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I Marched, But Not for the Polls

When I started writing this post, I wasn’t going to go to the march.  But I started thinking about the post that went up yesterday about purity.  I realized you know, it is pretty easy to find lots of reasons not to do things and then be very consistent and kind of useless in terms of doing something in the world.  As my post yesterday suggested, purity in the politics might be the enemy of doing any g–d— thing at all.  Then I realized that some of my friends were going and that they had made posters that were not at all about winning at the polls, so I thought, maybe we can go, and be a part of shifting the conversation.  And you know what they say in organizing efforts, you gotta go where the people are.

I am wary of political organizing whose aim is not really to change the political order.  Any political organizing that is trying to motivate people to resist by voting is doing very little to really try to change the normal order of things.  I am not saying that people shouldn’t try to vote out Republicans in November.  They should.  However, I am not here for that effort if Democrats are just going to be a cleaned up version of militaristic imperialism and corporate underwriting.  Read more

Purity and Individualism

In my first or second year of graduate school, I was newly immersed in feminist theory and generally excited about seeing the world again through a feminist lens.  I had recently read Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market,” which analyzes the ways that customs around marriage and weddings contribute to viewing women as commodities.  A graduate student friend who was finishing the program got engaged around the same time I was reading this piece and her partner gave her a diamond ring, which she wore.  This friend was (and remains) something of a feminist hero to my young graduate student self so I asked her how she held together her feminist commitments and wearing a diamond ring.  She told me, I still have to live my life, I still have to live in this world. Read more

Border Walls, Immigration Policy, and Hannah Arendt

This semester I am teaching a course I’m calling “Thinking with Arendt.”  The question of the course follows from Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: if failing to think enables us to do great evil, what is it about thinking that leads us to live well?  A corollary of this question is what are the ways that we think about other people that allow us to dehumanize them to the point where we can justify actively killing them or letting them go to their deaths?  I’ve been teaching Eichmann as discussions about US immigration policy and border security are underway ahead of a deadline today for funding the federal government and I’m finding that second question particularly pressing.

First, I should say that it continues to boggle my mind that people in the interior of the United States talk about the need for a border wall, when there IS A BORDER WALL at much of the parts of the border that can be walled.  Above is a photograph of part of the wall at the Hidalgo County Pumphouse that I took when I was living in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas.  The wall purposefully does not cover the whole border because it is meant to funnel people crossing to places where the border patrol can focus.  The existence of the wall in the face of the discussions of it demonstrate the extent to which people in the interior are far removed from the reality of the border.  People who live at the border don’t want a wall and they have long been mad about the way the current wall has destroyed ecosystems and public spaces. Read more

The Stoic Solution: The Wisdom to Tell the Difference

One way that Spinoza seems to be clearly drawing on the Stoics is in terms of recognizing that we are sorrowful about events because we suppose that we have some power to make them otherwise when we do not.  The Stoics counsel us to seek to understand causes so that we might understand what outcomes we can affect and which we cannot, what aspects of the world we can control and which we cannot, to focus on those that we can and to recognize that those we cannot are just part of the order of things and to accept them accordingly.

The problem I was realizing as I was getting myself organized for the new semester and setting myself some intentions for the semester–thinking about how not to worry about things that are out of my control and to only work on those that were within my control–is that anxiety comes from not being able to know which is which.  I can understand why the Serenity Prayer ends with a request for wisdom to know the difference between the things that we can change and the things that we cannot.  My entire anxious life is rooted in wondering if I did something that adversely affected some situation that I might otherwise have thought I had no control over or whether I should have done something in order to bring about some desired goal that I might have thought was not in my control.

Seneca writes that nothing happens to the wise man contrary to his expectations because he recognizes when his efforts can be thwarted.  But that would really seem to be all the time, which is to suggest that one’s plans may be in her control but the success of them always depends on the order of the nature and fate.  For the Stoics, the actions that we control are themselves part of a larger order of nature.  So our control is even then in affirming them as part of that order.  The good Stoic then tries to fit into that order of what will be.  Here it seems that the Stoic understanding of our action involves a sense of time that sees the action we contemplate as something that already fits within the order of the universe.  The wise man acts in a way that knowing the causes of the universe can conform to its order.  Such a way of acting seems to involve that we already know how our action fit into the universe.  Our problem is that we cannot yet understand the causes of what has not yet happened.  I think this is what Arendt means by the newness of action, and why Kant makes the responsibility to the duty and not the outcome, and yet it is the outcome that we want to achieve.  This is why we can never fully understand the causes and as a consequence can never fully know what is in our control and what is not in our control.  What is not in our power it would seem is the wisdom to tell the difference.

Black Museum Reflects Black Mirror: S4:Ep6

I am the kind of person who watches Black Mirror out of duty and not out of enjoyment.  I have to gird myself to sit down for an episode and can usually only watch one episode at a time, mostly because of the dark capacities of human existence that I think the show explores.  Leigh Johnson is right about a lot of things and one of them is that the show is not fundamentally about technology.  I think it is important to see the show as investigating how technology can open up or put to work some of our baser instincts, rather than suggesting that the technology is the cause of them.   I just finished the fourth season, which Johnson maintains is worse for seeming to be more about the technology than about the human condition.

I am not entirely sure that it is more about technology, but I think there is something to the notion that the more it seems to be about the anxieties or problems that the technology produces rather than the human depravity the technology enables or reveals the less compelling the show is.  Still in Season 4, I think Hang the DJ is about the darker side of the eternal return of the same and that Arkangel is about how the very things we think will allow us to control the disorder and unpredictability of life and relationships end up bringing disorder and chaos to those relationships.  I was disappointed by Metalhead because the basic plot device seemed completely unmotivated.

But I found Black Museum particularly interesting.  One thing I like about Black Mirror episodes is that they stand up to further reflection and rumination.  While I was watching Black Museum the episode seemed self-satisfyingly self-referential in a way that made it seem was a series of short BM episodes squeezed into one.  But at the end of the episode, I started to wonder whether the show is in fact raising questions about watching Black Mirror itself.  (SPOILERS) The episode is set up as a tour through a museum of Black Mirror-like technologies that lead people to treat others badly.  One involves the endless torture of a cookie in a sketch that is a mix of White Bear, White Christmas and USS Callister.  Another involves a woman in a coma whose consciousness is placed in a teddy bear.  At the end of the episode, the woman on the tour who turns out to be the daughter of the man whose cookie is being endlessly tortured destroys the tour guide by turning him into a cookie who is being endlessly tortured.  The annoyance of the self-reference made me wonder if the episode is talking about Black Mirror.  The show, like the guide, has taken a sort of pleasure in presenting us with macabre possibilities of humanity and technology, in an episode that shows quite explicitly how people just did not think through the implications of the technology they created, which led to their demise, including to the demise of the tour guide.  This turn of events made me wonder whether the show is reflecting on how the show itself might have unintended consequences, how it might get out of their hands, as the technology always seems to do.  Or rather, the technology shows itself to have never been fully in their hands in the first place.

The end of the episode involves torching the “Black Museum,” the monument to these destructive technologies.  So I’ve been wondering whether it is a kind of call for viewers to torch it and what that would involve.  And more, why might it be something the creators want to warn us about or suggest we do?  Of course, the makers of Black Mirror have not made new destructive technologies as much as worked within already existing technologies to imagine new ones.  Is the possible suggestion that even the old technologies can be destructive and we need to get on thinking and reflecting about that instead of fixating on what is to to come?   I think Johnson is right to warn against coming up with a moral for each episode.  But this one struck me as saying something was not good, doubly and perhaps triply.  The tour guide describes how the technologies went wrong.  The tourist punishes him for being the purveyor of these technologies.  And she destroys the museum, as if keeping the memorials was just as much a problem.  This last point is what makes me think the makers of Black Mirror are asking for reflection in relation to the show itself.  Even though each episode does not have a moral, I do think the show in general is asking for thoughtfulness around technological advances that far outpace our thinking about what they mean for being human and how they might make being human mean something else.

Some Ideas to Get Undergraduate Philosophy Students to Write Better Papers

I want students to write papers in which they genuinely engage a question that is motivated by the text and their own curiosity in which they come to an insight worth sharing.  Getting students to this place in their writing is the biggest challenge of my teaching life.  One of the difficulties is that students think of writing as a technical endeavor.  They are given a prompt.  They need to find a thesis that they think that can support based on evidence they can find in the text.  They set to work writing the paper by looking for the evidence and then choose a thesis that is most supportable.  This approach to writing papers short-circuits the stage of thinking.  It is to this stage that I try to return students and get them to work.  The problem is that it feels to students like flying without a net.  They do not have experience with being asked to think.  They do not have experience with being asked to take their own questions and insights and concerns seriously.

This last semester, instead of giving prompts in which I tried to motivate their thinking and then hoping it would push them into the gap for thinking they tend to short-circuit, I told them explicitly that this process of finding their own puzzles and problems was what I was expecting.  It helped that in the class I did this most explicitly in, we were reading Aristotle and talking about how wonder is the source for philosophizing because when we come to an impasse, we are motivated to think.  I asked them to think about what the impasses in the reading were for them and why and then to delve further into the reading to try to work through their impasses.  The very first paper in this class was explicitly on what causes them to wonder in the world at large, and how they understand this process of wonder in the pursuit of knowledge better in light of reading the first several pages of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Read more

Reflections on Teaching at the Start of a New Semester

Today is the first day of the new semester.  Last semester I returned to teaching from a year-long sabbatical.  I returned refreshed and tenured (I had already taught with tenure for one semester before my sabbatical as Wabash graciously completes the tenure process in one semester).  The year off was good for my research, as we generally understand sabbaticals to be.  But it was also good for my teaching.  It was good for my teaching as a rest.  Recent research shows that the ability to do well over time depends on rest and recovery.  It is good to give your mind time off from the tasks that consume you.*  I took time off from thinking about teaching to focus on a book project.  Ideas for teaching occurred to me in the midst of that work, but I wasn’t trying to come up with ideas for teaching.  In planning for last semester, I decided to do some creative non-obvious approaches to organizing my courses because I felt a certain freedom from expectations and a willingness to do what I thought would work rather than what was the typical structure of a course.

As I reflect on how things went, I see four things that I did this semester that made for more successful teaching, four things that were made possible in part by having tenure and then having a sabbatical.

  • Slowing down
  • Being authentic
  • Getting clearer about expectations
  • Doing more introduction and transitional set-up

Each of these elements contributed to my goal in teaching to encourage students to engage in the philosophical classroom as thinkers rather than consumers of knowledge. Read more

New Year’s Resolution Fail

I made two New Year’s Resolutions.  I’m not going to tell you what they were.  Mostly because I don’t want you to judge me.  I will say that one was about not doing something and one was about starting a new practice.  Today is January 14.  I have kept up the new practice.  I was able not to do the other thing for six days.  I haven’t given up on it.  But I also didn’t keep it.  I’m trying not to judge myself, but I think it’s pretty clear that the sheen of the resolution has worn off–it loses its ability to inspire once it has been broken.

We all know that resolutions don’t work.  They don’t really change our behavior.  I don’t usually make them — maybe one out of every three years I make some resolutions.  And yet, there’s something so attractive about the idea that a new year can bring a new you.  Just resolving that things will be different can make them so.  Much of the critique of New Year’s resolutions amount to a critique of willpower as an effective way to change our lives.  We need to engage in practices and projects because willing ourselves to be different does not work. Read more

Buying a House: Upkeep

Twas the Month before Christmas, when down in the basement, there arose such a clatter. I sprang down the steps to see what was the matter.  When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a broken down furnace making such noise.  Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be kicking air back out through its motor.

The next day we called the company that had inspected it when we first moved in.  During the summer when we moved in, they gave us a quote for replacement if we got the work done during the off season, which of course, no one does the work when they don’t need it.  We thought maybe we could just have something fixed, but the cost to fix it was about a third of the replacement cost with no guarantee some other part of it wouldn’t fall apart.  So we had to get a new furnace.

We knew when we bought the house that the mechanicals might need to be replaced.  A servicing sticker on the side of the service indicated that it was last serviced in 2007, before the last owners moved in.  And the servicing dates went back to 1977.  I think it might even have been installed before then.  It had a good run. Read more

Ramp Hollow: Not all Work is Created Equal

As John Locke tells the story in his Second Treatise on Government, land that is common becomes private property by the work that a person puts into it.  Because work is an extension of oneself, working on land makes the land an extension of oneself and hence gives one the right to that which she has extended herself to (the gender of who works to own and whose work is owned by another is the subject of Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract, where she argues that under patriarchy women are the natural commons that men appropriate by working on).

Critical race theorists have long noted that Locke is largely responsible for the view that treating land as property is a sign of progress.  Those who do not treat their land as private property are deemed backwards and uncivilized.  Julie Ward notes how European officials thinking about Africa retain this notion that “entering into history” is a matter of entering into a certain notion of progress based on developing value out of land when she quotes then French President Sarkozy’s address in Senegal on the French-African relationship.  Sarkozy remarked that, “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history … They have never really launched themselves into the future…The African peasant only knew the eternal renewal of time, marked by the endless repetition of the same gestures and the same words…”

Steven Stoll’s Ramp Hollow returns to this question of how work produces property, and specifically what relations of production are required for work to produce property.  Property is not only what a person can claim a right to access, as the commons can be, but also what one can freely alienate and exchange for value.  Stoll’s account raises the question of which work gives one a right to land and which work does not.  It puts the lie to the notion that property is acquired by work rather than by the willingness of government to recognize and enforce a right. Read more