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The Truth of the Body

I had to get some blood work done this morning at my doctor’s office. I was struck, as I always am when I submit my body for testing, of the sense in which the body is treated as a confession by the medical establishment.  I am always nervous about this process because I fear what truths my body will tell.  I fear that I cannot hide my bad habits as they might show up in my body.  I am reminded of a police procedural, maybe it is the CSI series, where it seemed like in almost every episode someone would say, “The truth is in the body.”

This week I was also having a conversation about the status of the body in Black Mirror, specifically in some of the episodes that produce cookies out of human DNA, which is to say, the DNA becomes digitalized in ways that produce a person in the virtual digital world.  What strikes me about the cookies is that they are independent even though the person controlling the system can change the bodies of the cookies (as in USS Callister) and cause them great pain (White Christmas, Black Museum, Playtest).  It seems to me that even in the digital world, the truth seems to be in the body.  That is, the fact that the body suffers is a report on the conditions.  The body is taken as material that exhibits a truth about the situation. Read more

Wabash Chapel Talk: Nasty Snake-Filled Heads and the Workings of Ideology

(A group of student leaders on campus at Wabash organize a weekly talk by a member of the Wabash community.  This is a transcript of the talk I gave this morning.)

As a philosopher, one thing I like to think about is how our ideas about the world affect the way we live in the world.  Today I want to talk about how our ways of thinking about how things are variously affect the ability of different people from different groups to thrive. I want to talk specifically about how we use the concept of “natural” to describe the ways we experience the world.  We tend to describe things as natural, as “just being that way,” as the way things just happen to be with no input or interference from human beings, when we are unaware of the history of how they came to be that way.  That move whereby what was formed for political and social reasons appears as natural is what we call ideology.

As a philosopher, I want to own some responsibility for this, since, as Nietzsche says, “Lack of a historical sense is the original error of all philosophers.”

To correct this error, I want to first back up a little bit and think historically about how the turn to nature has been used as a justification for ways of organizing the world.  Leo Strauss explains the historical turn to a concept of nature as a turn to philosophizing.  As he puts it, as long as everyone seems to do what you do, you do not prompt the question, is that right?  It’s right because it seems like the only way.  It is right because it has always been done that way.  It is right because it is what everyone you know does.  But when you leave your people and you encounter other people who do things differently, you begin to ask whether what your people do is right.  Like when you are a kid like I was in a big family where we always sat down together for dinner every night and you think every family sits down for dinner every night until you go to your friends’ house and they have dinner in front of the television and you go home and ask why you have to eat dinner together and your mother tells you it’s because you don’t have a television.  Not having a television also seemed right because it was what my family did.  Like taking vacations in the mountains instead of at the beach. Read more

The Robot in the Market Machine

News reports from yesterday’s sharp drop of the Dow point to the role of computer algorithms that sell stocks when they reach a certain point as one of the main sources of the drop.  This explanation would appear to be the logically absurd conclusion of a so-called free market economy.  Defenders of a free market economy maintain that the market can best distribute goods at the right prices when human beings each act for their own self-interest.  Will Roberts makes the case that this surrender of human decision-making to the market is why Marx argues that capitalism does not cultivate freedom.  In a market economy, human beings no longer deliberate collectively about what is best.  They each act for themselves and the market decides.  They lose the collective work of speaking together about how to direct the community. Read more

We Have Dreamers, Too: Trump and the Deceptive Appeal of the American Dream

In Trump’s State of the Union he tried to take back the “dreamers” language from recent immigrants, saying, “We have dreamers in this country, too.  You can’t forget our dreamers.”  He  went on to say:

I am extending an open hand to work with the members of both parties — Democrats and Republicans — to protect our citizens of every background, color, religion and creed. My duty and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans, to protect their safety, their families, their communities and their right to the American dream.

Trump restricts the American dream for citizens and restricts the duty of those in office to citizens, forgetting the immigrant history of those citizens.  The American dream language works almost identically to the America First language as I map out here.  It makes those who have been left out of the promise of prosperity feel none the less that the dream is for them if only the work hard enough.  And it makes them understand their poverty as a result of lack of hard work, not as a result of structural barriers to economic mobility.  It makes them think the Dream is possible, if only they can get there.

Immigrants who came to the United State as children and are appealing for a road to citizenship seized on the language of the dream and contend that the dream should be accessible to everyone.  By taking up this language, these immigrants have also reminded us that the American dream functions to exclude.  When Trump said, “We have dreamers in this country, too,” he ignores that those immigrants are in this country and divides the country between those who are supposedly “rightfully” a part and those who are not.  Such a move reminded me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ description of the United States as “a country lost in the Dream,” in Between the World and Me (12).  Lost in the Dream, America cannot see itself.  Coates describes America’s investment in the Dream as undergirded by fear (34), and that seems precisely what is played on in the #AllLivesMatter kind of turn to “We have dreamers too.”  The way Trump’s appeal works is to trump those forgotten and excluded by being denied citizenship by foregrounding those forgotten and excluded who are already citizens but find the country no less invested in them.  Attesting to the investment in the forgotten poor produces the sense that they are the concern of the country’s elected officials even as a new tax law is passed that will put more of the tax burden on them than on those who are living the Dream.  Recognizing their fear of exclusion and acknowledging their rightful place in relation to the aspiration to the Dream while denying them any path toward the dream pits them against those made to appear unworthy of the Dream.  But neither are given access to the Dream.

Coates argues that Dream is oppressive to those for whom it is never even held out as a promise.  That oppression is of a whole different order than the oppression of those for whom it is held out as a promise (106).  The oppression for those for whom it is denied functions in the active forgetting of those to whom the Dream is denied, which it is why it is striking to see Trump so boldly assert that “our dreamers” can’t be forgotten, when everyone knows who the “our” is and who it is not.  As Coates writes in reference to the discussion he has with the mother of Prince Jones, a young Black man who was killed by police:

When it came to her son, Dr. Jones’s country did what it does best–it forgot him.  The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream.  They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.  They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world.  I am convinced that Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free (143).

When Trump asks that we not forget our Dreamers, he invites us to continue to forget the conditions upon which that dream thrives, and he invites people to be more invested in their whiteness than their freedom.






The SOTU, or as I like to call it, STFU

I didn’t want to watch.  The tickets had typos (I know, this is the least of our worries).  But then I listened to David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism on Audible on the way into work today and remembered that things are not newly bad.  Things have been careening toward deficit-driven upward redistribution of wealth since at least the George W. Bush Administration.  We need to watch in order to bear witness.  In truth, I’m torn between giving Trump too much attention and doing my civic duty.  I decided to do my civic duty.

Before the address, I looked up “pre-game” reports and found that ABC called it Trump’s First “Must See TV” State of the Union and almost decided against watching again.  But here I am.  Girding my loins.  I switched to CBS.  Ok, I can’t talk about how creepy the thing is, how viscerally difficult it is to watch: Trump’s squint, his hand gestures, Paul Ryan’s self-satisfied smirk.  This cannot be my focus.  As I’ve been saying since more than year ago, these things are not what we need to concern ourselves with. Read more

Non-Imitative Yoga and Becoming Virtuous in Aristotle and Plato

In Aristotle’s account of how a person becomes virtuous, he argues that a virtuous action is done in the way a virtuous person would do it.  This account often appears circular to those who first encounter it, but I would suggest it is less circular than spiral.  The person who aspires to virtue looks to the person further around the spiral who is already virtuous in order to consider how to be virtuous.  By looking at the virtuous person as the model, they become a virtuous model themselves for the next person.  Some readers of Plato argue that Plato presents a view of goodness as imitation.  One becomes virtuous by participating in, which is to say, imitating the Forms of virtue, of Justice, of Courage, of Wisdom.

On Aristotle’s account, the virtuous person serves as a model for how the apprentice virtuous person should be, but that model is fundamentally about learning to make the judgment in a virtuous way out of their own character.  The judgment in the process shifts from, what would that person do to what would I do.  A person has become the phronimos, or the one of good judgment, when they are able to make their own judgments without a model, that is, when they become a model, not by having replicated the previous model, but by uniquely being able to determine what the bulls’ eye of virtuous living would be. Read more

On Christianity and the Loss of Mourning

My grandmother-in-law died a couple weeks ago.  She was 105-years-old.  She seemed ready to go.  She held on for a long time, but I am glad that she felt like she didn’t need to keep holding on.  Still, I am sad she’s gone.  She would tell us a story about something that happened a long time ago and then she’d say, “It’s funny what you remember.”  We like to say that at our house now.  It’s been a kind of rite to visit her whenever we are in Spokane, a rite that connects us to other parts of the family.  I’ll miss that.  I’ll miss her matter-of-factness about the world.  “I’m not old,” she’d tell us.  Thinking about her now makes me smile.  I am sad that she will no longer be out there in the world.

I was going to tell my parents, and then I didn’t.  I didn’t because I knew that they would ask me, “Was she a Christian?”  And I knew that they would ask because they wanted to know whether she was going to heaven.  And that they would want to know that because they would want to know whether it was really an occasion for mourning or not.  Or at least, that’s how that question always felt to me.  Christianity, as I came to know it as a very young child, was about avoiding death and the need to mourn death.  The Christians I grew up around would evangelize to people who didn’t believe by asking them whether they knew where they were going when they died.  And they would tell them that they would go to hell if they didn’t believe in Jesus.  When someone died, if they were a Christian, it didn’t seem like anyone around me would be really sad about it.  Countless times, reports would come to me of someone dying with the information that they were believers.

I’ve been working through some of the affects of Christianity and one that I think has stayed with me is the difficulty in truly mourning–whether it be loss or injustice.  I briefly discuss the way that Christianity seems to mourn mortality, and structure itself around avoiding death in my post on Christianity Without Metaphysics.  What I have lately come to realize is that Christianity, at least a Christianity that thinks the goal is heaven, has robbed me of the capacity to experience loss or mourning.  And it is only with the end of heaven that true mourning becomes possible.  What I have newly come to see and understand is that I want to be able to mourn.  I want to be able to acknowledge loss, to see the gaps left by the absence of people I love.  Like this last summer when I went to the small town in Montana where my grandmother lived her whole life and where my dad grew up and the whole town felt haunted by my grandparents.  I missed them because they were gone.  I missed them without consolation of a possible reunion.  They were there, waving from the porch until they couldn’t see us anymore, and then they were not.  And they will never be again.

I wonder about what we lose when we lose the capacity to mourn.  I wonder if we lose the capacity to take this life and this world, its pain, the real death of others, seriously.  I wonder whether this inability to mourn is what keeps us from doing something about genocide of the Rohinga in Myanmar and of the harm done by ICE deporting DREAMers and ending TPS for immigrants from Haiti and Syria.  If death doesn’t matter, then killing doesn’t matter.

I’m of the mind that ways of thinking should be considered for how they work in the world, for their use, as much as for whether they can be justified and supported through argument.  This notion that we need not be really sad because someone has gone to heaven seems to work by limiting our capacity to feel loss in the face of death, which then makes us fail to take death seriously, which then leads us to accept the notion that some people are just going to have to die for other people to live the way they want to live.  But it also keeps us from thinking about the decisions we make in life as really real, as really mattering.  The only decision is to do what is required so that you avoid death.  And then heaven is just life stretched out where nothing will lead to the end, the eternal return of the same.

The Greeks had the Eleusian Mysteries believed to be protected by Demeter.  The Mysteries were commonly understood to be about death and to be about preparing for death.  Rumor has it the mystery of death is that there is no mystery.  The Mysteries were closely guarded, and I wonder if it was because if they were made public, then people might take living a heck of a whole lot more seriously.

I’m not someone who longs for heaven.  I think I would rather mourn than have the consolation of heaven.  But I do wonder whether really bringing about a world that might resemble heaven requires letting go of our hold on the consolations of death.


City as Canvas: Graffiti Exhibit at IMA

The City as Canvas exhibition first went up at the Museum of the City of New York in 2014.  A large portion of the exhibit is of work that Martin Wong collected in the late 1980s and 1990s while living in New York, including graffiti artists’ black books of sketches and a series of photographs from subway trains around the city (more on the backstory including how Wong built his collection by paying graffiti artists for their work can be is here).

I am glad that this exhibition was in Indianapolis.  Today is its last day at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.  I have to say that first before I pronounce on how it produces the sense of New York and graffitied New York as a strange and foreign culture where the natives did things like (gasp) spray paint on public property.  They even had a display of graffiti vocabulary to drive home the “look at the strange natives” vibe.  Growing up in Philadelphia in the 80s and the 90s, I find graffitied cities to be the backdrop of city life. I remember starting to recognize tags and seeing how much certain artists got around town, and thinking, it was like a secret code, because it was. Read more

Which America First?

Trump spoke at the World Economic Forum at Davos yesterday (full transcript here) about “America First,” saying, “I believe in America.”   Trump seems to think it is obvious who he means by America, and many of his supporters think it is obvious too.  Yet, increasingly, the policies of “America First” do not support those who support it.  Last week, in an effort to protect American interests the Trump Administration slapped a tariff onto solar panels coming from China this week.  Though Trump fancies himself a “job creator,” this move will likely result in the loss of 23,000 American jobs.  Solar panel manufacturing will help FirstSolar, Tesla, Suniva, and SolarWorld, but manufacturing only makes up a small portion of the solar panel industry.  Most of the work is in installation.  Some analysts are even suggesting that foreign companies will see most of the benefit. Read more

Phantom Thread: Never Cursed

I have never been so convinced that reviewers have missed the central theme of a film than in the case of “Phantom Thread,” the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson starring Daniel Day-Lewis.  It is not about a man driven to aesthetic perfection more than money and power, whatever A.O. Scott seems to think.  Nor is it, as he puts it, “The wrenching tale of a woman’s love for a man and a man’s love for his work.”  Nor is it about breakfast, as Anthony Lane suggests in The New Yorker, although that is a more interesting possibility, and it is true that breakfast is an important setting for the major moments in the film.  Like Lane, I thought of Hitchcock in watching the film, and specifically of “Rebecca,” but the film is in the end, more of a love story, than a horror story, which is perhaps its central surprise.

SPOILERS Read more