A perfect song for everyone in the biz who tomorrow will just be trying to eat too much food in peace. Don't do anything to provoke the Fox News viewer one seat over who thinks that college professors are both symptom and cause of the moral rot hollowing out our once great nation. Respond to provocation gracefully. If Fox News viewers had been around in the olden times, surely Jesus would have included them (as well as philosophy majors!) with prostitutes and tax collectors in the class of people one ought to break bread with.
Why does the one holiday Americans devote entirely to eating involve such lackluster food? You really have to stretch (mackerel?) to find a protein less impressive than turkey. "Dressing" looks exactly the same before your drunk uncle has eaten it and after he's thrown it up the next morning. Boiled green beans taste like dirty water, and Jello brand cranberry mold is about the only thing I can imagine that pairs appropriately with the aforementioned vomitous dressing.
One of the most morally destructive things about philosophy is that study of it leads people to think that their opinions about anything under the sun are somehow a priori informed and interesting. This is probably because of the generality of the big P philosophical questions. Just what the heck is knowledge? Matter? Possibility? etc. etc. etc.
This is actually a lot like a classic scene from Bukowski's Factotum, where the boss is grilling Henry Chinanski about what his novel is about, and Chinanski keeps replying "everything." The boss then lists a set of objects that fall under the extension of "everything," each time asking Chinanski if that object is in his book. At one point the boss says, "My wife?" and Chinanski answers, "Yeah, she's in there too."
Philosophy bloggers tend to be a bit like Chinanski's hapless boss. Since philosophy is about everything, people who teach philosophy have carte blanche to bloviate about whatever they feel strongly about, and such bloviations are somehow guaranteed to be worth reading. Unfortunately, there's a not very subtle de dicto/de re fallacy involved in this reasoning, one to which self-professed philosophers should be sensitive. But there you go.
If a good rule in life and book reviewing is not to say anything if you don't have anything nice to say, a good rule for blogging is not to say anything if you don't have anything interesting to say. Unfortunately, it's much easier for one to tell when one is not being nice than when one is not being interesting. Do we ever really realize that we're beign boring? I have absolutely no idea just how boring this sentence is. . .
During the Arab Spring of 2012 we did tons of starry-eyed posts at newapps that are embarrassing in retrospect. At one point during all of that my long-suffering friend Mark Silcox called me on the phone from Oklahoma. As is our want, we retired to our respective studies, libations in hand, and shot the proverbial feces. After a somewhat interminable discussion of the history of "alignment" in various editions of Dungeons and Dragons* the conversation turned to newapps. Enough booze had been imbibed for Mark to point blank ask me just what the hell we thought we were doing. We were philosophers, not journalists, and unlike Graham Harman, none of us actually lived in any of the effected countries. Then Silcox listed half a dozen websites that had interesting and helpful journalism about the Arab Spring.
Shamefully, it didn't really move me very much at the time. But as I read well-meaning posts across the philosophical blogosphere about the riots in Ferguson these last few days, I think it's beginning to sink in. What's the purpose of long political posts that don't make any difference and don't really shed any new light (given all of the good journalism and sociology easily accessible on the web) on the issue at hand? There must be some other pragmatic function for such posts, something that doesn't have to do with the propositional content of anything actually written. In this vein, I think that if scientists ever really understand what's going on when birds sqwauk at one another, then we'll probably be in a position to understand what's going on with political utterances in the philosophical blogosphere. In the meantime, at least we have this:
[*Wizards of the Coast did not take my advice for Fifth Edition.]
I'm deeply conflicted about this kind of thing. On the one hand, reviewerly vitriol is tremendously entertaining when done well. And it certainly is here. Tamen's comments on Hayt's discussion of Jameson's discussion of "a certain Van Gogh painting" is hilarious, as is the bit about people at my career stage complaining about kids today, which I'll repeat here:
Eric Hayot believes that “institutional problems require institutional solutions” (161). The matter is debatable, although again never debated in the book. The true problem, however, is that for him all problems are institutional problems. This is really pseudonymous talk for the worst kind of idealism, the rampant notion that whatever takes place in a faculty meeting or a professional conference also obtains in the world at large. Do they ever get to the World section of their New York Times? The “world” of this book, as he also candidly acknowledges in a passage of thinly veiled self-propaganda, is a world “in which it takes most scholars until their third book to approach large historical or trans-periodizing categories” (159). Safely got to this side of tenure, and preparing for the final career move, one can then shed crocodile tears over the scholarship of “graduate students and junior faculty…who tend, by virtue of the pressures of the job market, to be the site for the (frequently reluctant) articulation of the profession’s most conformist institutionalizations” (163). In the same breath, one will also gravely make curriculum recommendations written in the patronizing Rilkean tone of advice to younger poets (e.g., “Imagine periods as they might look from some moment other than the present” ).
On the other hand, darüber muss man schweigen seems to me to kick in precisely at the point where you don't find yourself learning anything new from the text.
John Protevi has a wonderful rap about how it is a priori that polemics always fail (I think we were talking about this book at the time). Or rather that they succeed aesthetically only to the extent that they fail argumentatively. Tamen very smartly focuses on the ways he finds Hayt's book to illustrate sins of the age, which is probably the best one can do. But this still strikes me as sinning against the text analogously to the way in which Kant takes people to characteristically sin against one another. Texts also have an autonomy which must be respected.
I'm reading Nietzsche for the first time since I was ninteen in preparation for a philosophy of religion class I'm teaching next semester (we'll be doing Freud and Marx too), and a few things really leap off of the page of Kaufmann's introductory essays.
First, Nietzsche is one of those writers (like Heidegger and Derrida) whose style has its own kind of awful viral power. It's the "lofty" affectation of the weary soul gazing down from the mountain because he sees through all of piddling humanity's unimportant illusions. You find this species of pretension most often in the prefaces of a certain kind of continental philosopher (often weirdly compounded by overuse of chiasmus, parentheses, and puns) and in critical appraisals of Nietzsche that are a little too enthusiastic. It's distantly related to Kurt Vonnegut's "martian anthropologist" pose, though it serves a radically different purpose. Vonnegut's narrators unmask the way socially contingent norms cause suffering, whereas the Nietzschean pose is much more reminiscent of what Graham Harman calls the sneer from nowhere, critique not tied to any positive program or purpose other than aggrandizing the sneer's bearer.
Kaufmann is far, far better than most Nietzsche apologists and biographers with respect to this kind of thing, but the power of Nietzsche's prose proves too much for even him. Consider this bit from the introduction to On the Geneology of Morals:
To write about Nietzsche "scholars" with the lack of inhibition with which they have written about Nietzsche, mixing moralistic denunciations with attempts at psychiatric explanations, would be utterly unthinkable. Why? The answer is clearly not that Nietzsche really was an inferior scholar and did eventually become insane. Most Nietzsche "scholars" cannot hold a candle to his learning or originality, and the closer they are to meriting psychological explanations, the worse it would be to offer any (p. 9).
Note the typical crapulent use of scare quotes that function solely to allow the narrator to condescend to whoever she is talking about. And also note the distancing irony of "utterly unthinkable." Kaufmann goes on to say that those who find Nietzsche morally problematic do so because they are jealous of Nietzsche's abilities as a writer.
The second thing that occurs to me is just how much Nietzsche would have hated Kaufmann's Nietzschean apologetics. In Kaufmann's attempt to save Nietzsche from association with Nazi ideas (especially in his eponymous book) he presents a thoroughly bourgeois version of Nietzsche which requires willfully misreading Nietzsche's voluminous comments on equality, democracy, slavery, etc., etc., etc. Kaufmann's misattentions were probably necessary to make Nietzsche safe for the "scholars" but the great writer and psychologist surely would have recognized himself much better in the prose of his moralistic opponents. Kaufmann's Nietzsche ends up being a self-help huckster type guru who just wants all of us to find our inner artists. Surely Nietzsche (particularly the Nietzsche of the last four books) would have had no time for Kaufmann's Nietzsche.
Just to be clear, I think Kaufmann is an underappreciated treasure, especially for ninteen year olds. His Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Anti-Christ is up there with Ray Monk's The Duty of Genius, Marcuse's One Dimensional Man, and Magee's The Philosophy of Schopenhauer as easy to read philosophy books that would be required teen reading if I had my druthers. There's no vampires or elves or anything like that in them, but they all contain a lot of great stuff nonetheless.
I"ve been reading part I of Stephen Kotkin's mammoth new Stalin trilogy (atlanticmonthly review here, guardian review here, nybooks review here) and I'm struck by how powerful certain cultural tropes are at self-replicating. In particular, why does Russia keep producing autocrats with power is unchecked by elites? This goes back hundreds of years.
One wants to appeal to quasi-evolutionary theory in the same manner as people who believe in memes (mental states such as beliefs that get selected for in a manner analogous to the way physical traits are in the course of evolution). Is there a word for this kind of thing that sort of rhymes with "gene" when it's a broader cultural trope that gets replicated?
The weirdest thing from an evolutionary perspective is that the resulting system of government is not very stable. One of the most interesting things about the October Bolshevik revolution is that after the revolution it was still initially just four guys in the room of a vacated boarding school. Lenin was sending these insane memoranda out to far flung parts of the Russian empire and nobody paid any attention. Part of what Kotkin is trying to understand is how they could possibly consolidate control. For Kotkin, a big part of the answer involves the immense fragility of autocracy. But the same thing happened with the putsches against Khruschev and Gorbachev. Now Putin is doing the same thing, kneecapping his own elites to focus power on himself.
Why does a system which falls apart so easily (to the detriment of millions of people's well-being) get selected for over and over again? De Mesquita and Smith's Dictator's Handbook is probably relevant here, but they mostly show why individual actors (including university management) do the things that dictators do to the detriment of the organizations they lead. They don't show organizations permit these actors to get away with this over and over again. Maybe something like Poe's imp of the perverse applies not just with respect to individual psychology. I don't know.
It's been fascinating to see how my four year old daughter responds semantically to realizing that the Disney universe is fictional. She's convinced that princesses aren't real. When I tell her that actual princesses are just women whose parents are kings and queens, or who marry men whose parents are kings and queens, and that such creatures exist in the actual world, she just doesn't buy it. For her it is a necessary property of being a princess that they exist in a world with talking sidekick animals. As soon as she figured out that animals don't really talk, she decided that there were no princesses.
I don't know how much to make of this. She also believes that the associate pastor at our church (Mike Watson) is God. When her seven year old brother challenges her on this, she often indignantly shouts back "My God plays guitar!" Watson can play really nicely, but I can't figure out why that's theologically relevant to Audrey. I can imagine worse cosmogenies though.
In linguistics a verb phrase is a success verb phrase if certain kinds of grammatically simple true sentences in which it occurs reliably entail the occurrence of events relating to the verb's object. "Knows" is a success verb because knowing that P entails that P is true. "Did" is a success verb because doing P entails that P occurred. "Calling attention" is a success verb phrase because calling attention to P entails that as a result of the activity the hearer in some manner attends to P. One can try to call attention to something without actually calling attention to it.
Then how to explain this recent post by Ed Kazarian, which I'll quote at length so as to be maximally charitable:
. . .as a teaser, I will leave readers with this short section from Trott's conclusion, about which I will add a few remarks below the fold.
I am only just now coming to see that changing the way we think about philosophy in order to make it more inclusive means making those of us who are happy with the way the thinking in philosophy currently operates uncomfortable and not-quite-at-home with philosophy.
It seems to me that how those of us who are 'happy' in this way deal with this discomfort can be the source of some of the central problems we face as a community in trying to become more inclusive and more attractive to a diverse set of members. Much of the more diffuse retaliatory ugliness that I called attention to earlier in the week may be seen as defensive, largely unreflected expressions of this discomfort*—despite the fact that those in more marginal positions have long had little choice but to live with as much, and indeed more than likely far greater discomfort. As Trott suggests, for some of us, learning to live with this 'not-quite-at-home' feeling seems will be a matter of real, and pressing, necessity, at least if we are genuinely serious about a more inclusive, more diverse philosophical community.
*I don't see any contradiction in principle between the claim that the discomfort, its significance and its sources may, for many, remain largely unreflected and the fact that at least some of those people will elaborate lengthy argumentative responses to what they percieve to be making them uncomfortable or to justify actions which are, at bottom, defensive responses proceeding from a still unreflected discomfort. The discomfort will remain 'unreflected' in the sense that I am using the term so long as its subjects have not engaged in a self-critical reflection about why they are uncofmortable and what that discomfort means about their own positioning.
One could (and should) cavil here that there is an equivocation between diversity of subject matter and diversity of people. It's an instance of the essentialist, orientalist mentality that Henry Louis Gates roundly attacks in his classic Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars. Gates considers the disastrous way that African-American studies was taken by administrators and well meaning people in other fields to be coextensive with affirmative action for African Americans. His comments apply to people who try to provide political support to attacks on the very idea of philosophical canon by equivocating between two forms of diversity.
However, of more pressing concern to me is once again (please read the discussion following my earlier post on the Schliesser/Kazarian shunning proposal, also see Leiter's brief note about Schliesser here), the problem is that Kazarian doesn't give any examples in either post and nobody reading them on their own would have any idea who he intends to be picking out. This is not only absurd, but serious, since the original post called for professionally shunning people (in a variety of pretty seriously career damaging ways) whose blog posts are deemed by Kazarian to be retaliatory.
I suspect Kazarian has me and Brian Leiter in mind for the shunning, since we're the only people he's publicly criticized for anything like the sins he attempts to adumbrate in the posts (please see Mohan Matthen's letter of support here and Todd May's letter of support here). In particularly he mentions disability issues, where he found me to be morally wanting. But I wish he would work his way out of the performative contradiction of calling attention to something without calling attention to it and actually name names. From e-mails I know that lots of people who followed the whole newapps meltdown assume he has me and Brian Leiter in mind as appropriate objects of shunning (friends who follow facebook debates have told me that this is their view from other comments). If Kazarian doesn't have us in mind, he should say so. If he does he should too. This business of insinuation is morally problematic. It allows him to order people who agree with him (and many in continental philosophy do) to treat specific people badly while providing the illusion of plausible deniability with respect to having done just that.
I wish I were surprised that none of the current newapps authors have publicly called him out for doing this.