter does inevitably change the dynamic.  My argument is though that through aggressive posturing, American cops increase their own level of risk.  Through unconscious cues they make members of the public more likely to act in a violent manner.  In short, no matter what they say, their very physical presence—the “militarization” so many have spoken of lately—directs the public how to be.  And this way of being is one that no society should want to encourage.

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.

Philosophy so white (and male). So claims a trending Twitter hashtag and a recent LA Times article by Myisha Cherry and Eric Schwitzgebel, two academic philosophers. As someone who exists on the fringe of professional philosophy (I’m a writing teacher, but use philosophy in my classroom), I feel I have a unique perspective on this issue. So is “philosophy so white?” Yes. But why exactly?

First off, as with any discussion of social dynamics, we should be wary of anyone who claims there’s one single answer. There’s obviously a lot of factors at play, a lot of stories which can be told. I’ll start with the most basic.

It may seem a little obvious, but one reason philosophy is mainly practiced by white men is because the books you have to read to “do philosophy” in the Western, academic tradition are mainly written by white men. Not surprisingly, people generally like to read stuff written by people who look like them. It’s therefore understandable that philosophically inclined women of color, for example, may be drawn to Audre Lorde or Gloria Anzaldúa, over Kant and Hegel. An interest in such texts, of course, would take these scholars outside the bounds of academic philosophy and philosophy departments.

Related to the above, is something that the authors of the LA Times article hit upon: quality in philosophical production is largely an aesthetic judgment, and because of the nature of the tradition, it’s easier for white men to present the aesthetic demanded. White men are, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel put it, simply better at “sounding smart” in the way “smart” is defined in the philosophy seminar room. I agree with this. What should be done about it though? It seems that the authors would like to expand the definition of philosophical skill to include a wider range of practices. For example, “woman’s ways of knowing” should come to be seen as a valid form of philosophical investigation. Again, I agree. From my perspective, more diversity in thought and practice is always good. If academic philosophy wants to remain culturally relevant, it seems that such a transition must take place.

Considering this topic though, I’m drawn back to a conversation I had some years ago with a theoretical mathematician (a sort of philosopher, I suppose). He was a pretty reasonable guy, but also adamant that no woman could do the work on which he was engaged. This belief, at least on the surface, didn’t seem to be driven by any particular hatred of women. Instead, from a reasoned consideration of his experience, he had drawn the conclusion that for whatever reason— neural makeup, social conditioning or lack of interest—women could just not do his particular brand of super high-level math.†

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this man’s claim. Let’s not do that though. Instead, let’s try to read his experience in light of Cherry and Schwitzgebel claims about philosophy. Are there modes or degrees of philosophical thought, which, by the nature of the female body or society’s innate (IE, unalterable) reaction to that body, are forever closed to women? If so, why may this be?

Of course, our monkey brains are pretty plastic. This being the case, there’s a strong argument that given the same degree of social support and personal desire, a woman, all other factors being equal, could perform any thought activity that a man could perform.‡ Obviously, throughout history the support has been missing. This should change. If it did though, would the desire be there too? Would the number of men and women doing the most abstract and obscure theorizing even out? Or, as Cherry and Schwitzgebel suggest, is the only answer to redefine “high-level theorizing,” to somehow change it into something in which women (as we now use that term) can participate? What would be the advantages and disadvantages of such a redefinition? I don’t have any answers. These certainly seem like questions philosophers should be asking though.


[†] More specifically, his claim was that there were a few hundred people in the world who could do his work and that none of them happened to be women. From this, he drew the larger, and perhaps unjustified, conclusion that no women could ever do the work.

 [‡] But while performing this thought activity, would they be “thinking the same?” Or does the body we think in indelible shape the nature of our thought?

One of the many paradoxes of the 2016 US Presidential election is a wide disconnect between economic data and public perception. By any objective standard the US economy is doing quite well. As Ben Casselman ably explores in a recent piece for fivethirtyeight though, many voters feel that this is not the case. On both the right and the left, there is a widespread belief that ruin—national, personal, environmental, spiritual—is imminent. What’s going on here? What accounts for such widespread, even apocalyptic, anxiety?

This is of course a big issue (the biggest perhaps), but as far as I can tell two intertwined factors provide the best explanation. First, operating at the material level, is an increased level of connection. Whereas thirty years ago it was possible to turn off the TV, divert your eyes from the newspaper, this is, for many people, no longer an option. Our tools, and the capitalist impulses which create and sustain them, demand our constant exposure to intense expressions of pain, pleasure, love, fear. Our monkey brains, designed to operate under very different material circumstances, have trouble adapting.

By way of explanation, imagine our evolutionary ancestor. He or she sees a snake, feels fear, moves away from the snake, feels better. With Facebook and Twitter and 24 hour cable news though we can’t get away from the snake. Plane crashes, mass shootings, the new iPhone: we are constantly confronted with “the desire of the Other,” as Lacan would say, in its most intense, egregious expression. Our monkey brains simply can’t process this, leading to high baseline levels of anxiety.

So even in 10th century China—a pastoral setting if there ever was one—if the peasants were live-tweeting every rice planting, they too would be pretty stressed out. This material element doesn’t completely explain our current anxiety though. We also have to look at the ideology, or worldview, under which advanced capitalism, particularly the American version, operates.

The ideological keyword of our time has to be neoliberalism. Following Michel Foucault, we can trace the rise of this ideology (or sub-ideology) to roughly the 1970s. In broad terms, it involves the weakening of restrictive social structures (the family, the church, the welfare state, unions) and a move towards “personal responsibility.” This means that people have more “freedom”—think of legalized gambling, marijuana, same-sex marriage—but at the same time, must be increasingly willing to take advantage of this freedom. We must be “entrepreneurs of self,” taking risks in the name of profit.

This new social structure has numerous effects. First, without the leveling tendencies of the older system, some exceptional individuals are able to reach new heights of wealth and power. These figures—think of Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Barack Obama—represent an ideal which works to justify the system. At the same time though, many more individuals are left behind, unable (for whatever reasons) to cope with the demands of this increasingly intense capitalist system. Here think of rural working class whites, whom recent reports indicate are facing declining life expectancy. Whereas once church, family and a paternalistic sort of capitalism provided support for these marginalized subjects, those foundations are now gone. It’s sink or swim. And they’re like stones.

Even for the financially secure though the current system offers little in the way of emotional security. Casselman’s article does a good job of highlighting this. Here we have a multi-millionaire Tea Partier, who despite owning a flourishing business, sees an economic system in ruin. We also have a young teacher, comfortably middle class, feeling that he is only one misstep away from personal ruin. Whether or not these claims are objectively true (and I would argue that they are most likely not), they feel true to the claimants because this is what neoliberalism demands we feel. To keep striving, to keep placing our bets in the casino of the marketplace, we have to be afraid: of rival capitalists or losing our job or not have the most sustainable foods on our plate.

So here, in short, we have the two mutually sustaining causes of our anxiety: the material and the ideological, tech and neoliberalism. What do we do? I don’t have an answer for that, though I do think an important first step is recognizing the logic at work. And when people blindly promote these logics (E.G. tech boosters, Republican presidential candidates), we must call them out. That seems to be the only way we can learn to chill.