Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Prayers for the Precariat

Tonight, on Facebook and Twitter, I posted that I was "praying" for Minneapolis, for Chicago, for #BlackLivesMatters, for refugees fleeing violence and seeking safety and, more generically, for anyone and everyone who loves justice, defends and protects the most vulnerable among us, who is under assault, in danger and in need of not only our supportive solidarity, but our active advocacy. This was an uncommon, if not entirely idiosyncratic, expression on my part, as I am not "religious" in what might be called any meaningful sense (though I am a PK and was raised in a religious household). I suspect that many who were brought up in "the (Christian) church" or in some other observant faith opted for divergent paths in their adulthood, as I did, for many different reasons.  My particular reason, as unsatisfying as it is unaccountable for, even to myself, is simply that I was never capable of forcing my own mind to accede to certain fundamental requirements of the the most basic articles of theistic "faith." For that reason, I hardly ever claim to "pray" for anyone or anything because it seems to me to be, if not outright duplicitous, at the very least disrespectful.

That said, I do pray.  I pray for friends and strangers, for the virtuous and the vicious. I pray for them by their proper names and, much more often, anonymously.  I pray for them, for you, for all of us, frequently, passionately and sincerely.

Not that I am ever called upon to do so, but I sometimes wonder how I might explain what I mean when I say that "I pray" to those who would insist that prayer requires, first, a resolute belief in the effective power of prayer or, in what amounts to the same thing, a confidence in the effective power of some supernatural Being to make real the events, things or states of affairs that my prayers solicit, become actual. What follows are some brief, incomplete reflections on what I might say.

Why do I pray?  Why do we, why ought we-- all of us, believers and unbelievers alike-- pray? Especially now, when the the solicitations of many prayers are so dangerous, in fact deadly, and when the confidence of believers in the power of prayer ought rightly to be doubted, if not also condemned. what is left that is worth preserving in this bizarre human practice of prayer?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Everybody's Damaged By Something: On "Room" (2015)

I read Emma Donoghue's novel Room somewhat by accident shortly after it was released in 2010  No one recommended it to me and I didn't know anything about it in advance. Rather, I found myself stuck in an airport waiting on an indefinitely delayed connection, my attention-span for grading papers was exhausted, and so I wandered into the bookstore to find some "pleasure" reading to kill time. (Must be fiction, contemporary, and less than 200 pages, i,e,, finishable in the time I will be in transit. This is my Airport Reading Rule.) In an instance of literally judging a book by its cover, I picked up Donoghue's Room because of its minimalist crayon-scrawled dust jacket and, confirming the worst voyeuristic tendencies of humankind, I bought it after reading the backside blurb, which promised a horrific story of abduction and abuse, told from the point of view of a five-year-old child.

Donoghue's novel is now the fastest Airport Book I've ever read (displacing Marie Phillips' Gods Behaving Badly, which remains a close second.) I finished Room before I deboarded the plane at my final destination.

Then, I had nightmares about it for weeks.

Despite this experience with the novel, I was nevertheless (perhaps pathologically) curious to see the recently released film adaption of Room, which I saw yesterday.  Room, the film, is masterfully directed by Lenny Abrahamson, and the strong performances by Brie Larson (as Ma/Joy) and Jacob Tremblay (as Jack) are of the sort that ought be credited as much to an assiduously prudent and sensitive director as to its talented actors.  Even still, these are incredibly talented actors,  In fact, I really cannot say enough about Larson and Tremblay-- especially Tremblay, who is only 9 years old in real life. Their performances are complex, nuanced, intimate, intense and yet still, given the events depicted, surprisingly reserved. Room is the kind of story that our contemporary infotainment "newscasters" wet-dream about, drool over, in fact desire so desperately that they often accessorize stories with the tragedy and trauma of Room when they cannot find it IRL. Would that it were only fiction, where it might motivate the imaginations and serve to develop the characters of Freshman Lit students, but Room is not that.  It is, both in its details and thematically, a fictional re-presentation of what is an all-too-common reality: the abduction, incarceration, coercion and debasement of female agency.  It's the kind of story that practically begs for hyperbolic, sensationalist exploitation. But if you're looking for hyperbolic, sensationalist exploitation of human vice and vulnerability -- and there is definitely some part of us, all of us, that is looking for that when we shell out $10 to see this film-- you won't find it in Abrahamson's Room.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Handy Guide to Tone-Policing

I won't even bother with summarizing or linking to the most recent debacle in the Philosophy blogosphere.  Instead, I'll just note that, commensurate with the rest of the nation, the discipline of Philosophy has a real problem determining between when one ought and ought not "tone-police."

I've said my peace (here) before about tone-policing and/or other insistences of codified civility and collegiality norms, which I think disproportionately advantage the already-advantaged.  I just want to note here that I do not think that what gets called "tone-policing" is always out of order. Like everything else in this world, and most of all policing, it's a matter of being sensitive to the power-dynamics at work between those regulating/policing norms and those challenging the norms that are being regulated/policed.

So, here's a handy infographic I put together as guide to policing one's own tendency to tone-police. You're free to download it here if you like.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Closed Borders, Open Doors

Paris was ambushed by seven separate terrorist actions last night, a horrific set of events eerily reminiscent of both the Charlie Hebdo massacre less than a year ago and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Any one of them-- the mass shootings in various restaurants and bars, the suicide bombing outside of a soccer match at the Stade de France, the hostage-taking and massacre at the Bataclan concert venue-- would have been sufficient to frighten and horrify, but it was the simultaneity of their occurrence that truly terrorized.

Today, with so many non-state actors and organizations effectively in control of the world's state of affairs, coordinated attacks on civilians may shock and sadden nation-states, but it does not paralyze them. President Hollande almost immediately declared a state of emergency, closed France's borders, and mobilized 1,500 troops to send into Paris..Such responses are, regrettably, "textbook" now. As were the responses of various world leaders, including U.S. President Obama, each of whom ventriloquized the judgments and avowals of some unknown, unnamed security analyst who wrote that script 14 years ago, has been rewriting it with slight, situation-specific modifications since, and who passes it up the chain of command to be repeated by some Authority each time.

As I write this, President Hollande has just promised, only a few hours ago, "to lead a war which will be pitiless" in retaliation for last night's terror. And, for reasons both admirable and condemnable, the Western world has emblazoned its support-- by, quite literally, enlightening the monuments, halls, and houses of democratic sovereign power-- of Hollande and of France, its endorsement of a war without pity, doubling-down its three-century-year-long bet on the nation-state as the Archimedean point of the modern moral, political and social world.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

On Teaching Our Incapacity To Unexperience

They say you can't "unring a bell." It's an analogy that is often used to illustrate our incapacity to un-experience things, to erase lived-experiences from our bodies and minds. What I discovered recently is how particularly true that is in the classroom.

A few weeks ago in my Philosophy and Film course, we screened Werner Hertzog's film Grizzly Man for our "documentary" week. Grizzly Man tells the story of Timothy Treadwell, who spent thirteen summers in the Alaskan wilderness living with grizzly bears-- all the while filming his trans-species communion-- before being tragically attacked and killed by a bear in 2003. Treadwell was filming on the day that he died, though he did not have time to remove the lens caps from his camera before being attacked, so there remains only an audio recording of his (and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard's) gruesome death. Hertzog does not include that audio in his documentary.  In fact, there is a scene in the film where we see Hertzog listening to the recording for the first time and then, afterwards, remarking to Treadwell's friend: "You must never listen to this." What is more, in a gesture practically verboten for documentary filmmakers, Hertzog instructs Treadwell's friend to destroy the tape.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Wired Election, Part 2: "Follow The Money"

[This is the second installment of my series The Wired Election, employing insights gained from HBO television series The Wire to interpret 2016 Presidential election campaign events, persons and states of affair. The cheese stands alone.]

Like many of my fellow web-citizens, I found myself doing a number of dramatic double-takes on Wednesday morning as I watched "news"-casters review the first Democratic Presidential debate of the previous evening. Almost unanimously and across the board, pundits unequivocally declared former Secretary of State and frontrunner Hillary Clinton the obvious #DemDebate winner. This, despite all evidence to the contrary as provided by almost every available metric for measuring viewers' responses. There are serious problems with thinking about these debates in terms of "winners" and "losers"-- I'll get to that below-- but the spin-cycled evaluations put forward by our Fourth Estate (the press), which is all but indistinguishable from the Second Estate (the aristocracy) these days, was truly dizzying.

Did they even watch the same debate I watched?

The Wired Election, Part 1: "This America, Man."

There are certain works of art in every medium-- literature, theater, photography, sculpture, film, painting, music, et al.-- that somehow manage, through an impossible-to-determinately-calculate alchemical combination of human creativity, the raw materials of Nature, and some other mysterious thing we might generically point toward and say "meaning" or "truth," to reach beyond the mere representation of some particular subject matter or to touch so deeply upon that representation's core presentation that the artwork ends up unveiling, unconcealing, and thereby disclosing in a way that gives us the sense of an encounter with something universal. Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Rex does this dramatically. Coppola's film trilogy The Godfather does this.cinematically.  Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" does this (or so it is said) graphically. Otis Redding's "A Change Is Gonna Come" does this sonically.

I think a very strong case could be made that the HBO television series The Wire (2002-08) ALMOST accomplishes the same via the (still unfortunately undertheorized, but getting there) medium of television.  I say "almost" because I suspect what The Wire really discloses is very likely not, properly speaking, "universal." What it does manage to unconceal is much of what is True about America-- our site-specific pathologies with regard to race relations, policing, education, labor, crime and punishment, politics and political theater, wealth and power disparities, surveillance, media, gender, and the continuously transmorphic rules governing how our communal obligations are coerced and enforced--  thus extending its reach beyond the particular mise en scene of "early-aughts Baltimore" and saying something about, if not all of us, at least more of us than Baltimoreans.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Case for Having Students Memorize Poetry

For the last couple of years, my policy with regard to students' "extra credit" opportunities was entirely focused on incentivizing attendance for out-of-class lectures. If students attended a lecture and wrote a 2-page response essay, they could receive up to 5pts on their midterm or final exams.  If they attended and asked a question, they could get the 5pts without writing the response essay. This was a really successful policy and I recommend it to others, especially those who (like me) find themselves frustrated by students' frequent non-participation in post-lecture Q&A sessions.

This semester, I'm trying out a new policy, inspired in part by an essay that I read many years ago in the NYT"The Case for Memorizing Poetry" by Jim Holt.  (I was reminded of Holt's essay after reading his excellent book Why Does The World Exist?: An Existentialist Detective Story this summer.) So, at the beginning of the term, I told students that there would be one-- and only one-- opportunity per month to earn extra credit in the course, but it would't be easy.  It would require that they memorize a poem (selected by me), recite it aloud (with less than four errors), and explain to me what they think the whole (or some part) of it meant.  I decided that I would select poems that were long enough to necessitate real commitment and a significant amount of time to memorize perfectly, in order to reinforce that "extra credit" is something for which one ought to have to do serious work.

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):

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.