Saturday, August 29, 2015

TEDxMemphis Recap

I just got home from a whole day at the first ever TEDxMemphis event-- I say "first" because it looks like plans are already in the works for another one next year (THIS MUST HAPPEN!)-- and I cannot possibly exaggerate what an amazing, informative, inspirational and motivational event it was.  Especially for this city, my city, Memphis, which I love with a passion equal to the love I feel for Philosophy and my own family (not necessarily in that order) and a city which is nothing if not a petri dish chock-full of perfectly-ripe organic culture for growing the completely idiosyncratic and unlikely awesomeness that is, well, #MAF.

First, let me tip ALL MY HATS to the TEDxMemphis team, who did a masterful job of planning and organizing. (Also, thanks y'all for the dope swag-bag!)  Second, I also should note that the $75 ticket price was an unfortunately steep one, likely prohibitive for many people who might have had a lot to contribute and/or gain from an event like this.  I hope, next year, that some effort is made to  fix that.

There were a lot of things shared in today's event that will stick with me for a long while, that I will think about for an even longer while and that will doubtlessly change the way I prioritize my civic, moral and pedagogical/professional commitments over the next year. I was really encouraged to see so many current (Christian Brothers University) students and former (Rhodes College) students in attendance, which gives me hope and confidence that all the scary talk about #901braindrain is overinflated.  There were no vacant seats as far as I could tell in any of the TEDxMemphis sessions today, so for those of you who didn't or couldn't make it, what follows are some highlights (not exhaustiive, not in order of importance or significance, nor in order of presentation, just fyi):

First, from Robert Carter (CIO of FedEx), whose talk was entitled "Connectedness: A Tale of Two Networks." Carter's talk focused on physical, digital and social connections as the fundamental elements of what he called "a thriving population."  The one factoid Carter shared that quite literally stunned me was that nearly a third (32%) of Memphians have NO access to the Internet either at work or at home. This is unconscionable.  Also easily and inexpensively fixable.  I have written a lot on the blog about the "digital divide" and my personal commitment to making "digital literacy" a core component of all of my courses.  Carter's talk has inspired me to make a person pledge to find every possible way I can to diminish our local digital divide in the coming year.  There were a lot of structural inequalities addressed today that need immediate attention-- access to healthy food, medical care, quality education, appropriate remuneration for artistic work-- but (as I frequently tell my students) one can't fix everything, so one must pick the battles you can/want to fight and then FIGHT HARD THERE.  This is where I'm directing my fight in the immediate future.

Melissa Anderson Sweazy-- writer, filmmaker and mother-- ABSOLUTELY KILLED IT in her talk entitled "If You Love Them, Let Them Go: A Hypocrite's Guide To Free-Range Parenting.=," a talk which, if it were not so mind-blowingly awesome, I would have otherwise checked-out of in the first three minutes.  (I should note here by way of explanation that I am not now, and never will be or want to be, a mother.  But I am an educator, so my default-- ahem, enforced-- in loco parentis role with regard to young people made me especially sympathetic to Sweazy's talk.)  Most arresting was her report of the following comparison: in 1915, an average 8-year-old had roughly 6 miles to roam unsupervised.  In 2015, the distance an average 8-year-old roams unsupervised has been reduced to 300 yards. Here's the thing: kids (and grown ppl) NEED ACTUAL SPACE to feel their freedom, to test its limits, to make the sorts of mistakes that permit them to know their freedom is real. Helicopter parents gotta back off, srsly,right now and post haste. As a professor, I'm pledging to do the same. If we're really concerned about young people's safety, let's work on the world itself, not on further drawing in the walls that restrict young people's experience of their agency and independence.

Marco PavĂ©-- rapper, activist, educator (and friend)-- straight-up lowered the BOOM on Memphis' inexcusable inattention to the seriousness of artists and artwork in his talk entitled "Art Entrepreneurship: From Hobbyist to Lobbyist."  There's really too much good to choose from in Marco's sesh, but what really made me sit up and want to shout was when he said "Artists belong in the same conversations as doctors, lawyers and engineers,"  YES. TO. ALL. OF. THAT.  Sometimes, the simplest truths are also the truest truths.  As Marco said in his talk, when we expect artists to show up and play for free, we're basically expecting them to show up and play the fool.  I've made arguments many, many times before on this blog that Memphis city government and Memphians themselves need to quit playing that game like the day before yesterday.  (See here, and here, and hell I even made the documentary film WORKING IN MEMPHIS about it!)  Marco isn't just preaching, though, he's out there hustling and grinding and, most importantly, EDUCATING ARTISTS about their worth and giving them the tools to insist on that worth being respected.  Respected with $$, which is no small measure of respect if you want to pay the MLGW bill, after all.

Kimbal Musk (philanthropist, chef & co-founder of The Kitchen, and recent multi-investor in Memphis) gave a talk entitled "Fertile Ground: Why Food Is The New Internet." Before I sing the praises of his talk, let me first accord Musk the BIG UPS he deserves for his statement, "Obesity is not a barbecue problem," which earned the second-largest applause of the day: (Musk's point was that obesity is largely a phenomenon of the last 30yrs, when we have collectively opted for and consumed industrial food, which Musk describes as "food that makes us both fat and hungry." Memphis has been famous for, and consuming, barbecue for waaayyyy longer than that, ergo, obesity is NOT a "barbecue problem.")  I'm not dispositionally inclined to invest my civic capital in food issues-- not because I don't think they are important issues, but only because (as I noted above) we only have so much capital/interest/energy to invest and food issues are not high on my personal priority list.  That notwithstanding, Musk's basic argument, which was more or less that "real food" is the new Internet, was truly compelling.  And so, as someone fundamentally invested in assuaging the sorts of self-perpetuating structural inequalities that are made real by the digital divide, I found myself unexpectedly swayed by Musk's argument that I really ought pay more attention to the way that fundamentally existential matters (like how and what we have access to eat) are more or less isomorphic with other sociopolitically-determined access issues. In the end, I'm a broke-ass academic, so I can't "invest" or capitalize on the "real food" movement as Musk encouraged... but, hey, I have a captive audience of students whose future earnings will FAR exceed mine, so best to point them in the right direction.  Thanks for  heads-up, Musk.

My first thought, like within less than 3 minutes of Jason Wexler's (COO of the Memphis Grizzlies) TEDxMemphis sesh ("The Social Value of a Sports Franchise") was OMG HOW AM I NOT FRIENDS WITH THIS GUY ALREADY?! Jason's talk executed exactly the right balance between what I sometimes call "big-data-philia" (which I find pathologically reductive and fatuous) and data-driven socio-cultural analysis (which I find tends toward the uncritical and vacuous).  Jason's argument was that "social value" can be measured, specifically by collecting relevant data on the measurable phenomena that make "social connections" valuable and visible.  Fwiw, if I dialed this talk up on my Cable TV Guide, there is exactly zero chance I would have tuned in.  But Wexler  SOLD ME in a way that was not only intellectually rigorous, but also scientifically persuasive and socio-politically compelling.  Perhaps the two most convincing elements of his analyses were (1) the demonstrably isomorphic relationship between Gizzlies' "fan base" and the racial demographic of Memphis and (2) the demonstration that (1) was in part effected by the fact that the Grizzlies' ticket price is one of the most affordable in professional sports.  That is to say, Wexler (and the Grizz organization) is clearly utilizing big-data analyses to maximize not only their surplus value but also their social value. To which I say, #GNG #GoGrizz.

Last but not least, HUGE shout-out to my former colleague at Rhodes College, Loretta Jackson-Hayes--chemist, tireless advocate of the liberal arts and all-around BAMF-- for her talk entitled "STEM Education da Vinci Style."  Loretta is the science colleague that every Humanities faculty dreams about, who understands (as she argued in her TEDxMemphis talk "STEM Education da Vinci Stlye" but also previously in the Washington Post) that current trends in higher education are not only doing a gross inservice to students, but to all the rest of us as well, when it insists on a stark distinction between the goals of so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) educational aims and the goals of more broadly considered "liberal arts" educational aims.  Let me be the first and loudest to say THANK GOD (OR WHATEVS) FOR PEOPLE LIKE LORETTA JACKSON-HAYES.  I was lucky enough, while I was still teaching at Rhodes College, to share students with her and I know that the values she espoused today in her TEDxMemphis talk are easily discernible in and pasionately endorsed by her students.  (There is no better measure of a professor's effective influence, imho, than the critical, reflective and, most importantly, voluntary  adoption of his or her principles in the lives and behaviors of his or her students.)  In my imaginary dream world, all STEM educators are like Loretta Jackson-Hayes.  Also, would that it were so.

For the record, there were SO MANY amazing talks and moments today that are not included in these highlights,  I live-tweeted almost the whole day (from Lt.Col. John S. Jackson forward) so if you're interested you can check that out by following me @DrLeighMJohnson.

I'm not including my detailed estimations of what I considered the "lowlights" of today's TEDxMemphis, though I think there were several.  On the whole, it was such a magnificent event.

Okay, but here's one small snark bc I can't help myself.  Cliff Goldmacher, seriously?  Not only NOT a Memphian, but not even a good songwriter, as far as I could tell from the milquetoast blah he served up for a Memphis audience whose ears are trained to hear songs as sonic iterations of real life itself and not, ahem, TaylorSwift-iterations of real people's lives.

No disrespect intended toward any working musician, really, but living and working as a musician in Memphis bears NO RESEMBLANCE WHATSOEVER to Goldmacher's sesh as far as I can tell. And I know a few Memphis musicians.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Reading Coates, Part 2: the Dream, the Body and the Blame

This is the second installment of my Reading Coates posts, offering some reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me in light of our summer reading group's discussion of the same.  You can read Part 1 here.

Before I jump right into Chapter 2, I want to take a moment to comment upon what I suspect is a common experience among people who participate in reading groups, namely, that the quality of discussions in a reading group tends to increase exponentially with each session after the first.  (There should be a law that states this.  Is there a law?  If not, I want to claim it as Johnson's Law.)  Often, I think this phenomenon is a consequence of the inevitable dropping-out of members after the first reading group session, such that the second and following sessions are always better since those who do not have the time or interest to commit themselves to it have been culled.  More often, though, I think the discussions get better because (1) you begin reading the text with your group's discussants in mind and (2) by the second session, you have a significantly better understanding of what will make for a productive conversation with those specific people.  Anyway, Johnson's Law held true once again for our group's second meeting yesterday and I was still mulling over our conversation late into the evening last night.

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 Machinathe 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,

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 30: A Song You Discovered This Month (During The Challenge)

They say all good things must come to an end, and since today is the last day of June, it's time to put the finishing touch on this year's 30 Day Song Challenge. If you're interested in going back to check out my previous picks, I've collected them all at this link. I had a lot of fun mulling over, listening to and writing about music again this time around and I'm already looking forward to next June.

Today's prompt asks for a song that you discovered this month, while doing the challenge. I actually doscovered a lot of new music this month, mostly thanks to friends far and wide who were playing along with me on Facebook, Twitter or on their own blogs. So it's funny, I suppose, that I "discovered" my pick for today right in my own backyard.

I'm really super-excited to share this song and this artist as the grand finale to my 2015 30 Day Song Challenge.

Monday, June 29, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Want Played At Your Funeral

IT'S A TWO-FER TODAY in the 30 Day Song Challenge!! I couldn't pick just one so I'm giving you both of my picks for today. That may be kind of a sad commentary on the things I think too much about, since today calls for me to pick a song that I want played at my funeral... but, whatever. This has been the most fun category so far.

And I'll go ahead and say that it was very hard for me, like a lot of people I'm guessing, to NOT choose "Another One Bites The Dust." Hey! They're gonna get you, too!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song From Your Childhood

Only a few days left in this year's 30 Day Song Challenge and as much as I've enjoyed participating again this summer, it just got considerably more difficult to do so as I am now swamped with other blog-matters (specifically, my post regarding the recent SCOTUS "marriage equality" decision).  Thankfully, today's prompt is a simple and fun one.  Ahhhhh, childhood.

Like most people my age, I was in part raised and educated by the PBS children's program  Sesame Street, As you may or may not have heard, the early episodes of Sesame Street have now been released as a multi-volume DVD collection entitled Sesame Street: Old School.  For those of us who grew up watching the show, the collection offers a healthy helping of nostalgia and probably several hours worth of hilarity for the next time you and your friends have had a few drinks.  Be forewarned, though:  you'll need to send the kiddies to bed before you watch,  because (according to the warning labels) Sesame Street: Old School is FOR ADULTS ONLY.  Now, you're probably thinking to yourself "WHAAAAA??!!  WHYYYY??!!" as I did when I heard the news.  Is this the edict of some Helicopter Parent? Have the PC Police overstepped their bounds?  Surely there was terrible mistake at the labeling factory!  Did some poor intern mix up the Sesame Street:Old School boxes with The Wire boxes?

A Half-Million Thanks

Sometime late last night, this blog reached a major milestone: we passed the HALF-MILLION UNIQUE VISITORS mark!  I want to express my sincere gratitude to and appreciation for all of you who have stopped by this little corner of the Internet.

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU.

The aim of my work here has always been to cultivate a space for pubic discourse about philosophy, politics, music and pop culture, to contribute in some large or small way to those discourses and to do my part to, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, make stupidity shameful.  I have learned a tremendous amount in the course of doing so and in conversations with many of you here.

RMWMTMBM will be undergoing some cosmetic changes over the next few weeks,so keep an eye out for our new "look" (to be unveiled, if all goes well, late-July or early-August).

I leave you with the full Deleuze quote (from Nietzsche and Philosophy) referenced above:
"Philosophy does not serve the State or the Church, who have other concerns. It serves no established power. The use of philosophy is to sadden. A philosophy that saddens no one, that annoys no one, is not a philosophy. It is useful for harming stupidity, for turning stupidity into something shameful. Philosophy is at its most positive as critique, as an enterprise of demystification. And we should not be too hasty in proclaiming philosophy's failure in this respect. Great as they are, stupidity and baseness would be still greater if there did not remain some philosophy which always prevents them from going as far as they would wish, which forbids them — if only by yea-saying — from being as stupid and base as they would wish. They are forbidden certain excesses, but only by philosophy."

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My Sad Trombone Blows For The SCOTUS Decision (Which Also Blows)

Love did NOT win on Friday when the Supreme Court declared (so-called) "marriage equality" a Constitutional right in its Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Make no mistake: there were a lot of people/interests/agendas that did win yesterday, innumerably more that lost, but "love" wasn't even a lowly grunt in that battle. Neither were "dignity," "respect," "tolerance," "acceptance" and least of all any progressive sense of "equality."

The War on/for Marriage of the last decade was only ever a series of battles between Marriage1 ("traditional" marriage, between one cis-man and one cis-woman) and Marriage2 (also "traditional" marriage, but the cis-woman can swap out her cis-man for another cis-woman, and vice versa). So color me not-at-all-surprised that the protracted-- though, historically speaking, quite abbreviated-- denouement of this War was brought to its finale with SCOTUS' pronouncement that (shocker!) marriage won the contest against itself.  That is to say, a fundamentally exclusive, overdetermined and state-sanctioned cultural institution-- which bestows civic and economic rewards for thoroughly undemocratic reasons entirely unrelated to merit, right or desert, which does so at the expense and to the detriment of more than half our democratic citizenry, which has no governing interest other than the managerial consolidation of private property and the compulsory regularization/normalization of sexual behaviors, familial structures and gender expressions-- has now been marginally modified by the highest court in the land to be a slightly-less-exclusive exclusionary institution.

Color me also unimpressed.