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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Moving

I'm moving today.... again. Like most people, I hate moving. As a matter of fact, on my list of "miserable human experiences," the ranking goes something like this:
1. Moving
2. Grading
3. Dying (a distant third, really)

I've got good help (read: "students") and I'm going to do my best to be chipper today, but I got to thinking about it last night and realized that I have moved more than the average bear in my life. The longest I've ever lived in one single abode, which was the house that my folks lived in while I was in high school, is 4 years. (That's only a hair over 11% of my entire life. You do the math.) That also means that I lived in my State College apartment (in grad school) only one year short of my personal single-address-longevity record. Since grad school is, by definition, a temporary phase in one's life, I don't take it as a good sign that it represents one of the most stable residences in my life. So, my plan now is to stay in this new apartment until I get tenure or die, whichever comes first.

I don't even dare try to figure the odds of which one will, in fact, come first.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Celebrity Colonialism

In a recent article for the Mail and Guardian, Brendan O'Neill suggests that adoptions of African children by the likes of Madonna and Brangelina may show us that "having a black baby is the new black." O'Neill calls this phenomenon the "White Madonna's Burden" (in not-so-thinly-veiled reference to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling, "The White Man's Burden"). In his 2006 criticism of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's decision to effectively shut down the entire country of Namibia so that the birth of their baby could be a "special experience," O'Neill coined the term "celebrity colonialism" to describe it. And it only takes a cursury scan of Madonna's interview with Vanity Fair to see that the colonialist undertones that O'Neill emphasizes are not entirely invented by him. (The Vanity Fair article compares David, Madonna's Namibian son, to Pocahantas, who represents "a kind of purity and righteous connection to the land.") Even still, are adoptions something that we really want to criticize?


Consider this a reprise of some of the issues in the last post, where we investigated the manner in which the link between the what (human rights) and the why (humanism) can be very, very complicated. I will assume that very few of us oppose in principle the adoption of children who need homes, even children from Africa, perhaps even and especially when these children are being adopted by very wealthy people with the means to give them very comfortable lives. But reading the Vanity Fair article about Madonna shows that there is a fine line between philanthropy and paternalism, one that we ought to make bolder and more obvious when the opportunity arises to do so.

I don't think I want to go completely Kantian on this issue, since I do believe that certain acts have moral worth even if they aren't necessarily grounded in a good will. But I also don't want to take the other (reductively consequentialist) extreme, because I know that the "goodness" of an act can be undermined by the dubiousness of its motivation. So, the problem with this so-called "celebrity colonialism", I think, is not so much the adoptions themselves, but the larger discourse about Africa and Africans to which the celebrities seem to be (consciously or not) contributing. If people like Madonna et al really want to help bring relief to some of the pain and suffering of the peoples of Africa, they must begin first with some recognition that the entire continent is not a place without history and without its own very complicated politics. (For an excellent analysis of the way that the crisis in Dafur has been "depoliticized" in the mainstream American press, partly as a result of sloppy celebrity interventions, see Mahmood Mamdani's "The Politics of Naming.") Or, as Wandia Njoya noted recently (and I said a while ago on this blog), they/we must stop believing that Hollywood films--like Hotel Rwanda, Last King of Scotland, To Catch A Fire, or Blood Diamond-- give us an accurate or comprehensive understanding of what's really going on--and why--in Africa.

To borrow Dr. Trott's formulation of the human rights question, I guess the question here is: "African adoptions even when they're wrong?" And I suppose I would answer that question in the same way that I answered the previous one, though perhaps a bit more reservedly this time. Of course adoptions themselves are not wrong... but they can be, and often are, framed in a discourse that poisons the well, so to speak.

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ADDENDUM (5/31): Fellow blogger Booga Face posted his poem on this same topic on his blog., which interestingly questions why American "cosmopolitan consumption" is o.k. when it comes to "wine, cheese and hip-hop" but not when it comes to adoptions. Very provocative, Booga Face!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Weak Humanism

Because I was having some technical blogging difficulties last week, I just posted briefly on the Bloggers Unite for Human Rights Day. In that post, I urged readers to visit the Tear It Down project website, which is the home of an initiative to tear down the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and to call attention to the practice of illegal detentions and (extraordinary) renditions. Many of my fellow bloggers posted about other worthy human rights issues, but new blogger Dr. Trott very interestingly opted instead to ask the "meta-question" in her excellent post entitled "Human Rights Even When They're Wrong?". Dr. Trott's post bemoans the dilemma of intellectuals who want to say "yes" to human rights without saying "yes" to the humanism that philosophically grounds human rights. She speculates that I, on the other hand, want to say yes to both human rights and humanism. She's probably right about that, and she did a fair job of constituting the basis upon which someone (like me) would legitimate his or her "yes, yes." But since I've been called out now by Dr. Trott as someone who holds an ultimately outdated and unsustainable position, let me try to explain how I ended up on this thin ice...


One of the things that I like about the 20th C. philosophical critiques of (largely "Enlightenment") humanism is that they are, as a group, fairly straightforward and they are easily supported by numerous and easily accessible historical facts. The dominant form of Enlightenment humanism was based upon a cadre of "essential" human characteristics and capacities-- freedom, rationality, autonomy, good will, the possession of a language and a culture conducive to deliberation, etc.-- that made possible our collective exit from the "state of nature" and set us apart as unique and special creatures with rights and dignities that not only could be demanded, but also should be protected. As we know, however, the "dark" side of this history is that restrictive interpretations of what counts as essentially "human" allowed for the exclusion of large groups of the world's population from the custody of humanist/humanitarian protections. Throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th C., more and more poeple began to call attention to these aporias of humanisn, where the legitimation of human worth seemed more and more dependent upon the denial of that worth to "suspect" humans (racial and sexual minorites, the mad, the disabled, the abnormal, the criminal, the atavistic, etc.). Inasmuch as putative human beings could be shown to lack certain prerequisite capacities like rationality or autonomy, they were disowned by humanists, resigned to the ranks of animals or infants, colonized and exploited... and, eventually, exterminated.


One response to this history, which seems to evidence a link between humanism and exploitation/opression, is to deduce that the theoretical basis of humanism is rotten to the core and it ought to be rejected outright. This response is really at the heart of Dr. Trott's post, and it can be supported by some of the work of the eminent philosophers (Agamben, Foucault, Derrida) that she references. But, of course, we know that there was and is another response to the historically "bad" practice of humanism-- that is, to try to "correct" or "perfect" the idea. This (second) response is what we see not only in the various civil rights movements of the mid-to-late twentieth century, but also in the post-Holocaust rise of the discourse surrounding "crimes against humanity" and "human rights." If the problem with old, Enlightenment humanism was that its claims to universality were dubious, the discourse of human rights aimed to correct that blindness by extending and reinforcing the idea of a universal humanity. Now, we have the benefit of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which has the force of international law and is the most widely translated document ever.

Before I wax historical for too long here, let me return to Dr. Trott's question. She asks, implicitly, "how can we support human rights without supporting the humanism that grounds them?" My short answer is that I don't think you can-- that is, I suspect you need some idea of "the human" in order to justify the battery of protections and privileges that we want to secure for humans. So, I am quite invested, as I have said many times before, in finding some way to resusciatate the idea of humanism, to extract from it (as much as possible) the ideological apparatuses that cause it to tend-toward-violence, to see what can be reconstituted in the idea that might still serve as a basis for the fundamental requirements of decent life that are articulated in the UDHR.

I agree with Agamben, Foucault, Derrida-- and Trott-- that this can be only partially and poorly done by attempting to redefine the human in terms of some "essence." As Agamben claims in The Coming Community and Derrida has argued numerous places, no ethical experience would be possible if human beings had to be some essence or substance. But I think that many people overlook the second part of that claim by Agamben, in which he states:

"This does not mean, however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something... There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one's own existence as possibility or potentiality..."

As flimsy and insubstantial as it may seem to think of the human in terms of possibility or potentiality, it gives us a way forward, I think, towards determining some other sort of ground upon which we might (tentatively) stand in opposition to violence and exploitation. I would supplement Agamben and Derrida with some of Judith Butler's recent work from Precarious Life as well, in order to draw out the other fundamental (though not "essential") characteristic that humans share in common and which bind us together as a putative community--

Namely, our weakness.

Enlightenment humanism was built on an essentialist idea of the human that aggregated all of our presumed strengths (rationality, autonomy, etc.) and thus made possible the exclusion by the strong of those who did not appear to possess these attributes. If we are interested in legitimating claims for human rights, which I am, we need (in the parlance of Judith Butler) a "concrete and expansive conception of the human" that can serve as an alternative to the old Enlightenment ideal. What we need is a "weak humanism," one that refocuses our attention on a different set of universally shared human attributes/experiences-- like our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect or pervert our collective endeavors. Those are the weaknesses that constitute our shared humanity (s'il en y a) and those are the weaknesses with which we may be able to leverage a different kind of force.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

2 recommendations

Now that the semester is over, I had the rare opportunity to actually see a movie in a movie theater last night. For the last year, I've been almost entirely reliant on Netflix, and I had forgotten the magic of the big-screen experience. My friend and I went to see The Visitor, a film about which neither of us knew very much, but which turned out to be a serendipitous choice, since The Visitor is among (many) other things about the quietly transformative experience of friendship. I highly recommend this movie.

The Visitor is being advertised as a "post-9/11" film, which it is in a very profound sense-- but what is truly beautiful about this film is the skill with which so many other transhistorical human experiences are situated in that particularly historical mise en scene. There are only a few (four total) primary characters, all of them carefully and completely developed in understated, sensitive but compelling performaces. The protagonist, portrayed by the lifetime character-actor Richard Jenkins, is the picture of quiet desperation... a late-career academic who hides the aimlessness of his life behind false pretenses of being "overworked." (Incidentally, this film is a great answer to Chet's plea for movies about the real life of "smart people.") The other characters, who in this movie really and symbolically are representative of "otherness," each have the talent of seeming immediately familiar, despite the fact that they (Haaz Sleiman, Hiam Abbass, and Daina Gurira) are unknown actors. This is a great film!

I also want to recommend Percy Sledge's 2004 album Shining Through the Rain. I've been on a Percy Sledge kick lately-- but this is a particarly good "summer" album, I think. When this album was reviewed in The Rolling Stone several years ago, the critic remarked that Percy Sledge, even at his advanced age, still "knows how to find the emotional center of a song." That just about says it. This album is proof that old-school R&B is not dead yet!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Habeus Corpus


[Argh! I was having blog problems on the UNITE day, so this post is late (and severely truncated). I think I have things figured out now, though, so more on human rights later...]

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights day is a joint venture of Amnesty International and BlogCatalog.com intended "to help elevate human rights by drawing attention to the challenges and successes of human rights issues."

I urge you to visit tearitdown.org and sign the pledge to close Guantanamo Bay and end the practice of illegal detentions and renditions by the U.S. government.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

KMN

Some of you may have seen Mary Kolesnikova's recent Los Angeles Times article entitled "Language that makes you say OMG." There, Kolesnikova tells of a Pew Research Center study that polled 12- to 17-year-olds and found that almost 40% admitted to letting "chat-speak" slip into their essays and homework. And a full 25% of them used "emoticons" in thier writings. As a teacher, and in response to this trend, Kolesnikov proposes a new chat term to accompany the already wel-known and overused OMG (oh my god), LOL (laughing out loud), BRB (be right back), and TTYL (talk to you later). Here's Kolesnikov's recommendation:

KMN: "Kill me now."

I am happy to report that I have yet to see an emoticon or one of those annoying acronyms in students' papers as yet. But I most definitely have seen the influence of chat-speak and instant-messaging in students' writing. In particular, I've noticed that they are less conscientious about the difference between formal and informal writing. I find that many of my students tend to write very "conversationally"-- much like the (very informal) writing on this blog-- and often don't check themselves on the use of slang. This past academic year, though, I saw a sharp increase in the use of one specific device of "conversational" language: the rhetorical question. Of course, there is a certain kind of rheotrical flair that comes along with rhetorical questions (which is why, not unsurprisingly, they are so effective in rhetoric!), but I am increasingly concerned by the tendency of students to ask rhetorical questions in lieu of making actual claims. Is this the proper way to write papers?

My initial strategy this past year was to write (over and over and over again) in the margins of papers: "Don't ask questions. Make claims." That proved to be a rather unsuccessful counter-offensive. So, later in the year, I responded to rhetorical questions in essays like "how could Kierkegaard claim that faith is accomplished on the basis of the absurd?" with comments like "I don't know. I'll play your silly game. How could Kierkegaard claim that?" Also unsuccessful.

Before resorting to Kolesnikov's very appropriate acronym (KMN), I've got one last strategy that I want to try. Next year, I plan to write in the margins of essays: "Is this a rhetorical question?" My fear, of course, is that nobody will get the joke.

OMG. KMN.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Human Rights Goes Viral


If you keep a blog, I urge you to check out the upcoming event Bloggers Unite for Human Rights, which will occur on May 15th (in just a couple of days). This blog will be participating!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Debating the κανών

I'm giving the discussions of Hillary Clinton and strategic misreading a rest for a bit to make room for another, more immediately pressing, question of mine.

What counts as the central "canonical" text of Platonism?

Let me set the stage for this question: At my academic home, we have a great-books-ish series of courses that are required for every incoming student called "The Search for Values." It's a three-semester sequence that spans from The Epic of Gilgamesh through mid-to-late 20th C. texts, and it has been a central part of the Rhodes curriculum since 1945. I teach in the first semester (Gilgamesh through Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics) and the thirst semester (which, I kid you not, spans from the Protestant Reformation to today). Every year, the faculty who teach in the Search program get together for about 7 days at the end of the school year to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum as it stands and to discuss what, if any, changes should be made.

Of course, because we have so much material to cover in any given semester, almost everything that is covered is done fairly quickly and non-comprehensively. There are, I know, many complaints that can be levelled against this type of learning, but I actually think that one of the advantages of these sorts of programs for first- and second-year students is that they are provided a kind of generic familiarity with a broad swath of texts, and at the end of the courses they not only should be better acquainted with the canon of Western intellectual history, but also better equipped to choose a major. So, I like the program and I don't complain too much about the fact that in the first semester we are only able to cover a few texts of ancient Greek philosophy. I only get to teach 2 texts by Plato/Socrates and 1 by Aristotle, but I get to teach a lot of things that I wouldn't otherwise teach in my regular philosophy courses, like Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War, Sophocles' Theban tragedies, and the Iliad. (As some of you may remember from last Fall, I discussed the ups and downs of my Search for Values experience on this blog.)

This week, we're having the curriculum discussions and I am considering suggesting a change. As things stand now, the Plato texts that we cover in Search are the Apology of Socrates and the Symposium. I love both of these texts, and I have to admit that my students love them, too. However, I find it very difficult to talk about Plato without any reference to the Republic. Last fall, I "cheated" a bit and added a couple of hefty sections of the Republic to my syllabus as supplemental reading, but the idea behind the Search for Values program is that every first-year student should be reading the same texts in the same order in every Search class, so that they find themselves part of a coherent and engaged "learning community." (As evidence of this, the students here, for many years, have staged an all-night public reading of Homer's Iliad at the amphitheater in the center of our campus, since they are all reading it at the same time. That may be a way around "actually" reading the text for some of them, but I still think it's a pretty cool tradition here.)

I don't want to cut the Apology from the curriculum, because I think it is both accessible and engaging for first-year students. But I don't understand having the Symposium as our other Plato text. Not only is it not a representative example of Platonic philosophy, but I'm not sure it's even a particularly representative example of Socratic philosophy (despite the fact that, as you all remember, Socrates claims only to be an "expert" in love.) However, as is the case in most institutions, I suspect that this curriculum is determined in large part by inertia, and that changes will be be difficult to effect. My inclination is to suggest the Republic on the grounds that it is THE central canonical text of Platonic philosophy, but I'm wondering if there is another (in truth, shorter) dialogue that may accomplish the same ends.

Help?

We've Come A Long Way, Baby?

Consider this a friendly (though not completely unrelated) break from the Clinton/feminism discussion of late on this blog.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Strategic Misreading

I used to say that one of the things I both loved and hated about philosopher Richard Rorty's work was that he was a master of what I call "strategic misreading." If you've ever read Rorty's famous foray into the "Continental" (European) philosophical tradition, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, you may have some sense of what I mean by this. Although Rorty's text is both interesting and provocative in its own right, it relies heavily on sometimes reductive, sometimes even burlesque, caricatures of "canonical" European philosophers (like Derrida, Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger). Now, it's one thing to simply be a "bad reader" of texts, and another thing to "strategically misread" texts. To practice the latter, I would argue, does not (necessarily) indicate a deficiency in one's philosophical skill or probity, but rather an active engagement in something genuinely productive. I think of it a little bit like this: we all start with the same "toolbox" of texts drawn from the history of philosophy, but in the process of employing those "tools" to build up and fortify our own projects, we often use different tools differently. So, I may need to drive a nail into a plank in order to shore up a particular structure, and I may decide that instead of using a hammer to do that, I can just use the broad end of a wrench. If my neighbor says to me: "But that's not what a wrench is for!", then I may feel compelled to demonstrate how limited, unimaginative, and reliant upon the-original-intent-of-the-toolmaker my neighbor's world-view is. I may even go so far as to point out to my neighbor that s/he is complicit in a grander, though subtler, agenda on the part of the Hegemonic Toolmakers, and that the very capacity of human beings to construct things independently and with some authenticity is threatened by just this sort of sheepish behavior. I may further remind my neighbor that the broad side of a wrench also can be used as an instrument of revolutionary violence.

Then, I may remember that sometimes our metaphors run away with themselves...

Back to "strategic misreading": My point is that-- and as a deconstructionista I am constitutionally obligated to make this point at least once ever 72 hours-- all texts can be, perhaps always are, strategically misread. (And remember, il n'y a pas de hors-texte!) So, I am less interested, as a general rule, in the "misreading" than I am in the "strategy" that said misreading supplements. In Rorty's case, I have only a little objection to his sometimes ham-handed readings of Derrida, Freud, et al because I can see the strategy that it is in the service of, which has to do with articulating a philosophically and politically fecund sense of irony. However, and now I am coming to the point, the "strategies" behind the "misreadings" are not always so easily discerned, nor are they always so productive.

To supplement my argument in the previous post, I direct you to the much-circulated essay by Bob Herbert in the New York Times entitled "Seeds of Destruction," in which Herbert lambasts Hillary (and Bill) Clinton for "deliberately trying to wreck the presidential prospects of [their] party's likely nominee." Herbert begins with the (strategically misread) comment by Hillary Clinton last week, when she claimed that "Senator Obama’s support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." (An interesting, though equally damning, analysis of the semiotics of that statement can be found here.) Herbert, predictably, uses this quote as an opportunity to brand Clinton a racist and, further, to point out the many and varied reasons why she (and, again, Bill) are actually classist.

I hope this goes without saying-- I'm going to say it anyway, just in case-- but I am not interested in defending Clinton's particular choice of words here, which I think was sloppy at best, thoughtless at least. On the other hand, I do think that one would be hard-pressed to find actual evidence of Hillary Clinton practicing the "racist" politics that she is so often accused of practicing. Rather, as I said before, I think these criticisms of her comments are in the service of a larger "strategy" of divide-and-conquer (employed almost without conscience by the mass media right now) intended to force American/Democratic voters into deciding who is the worst off in our society: women or blacks. The problem with this is, first, that we're being presented with a false dilemma and, second, that we seem to keep missing the point that these criticisms of Hillary Clinton (especially inasmuch as they are always couched in the context of her role as the handmaiden to Bill Clinton) reinforce exactly the sorts of stereotypes of women that prevent women from being taken seriously as political, especially presidential, candidates. She's cunning, she's emotional, she's irrational, she's"shrill," she's a shrew. And she's undermining the hopes of us all with her self-interested, divisive rhetoric. In short, she's Yoko Ono... and we still want the "old" Beatles.

But, you know, the broad side of a wrench is perfectly suited for hammering in this nail. To hell with the toolmaker.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Why Hillary Should NOT Drop Out (yet)

I suppose it was inevitable that, when the results came back from North Carolina and Indiana, people would begin calling for Clinton to drop out of the race. I don't think she should.

I'm not going to appeal to the most obvious reason, which is that many of the superdelegates still remain uncommitted. (In the DNP, it really ain't over til it's over.) Although superdelegates are not bound by rule to vote for any particular candidate, I would be shocked if they overturned the popular will. (That said, I've been shocked before.) Nor do I really think that Clinton has a chance of winning the Democratic nomination at this point. (Because I can do math.) Rather, I think that her presence in the race is a necessary reminder of how far the "left" still needs to go in this country.

I must admit, if you had asked me two years ago which was more likely--a famale Presidential candidate or a black Presidential candidate--I would not have even hesitated to say that Americans would elect a woman before they/we would elect an African-American. That misjudgment on my part was strangely paralleled by my teaching experience this past academic year. In the Fall semester, I taught a course on Philosophy and Race (in Memphis), which I expected to be a bit of an uphill battle. Although the students were definitely challenged and sometimes resistant (especially on the subject of white privilege), I still found that, on the whole, they were fairly well equipped with both a vocabulary and an arsenal of concepts for talking about race. This past semester, I taught Feminist Philosophy, which was a horse of a completely different color (or, I suppose, gender). My experience was that students still struggle mightily with what are at this point decades-old stereotypes of females and feminism, and when pressed, most of them uncritically revert to biological essentialism to justify their values and evaluations. Perhaps most shockingly, I found that there is not the same sort of social sanction attached to being openly misogynist (or homophobic) as there is to being openly racist. And, further, I would say that this past primary season has demonstrated the same phenomena writ large.

I would definitely classify myself as an "ABB" ("Anything But Bush") Democrat, which means that I would have happily voted for either Clinton or Obama (or Edwards). After John Edwards dropped out of the race, I began to lean more towards Obama mostly in defiance of the 20-year Clinton/Bush White House dynasty. So, my support for Obama is less a direct rejection of Hillary Clinton than it is an objection to certain symbolic/structural trends in American politics over the last couple of decades. However, I have been deeply disappointed (and disturbed) by the anti-Clinton rhetoric coming out of the Obama camp, which tends to rely on a conflation of Hillary Clinton with her husband (as if Hillary really is the "second sex") and grossly reductionist, sexist stereotyping. One would think that supporters of an African-American candidate for President, supposedly cognizant of the deeply troubling social ontology of American prejudice, would know better than to resort to such pandering of the populace. One would think that, and one would be wrong.

Now, I don't think that that Hillary Clinton represents a truly "leftist" option in American politics.... but I do think that her struggle as a woman ought to remind us that we've still got a long way to go, baby. I don't think she should drop out of the race because I think we need to keep having this conversation. Maybe, hopefully, when the Democratic nomination is said and done, Obama will look back and see that it is his charge to comment on what his success both represents and defies about American "progress"-- that is, even in our most racially-progressive moments, we still aren't attuned to the women on whose backs this country continues to be built.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Sweet, Succulent Smell of Swine

In my humble opinion, May is absolutely the best month to be in Memphis. We have a month-long festival every year called "Memphis in May," which includes a killer Music Fest to kick things off and a beautiful Sunset Symphony at the end of the month. Spring is also the best time to catch our local triple-A baseball team, the Memphis Redbirds, in what I think is one of the most beautiful baseball parks in the country. Also, they serve BBQ-nachos at our ballpark, a dish which almost contitutes its own deadly sin.

Speaking of barbecue...

Memphis in May is, of course, most famous for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest that takes place around the middle of the month. It's quite an event-- really hard to describe. But my favorite part is that, during the weekend of the BBQ Cook-off, the whole city smells like barbecue. I mean the whole city.

It's about as close to heaven as I get. I'm so glad to be back home.