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How Ideas Circulate. Online. In Philosophy: Remarks and Suggestions for the APA Blog Session

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power: contrary to a myth whose history and functions would repay further study, truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its régime of truth, its ‘general polities’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true. –Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power / Knowledge, 131

Any conversation about the circulation of ideas online has to understand the material power at work in how ideas circulate, whose ideas circulate without obstacles and whose ideas encounter obstacles. Moreover, this conversation has to recognize that the circulation of ideas involves material questions about who holds what positions where and who is able to set the agenda for what areas of philosophy should be covered in departments and who should be considered worthy for filling those lines, who should be read, who should be cited, who should be appointed editor of prestigious journals, which journals should be considered prestigious, and so on.

A little more than five years ago there was a robust conversation online about how the philosoblogosphere had influenced the material circumstances of what is considered good philosophy in the United States. Ben Alpers the historian of ideas gathers some of the reflections on the sociology of philosophy, concentrating on the way that online voices and rankings amplified particular views of what philosophy is in a way that influenced what kind of philosophy was considered more or less rigorous. In particular, I’m thinking about how continental philosophy programs were excluded from early rankings and how those rankings centered analytic philosophy and analytic approaches to the history of philosophy, but also the way that feminist philosophies and post-colonial philosophies and critical philosophies of race were sidelined.

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Playing with Plato: Teaching with Games

I’m teaching a senior seminar on Plato’s Republic this semester. One skill I have been focusing on all semester is close reading. I have students do several short assignments in which they have to offer close readings of the text. But in our class discussions, conversations tends to become more general and less tethered to specifics of the text. I want students to make their claims rooted in the text and to see that arguments over how to interpret are a key part of the philosophical work in the history of philosophy.

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Plato’s Divided City and the Police

This morning, the family of Breonna Taylor held a news conference in which they expressed their anger and frustration with Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron’s grand jury investigation that ended with charges for only of the officers involved in the shooting of Breonna Taylor. Taylor was shot as the result of a botched drug raid through a no-knock warrant when officers entered the wrong apartment. Taylor’s boyfriend shot thinking that the apartment was being burglarized. One officer involved, Brett Hankison, was charged with three counts of wanton endangerment for bullets that went into another apartment. The facts of the case are not disputed. No drugs were found in Taylor’s apartment.

At the press conference, Bianca Austin, Taylor’s sister, said, “What [Daniel Cameron] helped me realize is that it will always be us against them. That we are never safe.”

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Using Kahoot! in the College Classroom

Last semester, when I had only heard of coronavirus in a conversation with a senior biology major reporting on some developments of novel viruses around the world, I began the semester using Kahoots in all three of the courses I was teaching: an early modern survey, a philosophy of race course, and a seminar on the work of Hannah Arendt. Kahoot is a quiz / game application faculty can use to track student understanding and engage students in the in-person or virtual classroom. When I was using it in person, Kahoot! was a fun way to review material and to jog students’ memories about the current day’s reading. I would purposefully include in the multiple-choice wrong answers that represented typical misunderstandings of a position under discussion so that we could put it on the table to consider without anyone feeling called out for saying the wrong thing (the answers are anonymous, so you don’t see who answered which answer). In this way, it helped me organize the class meeting and remember to address possible confusions.

When we went online, it was a great way to keep students whose faces I often could not see engaged and focused throughout the class meeting. In both scenarios, my students got into it and I’m using it again this semester to good effect when I’m back and forth between in-person and virtual class meetings.

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Athlete, Strengthen Thyself! Making the (Running) Body

I am in my tenth week of an intens(iv)e training program to run a half marathon in November. Perhaps running the race is wishful thinking, but the training is keeping me focused during the pandemic. The training is based on Stacy Sims’ book, Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life.

Sims’ claim based on her own research as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist is that people who have more estrogen and progesterone and other hormones we have traditionally called “female” cannot be trained as small men as they have been for decades. During the high hormone phase of the menstrual cycle for those who menstruate, the body has a harder time taking up protein. If you don’t get significant protein within 30 minutes of a workout, the body recovers by taking protein out of muscles — basically eating the muscles instead of building them. In addition to the different needs brought about by different hormones, the different physiology, specifically for example broad pelvic bones, lead to less stability in the knees and thus more of a likelihood to be knock-kneed — and in running to have less stability and a tendency for knees to collapse in — unless glutes are significantly strengthened. Even really strong women athletes can have strong quadriceps and still buckle their knees when they jump if they aren’t working on building all three gluteus muscles.

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What’s Really Conservative about References to Nature

The first references to nature or physis in Athens* were made by those supporting aristocratic partisans against their perception of a rigid democratic establishment in the 420s BCE. Nomos was considered the embodiment of popular sovereignty.[1] Before physis, “to eon” or just “that which is” or easier “the fact” was opposed to nomos. The sophists chiefly served–for a fee–the aristocratic youth whose parents’ wealth and good birth had ceased to give them the power to which they thought they should be entitled. The distinction the sophists offer between physis and nomos justifies the aristocratic claim against entrenched democratic interests.

Physis was associated with one’s birth, so it allowed the aristocrats to associate their own power with their birth, and thus with physis. The aristocrats thought that by virtue of their birth they had a claim to rule. The sophists give them the language of physis to justify this claim through birth, which points to ways that the reference to physis in its beginnings was in the service of a kind of eugenics, those of better birth were those whose rule was more natural. Nature itself was of those who were better born. To be better born was to be on the side of nature. From that claim, the oligarchic interests take up the sophistic view that physis is just what is against the nomos or convention that changes and is thus without ground–a charge familiar to us as a criticism of democratic approaches to justice from Plato. If those who are better born whose claim to rule is natural, and returning to the ancient customs wherein the well-born ruled, then nature is just what had always been, and the changes wrought by the increasingly democratic regimes were suspect. Nature gets put on the side of “things remaining the same,” and convention on the side of constant change and radical disruptive power of the commoners. The sophists introduce arguments that further put physis on the side of intelligence against wealth. Those who newly make wealth still do not have the intelligence that comes with being well-born.

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Arendt on Human Life on the Occasion of My Birthday

I’m teaching an Arendt seminar this semester and well, this is all happening, so I’ve been thinking a lot (see here) about what it means to be natural living beings and what it means to treat those beings as human. I have no interest in weighing in on the Agamben public statements, but I do think that he is thinking about the Arendtian question of the dangers of reducing human life to mere questions of survival and living. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said, “There are more important things than living,” and the thing is, he isn’t wrong. Aristotle suggests that some acts we should be unwilling to do even in the face of death (EN 1110a25-26). What Patrick is wrong about is what those things are. He thinks that workers should be willing to die for the economy, ie., the production of wealth for others.

But maybe what is worse than death is reducing the other to biological life who is here only for the production of increased life of others, or who as biological life is expendable. My husband and I have been having a long-running debate about cannibalism. My initial response to it is that I don’t really have a problem with the idea that in dire straits, one might have to eat another human. He keeps insisting that there are some things worse than death, and that we should be willing to die for the idea of the dignity of the human. This flusters me and makes me worry that I’m more invested in living than dignity. But I have watched his concern about the loss of the chance to mourn the dead that seems to be really happening in New York and around the world. And I’m reminded how fragile is the line between treating other life as for us and treating it as for itself. The line depends on the treating.

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Arendt on Being in Public and Social Distancing

Is “social distancing” a step on the road to tyranny? Arendt captures the concern of many that forced isolation and empty public spaces during the current shelter-in-place orders that most U.S. state governors have issued serves tyranny when she writes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

It has frequently been observed that terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other and that, therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical governments is to bring this isolation about. (474)

Isolation seems to make tyranny possible because it allows governments to replace the shared understanding that citizens can achieve by judging a world that appears in common to all with an ideology that fits the ends of the tyrant.

Arendt explains:

Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow men as well as with the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist. (474)

Arendt argues in The Life of the Mind that the end of metaphysics–of the idea that a world beyond this one can be accessed, or that any access to it can be judged by one who has can stand outside this world (or that we could have access to such a judge)–requires things to appear and beings to whom the world can appear, “guarantee[ing] their reality” (19). Or as she writes in The Human Condition, “For us, appearance–something that is being seen and heard by others as well as ourselves–constitutes reality.”

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Coronavirus and Divesting from the Neoliberal Subject

I was supposed to have one of the busiest semester’s of my academic life on the conference circuit this semester. Three invited panels, one Paris workshop, one interdisciplinary conference, one Italy workshop, one development workshop. Two panels happened before coronovirus hit. The international travel has been canceled and I’m waiting on word that the last remaining events will be a no-go. If you told me at the beginning of the semester that these events would be canceled, I would have thought that the news when it came would be devastating. I’m surprised to learn that I’m relieved. In the age of neoliberalism, the freedom of the collective expectation that you will not and cannot be “investing in” the human capital that you are and that no one else can be either reminds me that the burden of the expectation is a constant weight.

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Serene Khader’s Decolonizing Universalism: A Transnational Feminist Ethic: Comment at the Eastern APA

These comments were originally presented at the Eastern American Philosophical Association in Philadelphia on January 9, 2020 at the satellite meeting of the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World.

I appreciate this book and am glad to have it in the world. Serene Khader canvasses a breadth of debates of multicultural and transnational feminism within the field. She frames possible objections and offers responses in many cases just as the reader begins to consider that objection and in other places where the raising of the objection clarifies Khader’s position. The book is highly readable both for non-academics and technically sophisticated for scholars. I taught the book in my feminist philosophy course that focused on transnational feminism this past semester and it became a touchstone for debates throughout the course. Khader offers nuanced frameworks that aim to be effective in on the ground transnational feminist activism. I have now read and reread this book three or four times and I can say that the initial objections have melted away as I have continued to sit with it, but I think there is still something in my initial concerns that I now think are about whether universalism can be decolonized within a liberal framework. Khader herself points to these questions. In conclusion, I’ll ask whether an alternative notion of universalism in a Marxist or post-Marxist vein is what Khader’s project invites.

I would sum up my remarks with four questions:

  1. Who is the book for?
  2. What work does the sense of universalism that Khader aims to recover do?
  3. What is the status of this account as non-ideal theory?
  4. Can universalism be decolonized within a liberal framework?
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