Posts Tagged Weislogel
[The following is a comment I made in October of 2007 in response to a piece written by my friend Paul Sracic (Youngstown State University). See this post for the context.]
Like most of us most of the time, Professor Sracic is partly right. He is certainly right in attending to an underlying scruple to teach his students with prudence and fairness. Full disclosure: I am a long-time friend of Sracic, I’ve observed his teaching, and Respondent “dah” [one of the commenters to his post] is wrong: Sracic is a very fine teacher, indeed, and I believe popular and well-respected by his students. If I understand Sracic’s position correctly, his intentions are noble. He wants to be careful to teach his subject to students in such a way as to inform them of the relevant information about his subject but also (and especially) to help hone his students’ critical thinking skills. He hopes to teach his students in such a way as to respect their autonomy and freedom in crafting their own lives. He does not want to cheat them.
Part of his commentary here is a response to reports that surface from time to time of professors rambling on about political views instead of teaching the subjects they are paid to teach. For instance, if my kid is trying to take a course in intermediate calculus, the instructor should not spend three-quarters of the time talking about, say, the merits or a Kucinich or Keyes administration. I’ll want my money back. That non-intermediate-calculus discussion could (and even should) be held over coffee after class–extracurricular discussions between faculty and students being a not insignificant element in a rich educational experience.
So Sracic is trying to do what he’s paid to do: teach a subject in which he has developed an expertise. Any hint that he might be violating his code of ethics strikes him as unacceptable.
But would he really be violating his code of ethics by answering his student’s question about his personal political views? I think the answer in the context of a course on American politics is: not necessarily. If he were to fail to teach about the structures and processes involved in American polity, and instead tried (emphasis on try..students aren’t sheep, and Sracic does not think they are, by the way) merely to sway his students to cast their vote in a certain way, then I would think that he did not perform his job well. If, on the other hand, he were to answer his student and provide his student with his reasons for supporting Kucinich or Keyes (or whomever), this could easily constitute a teachable moment–especially if he were to encourage his students to do the same. It would then be a manifestation of an element of the democratic process: debate and deliberation.
However, there might be good pedagogical reasons for not sharing a personal view. When I taught the history of philosophy, students would often ask me which philosopher we studied I thought was “right.” I would frequently (and flippantly) answer: “We’re not here to talk about me.” It is not that I do not have views on the question. It is not that I was (merely) being coy. For pedagogical reasons, I was trying not to make things too easy for my students, trying not to let them let their guard down concerning the rhetorical force of authority and expertise. Don’t misunderstand: both I and my students knew I knew more about the various philosophers than they did. They knew I was the expert and their hard-earned money was going to pay for my expertise. But, asking “which philosopher was right” is, in itself, especially at that stage of the learning process, the wrong question to take up. And I should mention that a refusal can often incite further curiosity, which of course is pedagogically very valuable.
So for at least one (and probably both) of these reasons–some version of a professional code of conduct and pedagogical strategy–Sracic may have been right to not answer the question. But then again, he could have easily answered it for the same reasons. Either way, a teacher senstive to both the ethics of his or her profession and the techniques and strategies for success can hardly be called “not a very good teacher.”
But there is a much larger question that haunts this discussion: What is the role of the humanities in the contemporary university?
I commend to readers Anthony T. Kronman’s new book, Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. His analysis can shed light on Professor Sracic’s dilemma, along with that of his critics: Does the humanities professor have the authority to teach about profound questions that do not admit of “objective” answers? Sracic might feel that he does not. Those who do often face as much (or more) criticism as some of Sracic’s respondents have leveled at him. Why is this?
Kronman, in a Boston Globe piece, writes,
Over the past century and a half, our top universities have embraced a research-driven ideal that has squeezed the question of life’s meaning from the college curriculum, limiting the range of questions teachers feel they have the right and authority to teach. And in the process it has badly weakened the humanities, the disciplines with the oldest and deepest connection to this question, leaving them directionless and vulnerable to being hijacked for political ends.
But the encouraging news is that there is, today, a growing hunger among students to explore these topics. As questions of spiritual urgency – abortion, creationism, the destruction of the environment – move to the center of debate in our society, America’s colleges and universities have a real opportunity to give students the tools to discuss them at a meaningful level.
What our society now desperately needs is what it once had: An alternative approach to a college education that takes these matters seriously without pretending to answer them in a doctrinaire way.”
The question of who should be president is important. The answer will involve people’s understanding of the nature of government and politics, which in turn involves an understanding of the meaning and purpose of life. The issues raised by Sracic’s editorial and the discussion it has spurred are critically important for both the university and society.
I have always referred to what I call the “anarchist temptation.” It is always so tempting to think we can just do away with the state, have no gods and no masters. I have been leery of that temptation in light of all the concrete questions that anarchist and intentional communities have failed to solve. It has not worked so far. But now it seems I have to give into this temptation. I realize, if I am honest with myself, that I simply subscribe to left-libertarian views, even as I cannot always think them through consistently. I am certain that the capitalist world system does and will continue to threaten the very existence of the human race. I believe that governments exist as the means of violent imposition of the will of capital and/or kings, and not for the well being of the people or the planet.
I am, though, very skeptical about the idea of the innate goodness of human beings. I am not convinced. I see massive stupidity, venality, greed, and meanness all around me – of course not exclusively, but more than enough to make me suspicious of any grand program, party, or plan.
Thus, although I am sympathetic to socialist goals in the abstract, I am too skeptical to be an outright advocate of hitherto existing socialisms. I certainly do not believe in “state capitalism,” central command and control, or any other totalitarian structure. But our U.S. “democracy” is fake. Everyone knows it. People just aren’t courageous enough to admit it outwardly, except for the freaks, left and right. And those people scare regular folk (and not without justification, by the way).
So if there is no such thing as “good” government, maybe anarchism turns out to be the least bad bad form of government (as Aristotle thought about democracy, which to him was dangerously close to anarchy, which to him was a bad thing). Maybe, however imperfect a mutual aid society would be, its problems would be less bad than the problems caused by capitalism (both the so-called “laissez faire” and the state-monopolistic kinds). Maybe, despite whatever drawbacks there would be with localism and subsidiarity, they would represent an improvement in human relations, both among themselves and with nature. But anarchism just scares people. Folks hear the word and they think of mask wearing, bomb throwing, window breaking, dumpster diving, mayhem producing vulgarians who violently act without thinking and who have no idea of the good.
Is that all there is to anarchism? If it really is the least bad bad form of social arrangement, then maybe we need a new way to say “anarchism,” a new way to think it, a new strategy for living it.
I am reading a little book entitled, The Anarchist Revelation. It has me thinking about a number of things concerning the kinds of selves we are shaped to be under capitalism. In one passage, the book’s author, Paul Cudenec, discusses television and the role of advertising (as forerunner and adjunct to our “screen culture” today). What he says is familiar; you have heard this critique before. But if we can stand to hear the tv ads repeatedly, surely we can stand to hear an alternative view more than once. It is the capitalist system that praises novelty above every other criterion, never once asking if new is always better.
Television, Advertising, Capitalism vs. Our True Identity
Elements of Cudenec’s critique include the following. When we are engaged, if that is the right word, with television, we are lost to ourselves. Citing Guillame Carnino, it is that “we become what we watch.” It is either an escape from ourselves or the active prevention of our becoming our true selves. The default position is immersion in a television (and now more broadly “screen”) culture, and opting out is no easy struggle.
In addition, television is 100% advertising, the shows being only a draw to the commercials, meant to make our minds receptive to the message. And what is that message? You need things. But capitalism works in a way opposite to the natural relation between needs and good. The system first produces the goods, and then it generates the needs. In fact, the system functions on the proviso that it can generate wants that it can turn into needs.
We thereby are molded into selves that are a function of external objects and stimulations – the objects and stimulations generated for us by the system. Cudenic complains that there is a lack of “real individuality.” What passes for individuality is just another persona produced by the marketplace. We are, as Cudenic puts it in the words of Joseph Campbell, “men who are fractions (who) imagine (our)selves to be complete.”
The market promises to satisfy all our wants, but in fact it operates on the principle of creating an infinite series of desires (masquerading as “needs,” of course) that cannot be satisfied. The satisfaction of desire would be the end of the capitalist system.Cudenic cites, as two examples of the absurdity of the generation of false needs, the fact that advertisers have convinced girls and young women to spend massive amounts of money for skin products meant to counteract the problems (if that’s what they are) of much older women, as well their having sold the notion that simply to take a walk one needs expensive gear in order to do it “properly.” All of this puts us on a never-ending treadmill of ultimately meaningless busyness and acquisition that prevents us from coming to be our real selves. Gustave Landauer (cited by Cudenic) put it this way:
Progress, what you call progress, this incessant hustle-bustle, this rapid tiring and neurasthenic, short-breathed chase after novelty, after anything new as long as it is new, this progress and the crazy ideas of the practitioners of development associated with it…this progress, this unsteady, restless haste; this inability to remain still and this perpetual desire to be on the move, this so-called progress is a symptom of our abnormal condition, our uncultured.”
There is an ever-expanding distance between ourselves and the reality of the world around us. Our meat simply “comes from the store” — we have no awareness of the process by which it arrives at our table. This disconnect doubles back on us, preventing us from having a true sense of our own identity.
There is much to be sympathetic with in this passionate critique — and I have only touched the surface, reflecting on just a few pages of this book. It is difficult to argue with this analysis, yet I wonder if there aren’t some subtleties that need to be brought to light. It is always tricky to try to sum up either human nature or the times in which one lives. Attempts often end up as caricatures, capturing some core truths but lacking a comprehensive balance. I found myself reflecting on a number of points:
What does it mean to say we have a “true” self that is being suppressed or blocked by the world system? What is that true self and how are we to discover it? If the capitalist system is truly totalitarian, as François Brune puts it, how is one ever even to recognize that one’s true self is in peril of being submerged? There must be some “space” for critical reflection, even in this all-pervasive capitalist system (or any other totalitarian regime). This also implies that we can at least catch a glimpse of or have an intuition about what one’s true self must be like, even under the conditions of the non-stop onslaught of advertising.But is it right to say that that self is an individual? There is a tendency for Cudenic (and maybe for most of us) to equate who we really are with a unique individual. But I wonder sometimes whether the idea of the “unique individual” is not, itself, a creation of the capitalist system. Does this idea not smack of that obsession with novelty that is elsewhere criticized in Cudenic’s account? If there turns out to be truth in that possibility, then we human beings are in a more complicated position than this account lets on. For what then is our true self? Is it really something unique? And, if not, how will we distinguished between a mass-marketed self foisted on us by the world system and a self-in-solidarity, a self-in-communion that inevitably draws its identity from others and which is, therefore, not unique? What if the anguish of the soul longing for uniqueness is not a revolt from consumer society, but just another manifestation of it, perfectly poised to be sold yet another solution-for-profit?I am simply raising the question. I am convinced that much of our identity is an off-the-rack model and that we are missing the chance to get at the marrow of life because of it. But I am concerned that we have uncritically adopted either a typically modern or post-modern view of the self. The former would see us first of all as isolated individuals. As such, the distinguish mark of each one of us is how we are different from each other, i.e., unique. If the latter, we see ourselves as an infinitely malleable “text” whose “true” nature is that it has no nature at all. Both views leave us well-open to the siren calls of the marketplace. There is nothing within either view that provides us with adequate resources to critique and resist. I could put it this way: this particular critique, which is by no means Cudenic’s alone, may, itself — despite its best intentions, have bought into the capitalist arch-criterion of novelty.
Part of this critique challenges the idea that our identities are best formed by the things that we have — more accurately, the things that we buy and consume. Aristotle already challenged this notion a couple of millennia ago, noting that happiness (which for him is not an emotion or a feeling but the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being) must be something other than the fleeting pleasures afforded by external goods. But Aristotle also noted that in order to be happy — even in his profound understanding of the term — one had to have a share of external goods.
Human beings are, among other things, creators. We make things. We use things to enhance our abilities to do more things. Thus it ever was. Cudenic criticizes, not without justification, the idea that we have to have superfluous things (preferably expensive things) in order to engage in the most simple, natural activities. Do I need expensive walking shoes, an expensive hat, an expensive walking stick simply to take a walk? Do I need them? No, of course not. People are walking all the time without them, and I can (and do), too. But is it not really more comfortable walking in a good pair of walking shoes? May I not walk much further in good shoes? Might that not keep me outdoors and away from the television? Wouldn’t a good hat protect me from sunburn, thus keeping me less likely to get skin cancer? Might a good walking stick take a little pressure off these aging knees? Is there not something in — dare I say it? — true human nature that seeks such improvements? Are we not naturally tinkerers and experimenters? I ask these questions because I wonder if the capitalist generation of infinite needs is as artificial, let’s call it, as the critique makes it out to be. Again, there is definitely something to the critique, to the insight that we are fooling ourselves if we think that accumulation of material things equals genuine happiness. We are wrong if we think we are solely what we own. We are not solely what we own, but we are in part what we possess.There is a sense of this critique which somehow sees us as disembodied. I am certain, of course, that neither Cudenic nor the cloud of other critics of capitalism would admit this. Still, I think it should be considered. There is an undercurrent in these critques that see us as somehow poluted, disfigured, and falsified by consumer goods. Consider this passage:
The possessions in which we invest so much value, from cars to washing machines, are, as scientist and writer Kit Pedler sees, ‘symbols of despair and failure: surrogates for achievement, which encourage us to live on the outside of our senses and actually diminish the quality of life.’ Carnino points out that ‘having, and no longer being, is the sole source of our desire,’ and there is a horrible sense of us having abandoned our own selves, our own destinies, under the hypnosis of mass exploitation.
Is my having a washing machine to clean my clothes a sign of my despair? Would I be more my true self if I took my pants down to the river, soaked them in the running (and no doubt at this stage polluted) waters, and beat them on a rock to clean them?I think we need to look at ourselves as materially extended beyond our own bodies. I am certain that there are risks involved in such a self-conception, but only because I am certain there are risks involved any time one tries to pin down what it means to be human.
None of these questions should be construed to constitute a gainsaying of Cudenic’s critique. I find him to be, in fact, a kindred spirit (at least so far in the book). And, on that note, I remind us that this is not actually a review of this book (maybe later…). I was simply provoked to thinking this morning by some of the insights of this particular chapter in The Anarchist Revelation. In any case, I still am struggling with what is really going on in the capitalist culture, the system in which I am thoroughly implicated and enmeshed.
If the links I’ve posted recently give any indication — and they do — I am a critic of capitalism. I have some scruples, though, that keep me from going all the way with that criticism. Let me try to explain.
First, I am not an economist. I have read broadly but not deeply on a variety of economic theories, and I have to confess to coming away rather more confused than I had hoped. Thus I cannot offer a solid opinion on the overarching mechanisms of the economy, since the theories I’ve familiarized myself with conflict, sometimes severely. So I have to admit to “going with my gut” with a number of my views here (not always advisable for a philosopher). But I’d also have to say that I am doubtful that anyone can provide a knock-down, irrefutable argument for one economic system versus another. There is an “irreducible complexity” to global and local economic systems, and different theories offer different tradeoffs. There is no utopian system forthcoming.
Second, even some of us critics of capitalism can see some of that system’s merits. Indeed, even Marx and Lenin can be found approving certain aspects of the capitalist system, at least as they pertain to its role in the “inevitability” of communism (for instance, in the elimination of scarcity). A recent piece regarding capitalism’s role in combating climate change has to be read against the flood of evidence of capitalism’s responsibility for producing dangerous climate change. As this article aptly puts it, we may not be able to “crowd source” our way out of this mess.
Third, I am highly dubious of centralized solutions to challenges of this complexity. To reiterate an ancient knock on socialism, nobody is smart enough to organize the economy from an armchair.
Fourth, I believe in the power of freedom, including free markets. A central tenet of my criticism of capitalism is that it prevents there being truly free markets. The markets we have are oligopolies kept in place by the armaments of various nation states who have become the corporations’ lap dogs. They are anything but free. They are anything but rational. Remember there are two concepts of freedom: I can open up a chemistry lab full of chemicals and bunsen burners and so forth and let you have at it to your heart’s content. You are free to do as you will. But if you are ignorant, you will simply be free to blow yourself up. The lack of restraint is identical to your being captive to the severe consequences of your ignorance. But if you are extremely disciplined in learning how all that equipment works and how all those chemicals might react with each other, then you will be truly free — not to do any old thing you want, but to work in harmony with the reality of that lab in order to do beneficial things relatively safely. Our so-called “free market” seems to me only free in the first sense, having overall a reckless disregard for people and for our world. Nevertheless, I remain skeptical of overly-centralized power.
I cannot at this moment offer a coherent alternative to the clearly problematic and, indeed, dangerous system we now have in place. Things simply must change. But, unlike our current president, I will not embark on a campaign that offers simply a slogan: “Change.” No. Hard work has to be done, and I should be responsible and play my small part. A new theoretical approach (literally, a way of “seeing” our situation) must be developed. I have no doubts that there are insights to be drawn from Marx, but perhaps also by Smith, and certainly by many others. But 18th and 19th century theories will not be adequate to 21st century problems.
When I think about the “Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic, I am first of all struck by what it must mean for the prisoner to get up. Why does the prisoner get up? At what urging? What could be the impetus for such getting up when one’s whole life there was never the slightest notion of ”getting up"?.
Socrates does not say, leaving us to ponder what could lead to such a momentous and inexplicable act. And why had the prisoner not acted before now?
Or is “act”really the right word? Is the getting up a choice the prisoner makes? Or is it something that happens to the prisoner somehow?
And what must that getting up be like? There never was up in that sense in the prior experience of the prisoner. The prisoner could not even have known there was an up.
How disorienting it must have been. How alarming, at least at first. And then to turn around. Around! A completely new orientation, one never before even conceivable. Imagine, if you can, what that must be like.
Getting up demands metanoia, a turning around of the mind, a reorientation. What brings this about? Necessity? But what is the force of that necessity, if indeed it is necessary? What demands that we come around to another heading?
The prisoner must somehow come to grips what is happening – the very realization that he (or she) has been a prisoner requires a turning around of the mind. What is it to come to realize that one has been a prisoner (of a kind) all of one’s life? What will this release from prison come to mean? How will the newly-released prisoner learn to cope with all the new experiences?
It seems such a simple thing: getting up. But what effects such a simple act (if it is an act) can have! And then: metanoia, turning around one’s mind (or having it turned around). What could be more under our own control than our minds, and yet such transformation seems always hard, almost impossible, and always at a great cost.
Can we get up? Will we?
I think I have my list of front-line apps settled — at least for the most part — in my quest to get more things done. As anyone knows who decides to fiddle with these things, much time (and some money) can be spent in researching apps, downloading and trying apps, comparing apps, and so on. That in itself is a threat to genuine productivity. But as I’ve said, I think it is a risk worth taking. In fact, any move, transition, or transformation in life will demand time (and probably money) devoted to the change itself instead of to that at which the change is aimed.
So what are some of the apps?
- Quick notes (mac): nvAlt & Simplenote
- Quick notes (iPad): Drafts an Simplenote
Longer writing (non-web; mac): Scrivener & Word
Longer writing (non-web; iPad): Scrivener/Simplenote integration
Blogging (mac): MarsEdit
Blogging (iPad): Posts or BlogPadPro (still not decided)
To Do: Todoist
Screen capture: Snagit
Screen casts: Camtasia
Research organization: Devonthink Pro Office & Evernote
eBook library: Calibre
Twitter: TweetDeck & Buffer
PDF reading/annotating (mac): Skim
PDF reading/annotating (iPad): (undecided between Good Reader, iAnnotate, and PDF Expert)
RSS reader (mac): Leaf
RSS reader (iPad): (undecided)
Automation: Text Expander, Hazel, Keyboard Maestro
Markdown editor (mac): (undecided…Mou, Lightpaper, Multimarkdown Composer, Byword…?)
Markdown editor (iPad): (undecided, but I like Editorial)
Cloud: Dropbox (just drastically lowered their price; I do use other services — Box, Google Drive, One Drive, etc. — for specific purposes)
Notebook: Circus Ponies Notebook 4
NOTE: apps that don’t specifically identify mac vs. iPad are cross-platform and synced.
I’ll try to add some notes on these apps as I go along.
What are you using and why?
Once you’ve been over-educated in our academic system, it is very hard to be plain spoken. I was just discussing this problem with my sister-in-law Joan as she was getting ready to head to the People’s Climate march. She mentioned that from time to time people have shared some books and articles with her, the meanings of which she just could not grasp. Now, Joan is smarter than you are, so the fault is not hers. She is (among many other wonderful things) an activist. We intellectuals are to blame here, I think. I tried to explain the habits of mind and expression that are inculcated during graduate education (especially in the humanities), and that they are very hard to un-learn.
Further, we — at least I — don’t want to un-learn them completely. I believe that I have learned some things, some real things, in the process of struggling with difficult books and ideas. No doubt, many of the books and ideas I had to deal with were needlessly over-complicated by the vices of academia (one of which is willful desire to be hard to understand, as a mark of “seriousness”). But sometimes, especially when you are working at the boundaries of things, where things are profound but not so clear, it is difficult to put into words what it is that you are seeing, experiencing, discovering. The boundary from prose to poetry gets crossed sometimes before we even know we’ve moved to another country. And trying to speak from that other country, trying to call back over the gulf that opened up between what you used to know and what you can now see, is hard.
I’d like to think that, as I think philosopher John Searle (himself a plain speaker) put it, if you can’t explain it to someone else you don’t understand it yourself. But I wonder sometimes if there is no other way you can get someone to come over to where you are except to have that person walk the whole way that you did. Must there have been a shortcut? Why didn’t you find it?
Wark’s wisdom here refers to the political value of theory. A theory — literally, a way of seeing things — may need to be as complex as the reality it is attempting to see. However, to be politically useful — for that theory to have an impact or to serve as a catalyst — it simply has to be accessible in some way to an appropriate number of political actors. Otherwise, the theory falls stillborn. It could be accessible in the sense of readily comprehensible, or it could be accessible in the sense of serving as a slogan or rallying cry (without its being fully understood). To me, the former is to be preferred, but I admit that the latter might be more immediately effective. I would take Sartre’s existentialism as a good example of the latter, and I suspect examples could be easily multiplied.
But if the theory is simply murk it is useless politically (if not completely).
One effective murk generator is literary allusion. Contemporary continental philosophy (a distinctly American thing, actually) is an infamous offender. If the people you want to reach haven’t read what you’ve read, it serves no purpose to assume that they have with your writing. It does no good to rely heavily on proper names in lieu of full explanations (however much that can be a timesaver with the cognoscenti).
A friend of mine, an august personage in the sphere of continental philosophy, once suggested that the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) ban the use of proper names at its conferences — at least for a year. There were no takers.
And this friend of mine (I won’t embarrass him by associating his good name with mine) is a fine example of what I am driving at. I have learned a great deal from his books, and he has tried on occasion to write books for a more “popular” (read: non-academic) audience — books that I think are wonderful, really. But when I try to pass them on to others, they get little response. It is very frustrating to me. He has always made it a great point to try to make the difficult European thinkers “speak English,” as he puts it. And that has worked wonders for us graduate students and fellow academics. We owe him a debt. But his own writing — even his “popular” writing — is still too murky with allusion for the “non-academic” (read: the very, very small number of people who have read the same small set of books).
And in times like these, when there is such a demand for philosophy to be “relevant” (and people really ought to be careful what they wish for…), all of us academic writers need to pay heed to MacKenzie Wark.