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A Slovenian Feast at Gostilna Skaručna

Last Wednesday, we went with friends for a fifteen-course traditional Slovenian meal in the small town of Skaručna outside of Ljubljana. Gostilna Skaručna has been run for forty years by the same family, one brother runs the restaurant and the other the attached inn, Klub Gurmanov, where we had an amazing breakfast (if you go, the restaurant takes credit cards but the inn only takes cash).

We were in Ljubljana for a friend’s art exhibition and for a lecture on the theme of the exhibition, “Heavenly Beings: Neither Human Nor Animal.” The opening was Tuesday. We went to the lecture on Wednesday, which happily for me referenced some of the work on Aristotle’s work on animals, and then when the lecture was over we trekked out to Skaručna. After settling in at the inn, we walked to the restaurant which is in the front part of the property. We sat outside for an appertif and the first course of a cucumber and yogurt dish. The appertif was gendered — women were given a short glass of a red pulpy drink and men a beaker full of a strong liquor. We decided not to raise any questions. But the proprietor did explain that the men’s drinker was much stronger. After the appertif a pitcher of honey beer was brought to the table. I’m gluten-free, and they were accommodating (they brought me gluten-free bread and wine in the place of the honey beer).

After a leisurely beginning, we were invited inside. Our party of seven–three Slovenians, one Canadian and three Americans–was big enough to be able to enjoy this meal which requires a decent-sized party for it to be worth it, but small enough to share one conversation. The wait staff brought wine with each course — the wine changed after the soup courses. And a traditional lemonade and a water, which the server called, “decoration.” Read more

Walking to Plato’s Academy

Today we walked from our place in The Mets to Plato’s Academy, about five kilometers – it’s about 1.5 miles from the Agora. My colleague Lew Cassity is working on a book on Plato’s Laws and wanted to get a sense of how the walk from the Agora to the Academy would feel. We stopped off at the Kerameikos, where the Sacred Road that led to the Academy begins, and then we walked up Platonos all the way to the Academy.

When I was here in 2014, we took the bus out there and it seemed to take forever. I think it probably took as long as our walking it this time. In 2014, I remarked how unmemorial like the site is, less so even that Aristotle’s Lyceum. Like I said then, I guess, as Thucydides wrote, famous men have the whole world as their memorial; they don’t need statues. Read more

The Art of Conversation At the End of a Common World

Yesterday at breakfast I proposed a thesis about the structure of Socratic questioning that my friend John Bova once put to me as we were reading the Charmides together in Greek. His thesis that I have found useful is that Socrates’s interlocutors often begin with a definition that is a particular, like quietness in the Charmides, whose problem is that it lacks a sense of the good. But then when the good is offered as a definition of the virtue, as Critias does in the Charmides, it lacks any concrete meaning. Socrates is then dialectically trying to pull together the concrete sense with the good, or my way of understanding this is to concretize the good. Bova talks about this in terms of a Badiouian kind of diagonalization, but I think it could be understood as manifesting the good in the production of the self.

My colleague Kevin Miles responded to my claim rather forcefully. He said, what could that possibly mean? Like me, Kevin doesn’t think that the good has a metaphysical reality in Plato’s dialogues. What could I have meant by the good? We spent an hour or so over breakfast working it out. My colleague Lew Cassity thinks of the dialectical interplay in terms of weighing pleasures and pains. We tried to get to the point, not where we agreed with one another as much as where we understood what we each were saying. It looks awhile. Along the way there were moments of real tension, maybe even frustration, but in working it out, I found the disagreements themselves helped illuminate and clarify what we were thinking. Without the disagreement, the specificity would not have been reached. Read more

The Reality of Appearances at the Acropolis

Jetlagged and underslept, I went out early this morning into Athens and ran from our flat around the Acropolis and back. The Acropolis was empty, just the way I always think of it as a ruin, standing by itself, the lack of tourists giving the suggestion that the gods might still hover around. Four years ago when I was here I wondered about whether the religious sense of the space could be experienced if one were alone. It certainly does not feel as if it can be when overwhelmed by selfie-stick wielding tourists.

As we were approaching the top of the Acropolis, my colleague from Antioch Lew Cassity pointed out that the Greek Doric columns were asymmetrical, for two reasons. One reason was that they looked more energetic that way. The second was that if they were asymmetrical they would look uneven from a distance. My other co-traveler and colleague at Earlham College Kevin Miles raised the Protagoraean question about the reality of the appearance. Why suppose the appearance from a distance is less real, less how it appears, than the up close appearance of the asymmetry of the columns? Why think the columns really are asymmetrical than think they really are symmetrical because they appear so from farther? Read more

On the Road. Again with Plato and Aristotle?

Tomorrow I leave for a month in Europe. I feel bad because everything seems to be going poorly and I’m leaving. Maybe I just need to be on the road, not checking the news and social media all the time, to come back for a better fight. I am spending the first week thinking and talking about ancient pedagogy in Athens with my GLCA ancient philosophy collaborators and a colleague at the American College of Greece, then a couple weeks bouncing around southern Europe with some friends, and then a week at the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Italy, talking about Aristotle.

In the midst of everything going on, I’ve been thinking about why Plato and Aristotle matter right now, or ever. Miranda Pilipchuk recently wrote about the need to decolonize the canon where she talks about studying Plato and Aristotle for the sake of understanding the tradition without denying their contribution to marginalizing women and people of color in the field. She’s right. But I’m also interested in reading these philosophers against the way the tradition has read them to marginalize these folks, reading Plato in conversation with Baldwin, for example, or Aristotle against various traditions that use references to nature to exclude or oppress those deemed more natural than rational.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about the practices of reading as a practice for just community. Given the various aporiae Plato investigates and articulates concerning teaching and learning virtue, it would seem almost impossible to learn virtue from another. Virtue is learned not as a set of propositions. One cannot know before she knows what virtue is whether the person teaching virtue and justice knows it. The solution seems to be that each person needs to investigate for themselves and not take anyone else’s view without examining it and themselves carefully. Reading Plato’s dialogues themselves seems like a practice in this kind of learning. Jill Frank argues in Poetic Justice that reading Plato is a democratic practice, that Plato doesn’t present his city or its education or his critique of poets in order for the reader to take them in hand as truth. This makes sense given the difficulties he raises across the corpus about learning virtue. Instead, Plato has Socrates present these accounts for the reader to grapple with, to discern and investigate context and connections and to be changed by the investigation. It seems that the engagement with the text also prepares us to really listen to the calls of justice from others, and to see the difference between the account that looks good and the account that is good, between the desire for power for power’s sake and the desire for power to improve the world.

So yes, that’s me, again with Plato and Aristotle.

Poverty and the Individualizing of #MeToo

I have been listening to Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (the book website gives a pretty good overview of the book). Desmond followed I think 11 different people around Milwaukee in 2011 as they were evicted and tried to make do with very little money and an eviction on their record. The most striking revelation of the book is the perverse incentives that housing policies and laws create for landlords as well as tenants. For example, federal housing vouchers enable their holder to pay only a third of the rent, encouraging landlords to evict current occupants and jack up the rent to what is a good deal for the voucher holder but way above market value for the property, in effect making federal housing vouchers good for individuals but bad for poor people (public housing turns out to be much better than this privatizing move).

At the same time, I’ve been reading a number of things that have been written about the direction of the #metoo movement. Alecia Simmonds reviewed Linda Martín Alcoff’s book, Rape and Resistance, in the Australian Review of Books. Simmonds calls attention to questions Alcoff raises of the colonial history of juridical concepts of consent and property as they pertain to sexual violation and rape to ask how far they get us. Also this week I came across Ann Snitow’s piece, “Talking Back to the Patriarchy” in Dissent Magazine. She begins by averring that the #metoo movement is “simply marvelous.” But she goes on to articulate some worries. Generally, I find that the worries people raise (what about due process?!) tell us more about their investment in the status quo than real concerns about justice. But one line struck me in Snitow’s list of pressing worries: “fear of a misdirection of the eye toward individual “monsters” and away from the need for systemic change.” Indeed, this point seems most important.

The focus on individuals instead of systems is part of what allows #metoo to be for better off women. Even the systems that the women of Hollywood are trying to change seem far away from the systems of power non-celebrities work within and even further away from the systems of power that affect the poor.  Read more

An Appreciated Teacher

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States, which frankly seems like a scheme to make the appreciation come in the form of useless cards and treats rather than cost of living raises and the securing of pensions. Apparently, it began in 1980 sanctioned by Congress originally as one day in March, but then in 1985 the AFT rallied to move it to a full week–the first full week of May. Today, May 8 is Teacher Appreciation Day.

A couple things have got me feeling particularly sympathetic to K-12 teachers this year. For one, I spent a lot of time in the last several weeks expending some effort on behalf of a student that finally came to a good result and I’m very happy about it. But this work took a considerable amount of my time at a very busy part of the semester, and up until the very end when the happy result was achieved it felt like it was going nowhere. Good teachers at underfinanced schools do this kind of thing all the time. The extent to which it was emotionally exhausting to me gave me renewed appreciation and empathy for public school teachers.

Yesterday I was going through some old papers, looking for my autograph from Ollie North on the occasion of his ascendancy to the presidency of the National Rifle Association. And I found a note that my ninth grade English teacher wrote to me when I graduated from high school (see photo above). Mr. Bender had a sign over the chalkboard in his classroom that read “Homer Nods.” Homer nods, Mr. Bender would explain to every new class of girls at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, means that even great geniuses, literary and otherwise, make mistakes. My senior year I was selected as one of the graduates to speak at graduation on the basis of my submitted speech I called “Homer nods.” I can’t even remember what it was about now. Probably something about humility amidst our capacity for greatness.

Mr. Bender would argue with me in the hallway even after I was no longer his student about the finer points of grammar. He thought I was wrong to pronounce “harassment” with the emphasis on the middle syllable. He joked about HARassing me to pronounce it correctly. I was happy to show him that the dictionary included both pronunciations. Even Homer nods.

Neither he nor I had any way of knowing that I would become a specialist in ancient Greek thinking, that whether Homer really nodded would become a live question for me, that I would become a student of those for whom Homer had been the teacher. I didn’t know then the poetry of the teacher telling the student that even the great educator of the Greeks fell short. I didn’t know how provocative the notion that the Greeks might have been educated by a nodding teacher could be, or perhaps the notion that all teachers nod.

I found this note in which Mr. Bender inverts the meaning of nod from making a mistake to signaling approval and I thought, how very Greek this poetic recasting would be.  The teacher nods and nods. And this I appreciate.

 

Having No Reaction: Dealing with Rejection in Philosophy Publishing

One of my favorite yoga teachers likes to say after particularly difficult poses in Bikram, have no reaction, just stand still. I’ve been thinking about how “having no reaction” seems like good Stoic practice for dealing with various frustrations in academic publishing.

A couple days ago I received a rejection from a top-tier journal on a paper that I’m pretty excited about.  The reviewer said that my paper does not talk about one particular thing that everyone who writes on x has to talk about and that my lens for interpretation is not the useful key that I think it is. I do not think that x is that important to my reading or even really to the questions I am addressing and so I have no interest in talking about it. I do think my lens is a useful key. As I was reading the review, at first, I felt my blood beginning to rise. Then, my yoga teacher’s mantra occurred to me: have no reaction. I began to think about what it might mean to consider this response as information that the field gives about what it is like, but that positive or negative feelings do not need to be had in response to that information. Just stand still.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a Stoic. I have far too many opinions to be a Stoic. I usually so quickly go to the judgment that I have been wronged with these kinds of rejections. Sometimes, that’s true. More often than not, I go to the place of thinking that rejection is a personal judgment. It can feel like that. I think sometimes recognizing how rejections are unfair motivates us to raise important questions. I think that we need to get angry and organize to change the field, especially to become less narrow in its thinking about how publishing decisions are made. I’m working on that too. Read more

The New and Constant Gardener

I spent the afternoon gardening. Last Monday it snowed, so this might have been foolish. But it’s almost the end of April, and I just decided I would act like it was Spring, whether the weather thought so or not. It was a nice day for it. Cloudy at first and then the sun came out. Last fall, I raked leaves into the flower beds, so this spring I raked some up and tried to turn some of the beds over to keep the nutrients from the leaves. I bought flowers and planted some in the ground and put others in pots and put them along the porch steps. I put some new plants in the garden bed in the back and spent some good time with my hands in the dirt.

I feel satisfied. But I’m wary. Last year I also planted things. Some plants returned. Others did not. I brought a bunch of plants into the house through the winter and was happy that most of them made it, but my hanging plants especially made it outside in the sun in the nick of time. Planting, I was thinking, requires hope.

I’ve been teaching a seminar on Hannah Arendt this semester. Much of the class has been working through her Life of the Mind treatment of the faculties of the mind, first of thinking, then of willing, and now, judging. The judging part didn’t make it into Life of the Mind, but she indicated she had plans for such a section and a seminar she gave on Kant’s political philosophy that focuses on how judgment is a political project, edited by Ronald Beiner, was published in 1982, soon after her death. In the first volume on “Thinking,” Arendt describes the project of thinking as a dialogue with oneself, a dialogue that she describes as one between an actor and spectator. In the second volume on “Willing,” she suggests that the will is what we call the faculty that begins something new. She spends considerable time addressing the critiques of the will in the history of philosophy and the ways that the will is saved by some thinkers only to have very little latitude or effect on human life, as when Epictetus counsels to will only that which you can control, which is to say, well, very little. And Nietzsche makes of the will the capacity to reaffirm what one might have regretted of the past in a way that serves to overcome the regret, if not the past. Arendt concludes by describing the will as that which allows for a new order, but she does not dismiss the great difficulty if the impossibility of a world in which chains of causes determine what is to follow. The will is what we call the specifically human capacity to break the chain. For something that was not expected, not determined by a previous series of events to occur, that is to say, for human beings to act. Read more

If You’re Cringing at Facebook, You Should Also be Cringing at the Market

I recently learned of people who think that Facebook is listening to them through the microphones in their phones.  This weekend someone told me a story about how she was reading a book out in nature and then when she got back to her car, her phone was recommending the book she was reading to her.  Another person had a story of telling her business partner of a thing they needed to get, not on email but in person, and soon after gettings ads for it.  Everyone seems to have a story like this. People think Facebook must be listening to them, because it just seems like magic. The algorithms at Facebook, it turns out, collect information to predict your interests and your wants and your concerns to target ads to you for just what you want at just the right time that it makes people feel as if the only explanation is that they are listening to you.  But Facebook isn’t listening to you. As an article about six months ago in Wired argued, they don’t have to. You are giving them the information. They target ads to you the way that those mindreaders get people to say something through suggestive questions. Because we can’t see the algorithms and can’t tell how they work, we think, it must be magic. And for most of us, it feels creepy.

In this regard, Facebook is a lot like the market. We put information into the market by buying things at a certain price, by buying cheaper versions of the same thing or more expensive versions, by deciding to spend our money on travel and food rather than shoes or clothes, by leaving one job for another, by turning down jobs that don’t pay enough or taking jobs that are below our credentials, by renting the too small apartment for too much money, or passing up the small apartment when the rent is too high. We think we as individuals have made an agreement with the landlord, or with the people at Macy’s or our boss, not unlike the way we think that Facebook is listening to us. We think it is about individuals making decisions, but so much less freedom and choice is involved. The market collects the information to sell us the goods at the price point it expects we will buy and we buy it and we think we have made decisions, when the market has collected masses of information to give us what we want at the point we are willing to pay for it.

The magic of Facebook creeps us out. But this creepiness should be extended to the market as well, if not more. The collective cringe at Facebook’s capacity to target to us the things we didn’t even know we wanted should be extended to the market’s work of giving us the things we want at the point we are willing to pay for them. Instead of supposing that this is the happy magic of the market, we should find the magic cringe-worthy. The cringe at Facebook betrays the truth of the impersonal determination of our desires. What’s surprising is only that we don’t also cringe at the market. The cringe at Facebook is the recognition that we are getting played. If we think that’s less the case with the market it is only because its workings are even more opaque to the everyday worker and consumer than Facebook’s are.

Many people in response to the recent publicity of Facebook’s data becoming available to other vendors are calling for regulation of Facebook. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina offered guidelines this week on NPR for how Facebook could become a force for good community instead of for feeding consumption. Cathy O’Neill has similarly argued for how to make Facebook a place for community, beginning with making their algorithms more transparent. Facebook itself is rushing to show how they plan to better regulate themselves in the face of grossly underinformed U.S. Senators who were unable to grasp both the workings of Facebook and the implications of this current situation. But again this interest in regulation of Facebook, not unlike the move to regulate previous utilities like telephones, should point to a greater willingness to regulate the market. If we wish to regulate Facebook because we think that the algorithms cannot tell us what is good and might themselves need human input and human restraints, then it seems we should be able to see how the market similarly cannot tell us what is good and needs human inputs and human restraints.

Arguments against human interference in the market have worked by arguing that human beings can never have enough information to determine the best distribution. Only markets can. This situation seems to be exactly the case Facebook is in. They have the most information. And yet our response to that is to cringe. To the extent that you cringe at Facebook’s vast information about us and the decisions that follow from it, you should cringe at the notion that the market has more information that can better determine and organize our lives. This operation is not freedom from tyranny, it is the tyranny of market forces absent human engagement and deliberation.