Two things happened to me today. A colleague intimated to me that reading Plato is impractical. Someone on social media told me I was failing my purposes for not thinking reasonable argument was the right approach to defeating Trump. I don’t want to single out these particular instances, because they are now commonplace. The first claim seems to be that the things we think about are too theoretical–too far removed from the world–to change the world. The second is that we are not sufficiently removed from ‘doing something,’ too physically involved in changing things, to engage in rational discourse. Neither of those points were presented to me as claims that I thought I could reasonably engage in a way that would make a difference.
It is not without some pleasure and amusement then that I reread Ed Kazarian’s post from over the weekend on how Plato himself stages the question of whether trolls should be engaged and to what extent reason can sufficiently address the political question of what is to be done. Kazarian draws a distinction between political and philosophical speech, noting that political speech is not about attempts to produce knowledge or belief, but it presupposes these in the effort to “assemble, organize, mobilize, direct, assert, claim, assent, give notice, etc., or alternately, to decompose, block, interrupt, deny, withhold, refuse, etc.” Let’s grant that this remains the case–that political speech can presuppose a generally shared knowledge or belief–and that those who believe whatever Trump says or whatever FoxNews says are few, and that most people accept what they hear on the 6 o’clock news or from CNN, Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times. We begin speaking about what we should do because we share a sense of the facts on the ground. Read more
I just had one of those moments where all the things that I have previously read on a subject came together with clarity in a moment. My epiphany was that I realized that several pieces of secondary literature that had become important to me were situated in a scholarly dispute that waged in the literature about forty years ago and this contextualization helped me see what they were actually fighting over.
When I was finishing my dissertation, I would watch The Wire sometimes as I worked. One day I was slogging through and I was like, omg, I’m a philosophical detective! I’m trying to figure out how to make a case with the facts in front of me. That was my feeling this week working through arguments about prime matter. It was like, I knew the facts of the case, but the way this argument got staked out made sense of things I had been staring out for months. I think every scholarly new project involves pulling a bunch of pieces together and trying to find ways to fit them together. This is why it feels like detective work: what allows all these different pieces to add up to some coherent sense?
When I was coming through graduate school arguments weren’t even really made about prime matter, people just kind of dismissed the possibility that there was prime matter. It was like the case was solved, and everyone knew the answer so they didn’t have to prosecute their case anymore. For a long time, I didn’t need to know how the case was solved against prime matter in order to do my work. But now, it turns out, while I thought this was just a side part of my argument, it turns out the arguments about prime matter extend to and influence Aristotle’s metaphysics as a whole. So to share some of my insight, I thought I’d just list the disputes that emerge from the question of prime matter – really this is for those of you who think that disputes over prime matter are peripheral to Aristotle’s metaphysics, which in some circles it really has become. Read more
This cartoon was circulated on social media last week by people concerned that the knowledge of experts is no longer respected in political matters. Last week I blogged about the hatred of democracy that I think underlies this sentiment. In November, I blogged about the “best and the brightest” political experts who were supposed to lead us into the path of peace and prosperity but instead enmired us in an unwinnable war. I’m on an expert on some things. I think that expertise should be recognized and I bristle when it is not, so I appreciate the concern that experts aren’t taken seriously. Read more
One of my side projects has been thinking about how the shift from polytheism to monotheism parallels a shift from politics to philosophy in ancient thought, as I discussed here awhile back. I am particularly interested in how the dichotomy between the false and the true god only becomes possible with monotheism, just as the dichotomy of false and true knowledge only becomes relevant with the introduction of philosophy, the arena of being and knowledge, against politics, the arena of appearance and opinion. I was looking forward to what Whitmarsh could add to the discussion in his new book, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. I was interested in how ancient atheism fit into this production of the true. If Assmann’s account of polytheism as a domain of shared opinion and shared gods is accepted, it would seem that denial of the existence of gods put people outside the realm of even those who had political opinions. While there is a brief discussion of Assmann (26), Whitmarsh does not attempt to think atheism within that structure. In fact, this lacuna points to a larger problem with the book: it makes the case that there were ancient atheists, but it does not lead to further insight about what that might mean for the social and political world. Instead, the point seems to be, atheism is fine because it is not new. And also, “clever people could not possibly believe in gods,” as Barbara Graziosi reads Whitmarsh.
In this post, I discuss the ways that Whitmarsh’s treatment of mythology, Plato and Socrates, and Christianity lead to flatfooted readings that fail to consider the robust complexity of Greek thinking about the gods. Read more
In his book The Price of Monotheism, published in German in 2003, Jan Assmann argues that monotheism changes the shape of religion by construing the one god as the only true god among false gods. Assmann argues that a certain kind of monotheism–revolutionary monotheism–finds its one god incompatible with any other god, because the god is not only superior but true, real, existent in a way that others are false (this is the position of the Deutero-Isaiah faction of the Old Testament). This incompatibility stands in contrast to pagan polytheism and its evolutionary monotheism which saw gods as compatible, eventually recognizing that there were many different names for the supreme god, who was a chief god, but not any more a god than the other gods. The compatibility of the pagan gods allowed them to make binding agreements with one another, which they made by swearing each to their own god(s) who was compatible with the others’ god(s). Revolutionary monotheism’s incompatibilty explains why they could not contract with other peoples. Read more
Today was the first day of the Ancient Philosophy Society in Portland, Maine, hosted by Jill Gordon at Colby College. A new day has dawned for the APS when so much discussion of gender in ancient philosophy and explicitly of feminist approaches to ancient philosophy is given center stage. I was planning on posting a blog on the conference as a whole, but today’s program was so rich, and so focused on gender, that it deserves a post of its own. Read more
In January, I was blogging regularly about what is required to motivate change, a move from inaction to action, from one view to another, from not caring to caring. I pointed out then that just telling someone their position is contradictory rarely moves them to change their position.
Today, I heard yet another podcast (see this one too) discuss Samantha Bee’s new show, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. On this podcast, Stephen Metcalf of Slate says:
I may have reached my limit for “let them eat satire.” The debasement of as culture, especially political culture, as raw material for the late night shows, and this is the kind of comedy placebo that I swallow on a nightly basis to wake up as a functionally sane human being. I’ve kind of reached the end of it in a weird way, I’ve kind of, I want, I want rage and political action. I don’t want to laugh, however on point the satire is.
I was listening to the DoubleX podcast this morning because I promised awhile ago to blog my reflections on it more often. They were talking about the “tampon tax” and how there’s a new “period feminism” about owning your period, and wow, isn’t it weird how menstruation seems to somehow capture men’s fears about women? I was annoyed. And I realized, I was annoyed for the same reasons from the last time I blogged about this podcast–they aren’t experts on a subject that does in fact have experts. There are people (like my new fave, Helen King) who work in gender theory who talk about how menstruation going back to the ancient Greeks captures something of the male anxiety about women’s reproductive capacities and death–you know, the whole shedding of blood bit.
I haven’t been blogging much this month because I haven’t felt like I was an expert on the various issues and ideas that I’ve considered in the last month or so (though, I gotta tell you, once I thought about how I really should blog, all of a sudden, I could think of four different posts I had to write, so I think thinking-towards-the-blog is itself productive of thinking). The political moment we live in seems to be one of a general disparagement of those who claim to be experts, and mocking the experts is something of an American pastime (consider the glee directed at Nate Silver’s fails). I might be chagrined that Trump has benefited from the decline of respect for expert knowledge, but I share this skepticism of the rising class of technocrats. When economists say we are the experts, we can fix the economy, and only we can figure it out because it is so complicated, I start to worry. Whenever anyone says, this is just a matter of the right knowledge, and the one with the right knowledge, that is the person who gets to rule, their claim is more of a political one than an epistemological one. Read more
On March 12, 2016 at the University of Colorado, Denver, at the meeting of PhiloSophia: Society for Continental Feminism, I will be speaking on an Author Meets Critics panel discussing Robin James’ recent book. Below are my comments.
I like this book. I like how Robin James says important things to a popular audience from a background in academic philosophy that remains unbeholden to that world. I like her independent voice. I like how, in Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, James exemplifies what philosophizing out of a singular moment and specific site looks like. Her moment is neoliberalism and her site is pop music. James uses music as more than an example; in her hands, music is a place for developing a conceptual apparatus for neoliberalism. In music, we hear how the demand to turn damage into something productive works to make oppressed persons assimilate into the neoliberal apparatus.
James references a whole slew of sources that signal the breadth of her influences in this project–from Adorno and Marcuse to Deleuze and Guattari, queer theorists Jack Halberstam and José Estabon Muñoz, New Media Studies theorist Steven Shaviro, political theorists like Jodi Dean, Lester Spence and Mark Neocleous, as well as cultural studies scholars like Zandria Robinson. Beyond those we recognize as theorists, James draws insight out of the work of pop musicians Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, Atari Teenage Riot and Rihanna. With this book, James expands the sphere of those figures worth putting to work in philosophy, just as her working out of music multiplies the sites in which thinking occurs outside of the center of well-respected philosophical discourse.
In this comment I move back to those well-respected in philosophical discourse, somewhat abashedly and certainly not because I think James’ argument needs to be put in conversation with those folks in order to gain legitimacy. By no means. James’ work addresses a strain in political philosophy that shows her to be calling into question, even turning on its head, the structural framework within which we have thought about how to expand the sphere of the political to include those at the margins. It’s fitting that this structure is turned on its head through voices unheard in philosophy. Read more