Archive for November, 2013

“Let’s all be Slavoj Žižek!”

Here’s a send-up of Žižek that is funny, vulgar, hipster-wanna-be, and weirdly insightful – just like it’s target!

But if you want to see a more serious side of Žižek, have a look at his correspondence with a prisoner of conscience, here.

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Quitter!

Years ago, I used to smoke. A lot. People used to plead with me to stop smoking, but I would always reply: “Hey, I’m no quitter. I never give up!”

Well, turns out I was wrong. I am a quitter. I haven’t had a cigarette in 20 years. I haven’t eaten meat in 4 years. I haven’t had a drink of alcohol in 3 months. I haven’t had any caffeine in two weeks. (And here I add, while telling this to friends: “And I haven’t had sex in 20 minutes. I’ve become Mormon!”) (Sorry, Mormons. Just kidding there…)

Some people find quitting so hard to do, that they don’t do it. Some find quitting somehow morally reprehensible, so they don’t do it. Some find quitting (things they otherwise enjoy) completely absurd, so they don’t do it.

But maybe they should give quitting a try. See what happens.

I can tell you a few things about quitting, now that I am a veteran quitter. As a quitter, you will get a variety of reactions from family and friends, generally depending upon what it is that you have quit.

If you tell people you quit smoking, you will be congratulated and admired for your courage, strength, and perseverance. Even smokers – so long as you don’t become one of those annoying, self-righteous ex-smokers who is always sermonizing and otherwise bothering smokers who are not quitters – even smokers, I say, will extend their best wishes and perhaps even envy you. Quitting smoking is hard, and one who has done it has mastered himself in an important way.

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If you quit eating meat, people will look at you with bemusement. “Well that’s unusual,” they’ll say, uncomprehendingly. They’ll want to know if it’s a “health thing” or a “religious thing” or whatever. You will not be congratulated for quitting (except, perhaps, by a vegan who will then immediately castigate you for not going far enough). You will not be envied (unless your skin noticeably clears up and you’ve begun to brag about more regular bowel movements). But you neither will you be criticized for your quitting. No one will think the less of you if you don’t eat meat . Although it is possible you will not be invited over for dinner as regularly, I’ve found that my meat-eating friends are frequently keen to try out some vegetarian recipe that sounded good and will use an invitation to you as an excuse.

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If you quit drinking caffeine, many people will nod their heads in agreement, saying something like, “Yeah, I should give that up, too. Makes my heart race and I sweat a little too much.” But that’ll be the end of it. Quitting caffeine is no different to most people than quitting Coke to drink Diet Coke. No big deal.

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But if you tell people you quit drinking, then watch out! Unless you were a raging, obnoxious alcoholic whose life had become completely unmanageable, in other words, if you were simply a run-of-the-mill social drinker – wine with dinner, beer during the game, cocktail on a night out – you will not be congratulated. Indeed, you will be looked on with suspicion and even revulsion. People will feel betrayed and abandoned. Announcing you’ve quit drinking is like (assuming you were in my social circles) announcing that you’ve converted to Islam. People will wonder if you have been hiding a dark secret. Were you really a raging alcoholic? Was there “an incident”? What was going on with you behind closed doors. They will wonder what could have possessed you to give up the delights of a fine Pinot or a single-malt scotch. They will find you – even if you never utter a negative word about drinking – judgmental, self-righteous, holier-than-thou. They will take your quitting as an unspoken demand for them to quit. And as they resist that, so they will resist accepting your quitting. There may be, however, among your more sensitive and forgiving friends, those who will pity you for quitting. “Oh you poor dear! How are you going to ever have any fun anymore? How are you going to handle this new social life you will have to lead, one that does not include bars, cocktail parties, and wedding receptions?” They will treat you as if you just lost a leg in a terrible automobile accident. They will see you as handicapped.

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Although smokers rationalize, there is really not much of an up-side to smoking. Quitting smoking is clearly good for you.

No reasonable person could deny that there are a number of real benefits to becoming vegetarian or vegan. The individual benefits from a generally healthier diet (or at least a diet that is not unhealthy), and society would benefit in many ways from the changes in land and water use (and the climate implications) from having fewer cattle farms. And let’s not forget the animals – eating vegetables diminishes cruelty. These reasons for quitting eating meat have not been persuasive on a grand scale, of course. A day does not go by on Facebook without a post on bacon. But still, there are good, reasonable arguments for quitting eating meat.

Quitting caffeine seems more of a judgment call. I used to say that my body was a machine for turning caffeine into philosophical insight. One could argue that if caffeine helps the cause, then use it. But Adderall might help the cause, too. Or perhaps LSD (remember that?)  or heroin might produce some transformative insight (people like Beatles and Charlie Parker seemed to think so). But to what extent should one go? And if one has been on caffeine for so many decades, what insights would not being on caffeine lead to? What might a calmer mind find? But I admit it is a judgment call.

Quitting alcohol is another matter. Many studies have shown that a moderate amount of drinking (especially of wine) may have marked health benefits. But it is not a matter of health. It is a matter of sociality. You can still hang out with anyone and do anything if you don’t smoke. Not smoking changes nothing. Your smoking friends will just be glad you stop bumming cigarettes from them. If you don’t eat meat you can still go to any restaurant with friends (well, okay, you won’t be going to the Great American Barbecue Rib Cook-Off, I suppose) – there’s always something on the menu. And not drinking caffeine may only have an impact if you draw the night shift for driving on a long road trip. Quitting smoking, meat-eating or caffeine has no deep or lasting social impact.

But quitting drinking changes the social dynamic. When all around you are on their second or third cocktail, things begin to change. The flow of the conversation between you and them is disrupted. You are less likely to feel a part of the party. You are not going to be doing that “dance thing” you (used to) do when the music gets going.

The truth is that for me, the impact of quitting drinking has been minimal (I tend to live a bookish-birder hermit-like life). I hadn’t been going to bars for quite some time and I don’t go to that many parties anymore. Plus, I can’t see how my drinking friends won’t benefit from having another designated driver at their disposal. Gee, I could become even more popular!

Unlike quitting smoking and meat-eating, I cannot say for sure that quitting drinking is a permanent decision. It is at least an experiment. For one who does not suffer from the disease of alcoholism, quitting drinking has plusses and minuses. Some social customs and practices are harder to break than others. Drinking alcohol has a religious, even sacred, character to it. We toast each other’s health with alcohol, we don’t smoke a smoke to your good health. Some of the world’s religions see drinking wine as a means of connection with divinity, but none sees polishing off a hamburger as communing with God (unless it is a Five Guy’s burger, I guess). Alcohol is primal, and being without it is being without something that reaches deep into our past in deep into our soul (and not always for good).

For the moment, in this experiment, I have been happy not to be forcing the body up throughout the day with stimulants and back down at night with depressants. And as a person who has suffered long (but who has coped fairly well, considering) with disthymia, I have noticed some relief (well, duh! self-medicating to ward off depression with a depressant seems obviously unwise). I know the reduction in my bar bill has had a noticeable positive impact on our bottom line! Perhaps I cannot afford to start drinking again.

On the other hand, perhaps I cannot afford not to.

We shall see.

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Caputo on the Insistence of God

Homebrewed Christianity’s interview with John D. Caputo on his latest books (and many more topics):

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Hello Kitty Studies

Yes, there is now the discipline of Hello Kitty Studies!

So maybe I was too hasty (see post below).

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The University is too liberal. Whaa, whaa….

There is so much glaringly wrong with this one does not know where to begin. But I will try here: the complainers call themselves “conservatives” which tends to mean, for this bunch, “libertarian,” which tends to mean unquestioning capitalist shills. Now why oh why would such persons complain that “universities have gotten less intellectual and more consumer-oriented,” and “Nowadays it’s the consumer who’s king. The consumer will tell the administration what it wants to learn”? Isn’t that a good thing – indeed, the only good thing – (to such people)? Why oh why would such people complain that “What parents seem to want is to have their kids’ credentials so they can get a job, but they don’t notice or refuse to notice that they’re paying a fortune for a really inferior product which does not educate their kids at all.”? Isn’t it the economy, stupid? (Yes, I quoted the neoliberal Clinton mantra.) Why oh why would such people fret that “the university is on the brink of self-destruction.” Isn’t creative destruction the engine of the economy? Why should it not apply to the university? Isn’t a “hacked” education a good thing?

It is the capitalist corporatization of the university that has caused that about which such people complain, not left-wing ideology (if there really were any such thing anymore). They, themselves, are responsible.

Okay, I won’t paint with the broad brushstrokes as such people do (no one is well-read, no one thinks about this matter), but I will speak to my teaching experience in the past number of years: students don’t care about “identity politics” and “gender studies” for the most part. They care about getting a job. That’s what it is all about. There is much less intellectual curiosity these days, it seems – at least in that kind of direction. The essay in question here calls race, gender, and class “arbitrary categories.” I think it seems so to my students.

If a good neoliberal education is what these authors want for our students, then I think they have little to worry about.

But I don’t think that’s all they want. They want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want a capitalist corporatist economy and the institutions to support it, but then complain when it turns education into another consumer-oriented commodity. They want students to read the classics, but their cherished system teaches students that the classics don’t pay. The want students to pursue history and philosophy, but don’t want students to actually ask questions (philosophy) about how the world has come to be as it is (history).

And speaking of history, there once was a kind of conservatism that worried a lot about capitalism, that it would ruin the diversity and integrity of communal life. Of course, that worry also led to reaction – and none of us wants to see that again. You can start to see the intricacy of the problem (ignored by those profiled in this piece).

They want to mock “fat studies” (a research project that has not come to any of the campuses I am familiar with). But fat costs money. Fat contributes to self-image and ideas of what matters, which has economic consequences. But God-forbid anyone studies it.

Okay, should we study fat instead of U.S. history and the Great Conversation of world philosophy? Well, if we had learned a bit more history in primary and secondary education…. Look, it is easy to tease arcane research projects (I just saw one in the paper the other day that proved – once and for all, I guess – that men will look over a woman’s body when they first engage in conversation. I would never have guessed). I probably want 1/2 of what these whiners want…but I’m willing to upend the other half that actually results in our not getting the first half we both want (or think we want – bet they didn’t waste time on trivial, bourgeois questions in Soviet universities). But I don’t think you can have it both ways.

John Leo says, “We think that there’s a lot wrong with colleges, and it goes across the board.” Who doesn’t think that? I don’t think you could find a single person in any way connected with higher education who would disagree. The trouble is finding a way to determine the root cause or causes of the troubles without lapsing into raw ideology and propaganda or reaction. As the author of this piece notes, “it’s easy to make fun of the American university or dismiss it as no longer necessary. Engaging with its problems, on the other hand, takes tenacity, conviction, and a resistance to cynicism. Most importantly, you have to believe the university offers something worth saving.” That will take some thought and questioning, not just bandwagon sloganeering.

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Recent discussion on the state of the humanities (and science)

There has been a more high profile than usual discussion about the humanities in the general press. Some links:

NYTimes: As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry

New Yorker: Adam Gopnik, Why Teach English?

Wall Street Journal: Lee Siegel, Who Ruined the Humanities?

New Republic: Stephen Pinker, Science is Not Your Enemy

New Republic: Leon Wieseltier, Crimes Against Humanities

Chronicle of Higher Education: David A. Hollinger, The Wedge Driving Academe’s Two Families Apart

 

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Science, Non-Science, and Philosophy

Harvey Mansfield ends his lengthy meditation on the matter like so:

I mention philosophy at the end, but I have been discussing it throughout. To consider science and non-science together, and in a whole that includes both, is neither science nor non-science but above them, so that each is made aware of the other. Philosophy is then still the queen of the university, sovereign over the specialties. It cannot assume that it will succeed in bringing harmony, and in any case it must face the additional challenge to reason made by revelation. As Allan Bloom emphasized, the concern for value commitment in our time is in truth a kind of return to religion, a desire for charisma if not grace. I end with a warning: the philosophy I have been advocating, or trying to introduce, a philosophy with relevance combined with ambition, is to be found in the Great Books, nowhere else. And a parting shot: you probably won’t find it in the Department of Philosophy.

The gauntlet has been thrown down.

 

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