Thursday, December 31, 2009


One of my favorite stories ever was told to me by a colleague of mine in the Psychology Department, Dr. Julie Steel. Frustrated with end-of-the-semester appeals for better grades by wayward students, she figured there must be a better rejoinder than simply sighing in exasperation and staring-back with incredulity. So, when students ask that oh-so-familiar question at the end of a course-- "what can I do to get an A in this class?"-- after spending the entire semester slacking-off and underperforming, my colleague suggests the following response:

"First, you need to build a time machine. Then, go back to the beginning of the semester, complete all of the work, study for the exams, and show up to class."

Simple and brilliant advice. First, you need to build a time machine. Of course, that's funny, because we know it is an impossibility. But it also goes directly to the very familiar emotional and psychological heart of the student's question, which is something like the terrible feeling of paralysis that always accompanies regret, remorse, missed opportunities, roads not taken. Putting aside the hilarity of this advice for a moment, it has made me think about the strong desire we all feel to call for a Mulligan when we find ourselves nearing the end of some period or project that just hasn't turned out the way we might have hoped. Hindsight may not really be 20/20, as the old adage goes, but it sure is better than our foresight a lot of the time.

So, here we are at the end of the decade. The end of the "aughts" is also, in a way, the end of a certain set of "oughts"... at least, the set intended to shape and define the first decade of the twenty-first century. Whatever we ought to have done in the aughts that we didn't do, cannot be done now. And the things that we did because we thought we ought to, but we now realize we ought not have, cannot be undone. I am reminded of a line from Maya Angelou's "On The Pulse of Morning" (delivered at President Clinton's inauguration) that I used as one of the epigraphs to my dissertation:

History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage,
Need not be lived again.

My guess is that, for many of us, looking back on the last ten years is going to require a considerable amount of courage. It's difficult for me now to remember what the world was like before 9/11, before the War on Terror and the wars it spawned, before the horrors of Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, before the economic collapse, before wi-fi and Facebook, or (a more local concern for me) before the academic job market became a dry and desparate wasteland. We are so quickly habituated to our historical, ideological, material and technological milieu that it's even difficult now to remember what it was like to be in that "before" world.

I suppose I could compile a list here of the "oughts" that we missed in the aughts, and I suppose that would service in some way the project of (as Angelou frames it) not re-living that history again. I'm not going to do that here, though I think it's important that we all do it. We should be wary of and vigilant against the temptation to put historical errors in the passive voice, in the language of historical determinism, which is always vacant of agency and responsibility. To say "mistakes were made" is itself an abstract and formal repetition of the concrete and substantive mistakes to which it nebulously refers. And it requires no courage to say "mistakes were made"; it neither prevents nor motivates anything particular for the future.

But, mistakes WERE made.

There are no time-machines. There are no do-overs, no mulligans. But the advantage of wishing for them, of facing even a wrenchingly painful history with courage, is that it makes a space for the possibility of imagining new possibilities. And the advantage of that expanded imagination for possibilities is that it keeps our attention on the force of the "ought," the calls that obligate us to others and the calls we make to others that obligate them. There is nothing really "more" significant about the end of this year, the end of a "decade," which is just an arbitrary division of time that we arbitrarily mark as significant. But I implore you, readers, to take a moment to look back with courage over the last ten years before it concludes tonight and to try to locate the missteps, the errors and the (real) terrors, the oughts that have mutated with time and hindsight into ought-nots...

...and then, to realize that they need not be lived again.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays, Blogosphere!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Liability Waivers

I recently had occasion to read the application for a (to-remain-unnamed-for-now) reality television show. Most of it was pretty much what one would expect, namely, questions designed to identify potential candidates' idiosyncrasies, fears, hopes, delusions of grandeur, pet peeves, and anything else that might make for interesting TV. Also as expected, there's a lot of legalese in the document that basically requires the applicant to sign away every right-- real or imagined-- that he or she has. Now, I'm sure there are good reasons why all of these waivers are necessary, but some of the document's sections were just downright hilarious. So, I thought I'd share. The following is one of my most favorite paragraphs:

"All applicants must be in good physical and mental health and must be aware that, and sign releases attesting that, the activities in the Program may involve risks and hazards, and that participating in the Program may expose applicant and other participants to, among other things, the risk of death, serious injury, illness and property damage caused by the risks associated with their participation in the Program, including, without limitation, the following: latent or apparent defects or conditions in any equipment used in the Program; the use or operation by applicant or others of said equipment; acts of other people including, without limitation, acts of the Producers or other participants; accommodations; weather or other natural conditions; the nature of travel including, without limitation, latent defects and human error; applicant’s physical condition; applicant’s own acts or omissions; sleep deprivation; first-aid, medical or emergency treatment or other services rendered to applicant or others; exposure to illness; consumption of food or drink; acts of God (e.g. earthquakes and floods); laws or local ordinances; war or riots; terrorism; strikes; and/or no reason at all."

Why do I think this is hilarious, you may ask? Well, there are THREE reasons:
1) I love that it makes the effort to distinguish between "weather or other natural conditions" and "acts of God (e.g., earthquakes or floods)."
2) I love the suggestion that "laws or local ordinances" pose as much of a threat for death, serious injury or illness as "war/riots/terrorism."
3) And, of course, I love the concluding clause: "and/or no reason at all"-- which is the equivalent, I think, of saying "hey, sh*t happens, and you can't sue us for it."

Why might I be reading said document in the first place, you may now ask? Ahhh, the answer to that one will have to wait... but, for now, I'll just say that Ideas Man, PhD and I may be embarking upon an adventure.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dr. J's Top Stories of 2009

What a long, strange trip it's been! It's almost time to bid adieu to the last year of the first decade of the new millineum. In case you weren't paying attention, here are a dozen of the highlights (and lowlights) of 2009:

12. Sarah Palin Goes "Rogue"
The Grand Dame of the Illiterati wrote a best-selling book. Well, okay, she didn't actually write it, but that's just the kind of Left Wing intellectualist criticism that she already expected you'd make. She's not conventional, y'know, so she has no patience for the inside-the-publishing-industry business-as-usual, what with all its non-populist rules like "if you put your name on the cover of a book, that means you wrote it." The people on Main Street don't care who wrote it; they only care who pulled her diesel-chugging tour bus up to their WalMart to sign it. So, you can just save all your snarky criticism and "trick" questions about it, because this rogue is not a quitter. She's a decisive leader, as she proved by resigning from her Governorship in Alaska. Nonreaders everywhere bought her book, which they won't read, as is their roguish way. The Cliff Notes version sums up Palin's Going Rogue in two words, both of which are numbers, 'cause that's mad unconventional: TWENTY. TWELVE.

11. United States elects 44th President. He's black.
January finally brought millions of Americans the change that they could believe in. After a loooooong campaign battle, President Barack Obama was sworn into office on the steps of a building once built by slaves. He was the very picture of the Statesman, delivering a stirring inaugural address that neither balked at all of the challenges before him nor relinquished his characteristic message of hope. So what if Chief Justice John Roberts screwed up the swearing-in a little bit... it's not like everybody wasn't happy to have Obama, right? It was a moving ceremony that I watched with my colleagues and students on a cold, snowy morning in Memphis. I will never forget where I was that day when I was, without comparison, the MOST proud to be an American.

10. Obama signs executive order to close Guantanamo Bay. Then, he doesn't close it.
Sigh. For many of us, this was the end of the post-election honeymoon phase. As one of his first acts in office, Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within the year was a sign of his decisive break with the Bush-era's utter disregard for human rights. But now that 2009 is almost over, it's looking more and more like that he won't make good on that promise. I suppose we should take some consolation in the fact that Obama hasn't let the issue completely disappear-- and it is true that he's had a lot on his plate this year-- but Gitmo is still open and operating. And it doesn't help his case that we still haven't seen those other torture photos that he blocked. That's NOT a change I can believe in. That's not even a change. For what it's worth, if you're looking for an issue to get behind, get behind this one. That place needs to close. I mean, yesterday. Sigh.

9. H1N1
Nations across the globe were reminded this year that the flu does, in fact, kill. A new strain of the flu virus, first dubbed "swine flu" and then correctly called H1N1, seemed to target the most vulnerable of our populations, like children, the elderly, and those with immune deficiencies. The CDC was effective in motivating our federal government to take the threat of an actual pandemic seriously, spurring on a nation-wide vaccination program that has been, for the most part, very effective in keeping the virus contained. Wait a minute. What's that I just said? The FEDERAL government was EFFECTIVE in managing a HEALTH crisis? In distributing MILLIONS of doses of vaccines FREE OF CHARGE to at-risk populations? In managing the dissemination of ACCURATE INFORMATION about prevention and treatment? We must be a bunch of pinko commies. Might as well go ahead and pass major health-care-reform legislation now.

8. Republicans can't keep it in their pants.
The "family values" party took a couple of major blows to its reputation this year with the very public shenanigans-airings of Governor Mark Sanford and Senator John Ensign. Sen. Ensign's story was pretty boilerplate: had an affair, apologized to his wife, apologized (again) to his Republican colleagues at the G.O.P. Senate Luncheon (the very same venue used by Sen. Larry Craig and Sen. David Vitter for very similar apologies), and, oh yeah, leaked his breakup letter (which includes an account of what God thinks about the whole affair). I bet Governor Sanford wishes his story were as vanilla as Ensign's... though Sanford's emails to his mistress were also leaked, so they do have something in common. But there's nothing else "common" about Sanford's story. He disappeared from work for several days-- normally not that big of a deal, unless you're the Governor!-- and lied about his absence by claiming to be hiking the Appalachian Trail. Sanford failed to mention that what he meant by "hiking the Appalachian Trail" was "sleeping with my mistress in Argentina." Extra "family values" bonus points go to Sanford, who scheduled his tête-à-tête on FATHER'S DAY weekend. Somebody needs to tell the G.O.P. that their barn door is open. Seriously.

7. A Pirate's life
In April, the U.S. Navy rescued the Captain of the Maersk Alabama who had been captured and was being held captive by Somali pirates. The story of that rescue was straight out of an adventure novel, but the really interesting part was... well, the fact that there are REAL PIRATES! As we came to learn during the Maersk Alabama debacle, piracy off the shores of the Somali coast has been a real threat to international shipping and trade since the beginning of the Somali Civil War in the early 1990's. Many of the pirates are young boys, but they're well-armed and have been very effective in their pursuits. Allegedly, Somali pirates are largely supported and funded by the Somali diaspora, and they have a reputation for being fairly humane. Their modus operandi is usually to take over a ship, hold it and its crew hostage, and demand a ransom. Hostages are usually treated well and the ships and cargo are almost always turned over unharmed upon receipt of the ransom, which is why the pirates are generally successful in having their demands met. The Maersk Alabama hijacking didn't end well for the pirates, however, as U.S. Navy snipers killed three, and one of them (19-yr-old Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse) was brought back to New York to stand trial. But for a few days in 2009, the news made it feel like 1809.

6. Hello, Dalai
I particularly love it when our weird local news goes national. So it was when the Dalai Lama's visited Memphis to receive the National Civil Rights Museum's Freedom Award in September. Memphis Mayor Pro Tem (the "Pro Tem" part is a whole other story) Myron Lowery greeted His Holiness by saying: "You say you've got a sense of humor. I've always wanted to say, 'Hello, Dalai'." Priceless. Then, as if that weren't enough, Mayor Lowery added "Here we also have a tradition," and proceeded to show the Lama how to fist-bump (pictured here). Even more priceless. You can watch the whole exchange here. Of course, Memphians were totally embarrassed, convinced that Mayor Lowery's greeting painted our fair city as provincial and backwards... but not me. I thought this was awesome. And, for the record, the Dalai Lama thought it was awesome, too.

5. People with crappy taste in music freak out about nothing.
Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video award at MTV's Video Music Awards show this year for her video "You Belong With Me." While Swift was onstage to accept the award, Kanye West came up, took the microphone from her, and declared that Beyonce's video "Single Ladies" was "the best video of ALL TIME." (The exchange looked like this.) Then, everyone freaked out, calling Kanye West an incorrigible bully, Taylor Swift a poor and vulnerable victim. So, let me set the record straight. First, Taylor Swift's song and video was FAR INFERIOR to Beyonce's, so at the very least Kanye West should be credited with speaking the truth. Second, Taylor Swift is not 5 years old, she wasn't actually harmed in any way whatsoever, and if she doesn't expect wild and crazy things to happen at the VMA's, then she knows absolutely nothing about the industry she is so regrettably dominating at the moment. Third, yes, okay, Kanye was being a little bit of a grandstander and a lot of an ass, but come on, that's what he does. (And nobody was complaining about his talents as a parrhesiastes when he mouthed-off about George W. Bush not caring about black people.) And finally... seriously, WHO CARES? With all of the other things going on in the country this year, I can't believe that this is the event that ignited the flames of people's moral ire. People, really, step back a moment and realize that this is about a MUSIC VIDEO AWARD. And while you're at it, people, go try to recalibrate your musical sensibilities, because Taylor. Swift. Sucks. I'm happy for you that you found some meaningless drivel to occupy you for a few weeks, and I'ma let you finish with your outrage and all, but this is the stupidest story of all time. OF ALL TIME!

And now we're getting down to it, folks. My top 3 stories of 2009. Drumroll, please...

3. Beer Summit
Okay, so let's imagine you're the first black President of the United States and you are forced to address the abiding issue of racial tension in your country. Let's imagine that the event that brought this to the fore is the arrest of a prominent black intellectual (let's say it's somebody like Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), who is apprehended on the suspicion that he is breaking into his own home no less. Let's also imagine that the arresting officer (say he's a Bostonian named James Crowley) was white and was accused of racial profiling. But just to spice it up a bit, let's imagine that said prominent black intellectual was a bit irascible and more than a bit non-cooperative with said white arresting officer, making judgment about the validity of the arrest more suspect. What to do? Well, if you're our eminently reasonable Commander-in-Chief, you say to yourself: "You know what we need to do here? We need to sit down, have a beer, and work this out. I'm sure it's all just a misunderstanding." What's the only thing that could make this story better? Why, it's the media's dubbing the event a "Beer Summit." Now, I was one of the first to complain, during the election season, of the endless dribble about judging our Presidential candidates on the basis of "who I'd like to have a beer with"... but, I'll admit, the Beer Summit between Obama, Gates, Crowley and Biden definitely made me reconsider the merits of that criterion. Let's not make a federal case out of this, people. Let's work it out like grown men. Men who drink beer. Too bad Taylor Swift's not old enough to avail herself of the same diplomatic resources.

2. King of Pop, Michael Jackson, dead at 50
Michael, we never knew you. It's really hard to underestimate what an enormous impact Michael Jackson's death had, and in so many different arenas. Of course, he was a musical legend, and we are all poorer for losing whatever future contributions he may have made to song and dance. But he was also a kind of limit-case by which to measure our tolerance for the unorthodox when it comes to race, to gender, to sexuality, to normality. His was a life that was so very enviable, and so very not so, at one and the same time. For peope of my generation, as for people older and (hopefully) younger, Michael Jackson was an integral part of growing up. His will always be the soundtrack of so many events in my life. When he died, I posted my reflections on him on this blog under the title "Human, All Too Human" -- and I still think that's the best descriptor for him. I'm sure that everyone says this of the icons and idols of their time, but I don't think there will ever be another Michael Jackson. Not even close.

1. Irony is lost on teabaggers everywhere
This was an eventful year, no doubt, but I have absolutely no reservations about placing teabaggers at the top of the list for 2009. Since this is also the end of the decade, I might even venture to give the teabaggers the top spot for the millenium so far. I mean, seriously, this story developed so quickly, and in such an magnificently awesome way, that it's hard for me to really believe that it was real. It went like this: in an attempt to resuscitate the revolutionary spirit of Bostonians circa 1773, FOXNews and the Republican Party called on their constituents to organize April 15th "Tea Parties" to protest President Obama's tax policies. They asked supporters to mail in tea bags to the White House as symbols of their libertarian disgust, motivating the adoption of slogans like "Tea Bag Obama" and "Tea Bag Liberal Democrats Before They Tea Bag You." What's the problem with that? Complete social retardation. I would like to keep this blog family-friendly (unlike G.O.P. teabaggers), so I won't spell out here the other not-obscure-at-all meaning of "teabagging." Rachel Maddow and crew had a heyday with this story, calling out the conservative rallies for their absolute insani-tea, but FOXNews just kept on keeping on with the story. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting where this idea was vetted! I mean, I'm sure the G.O.P. interns are all into their promise rings and their abstinence... but surely, SURELY, at least ONE of them had an inkling of the precipice over which they were about to mindlessly fling themselves. Or, maybe somebody just dropped the ball on this one. (Pun intended.) Either way, it seems as if the endless ridicule from the Left didn't faze teabaggers a bit, as the teabagging hits just keep on coming. (Again, pun intended.) But seriously, this is about policy, and the teabaggers have a mouthful of complaints for Obama (oh, I can't be stopped!) and they're not going to just take this ridicule lying down (it's too easy!), which is totally gay (it's like shooting fish in a barrel!)...

So, there it is. Another year bites the dust.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Listening While Grading

This following is the soundtrack of my life these days:

Ennio Morricone's The Mission: This is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. Quite simply, some of the most breathtakingly beautiful music ever composed. This album made me love the oboe. The emotional rise and fall of the compositions carries its listener from abject despair to rhapsodic joy... just like grading.

The Staple Singers' Stax Profiles: One of the best of the "best of" genre albums. The Staples believe in God, which means they also believe in sin, and their songs remind me that even the very best of us can be very bad, as the very worst of us can sometimes be very good... an insight confirmed by grading.

James Taylor's Mudslide Slim: This is the album that includes the song "Hey Mister, That's Me Upon The Jukebox"-- a kind of self-reflective, overly-indulgent-of-its-own-sadness, autobiographical song that somehow manages to utterly fuse the boundary between a story about myself and a story about something else. Sometimes that elision is pretentious and maddening, sometimes it's endearing and touching... just like in student papers I'm grading.

ABBA's Gold: Disco at its best. ABBA, like Michael Jackson, mastered "pop" music in the following way: they are able to take completely familiar and formulaic lyrics/tune combinations and, without the obvious addition of anything else, make them rise above their like. Sometimes the very best student papers do that as well... an insight gained through grading.

Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzanze: One of my favorite pieces of musical theater, The Pirates of Penzance is a story about the myriad adventures that ensue as the result of a simple, mundane misunderstanding. Frederick, the main character, was born on February 29 (in a leap year), but was contracted as an apprentice to a Pirate King until he turns 21. In the 21st year of his life, is Frederick really only 5 years old and, thus, still contractually bound to a life of piracy? Oh, the hilarity!... just like the kind that results from basic student misunderstandings, in papers that I grade.

Various Artists' No Depression: Anthology of alt-country music, inspired by the now-defunct music magazine entitled No Depression (itself named after The Carter Family's song). At exactly 73% through the stack of ungraded papers, I find that I am most in need of some promise of another life, another place, after all of this suffering and misery... the suffering and misery that is grading, that is.

Marvin Gaye's The Very Best of Marvin Gaye: What is the question that most consistently comes to dominate my consciousness about 8 pages through a 12 papge paper? Why, it's the one penned by Marvin Gaye: What's goin' on? What's goin' on? What's goin' on? What's going' on? ... and what is grading, after all, but the final determination of the answer to that question?

Lucinda Williams' Live @ the Filmore: Lucinda's voice, her songs, her je ne sais quois all combine to produce an aural phenomenon that can only be described as "rode hard and hung up wet." Hard drinkin', hard livin' and hard lovin' make for great music and an even greater, eminently acute insight into the human soul. What else does that?... grading.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Parable for "Glorious" Essay-Writers Everywhere

Whenever I'm grading papers at the end of the semester, there always comes a point when I am reminded of that peculiar conversation between Alice and Humpty Dumpty (from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass).

After noting that there are 364 days of the year that one can receive un-birthday presents, Humpty Dumpty says to Alice:

`And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'

`I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. `Of course you don't -- till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

`But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

`When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

`The question is,' said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

`The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master -- that's all.'

In deference to Humpty, I won't embark upon a long analysis here... except to note (for the benefit of essay writers everywhere) that, as Humpty points out, when "you make a word do a lot of work for you like that, you've got to pay it extra."

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best of Reality Television

It's no secret that one of my guilty pleasures is reality television. I was an early convert to this genre of entertainment, having come of age around the same time that MTV's groundbreaking series The Real World was in its prime. (The first season of that show was broadcast in my freshman year of college.) By the time the "vote-in contest" became the dominant form of reality tv, I was already hooked... and although I have only actually phoned-in to vote for someone a couple of times, I still regularly enjoy watching these little experiments in direct democracy. I know all of the criticims of reality tv, and I won't bother with a defense of my affection for it here. Instead, here's a list of the best reality shows on television, in my (expert) opinion:

(These are in no particular order.)

1. The Amazing Race (broadcast on CBS): Real contest show: no voting, no judges. Pairs of contestants race around the world, competing in physical and intellectual challenges and searching for clues to their next destination. As anyone who has ever taken a long trip with friends or family knows, the deadly combination of fatigue and disorientation that often accompanies long trips can be a real strain on relationships between fellow-travellers. So, imagine how much more strain is put on those relationships when there's no itinerary for the trip AND when there's a million dollars at stake. This is definitely one of my favorite reality shows, and I can honestly say that I've thought to myself, more than once, when measuring the strength of a friendship: "Could I go on The Amazing Race with this person?" If you can answer "yes" to that question, you've got a real friend, in my book.

2. Deadliest Catch (broadcast on Discovery Channel): Character-and-event-driven documentary show: no contests. Deadliest Catch follows several boat-crews fishing for king crab and Opilio crab in the Bering Sea. Before seeing this show for the first time, I had heard that crab-fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. After seeing the show, I know why. Miserable conditions, backbreaking labor, long hours, close quarters, more-than-a-little-odd co-workers, and the real threat of serious injury or death make crab-fishing seem like a truly Herculean task. So, why do they do it? Because crabs are the gold of the sea. If the crewmembers can survive the trip, they can make more money in a few weeks than most of us make in a year.

3. American Idol (broadcast on FOX): Contest show with judges and call-in voting, but America decides the winner. Over the years, I've lost a considerable amount of affection for this show as it's gotten more vanilla and the contestants have gotten more contrived, but back in the day, this was one of the best reality shows. The first few weeks of every season, when the judges are peeling through the hundreds of thousands of would-be singers trying out, is really the best part of the show. (Seriously, one of the most hilarious and wickedly enjoyable things to watch is a completely tone-deaf person who is entirely convinced that s/he can sing. That's also why I love karaoke, btw.) American Idol holds the distinction of setting the model for the "judges panel," with the brilliant-cum-ridiculous combination of Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul serving as the unrepeatable ideal. Though this isn't really the case anymore, the early seasons of American Idol were like watching a serialized version of the achievement of the American Dream. Young nobodys were plucked from obscurity on the basis of their God-given talent alone and delivered, all sparkly and shiny and new, to the world of fame and fortune.

4. So You Think You Can Dance (broadcast on FOX): Contest show with judges and call-in voting, but America decides the winner. Before watching this show, I couldn't have said anything intelligent about dance as an art form, but one of the greatest accomplishments of SYTYCD is its introduction of the complex and beautiful world of dance to the masses. Like American Idol, this show is really about "talent," and like Project Runway or Top Chef, it focuses on a talent that many of us enjoy but know very little about. The things that those dancers can do with their bodies! SYTYCD has the very best panel of judges on television, I think, and it's still new enough to have avoided compromising to its own image of itself just yet. Cocktail-Party-Conversation Bonus: I can now reference by name my favorite choreographers.

5. Top Chef (broadcast on Bravo): Contest show, final winner determined by panel of judges. Having spent many years of my own life in the restaurant industry (but always on the "service" side), I've certainly met my fair share of crazy chefs. I mean, seriously, cooks are C-R-A-Z-Y. The kitchen is like a whole alternate universe, and chefs are the brilliant, creative, tempermental, profane soveriegns of that world. Top Chef is another one of those shows that features a real human "talent" and instructs us in the minutiae of what distinguishes great chefs from good ones. Each episode features a "quickfire" challenge that should embarrass all of us who like to excuse the fact that we don't eat well by claiming there are restrictions on our budgets or supplies. Cooking shows are a real oddity, I think, since (obviously) the viewers are never able to actually taste the products by which contestants are being judged. But the food on this show is so freakin' pretty that it makes your mouth water...

6. Project Runway (broadcast on Bravo): Contest show, final winner determined by a panel of judges. Pretty much everything I said about Top Chef is true of Project Runway. I don't know anything about "fashion," and have been endlessly fascinated by the skill and imagination of the designers. Project Runway also has a great panel of judges, headed up by the drop-dead gorgeous Heidi Klum and her signature "auf Wiedersehen." Another one of the things that I kind of like about this show is that sometimes I am absolutely baffled by the designers that judges favor. (Remember Santino?) It was also Project Runway that first made me aware of the non-academic use of the word "deconstructed"-- which, as far as I can tell, pretty much just means "shredded and messy" in the fashion world. Of course, Project Runway greatest triumph is its introduction of the dapper dandy Tim Gunn, aka, the very Form of the gay uncle you wish you had.

7. Survivor (broadcast on CBS): Contest show, contestants vote each other off the show down to the final two, then a "jury" of voted-off contestants determines the winner. Like all reality shows, there are better and worse years of Survivor (which is now in its 20th season), but in its better years, I think Survivor is one of the best reality shows there is. The concept is this: strand 20 strangers in some remote location, strip them of all of their modern comforts, fuel the fires of their suspicion and self-interest, and see who can "outwit, outplay, outlast" the others. The show is like a combination of Lord of the Flies, the "state of nature," and junior high school. Like the Amazing Race, Survivor is probably one of the hardest shows on which to actually be a contestant, requiring tremendous physical, psychological and social strength. And Jeff Probst is easily the best host on television.

8. Real World/Road Rules Challenge (broadcast on MTV): Contest show, all contestants are former contestants or characters on either MTV's The Real World or Road Rules, winners are determined by actually winning. RW/RR-Challenge is, obviously, a "spin-off" show, and so all of the contestants on this show are veterans of reality television. They're young, they're beautiful, they're very often drunk or horny (or both), and they've got a LOT of unresolved history with one another. Although all of the shows in this list are guilty pleasures, this one is the one about which I feel the most guilt for my utter, unrestrained enjoyment of it. I suppose if I were forced to give a semi-legitimate defense of why someone should watch RW/RR-Challenge, it would be that-- despite all the other drama-- the contests and challenges in this show are really at the extreme of what human beings can accomplish phsyically and psychologically. So, there's that. But for anyone who was ever a fan of Real World or Road Rules and wondered what those people could have possibly done with themselves after having the most vulnerable young-adult months of their lives laid open and broadcast, well, here's what they do: they embed themselves in an utterly dysfunctional family of their kind and just try to hold on while the fame that only attaches itself to youth and beauty slowly, slowly slips away.

Runners-up to this list: Airline (Originally broadcast on A&E, but only ran for 3 seasons, ending in 2006. Documentary-style show following airport employees through a typical work day. Great tag line for the show: "We all have our baggage."), Punk'd (Originally broadcast on MTV. Ashton Kutcher does Candid Camera and coins American neologism.), Solitary (Broadcast on FOX. Contestants are kept in solitary confinement and presented with series of challenges. Person who doesn't go crazy wins.), America's Best Dance Crew (Broadcast on MTV. It's like SYTYCD, only contest is between "crews" of dancers instead of individual dancers.), The Joe Schmo Show (Broadcast on Spike-TV. Reality television goes "meta" on this spoof of a dating show in which an ordinary guy is convinced that he is participating on a "real" reality show... only he's "really" not. All the other people on the show are actors. Whoa, dude.), Laguna Beach /The Hills/The City (Broadcast on MTV. Trio of reality shows following obscenely wealthy and tragically beautiful young people in what they consider the "real world." Responsible for introducing the world to Heidi and Spencer Pratt, a violation for which I am sure someone will someday be prosecuted.) Wife Swap (Broadcast on ABC. One of ABC's few attempts at reality television, in which they undermine BOTH the institution of marraige AND family values, all in the name of reinforcing the same.)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Relative To What?

This will be brief, as I am now in the midst of grading, but I wanted to address AnPan's response to my response on the whole issue of (his) moral realism versus (my) moral relativism before too much time passed.

I think we may have the beginning of a rapprochement after reading AnPan's last rebuttal, indicated at least partially by the title that he chose for his post. AnPan asks "What are moral propositions about?", and he repeats his (now slightly modified) position that moral propositions are about the world. I agree with that, as I noted at length in my previous response. The problem I had with his earlier formulations was that AnPan seemed to be suggesting that moral propositions were not simply about the world, but were "realities" IN and OF the world, either "verified by the world or not." My point, with which I think AnPan agrees, is that moral propositions are "real" and are about "real" things (in the "real" world), but what we mean by "reality" in reference to a value is different than what we mean by "reality" in reference to a thing or event. For a variety of reasons-- most importantly, the dictates of Reason-- we attempt to align our evaluations of the world with the world itself, that is, to evaluate the world in such a way that seems to be consistent with the world's realities. We do this, I think, because morality is not an entirely solitary affair. (That view, again, is what I would call "lazy relativism," what AnPan calls "subjectivism," which I think is an entirely unreasonable position.) When we say something is "right" or "wrong," just like when we say something is "true" or "false," what we mean by that is that we are convinced that we can reasonably expect others to make the same evaluation given the same set of criteria for judging. If they do not, we are obligated to enter into a conversation with them in which we not only address what might be our differing perceptions/experiences of the "realities" that we are evaluating, but also in which we articulate and appeal to the context of rules and evaluations that seem to justify our judgments. Again, my main problem with AnPan's earlier formulation was that he seemed to be suggesting that the final arbiter in these disputes is the world itself, which is a problematic formulation in two ways, as I see it.

(1) First, judgments and evaluations require human reason, they are the operations of human reason, and "the world itself"-- although it may in fact really be "reasonable" (as Hegel suggests)-- does not itself reason. "Values" do not exist in that world. The world gives us things and events to value, but it does not give us values, especially not moral values. I agree with Hegel that if we want to see the world as reasonable, we must look reasonably upon it... and when we do not, we feel as if the world is frustrating us, though it is really the case that our own reason is frustrating us. I think when people use normative language and make normative propositions, they are implicitly claiming that they want to see the world as reasonable, as having reasons or lending itself to reasonable accounts, as appearing purposive. I also think that when people use normative language and make normative propositions, they implicitly expect that those norms apply to other reasonable people in the same way. The difference between saying "I like X" and saying "X is good" is that, in the latter formulation, I am claiming that X is good for you as well. If you don't think X is good, I think you owe me an explanation as to why. Maybe, in the course of that explanation, I will change my mind, or you will, and we will both come to agree that X is, in fact, good (or not). But the point I have been making all along, I think, is that what arbitrates that dispute is (hopefully) Reason and both of our reasonable accounts of the context and rules of meaning-making that we are applying to X. That is to say, X itself does not arbitrate. X itself is not "good" or "not good" independent of a context in which normative judgments are assigned, which is always first and foremost a human context. So, when AnPan asks if "[my] strong relativism is actually compatible with agent-neutral moral realism?", I would say, yes it is. It is compatible with agent-neutral moral realism... but not, and never, compatible with agency-neutral moral realism.

(1a) So, before I leave this first point, I have a little complaining to do. AnPan argues, near the end of his post, the following:

One possibility is that the ultimate non-agential limit of values and moral propositions is intersubjective. I originally thought I might be able to persuade Dr. J of this, though now I’m not sure: intersubjective verification requires only that our ‘moral games’ never conflict, such that, for instance, you’re never playing cops and robbers while I’m playing cowboys and indians, or better, that you’re never playing ‘imperial dominator and colonized native’ while I’m playing ‘aboriginal host and violently pushy guest.’... For clarity: Intersubjective Moral Non-Contradiction holds that A’s claim about what is right for B cannot be co-veridical with C’s contradictory claim about what is right for B.

So far, so good. I agree with all of that (except for the "not being able to persuade me" of it part!). In fact, I think I've been clear all along that what I think it means to say something is "right" or "true" and also to say that "the value 'X is right or true' is real" means that the claim is either intersubjectively verified or intersubjectively verifiable. If it isn't, on my account, then one is making a merely subjectivist (i.e. "lazy relativist") claim. But, despite all of my claims to the contrary, AnPan still insists on reading my position as a variant of individualistic subjectivism. He claims that I cannot be persuaded to adopt the minimum requirement of intersubjective moral non-contradiction (in order to ground a "realism" that is agent-neutral) because I said the following:

at the end of the day, all value-assgnments exist in a context, which means they can be decontextualized and recontextualized and are thus essentially relative to the contexts in which they belong. The context is what “justifies” or “verifies” the values, not the real world.

AnPan interprets that statement of mine to mean that I think each individual is justified in bringing her own individual context to bear on moral questions, that she alone can determine the context in which moral questions are addressed and answered. But to read my claim that way, I think, ignores almost everything else I've said about the difference between strong relativism and lazy relativism, and it ignores my repeated appeals to the individual-agent-neutral (but not agency-neutral) context of human freedom, autonomy and most importantly reason, which constitutes something like a "global context" or a "context for contexts" to which AnPan also appeals and which grounds rules like intersubjective moral non-contradiction. I just don't know how it is that AnPan continues to read so much voluntarism in my claims, save what I suspect might be his own prejudice against the very term "relativism." So, let me say AGAIN, that what AnPan is criticizing here is the very same thing I was criticizing as "lazy relativism," which amounts to something like a game without rules or, at least, a game in which everyone gets to make up their own rules... which is, I agree with AnPan, not a game at all.

(2) Second, my other main problem with the kind of "realism" that AnPan began with, which claimed that moral realities are "verified-or-not" by the world, is that I believe that view ultimately reduces moral judgment to a matter of calculation. And I (along with Derrida, with Kant, with most of the existentialists, and perhaps also with Arendt) don't think that ethics is merely a science of calculation. I think ethics requires judgment and decision, and that the weight that we assign to moral propositions is earned by the non-algorithmic determination of those judgments and decisions. At the end of the day, I think what worries AnPan the most is that my relativism doesn't allow me to say that someone is "wrong" about his or her moral propositions because I allow for the possibility that inasmuch as every proposition is relative to a context, it can be decontextualized and recontextualized. What I would say to assuage that concern is that not all value-contexts are equal. Some allow for much pressure and intervention, and consequently cannot sustain strong claims to the right or the true, or at least cannot portend to oblige others. But just as some contexts appear to human reason as defenseless and easily assailable (like those of taste or preference), other contexts present themselves to us as impregnable (like those of science, mathematics, or logic). I suspect that the context in which most moral judgments are made falls somewhere between the two. We aim as much as possible to incline our accounts of moral judgment towards impregnability, but I think we often find that they fall short, partly because those judgments are not calculable in the same way that logic and mathematics are. My worry about the way AnPan initially characterized what it means to be a moral "realist" is that it leaned too much toward "absolutism," even as he admitted his own fallibilism in relation to those absolute moral realities.

I believe that AnPan is a moral realist, and that he's not a moral absolutist. I think the problem all along here is that he has been contrasting my position to the former and not the latter, a project which I think led him to mischaracterize both my own position and his.

So, AnPan, we good?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Friendly Fire

The disagreement between AnPan and I that has been taking place on our blogs (here and here) has reminded me of why I feel fortunate to have good friends like him. As it just so happens, this also is the time in the semester (at my instiution) when most of the first-years are deep into Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and so are inclined to say more-insightful-than-usual things about friendship. And, of course, it's the holiday season, so filial good-will is both in the air and on the air in the form of a wide variety of commercial advertisements trying to sell products by association with things like friends. All that is to say, the pump is primed to say something about friendship...

In particular, I want to say something about the kinds of friendships that not only allow, but are made stronger by, disagreement. Of all my closest friends, I would say that it is true that our relationships permit fairly serious disagreement... and often. Of course, many of my closest friends are academics, philosophers no less, so many of those friendships were initiated by a shared love of ideas and the arguments upon which ideas are sharpened. I was having a conversation with one of my oldest and closest friends (Dr. Trott) a few weeks ago, and we were both genuinely perplexed by people who take disagreement to indicate some fundamental devaluation of the other person or, alternatively, people who take disagreement to be the expression of a fundamentally un-friendly disposition toward the other. Dr. Trott and I disagree about a lot of things, some of them quite important to one of us, but for as long as we've known each other, we've taken the fact that we can have it out about things that matter to us to be a sign of the health and strength of our friendship. In fact, I tend to be more unsure of friendships in which those kinds of arguments present "threats" to the relationship.

A lot of the arguments I've had with my friends over the last several years have taken place on this blog, so they're not secret. And they're not always nice, even. We can be snarky, we often play hardball, and we're not generally inclined to let go when the other cries "uncle." So, what is the tie that continues to bind in the midst of these fights? I suspect that it is something like a mutual respect for ideas and, by extension, for the kinds of people for whom ideas matter. Occasionally, I'm surprised to discover that the ideas and values that really matter to my friends are quite different from mine (as may or may not be the case in my recent dispute with AnPan), but the truth is, it's hardly ever the case that their ideas and values are so different that the difference comes to constitute a reason to dissolve the friendship. Does that mean that we aren't ever really disagreeing? I don't think so. Does it mean that our disagreements are ultimately about trivial, merely academic, differences? Perhaps, but it hardly ever feels like that.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that there are three kinds of friendship: (1) friendships based on utility (in which two people are friends with each other because each can be useful to the other in some way), (2) friendships based on mutual pleasure (in which two people are friends because of the good feeling each provides the other), and (3) friendships based on virtue or excellence (in which the friends view each other as possessing intrinsic, non-incidental goodness and, hence, both wish the good of the other for the other's sake and not for any lesser motive). The third kind of friendship is, not surprisingly, what Aristotle characterizes as "perfect" friendship and tends to be the most stable and true, but also the most rare. The first two relationships are easily dissolved, for example when a friend no longer seems to be useful or ceases causing one pleasure. But what conditions would have to be present to motivate the dissolution of the third type of friendship?

No disagreement or fight could itself constitute a justification to dissolve a true friendship. After all, one is not friends with "true" friends because it is useful to have people who agree with you, nor are we friends with "true" friends solely because of the pleasure that we experience in the absence of conflict. The only thing that could justify the dissolution of a true friendship, it seems, is something that would no doubt come as a complete surprise to one of the friends, namely, that the person one took as a "friend" is not the person one thought s/he was at all.

There are, no doubt, many times when I have suspected that my friends and I "neither approved of the same things nor delighted in and were pained by the same things." But, I suppose, whatever those things were never quite rose to the level of forcing my reconsideration of the kind of person they were. When I try to think about what kinds of disagreement might motivate such a reconsideration, I find that they're fairly extreme... like, for example, if I found out that one of my friends really believed that women or non-whites are essentially inferior in intellect or character. And I simply cannot imagine, for all our substantive disagreements, discovering that any of my friends think those kinds of things. I imagine it would be like discovering that your spouse/partner were being unfaithful. The real blow in that situation is not simply that the other person has wronged you, but that the entire relationship in which you were engaged with them was simply not what you thought it was.

On the contrary, almost all of the fights that I have with my "true" friends work to reinforce the idea that they are exactly the kinds of people I think they are: people who are committed to their ideas, convicted by their values, fearlessly engaged in the world and with the people that constitute our shared lives. It is because of that character that I find we are able, as Aristotle says, to "live together."

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Right, Real, True... and Other Relative Terms

Lest I get too comfortable with my tiny, marginally-significant place in the blogosphere, thinking that we're all friends here and readers of this blog are basically in agreement on the stuff that really matters, all of us interacting virtually in a kind of harmonious echo-chamber of progressive philosophical wonderment... yeah, lest I get too comfortable with that, er, unreality... AnPan has decided to disabuse me of my Pollyannaism by effectively handing me my ass in a (beautifully written and cleverly argued) rebuttal of my "Strong Relativism" post from some weeks ago. So, first things first, you should go read his piece entitled "Verifying Moral Realism" (it's really good) and you should also make a mental note that AnPan and I are friends (good friends) so this exchange is both welcome and productive.

Basically, the "disagreement" between AnPan and I (as he sees it) comes down to this: AnPan is a moral realist, and he worries that I'm not. He contends that being a "moral realist" means that "claims about [moral] values are agent-neutral"-- that is, not totally "subjective"-- but what he really means is that those agent-neutral moral realities can be tracked, tested, and verified or disproven by things/events/truths "out there" in the real world. Because he's also a fallibilist, he admits that he can be wrong about moral values, but what "being wrong" means for AnPan is that he has "tracked" his values erroneously, or that in drawing a correspondence between his values and things in the real world, he has chosen the wrong things (like, to use his example, tracking the "reality" of the impermissibility of murder to the "reality" of the `Sixth Commandment or the Virginia Criminal Code). AnPan suggests that we can most closely approximate the truth of moral values by "moving back and forth between cases and principles"... until, I am inferring from his argument, the "reality" of the principle can be verified by the reality of the cases that seem to support that principle.

That's how scientists do it, right? That's how the "reality" of things in the world are verified, by testing them, so why not verify the "reality" of moral principles and moral values the same way?

You see, according to AnPan, "principles" are as "real" as the "cases" that (allegedly) track those principles. According to AnPan, values are as real as-- and "real" in the same way as-- facts. He's a moral realist because he begins with this presumption: when we talk about moral values, we're talking about something that is not only agent-neutral but also really "out there," independent of agents' determinations. If AnPan and I are talking about the computer upon which I am typing right now, and neither of us are skeptics about the reality of the external world, then we both grant that the "reality" of the computer is not dependent on either of our speculations about it. It's either really there or it's not. If we have a disagreement about it's existence or it's properties, we can test our claims against something neutral to those claims and the agents that make those claims, i.e., the thing itself. For AnPan, as I read him, moral values are like the computer. And there is where we part ways...

Let me just jump ahead to what I see as our main point of disagreement, in hopes of slowly back-tracking from there to find its cause. Interestingly, I find this disagreement embedded in a sentence near the end of his post with which I mostly agree. AnPan writes:

If we take moral inquiry to be adequately addressed through an appeal to justified true beliefs accompanied by an account, then we can seek an account that would make sense of my claim or shows it to be nonsense while maintaining that our beliefs are about the world and either verified by it or not.

I, too, take moral inquiry to be (for the most part, adequately) addressed through appeals to "justified true beliefs accompanied by an account." I also agree that our moral values are about the world, though I might add "human" as a descriptor to "world," if only because those values are OUR values, and not "the world's" (but I'll come back to this later). And because I agree that our values are about the world, which has a reality to it that is entirely agent-neutral, I also agree that we should look to the world to help us formulate an account of our beliefs that make those beliefs make sense. My real problem with AnPan's definition of moral inquiry here is the last part, where he claims that our moral values, which are ABOUT the world (but not equivalent to the world) are "either verified by [the world] or not." If I am not a skeptic about the reality of the external world, then I can believe that my claims about the facts of that world are verified or not by that world. (Either the computer is there or it's not. Either the Earth is flat or it's not.) But surely we must allow that moral values aren't verifiable-or-not realities OF the world in the same way that objects or events are. That is, surely we must admit that VALUES ARE NOT THE SAME AS FACTS. AnPan's definition wants to conflate descriptive and prescriptive claims, positive and normative claims. Or, at the very least, he wants to make prescriptive and normative claims derivations of descriptive or positive claims. That's just wrong, in my view, and I don't think that my resistance to that conflation necessarily means that I don't think that moral values are "real."

Here's the thing: AnPan's definition claims that "moral inquiry is adequately addressed through an appeal to justified true beliefs" accompanied by an "account" of those beliefs." The "account" of those beliefs, as I understand it, is a justificatory account-- that is, it is an account of the framework of rules and principles that one takes to sufficiently constitute truth-claims about the subject under dispute. Some of those rules and principles will be things like the law of noncontradiction, which (I believe) human reason does not allow us to violate. But some of those rules and principles will be things like what constitutes the distinction between knowledge and belief, between fact and value, and what other (subset) of rules and principles must be applied to the one that may or may not be applied to the other. But here is where AnPan slips in a sneaky clause to his definition: he claims that the whole point of viewing moral inquiry as "an appeal to justified true beliefs accompanied by some [justificatory] account" is to seek a PARTICULAR kind of "account," namely, one that the whole while takes facts of the world to be justifications for the verity of our evaluations of those facts.

Let me back up a sec. I think that AnPan and I are in agreement inasmuch as we are both skeptical of absolutist claims to the Truth of moral values. He owns this skepticism by calling himself a fallibilist about moral realities, in the same way that he (reservedly) admits that it's possible that the reality of the external world itself may also be an illusion and he may in fact be a brain in a vat. As long as we're talking about the metaphysics of objects and events, I'm pretty much with him on that. I don't have any good reasons to believe that I'm a brain in a vat (though, of course, if I were, the scientist poking my brain in its jar would certainly be poking the parts that made me believe I had no such reason to suspect such poking were happening), just like I don't think I have any good reasons to believe that there are fairies or unicorns or aliens... though I certainly can admit of their strictly logical possibility. You know, compossible worlds and all that jazz. There are other things, though, of which I cannot admit even a logical possibility, like square circles or the possibility that 2+2=5. So, when it comes to the external world, there are all kinds of allowances for fallibility that I am obligated to make beyond what I might have good reasons to believe. When it comes to ideas, there are fewer, since human reason can only bend so much before it breaks. This is why I am inclined, generally, to tack the flexibility of what I can believe to be true or real about the world to the considerably-less-flexibility of what reason permits me to think, and not the reverse. (That's also my defense of my bias in favor of reasons and reason-giving, btw.) So, AnPan and I are in agreement on the fallibility part, even when it comes to moral values...

BUT I don't think that being "wrong" about facts is the same thing as being "wrong" about values. Because I am not a skeptic about the reality of the external world, I believe that I am justified in applying the basic rules of scientific discovery in my inquiries about the facts of the world. If AnPan and I are at our local thrift-store and we both find a vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt for sale, there are certain procedures that we might be able to follow to determine whether or not it is really a vintage Rolling Stones t-shirt. If it is, we may both agree that the $30 value that has been assigned to that shirt is a justified price. If it's a fake, we may both determine that it's value is much less, and we might only be willing to pay $5 for it. Clearly, what we're doing here is tracking our value assignments to facts that fit into an "account" of how value ought to be assigned to things (e.g., rare or old things are more valuable than easily acquirable copies of those things). But do I think that the value "$5" or "$30" really exists in the thing, in the same way as the thing really exists? No, I don't. I think the value is something that we add to the thing, and it doesn't exist independent of that assignment on the part of a meaning-making, value-creating being.

Because meaning-making, value-creating beings can and do disagree about meaning and values, I believe that the rightness or wrongness of value-assignments is always going to be relative to the justificatory account that makes sense of those assignements. Some accounts are going to more agent-neutral than others, though never entirely independent of human agency, and I am inclined to agree with AnPan that the more neutral an account is to individual agency, the more persuasive and powerful it is. And I am also inclined to agree with AnPan that the more moral values can be tacked to shared experiences and facts in the real world-- themselves subject to the kinds of verifications that science permits-- the more one is justified in claiming that those values are "true" (in the "intersubjectively verified" sense) than untrue. But at the end of the day, all value-assgnments exist in a context, which means they can be decontextualized and recontextualized and are thus essentially relative to the contexts in which they belong. The context is what "justifies" or "verifies" the values, not the real world.

Let me say, in conclusion, that I think AnPan's essay effectively took my "strong relativism" to be the same as what I described as "lazy relativism," namely, a variant of subjectivism. I don't think that moral values are justified solely by the subjective assertion of them. And I don't think that Aristotle and John Brown were both right about slavery, but I just do not know how one locates the rightness or wrongness of their positions out there in the "real" world. Sure, one must do so in reference to the real world, which is the millieu in which things and actions are valued, but that millieu is framed by and filtered through a context of reflection and understanding that has rules that are NOT determined by the world (like the rules of physics or mathematics are), but rather by us. So, do I think that we can say of some moral claims that they are "right" or "true"? Yes, but only if we also give a context in which the values "right" or "true" are articulated. Do I think that the moral values we hold are "real"? Absolutely, but not in the same way that I think my computer is "real."

I'm going to forgive AnPan for making a strawman of me, because he's a good friend and forgiveness is a moral value of mine. Hopefully, he'll be able to find something in the real world to which he can track and justify his appreciation of my magnanimity.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Philosophy, Done Another Way

As I mentioned a little while ago on this blog, I gave students in my Existentialism course this semester the option of making a short film for extra credit. The motivation for this was my frustration, in previous iterations of this course, with what I viewed as a deficiency on my part of adequately capturing the importance of the "aesthetic" (literature, art, theater and film) dimension of the Existentialist movement. I spend the better part of the semester in my course covering the major philosophical articulations of Existentialism as seen in the works of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty and many of the so-called "religious" Existentialists (like Frankl, Buber, Tillich, et al). Although we do cover thinkers like Dostoevsky, Camus, Beckett and Kafka, time restrictions limit us to only reading selections of their work, which means that the project of considering what might be unique in the literary expressions of Existentialism qua literature gets subordinated to the philosophical interpretation of those literary pieces. I am convinced that the authors, playwrights, artists and filmmakers who are counted as "Existentialist" are also doing existentialism-- whatever that means, but I think it in part means that they are doing philosophy-- though I find it hard to capture exactly what it means to "do philosophy" otherwise, so to speak.

Anyone familiar with the Existentialst movement in philosophy is aware that there is a kind of leitmotif animating all of those texts that seems to suggest that there is something about human existence that escapes our powers of "explanation" and must be, consequently, "shown"... in a real life, in a character, in a situation, in an image, in an anecdote, in something other than an argument. So, in this project, I wanted to give students the opportunity to access that other mode of expression in order to demonstrate their understanding of Existentialism.

The films are starting to come in now, and I am very impressed. If you're interested, you can view them as they arrive over on the Existentialism blog here. Given the restrictions that the students were working under-- a film no longer than 6 minutes-- I think they've done quite good work so far.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Heidegger, We Hardly Knew Ya...

The brainy parts of the internet are all a-buzz recently about philosopher Martin Heidegger and his student Hannah Arendt, largely as a result of the publication of a series of provoctaive reviews of Emmanuel Faye's provocatively titled book Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism into Philosophy. The most provocative of those reviews was an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Carlin Romano entitled "Heil Heidegger!", which seems to have hit the kind of nerve that divides otherwise polite communities into viciously territorial factions.

Full disclosure: I don't really have a dog in this fight. I have my own, strictly philosophical, reasons for not being a huge fan of Heidegger or Arendt, but it would be utterly dishonest of me to say that the influence of both of their work on my own is not profound. And, independent of my own particular judgments of the merits and demerits of their work (or their politics), I am obligated to acknowledge their enormous importance to 20th C. philosophy as it emerged in the European tradition.

So, I'm going to pass the buck here to two of my fellow-bloggers, Dr. Trott and Anotherpanacea, both of whom have entered the would-the-"real"-Heidegger-please-stand-up?-fray with their own careful critiques. Take a look at Dr. Trott's post "Out-Fascioning the Fascists or Critiquing Heidegger and Arendt," which argues that the anti-Heidegger vitriol may in fact be nothing more than pedestrian unthinking (perhaps banal evil?) covered over with the veneer of righteous indignation. And from AnPan, there is "The Dasein/Non-Dasein Problem" (which tries to pinpoint exactly why Herr Doktor may be "overrated") and "Heidegger and Nazism" (which attempts to situate the value of Heidegger's apologists by taking Faye's criticisms seriously). Kudos to both Dr. Trott and AnPan, both great thinkers and careful scholars.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"This Country Was Not Built By Men in Suits." (So Say the Men in Suits)

I've been fascinated recently by the obvious change in tone of many television commercials. We're in an economic downturn, in case you hadn't heard, and so many of the major ad-men seem to have been forced to acquiesce to the hard fact of hard times. There's a lot more emphasis on product "affordability," a lot more recognition of the importance of financial "responsibility," a lot more deference to the reality that consumers' lives may not be all about "consuming." It must be really hard to sell, sell, sell these days without apprearing grossly insensitive to the hardships of Jane and Joe Mainstreet, but no ad-man worth his salt is going to go down with the ship. The challenge is to find a way to make buying "good" again... and there's no better way to do that than to make buying "American" again. What's more quintessentially American than consumerism?

Why, blue jeans, of course.

You've probably all seen this new commercial for Levi's jeans, which features a voiceover by poet Walt Whitman reading from his work, "America (Go Forth)" :

I was really torn about whether or not to like this ad when I first saw it. It's beautifully shot, and the scratchy, wax-cylinder voiceover by Whitman practically sings itself "authentic." After a little research, I discovered it was directed by Cary Fukunaga, who filmed the spot in New Orleans. The opening shot, which features a blinking neon "America" sign half-submerged in black water, is an obvious homage to New Orleans, and provocatively sets the mise en scene squarely in the center of that "other" America. The forgotten, world-worn, disenfranchised, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet America. And what is the message to this America? Whitman's words: "Go forth." This is the place of "equal daughters, equal sons," all hard-scrabbled, all blood and sweat and love, all irrepressible, all underdogs, all "alike endear'd." Go forth.

Go forth and buy jeans, that is. Maybe I'm too cynical, maybe a bit too attached to an utterly unrealizable notion of "authenticity," but there's a part of me that can't help but cringe at the subtle exploitation of Whitman, of New Orleans, of the blood and sweat and love of that "other" America. Even still, after seeing this commercial over and over again, I was slowly able to let go of that cynicism. So what if it's an ad? It's aesthetic excellence, I told myself. And it says something I believe.

Then, there came this second iteration of the Whitman/Levi's combo, based on Whitman's poem "O Pioneers! O Pioneers!" :

I wish I could say that the reason I don't like this second installment is because it is somehow unfaithful to Whitman himself... but, of course, the Whitman of "America (Go Forth)" is also the Whitman of "Prayer of Columbus" and "Song of the Broad-Axe." Whitman was both an incorrigible self-promoter, singing songs of himself, and an almost-unrivalled seer of communal possiblity, singing songs of tout autre. He was a man who pushed the boundaries of sexual convention while at the same time championing the most conventional of spiritual virtues (faith, hope, love). He was a man of contradictions, each beautiful and maddening and strange, just like the American pioneers that he charges with going forth.

So, I blame Levi's for what I see as the failure of their second ad, which is too Lord of the Flies, too pugilistic, even militaristic, too Occidental, too in thrall with victory, with closing the deal. It's too much "Star Spangled Banner" and too little "America the Beautiful." It's too much an America built by people in blue jeans, but who are themselves puppeteered by men in suits. It's too much an advertisement for a promise on which it likely cannot make good, rather than an advertisement for an open (but not empty) promise of something unanticipatable, unpredictable, something truly hopeful and, thus, truly democratic. Something to come.

I prefer the America that safeguards the promise of going forth, of pioneering, without requiring the pretense of being a pioneer.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Strong Relativism

After posting my bit on lazy relativism yesterday, my good friend and colleague, economist Prof. Art Carden (who also blogs regularly over at Division of Labour), sent me the following email:
I really, really enjoyed your post on "lazy relativism" and have a suggestion for a followup that would help non-experts like myself: what's "non-lazy relativism?
Excellent question. I think the best place to start might be in identifying the kinds of positions to which relativism, generally speaking, is opposed. There are many variants of philosophical relativism-- moral, cultural, epistemological, aesthetic, methodological-- but what they hold in common as a principle is that some statements of value or truth are conditioned ("relative") in the sense that they are dependent upon other elements, aspects, paradigms or contexts of meaning that consitute the basic struts and girders of our belief/knowledge. This is opposed to absolutism (which holds that value and truth claims are "absolute," i.e. timeless and unchanging), universalism (closely related to absolutism, and which holds that facts can be discovered objectively and thus apply universally), or objectivism (also closely related to absolutism and universalism, and which holds that "reality" exists independent of human consciousness and can be known objectively). Not to overcomplicate things here, but it is possible to be an absolutist, objectivist or universalist about some things (like physical laws or mathematics) and a relativist about other things (like morality). Most philosophers grant a qualitiative distinction between what we call "facts" and what we call "values," and perhaps the biggest disagreement between relativists and their philosophical opponents is that the latter treat "values" as having the same form and force as "facts."

To simplify things, I'm going to talk about ethical relativism, since that is the area in which there is the least disagreement about whether the subject of our inquiries are "facts" or "values." Relativists hold that particular moral values are always, in some way, determined by broader evaulations of what we consider to be "the Good" and, further, that "the Good" is not an absolute "fact" that can be universally or objectively known. This is why we have conflicts about moral values-- because we have different conceptions of what is Good and different understandings about how it is best achieved-- and those evaluations, according to relativists, are deeply embedded in a framework of all kinds of other philosophical commitments (metaphysical, epistemological, aesthetic, social and political). So, for relativists, our moral values are dependent upon a larger paradigm of belief (and what we believe to be "facts") that justifies values and gives them sense. If you take one of those values out of its framework, then you will likely find that it's truth-value changes, which proves (at the very least) that that particular value is relative to the evaluative system in which it belongs.

An example: if I hold the general moral value that human life is sacred or has some essential, intrinsic and undeniable worth, then I may also hold the particular moral value that the death penalty or (depending on when I think human "life" begins) abortion is wrong. If you do not share my more generic evaluation, then it is very possible that you will come to different conclusions about the more particular moral issues of abortion or the death penalty. Assuming that we both believe our positions to be "true" and that our positions are mutually exclusive (and, of course, that something cannot be simultaneously true and untrue), then one of us has some explaining to do. The person who I call the "lazy relativist" will, in this situation, simply ignore the conflict and pretend as if it isn't really a conflict. He or she will say: "well, what's true for you is true for you, and what's true for me is true for me. It's all relative, man." (Whenever I speak in my "lazy relativist" voice, it always sounds like a burnt-out, stoner, surfer-dude. For the full effect, I suggest my readers adopt the same character when reading.) The problem here is that no one can rationally hold that position. If I say 2+2=4 and you say 2+2=5, we can't just shake hands, grant the relative truth of the other's claim, and then pass the pipe. It matters that one of them is true and the other isn't. Otherwise, how can we know if we've been given correct change? (That was for you, Art!)

Non-relativists will always have a stronger case when they come into conflict with lazy relativists because non-relativists can appeal to some absolute, universal, or objective authority to justify their values and explain the process of evaluation that led to those judgments. Maybe that authority is God's revelation (as is the case with Augustine or many Natural Law theorists), maybe the authority is dictated by Reason (as is the case with Kantian deontology) or maybe it's some other reasonable method of caluculating the Good (as is the case with utilitarians), but whatever it is, non-relativists are able to account for the authority they are lending to values they claim to be true. So, the challenge to relativists is two-fold: (1) they must account for why the proposed authority (God, Reason, science, whatever) is not an absolute, universal or objective authority for determining values, and (2) they must account for how, in the absence of a an absolute, universal or objective authority, they are making the value judgments they are making. "Lazy" relativists will sometimes (weakly) meet the first challenge, but will almost always balk at the second.

But if one can't meet the second challenge, then one is resigned to ceding a profound, disturbing and ultimately paralyzing meaninglessness to the world. If you are inclined to be skeptical of absolute claims to truth-- especially moral truths, which admit of so much reasonable conflict-- then you've got more work to do than the non-relativist. You cannot reasonably claim that mutually exclusive propositions are both true. No one can. (Except lazy relativists.) Pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty sums this problem up nicely in his essay "Pragmatism, Relativism and Irrationalism" when he writes:
[What people call] "relativism" is the view that every belief on a certain topic, or perhaps about any topic, is as good as every other. No one holds this view. Except for the occasional cooperative freshman, one cannot find anybody who says that two incompatible opinions on an important topic are equally good. The philosophers who get called 'relativists' are those who say that the grounds for choosing between such opinions are less algorithmic than had been thought.
That last characterization by Rorty-- that relativists claim "the grounds for choosing between [values] are less algorithmic than [the non-relativist] thought"-- is the the first step towards what I would call a "strong" or philosophically robust relativism. The most important consequence of philosophical relativism, and the one entirely missed by lazy relativists, is that the rejection of absolute, universal or objective authorities does not absolve one of responsibility for justifying beliefs, but rather exponentially increases that responsibility.

If I deny that there are "absolute" moral values, or that we have some revealed or reasonable access to them, then I am now the ONLY one responsible for giving an account of why I believe x instead of y. It means, among other things, that I understand the activity of moral evaluation to be the activity of free beings, that is, beings who (unlike objects) are not primarily governed by necessity... therefore are not obligated by necessity to hold whatever values they hold... therefore must take responsibility for their free choice to take up certain values and not others. I don't think that I "freely choose" to think that 2+2=4 because I believe that mathematical facts are not values; they're qualitatively different than moral judgments inasmuch as they are necessarily governed by what I accept to be absolute, universal and objective laws. Consequently, the conflict that I experience with someone who claims that 2+2=5 is different than the conflict I experience with someone who claims that abortion is right (or wrong). As a relativist about moral truths, I deny the authority and the necessity of my antagonist's moral truths, and I ought to be able to give an account of how I arrived at my values judgments independent of such authority or necessity.

If I can give such an account, then the advantage has shifted. Whereas the lazy relativist leaves him- or herself vulnerable to the charge of being simply irrational (i.e., holding that mutually exclusive propositions are equally true), the strong relativist who can give an account of his or her beliefs and take ultimate responsibility for the judgments that constitute his or her values is now able to make different demands of his or her antagonist. Now, the non-relativist must justify the grounds of an aboslutist moral system to someone who does not accept the authority of those grounds. If your moral truths are grounded in God's revelation, and I don't believe in God (or don't believe God said what you say God said), then the burden of proof is on your shoulders now. Similarly, if you claim that your moral values are authorized by the proper exercise of Reason or utilitarian calculation, and I can reasonably account for my arrival at opposite values, then you either have to account for your understanding of what Reason dictates or you have to demonstrate to me (in terms that I can agree to) how I am not being reasonable. The point is that the strong relativist doesn't leave him- or herself an "escape" route; he or she cannot get out of a tight spot in a conflict of values by displacing responsibility to something or Someone other than what is acceptable to all parties in the conflict.

Obviously, not all conflicts of values when it comes to moral or ethical issues are resolvable. But, at the very least, the strong relativist has a way to account for why there are conflicts in the first place, and the strong relativist is also predisposed, philosophically, to understanding what he or she is capable of doing to amend, assuage or at the very least engage in meaningful conversations about those conflicts. The absolutist can only ever understand his or her antagonists as in error, and has the unfortunate superadded challenge of not being able to correct that error because the basic rules governing the distcintion between truth and error are not shared. The "lazy" relativist, on the other hand, can account for the conflict and can acknowledge the absence of a common ground for adjudicating that conflict, but lacks the courage of his or her convictions that might either motivate the search for a mutually acceptable discursive ground or motivate a "strong" rejection of that commonality and a corresponding account of a replacement paradigm for which one takes ultimate responsibility.

In sum, strong relativists take human freedom seriously... especially the human freedom exercised in the determination of values, those things that are not governed by necessity or given over to us whole and complete by some transcendent or transcendental authority. Those determinations are the only ones for which we can be "responsible" or "accountable" or any other ethically-loaded adjective that we commonly use, after all.

As far as I'm concerned, this is Philosophy 101: It ain't easy being free.