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There is a fine line, in critiquing the institutions you thrive on, between nihilism and the injunction to think about them in radically different ways, especially when your critique is as far-reaching as Giorgio Agamben’s in Homo Sacer. I had an argument recently about whether or not Agamben’s book is political — I think it is. In fact, it seems absurd to say that he argues against politics entirely. He explicitly writes:

The idea of an inner solidarity between democracy and totalitarianism…is obviously not…a historiographical claim, which would authorize the liquidation and leveling of the enormous differences that characterize their history and their rivalry. Yet this idea must nevertheless be strongly maintained on a historico-philosophical level, since it alone will allow us to orient ourselves in relation to the new realities and unforseen convergences of the end of the millenium. This idea alone will make it possible to clear the way for the new politics, which remains largely to be invented.

Which is to say, of course, that Agamben knows he doesn’t have the answers, but rather that he thinks the answers are in the offing if we engage his analysis of the underlying ideological overlaps between liberal democracy and the totalitarian state. He is not implying that we should be apolitical (in fact, this should be an injunction to be political, just not the kind of political that is average or expected). His text is, I think, deeply political.

The implications of bowing to a nihilism that might grow out of the shared basis of both democracy and totalitarianism — that is, the nihilism that grows out of the realization that biopolitics underpins virtually all the politics of recorded Western history — are grave. If we accept this nihilism, we damn ourselves to the future we are building for ourselves in security checkpoints, terror warning levels, and even the refusal of a nationalized health care plan. We accept that there will be the kind of genocidal mass killing, ruthless dictatorship, and tactical abduction of political prisoners in the 21st century, as there has been in the 20th. These are all instruments of biopolitical control, but in order to solve the impasse between security and freedom, health and economy, debate and stability, Agamben writes that we must think beyond biopolitics.

To say that Agamben’s critique of biopolitics is a critique of political life is entirely absurd. This week (spring break!) I am going to explore the idea of political life beyond biopolitics, because I believe it is not only possible to think a politics that rejects biopolitics, it is also ultimately essential. Oh, and I also want to prove a point.

I’ve been struggling the past week or so with this short piece that I’ve been working on for a book.  I just can’t seem to write anything that comes out making any sense — or doesn’t sound totally grandiose and weird.  I really just want to write a few pages about where love belongs in the academy, and the role of forgiveness in learning — not just about social identity but about everything.  Maybe I’m trying to tell too complex a story.  This is a function of my reflection on the past few years, the fact that living in this town means the past knows where I sleep at night and can come bother me at all hours of the day.  I’d really like to spend some time away, take a vacation from myself.  It’s not to be.  Some parts of me wish there were more people here for me to be around, some parts really want to be alone with the task of reconstituting the most insane four years of my life so far in ways that make sense and are completely translatable into a series of vignettes and anecdotes.

Writing is, at the moment, being alone.  I am trying to write about the schism in my experience at Michigan between being a philosophy major and being a dialogue practitioner — the kinds of inconsistencies that I began to detect in my junior year and weren’t resolved until this past semester.  I am trying to write about how dialogic pedagogy doesn’t need to be reserved just for social justice education, and how what I learned about being an educator at Michigan is going to apply not just to my continuing education but also to my life.

I think that part of the reason radical pedagogy really resonated with me was because I had been feeling pretty alienated by a lot of things that go on at the university at large.  I disliked being asked to check my identity at the door, even though leaving behind “identity” didn’t mean that I wasn’t expected to answer prying questions about who (what?) I am/was/will be.  I was irked by the refusal to recognize the weight of human experiences and identities in society in the formulation of philosophical disciplines, especially ethics.  While I imagine it would be easy to chalk up a good deal of this to the fact I’ve been working in a heavily analytic department, but I notice it in other places, too.  On the other hand, I found anything that smacked of “applied philosophy” to be uninteresting and kind of petty.

What’s interesting is that in the past year I’ve been shown or been figuring out ways to use radical pedagogical models to teach subjects other than social justice education.  Working with Jennifer this past semester was kind of revelatory in this way — I discovered that the principles still held in her classroom.  Her transparency about her goals, plans, and pedagogical choices was refreshing.  I felt invested-in, challenged, and also supported and affirmed in ways that I generally don’t associate with academic coursework.  She’s also been very supportive of my own linking of my subject to a kind of Freirean praxis.  Maybe I am off on the right track.

On the other hand I’ve always been troubled by the lack of intellectual rigor in a lot of social justice education.  I think that intellectual rigor is really important to me not just because of my academic background but because I have always thought that way.  (I have been cleaning out my old bedroom at my mom’s house and reading some of my early philosophical writing and, damn, boi knows how to construct an argument.)  I dislike engaging with people who are unwilling to engage on the minimum level of not changing the premises of their argument spontaneously, fallacious lines of argument frustrate me to no end.  I resent skepticism about people who are well-educated, well-spoken, and well-read.  I don’t see why we can’t enjoy both rigor and love in our academic and social justice work.  This is another thing that I saw in action in Jennifer’s class.  For a while I didn’t think it was possible, but under the right circumstances it really allows people to flourish.

What I’m trying to write about is the path to an inclusive, supportive, but intellectually and personally challenging classroom.  I don’t think it is by any means easy, but I do think it’s possible.  Incredibly, there are people out there doing this kind of work already, but I don’t think they get the credit they deserve at all.  I also really want to write about how important it is to change the game in this way.  This is about institutional diversity at the broadest but also the most personal level.

I guess I didn’t realize until now how alienating I found a lot of the experiences I had my freshman and even my sophomore years at Michigan.  Not just in the typical ways, like campus housing and having to explain myself to faculty, but also in the sense that so many things didn’t make any sense to me, and I wasn’t allowed to work those things out.  I didn’t find out until years later why they didn’t make sense and I’m kind of angry — or maybe disappointed — about the whole situation.  It’s a lot of stuff for two or three pages, but I can’t seem to get past framing this in terms of education being an act of love.

The excitingly convenient thing about my philosophy seminar is that all the readings are online. This week’s was section 5 of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Intergenerational Justice. This is my (somewhat lame) response. I’m going to invite comments, insights and critiques on all of these things I post here because two of them are going to be turned into actual papers, and I am not very well-versed in ethics. Go for it.

At the beginning of section 5.1, Meyer raises the question of intergenerational reparations owed to the victims of past injustices and/or their descendants. Here, he offers two different interpretations: either the descendants of victims of past injustices suffer additional harm in the present, or both the descendants of victims of past injustices and those past victims have suffered harm. Intuitively, I think there is another causal way of describing the ways in which currently living people can claim reparations for the injustices committed against their ancestors.

Suppose that Meyer’s example African-American descendant of slaves, Robert, can indeed trace his genealogy back to a group of people kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery. Let us also suppose, as Meyer does, that we are only concerned with whether Robert has a claim against past agents of injustice, not whether he can legally demand reparations.

In note 47, Meyer mentions that we cannot use the diachronic notion of harm in Robert’s case. This is sensible because it assumes that Robert would have had a prior state of well being at the time his forebears were wronged. This doesn’t seem to make sense as Robert would not have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. However, the subjunctive-historical notion of harm might allow direct descendants of slaves to claim compensation. He doesn’t explore this argument further.

To paraphrase Meyer, under the subjunctive-historical notion of harm, something at time t1 harms someone only if the cause makes the person to be worse off at time t2 than the person would have been at time t2 had the agent not been involved in the cause. While Meyer has a point in saying that it makes no sense to say that Robert is less well off now than if his forebears had not been kidnapped, there seems to be a more complex series of causal links here. I am skeptical about saying that there is a just cause for Robert to demand reparations for his forebears’ kidnappings, but intuitively it seems Robert is justified in demanding reparations for a series of events that began with the kidnapping and enslavement of Robert’s forebears.

Briefly, it makes sense to sketch a more complex picture of harmful events – Robert has a right to compensation due to a longstanding saga of wrongs. I suppose some of the same principles underlying the subjunctive-historical notion of harm can be used here. I was unable to locate Lyons’ 2004 paper that Meyers cites in his article, but in note 47 Meyers gestures at the idea that the injustices against African Americans are ongoing, or at the very least have persisted for generations.

So perhaps this is another kind of way to imagine intergenerational harm. It is possible that current generations can suffer from harm done to their forebears, but it might serve to better justify their claims to compensation if there is some way in which that harm is carried across previous generations. I think that this conception of intergenerational harm may run into issues of identity – what if, for example, the genealogy of harm is untraceable? (For that matter, why can certain people whose family has suffered longstanding historical injustice claim reparations and others not?) Why do we think the descendants of victims of injustice have claim to compensation at all?

To address the second question, at least, I think it is the case that repeated historical injustices may cause the current generation to suffer. Other individuals have not inherited a history of the same injustices, therefore putting them on unequal footing with the descendants of slaves, for example. These sorts of injustices may play out in preferential treatment due to bias, or economic shortcomings as a result of discriminatory practices, or even deprivation of life and property. Instead of isolating the injustice to the single event – when Robert’s forebears were kidnapped and sold into slavery – his claims to reparations are based on a series of events which have left him disadvantaged in comparison to others.

In order to construct a better case for reparations, it might be preferable to formulate a subjunctive-historical notion of harm that addresses persistent injustice.

I have been having this conversation with a lot of folks lately, notably faculty, and the more I rehearse the argument in my head the harder it is for me to wrap my brain around why I do what I do in academia, and why it continues to be of critical importance to me.  I in no way want to downplay the fact that I think the academy is seriously flawed, but there continues to be something awfully compelling that makes me stick to it.  Even though I recognize that some of this may just be a willful ignorance of any other way to get done the things I’d like to do, because the academy is comfortable and familiar, I have other reasons for thinking that doing what I’m doing is good.  Not necessarily right, or the best, but definitely good.

My best argument in defense of academia, at least in my limited experience doing philosophy at a major institution, is that it has armed me with the tools I have found the most useful to dismantle, examine, and critique existent structures.  By existent structures, I am most interested in those which are used as tools of oppression, or at the very least (and closely related) the promotion of the status quo.  While the discipline of philosophy is dominated by figures who are largely white American, British or European men, the rigorous study of philosophy has taught me ways of thinking that do not claim to be infallible.  In fact I would go so far as to say that if anything, there is a certain amount of encouragement in the direction of critique by the discipline itself.

Which is encouraging.  But because I have used the master’s tools to hone my own wits, does that make me, after a fashion, the master’s tool too?  I have learned how to think, read, speak, and write critically, but the sort of critical thinking, reading and writing I do are academy-sanctioned.  Yet the ways I apply this critical awareness is not always so doted-upon by the powers that be.

I waffle back and forth between thinking that I am a clever one and I am a serious sellout.  On the one hand, submitting to the academy and its rules, explicit and implicit, has empowered me.  On the other, I feel like I should be able to do this on my own.  And the fact that my highbrow academic mind has a hard time breaking out of that framework even when creating a zine has interesting implications, as well.  It seems like I can’t turn that part of my brain off.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so worried.  I have gotten respect and encouragement from both sides of the coin — academic and casual — so maybe I’m doing alright.  I certainly don’t see the value in outright rejecting any way of examining the world, but then again, that seems to be a direct product of my training as an academic philosopher.  It’s kind of maddening that I can’t shift my frame of reference here in order to make better sense of my own thinking, but I suppose it has always been particularly challenging to think about thinking, because we need to think to think about thinking, and so get trapped by the boundaries of our own thought.

And again, a dead end in my struggle between my essentially anti-establishment self and my stodgily establishment self.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert here, but I kind of feel like I have something going on.  The other day in lecture, Proops pointed out that in order for Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to be the kind of self-imploding nonsense the new Tractarian school makes it out to be, it needs to be some kind of “seductive nonsense.”  His example of seductive nonsense would be: what if we asked what time it was on the sun?  Clearly, it doesn’t make any sense to ask what time it is on the sun, because the sun is what determines what time we have.  However, you might make an argument that it’s always noon on the sun, because the sun is always at its highest in a time zone where it is noon.

Granted, the absurd response is kind of a simplification (the sun can be seen in two time zones at once.  It’s 3.30 pm here, and it’s 2.30 pm in Chicago, and the sun can be generally said to be seen at both times of day).  I am not sure that the Tractatus needs to contain the kind of absurdity that, on its surface, seems to make some sort of sense in order to be self-imploding.

To me, the Tractatus doesn’t actually carry a clear argument.  Wittgenstein makes claims about what the world is like, but I don’t think he ever really argues for his assertions.  This is the first sign that the Tractatus is something other than a dry, codified system of looking at language

Moreover, I think that there is something remarkably seductive about the Tractatus on the surface.  There is something soothing in the reduction of “logical atomism” as Wittgenstein presents it.  Perhaps it is this meditative tone that is of greater importance than any kind of “seductive absurdity” contained in the work.

Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I’m not entirely sure why “seductive absurdity” is a requirement.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.  Proops’s previous arguments against the new Tractarian school are a bit more convincing — especially that Wittgenstein later wrote and said repeatedly that he had made some fundamental mistakes of logic in the Tractatus.  I think I will be developing these ideas further over the semester break, and perhaps doing a little more research into Wittgenstein’s apparent change of heart about the content of  his book.

Today Laine and I had lunch with the fantastic Ian Proops.  I was sad to learn he will be leaving U-M for the University of Texas next year, but I guess I’m getting out of here, too.  (Had some good news about Brown, but I can get into that later.)  Being two philosophers of language and a linguist, we talked a lot about language.  In the course we’re taking with him, we’ve started talking about Russell’s theory of descriptions.

You can read more in-depth about the theory here, but Proops brought up an interesting point.  While Russell deals with definite descriptions that take the form “an F is G” and “the F is G,” the phrase “Joe the Plumber” seems to contain a similar definite description that doesn’t really fall into the traditional set of Russellian definite descriptions.  How might Russell deal with “Joe the Plumber”?

At first blush it seems to me that an epithet like “Joe the Plumber” or “Peter the Great” can be treated just like a definite description, but I’m unsure how you’d put “Joe the Plumber” into a form like “the F is G.”

I don’t really have the mental energy to do more work on this at the moment, but there it is.  If you have any ideas, let me know.  More on this later, I promise.

A distinctly appropriate pseudo-philosophical topic for blog consumption: what is it to build a framing system with the express purpose of destroying it upon consumption?  (Ian Proops had a funny byte about this last week — if you don’t know what to write about, write about Wittgenstein’s Ladder.)  At the end of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein writes:

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them.  (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) (6.54)

Meaning that: if you come to fully comprehend the framing system (Tractatus) then you have no further use for it.  More than not having a use for it, it would be offensive to your newly-developed sensibilities to keep it around.  (Is there a thing or two about examining framing systems that renders them worthless after an understanding is achieved?)

So I know you guys might abhor blogging what you’re really thinking. I sometimes have horrifying nightmares of people stealing what I’m thinking off my blog. Especially the most recent previous post — what if someone jumps on that idea before I do? How do you think that’d make me feel? That would really suck, and especially because that’s the kind of thing I want to make my career out of , it’s kind of a risky move.

Risky only from a traditional viewpoint. Now that it’s out there in the open, I’m hoping to get a lot of feedback before I decide to do anything about it. I know that the academic institution helps you guys out a lot with that whole feedback thing, but right now I don’t have those tools. And also, you don’t have access to people like me. I know that you might have a (mild?) distrust of people like me — raving blogging loonies, I know. But at the same time, there are people who are doing some really serious work who are using both the online commons and the ivory tower. Most of these people are doing research that have directly to do with other stuff that goes on in the online commons, like alternate reality games. Still, I don’t see why we can’t start expanding the conversation to more “traditional” academic topics.

This proposal is a little bit crazy, I know. Peer review in the commons can often turn into vulgar mud-slinging flame war contests. But it doesn’t have to — I think that a lot of people have this image of the internet as pretty vulgar. And it is pretty vulgar from time to time. But you’re not going to be publishing your dissertation on 4chan. Spam filters are getting as good as spam is getting bad. There are also wonderful places on the internet where people are quite civil, intelligent, and thoughtful.

Of course you’re going to run into problems with a lot of major academic journals’ anal-retentive access policies. But you might not ever publish something in your blog that is rigorous enough for publication in academic journals. Or you might shun journals which aren’t open-access friendly. But I think I might be getting ahead of myself a little here. These are ethical choices I’m going to leave up to you.

The point is, I want to know what you guys are really thinking. I know that the internet is in a lot of ways the Wild West of intellectual life. There aren’t many sheriffs in town, and those that are there can and are wildly inconsistent. It’s not safe per se — but there are also untold rewards for people who venture out. There’s gold in them thar hills, if you will. The gold is the public.

I know you aren’t too keen on it, but think about those undergrads you have who are really bright. When do we ever get a chance to interface with you on topics outside of class and class topics? I know you might never wonder what I’m really thinking, but like I said before, I wonder all the time what you’re really thinking. I mean, you guys are pretty smart.



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