Friday, July 31, 2015

Reading Coates, Part 1: WPRs, Westgate and Weak Atheism

I organized a reading/discussion group for Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me a few weeks ago and thought I'd post a few thoughts here as we go along.  By way of context, I'll note that our group is small (8-10 people) and we're a mixed bunch of (mostly, but not exclusively) academics-- from Philosophy, History, Africana Studies, Literature and Languages, Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies (or, for several of our members, some combination of the above).  We've planned three meetings, one for each of the three sections of the book.  Our first session was last Monday, and our next one is next Monday.

I'm writing this now only a couple of days after our first meeting, so what follows is going to be a loosely-organized and largely incomplete series of general thoughts/impressions.  They should not be taken to represent any other member of the group.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Men, Women, Gods and Machines: A Super-Generous Reading of Ex Machina

Over the last several years, I've steadily increased the amount of time I spend in my moral and political philosophy courses on the theme of "digital identity." I've done so in part because one important cornerstone of my pedagogical practice is to use my courses to combat digital illiteracy-- the single greatest vulnerability that will be visited upon students who graduate without addressing it-- and so spending more time with texts and questions that provide students with a richer understanding of digital identity is eminently prudential.  As with most philosophical themes that engage the oft-volatile combination of mind and metaphysics, questions surrounding digital identity have a tendency to very quickly overflow their sub-disciplinary container and seep out into theoretically-proximate areas, inevitably contaminating and reconfiguring elements of our ethical and political sensibilities as well. I find that students these days are deeply, sometimes passionately, concerned with the construction, maintenance and (especially) surveillance of their digital identities, though they are hardly reflective enough about how that construction, maintenance and surveillance shapes their lives in what sometimes gets called meatspace, i.e., the "real" flesh-and-blood world. In principle, I think that philosophy students ought to spend serious time and effort reflecting on identity and, as I've discussed here before, "real" and/or "true" identities (and identity-categories) in the 21st century are every bit as much digital as they are moral, social, political or material.

I suspect it will come as no surprise, then, that discussion of things like social media, artificial intelligence and humanoid robotics research frequently make their way into my course content. Recently, while prepping for my upcoming Philosophy and Film course next semester, I decided to watch Ex Machina, the most recent film from sci-fi novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland (The Beach, 28 Days Later, Sunshine). The title of the film is a play on the Latin (from Greek) calque deus ex machina ("god from the machine"), originally referring to the practice in ancient Athenian theater of literally hoisting an actor on stage with a crane (machine) and plopping him down in the story to resolve (as if by God) some conflict. Since, the phrase has come to refer more generally to dramatic and literary plot devices that effectively accomplish the same, introducing some super-natural agent into the human drama.  In Garland's film, however, it is not a god that is made manifest and operational "from the machine," but rather a human being, which is not only a far more realizable possibility given technological advances these days but also a possibility of far greater concern.

Monday, July 13, 2015

How To Score An Academic Meeting

I do not, in principle, hate academic faculty or departmental meetings. In fact, as someone who (many of my friends have rightly dubbed) a "certifiably pathological proceduralist"-- no kidding, I would voluntarily stand out on the corner and pass out Roberts Rules of Order like evangelists pass out Bible tracts-- I genuinely (ahem, naively) look forward to meetings as an opportunity to get things done, with everyone present and voting in a rule-governed milieu, as opposed to the oft-opted-for alternative, i.e., cloak-and-dagger and/or passive-aggressive strategery. Seriously, give me a corner to evangelize RIGHT NOW, and I will CHANGE THE ACADEMY FOREVER.

That said, for many academics, myself included, there's nothing worse than bad meetings.

Let me just go ahead and concede the #firstworldproblems objection to my moaning in what follows. You're right. Suffering through a "bad" academic meeting, even the worst academic meeting, is not by any stretch of the imagination "real" suffering. It's not starvation, it's not incarceration, it's not abject poverty, it's not torture.

Correction: it may, in fact, be a legit kind of torture,