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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Join, or Die: Neoliberalism, Epistemontology, Social Harmony and the (Invisible) Invisible Hand

There's been a good bit conversation recently about the merits and demerits of "public philosophy" and, as someone who considers herself committed to public philosophy (whatever that is). I'm always happy to stumble across a piece of remarkably insightful philosophical work in the public realm.  Case in point:  Robin James (Philosophy, UNC-Charlotte) posted a really fascinating and original short-essay on the Cyborgology blog a couple of days ago entitled "An attempt at a precise & substantive definition of 'neoliberalism,' plus some thoughts on algorithms." There, she primarily aims to distinguish the sense in which we use the term "neoliberalism" to indicate an ideology from its use as a historical indicator, and she does so by employing some extremely helpful insights about algorithms, data analysis, the mathematics of music, harmony, and how we understand consonance and dissonance.  I'm deeply sympathetic with James' underlying motivation for this piece, namely, her concern that our use of the term "neoliberalism" (or its corresponding descriptor "neoliberal") has become so ubiquitous that it is in danger of being evacuated of "precise and substantive" meaning altogether.  I'm sympathetic, first, as a philosopher, for whom precise and substantive definitions are as essential as hammers and nails are to a carpenter. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I'm sympathetic with James' effort because as Jacques Derrida once said "the more confused the concept, the more it lends itself to opportunistic appropriation."  Especially in the last decade or so, "neoliberalism" is perhaps the sine qua non term that has been, by both the Left and the Right, opportunistically appropriated.

Friday, July 11, 2014

AMERICA! F*CK YEAH!... or, Dinesh D'Souza and the Chocolate Factory

It is indeed difficult to imagine the world without America, which is what the one-sheet movie poster for Dinesh D'Souza's America dares us to imagine. After all, America is every bit as much a symbol, an aspiration and an idea as it is a nation-state. However, it is not difficult to imagine the world without D'Souza's "America" or its cinematic rendering, a film that is part costume drama, part morality tale, part manifesto, too much revisionist history and a whole lot of  downright D'Souzian fantasy.  Those already suspect of D'Souza's worldview (not to mention his political cronyism and/or personal moral fortitude) will likely view this movie, if they view it at all, as right-wing propaganda, at which they will snort before promptly dismissing it. Those inclined more favorably toward D'Souza's worldview, on the other hand, are likely to crank up the Team America theme song ("America! F*ck Yeah!"), wave a flag and pat each other on the back for their patriotism, happy to have at last been able to steal one free breath in the suffocating liberal environment that they call Obamastan.  I saw the film last night in a theater filled with the latter group--I surmise as much from the audience's enthusiastic applause when the credits rolled--and after I righted my head from the "wait, whaa?" side-cocked position in which it had been stuck for the last 103 minutes, I genuinely didn't know how to react.  Should I be offended? disgusted? disheartened? afraid?

Yes.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Trigger Warnings, Codes of Conduct and Self-Policing in Philosophy

The blogosphere has been all abuzz with commentary on the merits and demerits of “trigger warnings” (henceforth, TWs) of late, which has sparked an interesting conversation not only about what sorts of norms we ought to strive for in the Academy but also how we can or ought police those norms. With regard to TWs specifically, the debate seems to be over how much accommodation should be afforded to individual students’ personal (sometimes traumatic) experiences and, correspondingly, how to weigh that accommodation vis-à-vis professorial interest in and responsibility for maintaining the academic integrity of course-content. As is the case with many other issues of this kind, disputants are largely divided along philosophical/ideological lines: those who tend to prioritize individual responsibility and accountability (e.g., Jack Halberstam) on the one side and, on the other side, those who advocate a more cooperative/communal sense of self-care (e.g., Angus Johnston). Two quick disclaimers before we get into things, though: (1) I'll concede that I've just employed grossly-generalized characterizations of the two sides, and (2) those generalizations are also non-comprehensive, as they leave out an important third category of disputants (see Natalie Cecire's recent contribution) in the TW controversy, namely, those who are helpfully and productively engaging in meta-critique, who recognize the limitations of both dominant “positions” in this conversation and who are interested in articulating how those positions are both mutually-implicating and mutually-contaminating.