Sunday, July 26, 2015

In Praise of the Ontometaphorical God(s)



Because he could see the future — because his name, after all, means Forethought — Prometheus had a knack for staying on the right side of history, and his brother Epimetheus was happy to follow his lead.  That’s how they wound up arrayed alongside their cousins (those upstarts who’d later become known as the Olympians) against their own Titanic forebears.  Call it the demand for justice, if you like.  After all, their uncle Kronos was the first but one tyrant, whose scythe turns up everything the earth produces and whose teeth grind all grain to dust.  And when Gaia unleashed her destructive powers in the form of giants and monsters bent on dragging Olympos itself back into the omphalos of the earth, Prometheus’s help again proved decisive.  Here, the chief assistance he provided was to have created something capable of worshipping the gods:  mortal human beings, whose lack alone of all the great lacks in the cosmos (for lack is both the first and last word of all that there is) were capable of experiencing their lack as lack.  It was only with the assistance of we human beings, we limitless lackers, we constant fantasists, we inconstant, restless lovers, we betters on all the bad horses, we pathetically limited, weak, pathos-laden, frankly a little pathetic, certainly quite ridiculous human beings, that the Olympians for all their might could manage to eke out a victory against the Earth’s overwhelming desire to return all that she’s ever made in her infinite creativity back to the even more infinite embrace of her own slumber.  We came to the gods’ aids by letting their powers come to enough presence to assume an effective form.  And we did this by worshipping them, by looking up to the heights of Olympos and choosing the divine attributes arrayed thereupon from all the infinite possible divine attributes (that Spinoza assures us there are) and saying:  “This, we worship.  These are the things we aspire to.  They are ours, these powers we identify with.”
You might think I’ve just repeated the same basic idea three times, obeying, no doubt the dictate of some overblown, high-falutin’ rhetorical theory, inspired equally by my lack of adequate sleep and the just human enough grandeur of foothills of the the Italian and French Alps parading themselves outside my train window.  But don’t let yourself by fooled.  Every one of those claims is different.    

And in this, I’m simply following Prometheus’s lead.  Prometheus, who had a knack for staying on the right side of history.  This does not always mean: remaining faithful to the Gods.

Moreau recalls the ruse of the Muses
Hesiod tells us that Prometheus eventually betrayed Zeus.  First, by stealing fire for his human creations and then (after that first betrayal had eventuated an equably Epicurean settlement) by tricking Zeus into taking the worst cut from the flesh of the animals the gods commanded that we mortals sacrifice to them, and which they taught us to eat.  This is all true, of course.  It happened just like the Muses told Hesiod it did when they appeared to him on the slopes of Parnassus.  But Hesiod wasn’t one for irony so he missed the import of the bit when the Muses paraphrased without explicitly citing Plato.  And so he failed to identify the deepest lie they told, in the grips of which they were in collusion with Prometheus.  (Let’s call this not the most noble, but the most human lie:  the myth of the truth).  Hesiod, then, failed to notice the rebellion by the youngest Olympians against the very idea of Olympos, in the name of the idea of the idea itself.

Prometheus stole fire so we could compensate for our awareness of our own lack.  In what at first appeared to be the compromise of sharing our meals with the God, Prometheus in fact taught both us and the Gods that we were locked in a struggle with them for the best bits of that of which there is never enough to share.  But Prometheus, the first transcendental philosopher (here I follow the Muses in paraphrasing without citing a philosopher we would all do better to cite less), had already set up the condition for these conflicts in the very first gift he gave us, the one he tricked Zeus to ask of him.  Our capacity to feel lack, our ability to worship the gods, was premised on our sharing with Prometheus — something even the gods for the most part lack — the capacity to see the future, not in the sense of predicting it accurately, but in the sense of seeing that there’s such a thing as the future at all.  In this, he was colluding with the young Olympians who he knew would someday eclipse the tyranny of their parents.

Because Hesiod failed to identify Prometheus’s original betrayal, he also failed to notice Prometheus’s revenge.  Aeschylus had intimations of it, but because he failed to recognize that the reason Prometheus knew the root of Zeus’s eventual (inevitable) downfall, was that he was a coconspirator, perhaps its primary author, he imagined the story ending with a reconciliation between Zeus and Prometheus.  Thousands of years later, Shelley finally heard Prometheus’s laughter.  But he too, in his triumphant humanism, in his conviction that surely the justice that motivated Prometheus was recognizable as justice to we humans, failed to hear the echo in that laughter, in which Prometheus and a few of the younger gods had hidden themselves.

And so it was we who were the ones who offed the Olympians, as we finally proceeded to realize our ideas were either simply in the world by virtue of its nature, or else perhaps of our making.  As we proceeded to emancipate ourselves of the last vestiges of the superstitious worship of that more than human natural world to which, our mother/father/progenitorbeyondgender though it may be, we owe absolutely no worship, a force of whom we cannot fail to notice that justice is lacking, we have failed except in a few glimpses to notice the ominously but entirely immanently divine nature of the forces by which we effected this liberation, in whose mighty nature the youngest, most human of the Olympians hid themselves:  the Muses, whom I’ve already mentioned, and their dreamy bandleader, Apollo, and his sister Artemis, who scorns the safety of fire at night to master  the darkest corners of the wild, and wise, crafty Athena and slow but cunning Hephaestus, and yes even savage Ares and, okay, I’ll concede to you mad Dionysos, and madness making Aphrodite (but watch out!  They’ve just tricked you with their young looks as they are in truth the oldest, least human divinities of all) and alongside them, Prometheus, deliberate philosophical architect of this cosmic Trojan horse, this world deprived of the divine in which the most human gods have smuggled themselves.

To what end?  To join us or to have further sport with us?

And what of Prometheus’s faithful brother?  Was Prometheus really so faithless and fickle as to have abandoned him?


Or, in cosmic history, in the long genealogy of phantasms Gaia jealously dreams, are we really the final thought?  Is our victory so assured as we are inclined to think?

Friday, February 27, 2015

In Lovely Blueness: Protagoras's revenge.


I'm not going to summarize the issues in the "debate" over whether what you are seeing here is white and gold or blue and black, because I'm sure 24 hours or so in, you're all up to speed. At Daily Nous, Justin Weinberg asks what philosophers will make of this as an opportunity for public philosophy  My prediction (and this already seems to be playing out), most philosophers will tell you that this is really a conversation about color perception, and descend into a discussion of qualia.  Is there a difference between what color something "is" and how we "experience"color?

I'm hopeful for something slightly different.  Maybe this will be a chance to redress a long standing wrong in public philosophy. Maybe the time has finally come for:

Protagoras's Revenge!

Protagoras was, of course,  the most famous of the sophists and the person with whom the worst sort of relativism is often associated.  His claim that "The human is the measure of all things: of the things that are, that they are, of the things that are not, that they are not" has been taken as early as Plato's Theatetus to be a claim that truth and reality are subjective functions of perception. If you experience a certain wind as hot, and I experience the same wind as cold, we aren't particularly bothered by this.  (We're willing to ascribe contrary properties to the "same" wind.  I'll return to winds at the end of this post).  It was, of course, also Plato who put this idea definitively to rest.  The problem is that the very ideas of truth and reality are normative, and universal in scope.  That is, Protagoras seems to be saying that when I say (say): that dress is blue and black, what I'm really saying is that that dress is blue and black for me. But if I go into any discussion thread on the internet right now, I'll see that that's untrue: what I seem to really want to claim is that everyone should see the dress as blue and black.  Now, Protagoras can of course come back and say: "yes, but you shouldn't want that" (this, after all, is the movement my students want to make in their lazy relativism*).  But here's where Plato's trump card comes in, because in order for Protagoras to make that claim, he needs to appeal to the normative, universal properties inherent in our understanding of truth.  (He's making a prescriptive claim).

Fine, Plato.  The dress is really blue and black.  Depending, of course, (to go back to another famous blue dress) on what the meaning of is is.

There's another philosophical problem that enters into discussion here, and that's the problem of the image.  Because we aren't talking about the dress.  We're talking about one particular image of the dress.  Now, presumably because that image is of a photograph, it merely reproduces the property of the actual dress, but science (of the "I fucking love science" variety) can tell me why it's actually more complicated than that.  There is, of course, a rich philosophical conversation about the image, which (again) goes back to Plato, but which isn't immediately connected there to the issues of perception and truth where Protagoras comes up (the line between these issues is short, of course, but I'm not going to traverse it right now).  More recently, Kendall Walton has considered the difference between the kinds of claims that "photographic" images make from, say, "drawn" images, although I think that that discussion needs to be updated in the light of digital photography.  (A person less lazy than me would go research that topic now, but although that's a detour I'm interested in, it's not one I need to take right now as I've reason to be confident it wouldn't for a major revision of my point here).  Walton's point is that when we take something to be a photograph, we take it to be an image of that thing, so that we take the photograph to be reproducing the properties of the thing.  (It makes sense to have a debate on the basis of a photograph about what color a dress really is, but it wouldn't make sense to have that debate on the basis of a painting of it.)  (I'm leaving to the side Walton's views on fictionalism also for now).

Why this detour into a discussion of the image?  Because as much time as we spend with images, we don't linger on images nearly enough.

At Daily Nous, I summarized the "debate" about what interests me about the dress as follows:

"1) the first debate is over what color the dress really is, not what the colors in the picture are
2) but once they’ve been told it, people will be willing to grant that the “real” dress is blue and black.
3) the question then becomes whether the picture is “really” white and gold or blue and black.
4) eventually pop-science is brought in to explain why our eyes might “over compensate” for a “bad” picture.
5) at this point, both sides can see how the other side can hold their “mistaken” views, and can identify the terms of the “debate,” without being able to actually make their eyes see it. [I know what the brains of the white-goldies are doing, but try as I might I can’t make my brain do it.] except for a squishy middle who now says they can see both (or sometimes vacillate between seeing both.)
6) descent into aporia ensues (LOLs, emojis, etc).
7) consequently the linguistic turn is never made, whereby people realize that the problem is with the realistic and normative biases in our ordinary concepts.
8) and the realization that “debate” is less important than the education/experimentation of one’s aesthetic sensibilities.
9) my prescription is that people ought to read more Protagoras, Hume, and Nietzsche."

In the previous paragraphs, I've tried to start fleshing out what I mean in claims 7, 8 and 9.  (I presume everyone is familiar enough with the first 6 that I don't have to go into too much depth).  I can't help but notice how bad we are at talking about images, and I suspect that's because we seem to be congenitally inclined to have realist intuitions.  That is (and here I'm granting Plato's point), we tend to think that when we speak, we're referring to universal, common and shared properties, and that consequently agreement can be reached about the truth or falsity of the claims about these properties through rational dispute.  Protagoras's mistake seems to have been that he tried to neutralize that shared ground, and that's what philosophers across the spectrum have been giving him shit for for nigh on 2500 years now.

I exempt Nietzsche, and Hume and a few others from this gross, but forgivable error.  After all, most of us have to interact with others, and we spend a lot of time dealing with bad, inconsistently applied versions of Protagoras's argument, with that lazy relativism that is in many ways indistinguishable from fanatical absolutism insofar as both of them aim to neutralize any grounds for rational debate.

But, of course, when it comes to images, we're willing to grant that things might function differently.  This, is why it's so important to salvage our realist intuitions to emphasize what a shitty picture the original blue dress picture is, and show all the ways that we can "correct" it (without acknowledging that we are thereby changing the terms under discussion).  If it turns out that the image really can be blue and black AND white and gold, and that we can understand what the other person means when they say it's white and gold (because c'mon you guys, it's obviously blue and black), it's because we're willing to suspend some of the universalistic and normative properties of our ordinary language when we're talking about images.  We're even willing to grant that there might be room for aesthetic education here.  (I can learn more about an image by trying to experience how others see it.  I can appreciate food and music that I didn't before if I learn about what the properties in it are that other people are experiencing).

It's too bad we can't take this point about aesthetic education further, because frankly I think this particularistic, anti-normative sort of experiencing is of far more importance to how we can live happily together than any normative ethics.

You might think I'm advocating extending imagistic thinking beyond the image.  But, actually, I'm simply advocating for us to follow Nietzsche all the way down the imagistic rabbit hole (Plato's forms/ideas are themselves forms of images).  Call this revolutionary fictionalism if you like.

But I'll call it Protagoras's revenge.

Lately, I've been spending a lot of time thinking about how we can bend philosophy away from its normative biases.   (How we can, like, just let it be, man.)  But this post has already gone to long, and so I won't trouble you.  But I feel I'd be remiss if I didn't offer you some form of edification on that question.

We began with a click-baity, manufactured internet controversy.  By way of apology (or to reward you for your patience in getting to the end or to punish you for your prurience)** let's end by imagining dialogue in the context of one of the great poems of the twentieth century, Celan's Sprachgitter (or Speech Grill).***

Eyeround between the bars

Flittering lid
propels itself upwards,
sets free a glance.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and drab:
Sky, heartgray, must be near.

Athwart, in its iron socket,
the smoldering chip.
By lightsense
you hit on the soul.

(Were I like you.  Were you like I.
Did we not stand
beneath one tradewind?
We are strangers.)

The flagstones.  On them,
Thick on each other, both the
heart gray pools:
two
mouthsfull silence.

(Augenrund zwischen den Stäben.

Flimmertier Lid
rudert nach oben,
gibt einen Blick frei.

Iris, Schwimmerin, traumlos und trüb:
der Himmel, herzgrau, muss nah sein.

Schräg, in der eisernen Tülle,
der blakende Span.
Am Lichtsinn
errätst du die Seele.

(Wär ich wie du. Wärst du wie ich.
Standen wir nicht
unter einem Passat?
Wir sind Fremde.)

Die Fliesen. Darauf,
dicht beieinander, die beiden >
herzgrauen Lachen:
zwei
Mundvoll Schweigen.)

[UPDATE:  Leigh Johnson responds to this post, here and here (see the comment thread in the latter link also.]

* in an ensuing discussion about this post with Johnson, I was reminded that she was the person who originally started calling this view lazy relativism. (I used to just call it "weak relativism").  

**there's another hint about aesthetic education, hidden in the form of a rickroll in the links I've put in this blog.  You're welcome.

*** my translation.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Prolegomena to Further Explorations in Academic Typologies: Starting 2015 Off Right

I've promised Leigh Johnson that I'd try to revive these mostly moribund stylings, and for reasons that we won't get into here (because it would involve a long exegetical detour through Soren Kierkegaard's Repetition, a recollective digression of a hazy after party at SPEP some three years ago, and an unfortunate wrong turn into the state of the politics of domesticity in the twenty first century), this promise takes place within the context of the sort of faux commitment that may be the only kind that as a professed aficionado of a tradition full of what a certain philosophical blowhard and bully calls charlatans,  I am willing to regard as binding in these days upon those of us who are sworn to fight the good fight without hoping for the best.*

As I told her, my reasons for being hesitant about reviving these mostly moribund stylings largely have to do with an ongoing crisis of self-understanding.  When I'd started this blog years ago, it was more or less on a whim, as a quasi-public place to write out half-baked ideas whose formation didn't fit into any particular genre into which my more serious philosophical and literary efforts would go.  Hence, my ridiculous pseudonym, conceived out of two self-mocking jokes.  1)  The fact that I'm really more of an "ideasy" person than an "executiony" person.  (Viz. my initial post attempting to get someone to actually open a taco shop in Bryn Mawr back when I still called that neck of Penn's woods home.) and 2) my observation that the legitimacy of someone's PhD varies in inverse proportion to the prominence of that credential on their book jacket.  At the time I'd conceived it, I was a newly minted and quite juvenile (in every sense) PhD.  I'd always been told that I was a Wunderkind, and though I deplored that fact (I really did) it had nonetheless become by virtue of having heard it repeated so often a central part of my self understanding.  Close to a decade on, and two or three early onset midlife crises in, it's difficult for me not to cringe at all the layers of unthinking privilege that underlay both this self understanding and my ironic disavowal of this self-understanding.  (Lest I be mistaken for a New Sincerist, I'm not accusing myself of being too ironic, but rather of not being ironic enough.  More anon).

At the time, I was understanding this primarily in terms of genre: the virtue of the blog was to give me space to mess around with styles of playful writing that were personally important to me but which lacked an officially sanctioned space.

And for a few years, I really enjoyed doing that.  I appreciated the extent to which --- to return to the the extended excursus on Uncle Soren that underlies this post --- I could fuck around, at the margins of the discipline in which I was struggling (but managing) to make a living, scribbling over the lines that divided the personal and professional, joyfully, I hope, playfully, just for fun.

Occasionally, of course, I would segue into more serious territory, although here most often in a way that was generically unsuited to other fora.   The two examples of which I'm most proud are my reflections on officially resigning from the Mormon church and my Knowledge Quest to Creation Museum, which remains by far my most visited post.  In both cases, several folks suggested to me that I write them up in a more formal way, one that falls squarely into a genre.  In the case of the Mormon posts, I even did a half-assed attempt at an e-book upon which I've made in the neighborhood of $6, which is about all it deserves because the truth  is that the blog is the genre it belongs to.  If it were to be made properly as a book, it would become something else.

Of course, what's missing from my self-description of blogging as a way of violating certain rules of genre is an awareness of the institutions that shape those genres and, by extension, the negative space in which I avoided it.  My decision to blog pseudonymously was certainly informed by the fact that I was made to understand that as an aspiring junior philosophy member, I was expected to.  In short, this was understood to fall outside of the scope of institutional philosophy.  But the implicitly communicated need to distance myself from it spoke to the fact that of course no act of writing by a wannabe philosopher can really fall wholly outside of the scope of the institution.  Call the academy catholic or call it totalitarian but regard it first and foremost how it regards itself, as a university.

But naturally, I was already aware of these institutional realities, even though none of these norms was explicitly communicated to me.  Now, as an ironist, I prided myself on ignoring them, carefully of course, because after all one must pay the bills.  What is glaringly obvious to me in retrospect because I knew it even at the time is that to the extent that I was able to ignore these norms, I was abetted by my relative privilege.  As a straight white cisgendered male from the professional class, I could be reasonably confident that messing around on the margins of philosophy wouldn't exclude me from access to the institutions of philosophy.**

(A slight aside that violates my own commitment here to focus on forms of writing that fall outside the genre of philosophy:  While I was writing my dissertation,  my director warned me that I was writing on "the fringe of a fringe," and that might make me unemployable.  I proudly protested that I didn't care about such things, but of course I did.  Perhaps the ultimate privilege is thinking you don't need to follow the rules in order to win.  If I've grown up at all since then, I hope that it's not in having better internalized the rules so much as in having more fully externalized --- and this does not mean abdicating --- the desire to "win.")

Graduate school had done what it was supposed to do successfully and hidden from me the precarity of academic labor --- I admit that I fully collaborated with it in doing so.  In the intervening years, while I was being forced to be made aware of this precarity, philosophy's online presence grew up (though it did not perhaps mature).  The sort of informal scratchings that I used to use this blog for migrated to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  (And maybe some day Ello?  Ok, probably not).  Meanwhile, although academia's online presence still lacks (for better and for worse) the formal recognition that its sometimes merits, much of the philosophical blogosphere now occupies a quasi-formal, implicit-verging-on-explicit, albeit still not official space.  To my mind, the people who are doing the best, most interesting work here are working on topics and figures that institutional philosophy has neglected while challenging the exclusion of these themes from that institutional space. (I refer you to Leigh's signal boost for some examples of this).

Meanwhile, the old blogosphere is showing its age and its constitutive limitations.  Its unofficial gatekeepers have outed themselves as exclusionary bullies and misogynists and its anonymous "philobro" denizens have shown themselves to be trolls, reduced to muttering in the darkest corners of the philoblogosphere.  In contrast with the vibrant work being done in feminism, critical race theory, the politics of the academy and critiques of neoliberalism (to name a few areas) and to the extent that they haven't critically reflected on the implication of this exclusion in their own ontologies, even the more benign denizens of the old boys blogosphere seem mostly to be engaging in what my friend Felonius Screwtape described as "dickbanging" (apologies to any traumatized readers who have made it this far through my post for my lack of trigger warning).

I've committed myself to working as an ally in this new, vibrant internet.  That said, the hesitation that I voiced to Leigh stems from an uncertainty that I have much to offer qua blogger (as opposed to, say, qua commenter or qua member of the institution).  To anticipate a distinction that I'll make in my next post, I don't know that I have much to say qua public philosopher or even qua radical.  I remain convinced that my primary commitment is to the practice of a kind of irony, which is by design something that nobody ever needs.    Sadly, my commitments as an ironist compel me for purely idiomatic reasons to honor Leigh's exhortation to blog more.  Which I will do, beginning with a critical ontological typology of academics, pronto.***

*I humbly beg your forgiveness for indulging in this paragraph, into which I have covertly compressed a report excusing myself for lo these many years of absence.

**It is my sincere hope that you all recognize, without it being explicit enough for any of you to sue me, how this is a larger parable for the discipline of philosophy in the digital age.

*** While you wait for that, I invite you to visit here, in the archives, for poem in which I'd visited the same theme in a different way.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Lexicon of Philosophical Groupings

A Lexicon  of Philosophical Groupings

Earlier in the year, with the help of colleagues and friends, I started collecting names for the groupings of philosophers (on the model of "a gaggle of geese," "a murder of crows," "a troop of apes," etc.).  Please leave your suggestions in the comments, and the committee on naming will consider them.


A BAMBOOZLEMENT OF PHILOSOPHERS
An umbrage of analytic philosophers
A pretense of continental philosophers

An ennui of existentialists 
A douchebag of experimental philosophers
An axiom of logicians
A dogma of theologians
A dunce of medievalists

A bind of deontologists
A shame of Freudians, except a slip of Freudians (when talking)

A lack of Lacanians
An abyss of Nietzscheans
A circle of hermeneuts,
A despair of Kierkegaardians, except a chastity of Kierkegaardians (when at bars)
A voluptuary of Kantians
A meander of ancient philosophers
A disposition of behaviorists
A liar of McGinns, except a sleaze of McGinns (around grad students) 
A discretionary of of Foucauldians, except a whip of Foucauldians (in the Bay Area)
A tractatus of early Wittgenstinians
A  game of late Wittgenstinians
A verification of logical positivists
A sheath of feminists
An irrelevance of aestheticians
An outrage of environmental ethicists
An opiate of Marxists
A self-congratulation of cognitive scientists
A vat of skeptics
A thereness of Heideggerians, except a sending of Heideggeians (when skiing) and a      gathering of deceased Heideggerians.
An epoche of phenomenologists
A trace of Derrideans
A jerk-circle of PGR rankers
A rhizome of Deleuzians
An event of Badiouians
A murder of trolley-problem theorists'
A blog of speculative realists
A myx of LBGTQ theorists
An opiate of Marxists
An ideal speech situation of Habermasians
A veranda of Leibnizians

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kinds of Birds

A propos of something a friend brought to my attention, I've tried to write a poem with as many names of bird groupings as I could find. I think I have 63 but I'm having trouble counting.
Kinds of Birds

I want to know who names the congeries of birds
or whether their names hatch from their nests with them.
But when I put my hands in their covers
And cast myself out the house (empty volary)
without a coat
To ask them myself --- not a peep.
It’s like I’m inviting the bracing cold into my bones,
on the sedge by the river,
I clutch a tree branch, scold the vacating trees.
Tell me what the birds feel as they muster
Into sords, nides, neys or coveys
Or ostentations of feathers declaring:
A waste of words paddling south
in descent to where I trip, a wedge
in the company of Epictetus,
stand firm --- November, murder not the charm of birds.
Don’t brood on feathers that raft in the winds
or fall like a watchful colony
laying siege to my self-pitying shivering.
Give no tidings of unkindness when the steam boiling
From the kettles takes flight in wisps to the rafter of the building.
Do not wake the shrieking hordes who pack the skies,
Not until we dole out the tea into teacups,
And gulp it down.
Till exaltation is no longer a dissimulation
(come quickly spring)
when a bevy of bouquets grace
the parliaments congregating at a Roman emperor’s throne,
or in chains,
murder silence, eternal murmuration
of birds, given names
like manna from the heavens in a desert
that we walked through,
our faith in flocks of names
an unraveling skein in you,
oh Lord of Hosts, Lord of Deceits,
Badling God of the chosen party, bipeds on wing,
gaggles of birds.

Friday, October 18, 2013

College men[et al] : stop taking advantage of college women who get drunk. Oh, and look out for one another

By now, I'm sure you've all read Emily Yoffe's panicked piece about the fact that her daughter is going to college soon. You might not have known that that is what you were reading, because it was masquerading as a piece of advice to young women, entitled "College Women: Stop Getting Drunk."  Although the piece brings up a number of real problems associated with binge drinking, it is getting attention because its focus is on her concerns about the connection between alcohol consumption and sexual assault:

"In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval AcademySteubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped. As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril."
Anyone who spends any time in the real world wonders for whom this is unacceptable, as in fact we hear this sort of thing all the time (for example, a google search for news items the week BEFORE Yoffe's article returned several hundred hits).  (In fact, as a general heuristic -- let's call this the Gladwell rule --- whenever someone tells you that they are about to tell you something very unpopular, or otherwise unacceptable, assume there's a very good chance they are about to try to sell you a hackneyed chestnut.)

But let's forget about the Gladwell rule momentarily, and focus on a few other problems with the article.  I'm not going to focus (yet, at least) on the fact --- pointed out by plenty of others --- that this reads like a piece of rape apologia,  though we'll get there shortly.

Instead, let's focus for a few minutes on Yoffe's parental anxiety:
As a parent with a daughter heading off to college next year, I’ve noted with dismay that in some college guidebooks almost as much space is devoted to alcohol as academics...
I’ve told my daughter that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell her I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that she’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around her if she limits herself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men. 
Let's leave aside for the moment the monumental stupidity of the claim that "self-interest should be a primary feminist principle"  (actual feminists have for centuries been linking the oppression of women to a broad call for social justice, but we're in the world of Lean In now), and focus instead on the extent to which Yoffe's own argument places a hugely different onus on her (actual) daughter and the son she imagines, as a rhetorical strategy to give her article the appearance of a little more gender equity than a sentiment like "I hope their restraint trickles down to the men" would suggest.
If I had a son, I would tell him that it’s in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate. Surely this University of Richmond student, acquitted in one of the extremely rare cases in which a campus rape accusation led to a criminal trial, would confirm that.
Let that sentence sink in:  "If I had a son, I would tell him that it's in his self-interest not to be the drunken frat boy who finds himself accused of raping a drunken classmate."  Notice the different valence there.  At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I might point out to to Yoffe that just like every woman who is raped is someone's daughter, every man who rapes is someone's son.  But surely Yoffe would tell her son that he shouldn't rape anyone, right?  Because self-interest.

Of course, a more cynical reader than me could discern a different message in Yoffe's story.  At at least three points in her article (including at the end of the paragraph that I just cited), she reminds us of just how rarely men who rape women are punished. (Actually, she speaks mostly in anecdote so she just implies how rarely they are, but I'll help her out here:  it's only 3% of the time).  Which makes her putative son's odds of escaping punishment way better than --- say --- an actual woman's  odds of not being assaulted.

The theory of trickle-down restraint might better fit in with Yoffe's actual attitude then.  Let's focus on women's behavior --- if women become less of targets, then it will be harder for men to target them, right?

I've been following people linking to this article on Facebook, and of the 9 people in my newsfeed or on friend's walls who I've seen defending Yoffe's position, all but one (so that would be 88%)  have made some version of the argument from analogy:  telling a woman to drink less to protect herself from sexual assault is no different than telling someone to take simple precautions to avoid burglary (examples of real analogies I've heard include leaving a purse in an unlocked car in a bad neighborhood, leaving your front door open, walking around with money sticking out of your pocket, etc.)  To be fair, Yoffe comes dangerously close to implying this, but stops short of saying it herself perhaps because as we'll see shortly, her own analysis will show us what's wrong with the analogy.

What's wrong with the analogy?  We still hold thieves responsible in these scenarios but that doesn't excuse us from taking simple precautions, right?  But let's think a little bit more.  In all of these scenarios, who do we imagine as the person who burgles (is that the right verb?) our putative victim?  I'd wager it's a stranger, right?  After all, that's the reason why I'm not going to recover the money that I've lost.  Who knows who took it?

Now, let's change the example.  Let's say we're going to play soccer.  My friend is going home to change anyway, so I ask her to swing by my house and pick up the ball we're going to use.  I give her my keys and tell her the ball is in the garage.  While she's at my house, she decides to go upstairs and help herself to my prize stamp collection (NB for gangs of international numismatic criminals -- I don't actually have a stamp collection).  Did I make myself vulnerable to my friend?  Sure.  But did she abuse my trust?  Absolutely.

Now which one of these examples are most sexual assaults more like? According to the data, it's more like the latter.  But why listen to the data?  Let's  hear Yoffe's anecdotes:


The three young women I spoke to who were victims of such men attended different colleges, but their stories are so distressingly similar that it sounds as if they were attacked by the same young man. In each case the woman lost track of how much she’d had to drink. Then a male classmate she knew took her by the hand and offered her an escort. Then she was raped by this “friend.” Only one, Laura Dunn, reported to authorities what happened, more than a year after the fact. In her case she was set upon by two classmates, and the university declined to take action against either one.  
One of the rape victims was a senior who had been to a school-sponsored celebration where the wine flowed, then everyone went to a bar to continue the festivities. Her memories are fragmentary after that, but a male classmate came by. She remembers running down the street with him, then being in bed, then waking up the next day with her clothes inside out. She was sickened at herself for what she thought was cheating on her longtime boyfriend and confessed her infidelity to him. Ultimately that led to their breakup.
As she dealt with her shame and guilt, she talked to friends about that night, and the real story emerged. She was so intoxicated that her friends were worried about her when she stumbled out of the bar disoriented and without her shoes. They said they saw her being led away by the male classmate who was not drunk. She came to understand that she had been raped. “Since I realized it wasn’t my fault, I crawled out of a deep, dark hole,” she says. She also knew he’d done it before. “He had this reputation if you were going to be drunk around him, he was probably going to have sex with you.”

There are so many of the details in these stories that would give any responsible writer pause, and yet I haven't heard the conversation being about these details.  Everyone of these women was assaulted by a classmate, friend or acquaintance that she knew.  Every one of them had friends who were nearby but didn't do anything to stop it.  And every one of these women suffered pain, shame and the deterioration of their personal life, while the perpetrator -- who in at least one case was a known repeat offender --- suffered nothing.

Now, in Yoffe's version of feminism, where self-interest is an ethical first principle, the message of these stories is that individual women need to be every more vigilant, more cautious, less trusting.  People who look at this story with a more sane ethical first principal will be forgiven if they reach a somewhat different conclusion.

Note one other rather obvious point about all these stories, one that again gives the lie to the analogies I mentioned above.  These stories take place at parties, which, last time I checked were social events.  All these stories begin in a social setting because --- and again we are following Yoffe's own admissions --- this is where and why college students  by and large drink (let's leave solitary, hardened alcoholism for us older folks).  When we are in social settings, we often do --- and should be able to -- place trust in our friends, classmates, colleagues and --- yes even casual acquaintances --- to look out for us.  And we should look out for them.  In a lot of these stories, we see people failing to look out for their friends as well as they should (that's part of rape culture too), but that's not my main point.  My main point is that in every one of these cases we have someone who has colossally, callously, intentionally and violently abused the trust of a woman they know.

But by all means let's blame the woman in question, and hope that a little bit of restraint trickles down to the men.  And by the way, we do know that, Yoffe's and her defenders protestations notwithstanding, that the overall effect of focusing on the actions of the victim encourages shame, excuse making, and responsibility shifting. In fact, at her most self-righteous, Yoffe can't resist this herself:
I know many people will reflect on their own bacchanalian college experiences with nostalgia and say the excesses didn’t hurt them—at least what they’re able to remember. So I will present myself as an example that it’s possible to have fun without being drunk. I enjoy moderate drinking and have only been hung over three times in my life. I have never been so drunk that I browned out, blacked out, passed out, or puked from alcohol ingestion. Still, as a young person, I did my share of fun, crazy, silly, stupid, and ill-advised things. But at least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol.
"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  In the words of another martyr on another cross:  "Thou hast said it."

"At least I always knew that I was responsible for my behavior, not the alcohol."  And you wonder why violated young women are too frightened to come forward?   And you remark casually about how little universities do even when they do come forward?  And you wonder why they blame themselves?

I congratulate St. Emily on her restraint.  I'm very glad she still managed to enjoy herself in college, (though I'm equally glad I didn't know her in college as she sounds not just here but in everything I've read of hers, like an insufferable bore).   I'm very sincerely happy she was never sexually assaulted while drunk.  I very much hope the same for her daughter, and for my daughter, and for every other daughter and for every other son.  But neither hopes nor or our own personal experiences an ethics make.

I'm glad St. Emily has been lucky, and I hope her daughter is lucky too.  I've been lucky myself there.  As always when we talk about statistics, we can't single out one things to explain why we're lucky or why we're unlucky.  Unlike St. Emily, for example, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion (and sometimes I've even enjoyed it).  In this case, the main factor in my luck might simply be that I'm a heterosexual man, a group that gets raped far less frequently than other groups.  And in my version of feminism, where self-interest isn't a first principle, the notion that that should be relevant is prima facie unjust.

Another way that I'm probably like Yoffe and like her daughter and like every one of you is that, irrespective of my own experiences, I know plenty of people who have been sexually assaulted and raped:   acquaintances, friends, family members.  And I refuse to accept the justice of  a world where the response to that is to place the onus on the victim.   This doesn't make me a particularly good person.  In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

Unlike St. Emily, I've been quite drunk on more than one occasion, and I've always been lucky enough to have friends who look out for me.  I take this as maybe a suggestion that I ought to do the same.  So lets just offer one more analogy.  Although Yoffe largely restricts herself to harping on the possibility of sexual assault, she can't resist a broader screed against the evils of drinking; but perhaps we can learn something there.  Take driving.  We all know that you shouldn't drive while intoxicated.  So what do we do?  We designate drivers, we make sure that it's easy for people to take cabs -- we call for cabs for one another.  We spend the night at the houses of friends that we trust.  In other words, we use the very fact that drinking is a social activity to help solve the problems that might be associated with it. (Admittedly, my analogy is imperfect because unlike the link between the risk of sexual assault and drinking, the link between drinking and the danger of drunk driving is direct and causal --- but in fact, this strengthens my overall point).  So just as I would offer a ride or call a cab for a friend who has had too much drink, I make a point when I run into a female friend or acquaintance who has had too much drink that they get to a safe place with a trustworthy person.  Again, I don't think this makes me a particularly good person. In my estimation, this is the bare minimum that ethics requires.

But my ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle.  A misplaced fear of offending Ayn Randians has made it somehow unacceptable to suggest that when we don't look out for one another, we are putting one another in peril.  (Go on back to the start of this post -- I apologize for its length ---  and I'll wait for you here).  My ethics doesn't take self-interest as a first principle, nor does it take self-reliance as the last word.

Yoffe's actual  last words:

"Lake says that it is unrealistic to expect colleges will ever be great at catching and punishing sexual predators; that’s simply not their core mission. Colleges are supposed to be places where young people learn to be responsible for themselves. Lake says, “The biggest change in going to college is that you have to understand safety begins with you. For better or worse, fair or not, just or not, the consequences will fall on your head.” I’ll drink (one drink) to that."
What if Yoffe gave her daughter different advice (this is the advice I hope that I manage to give to both my daughter and my son, though they're quite a bit younger):

Look, you're going into the world and there are a lot of dangers.  There are things that you can do and precautions that you can take that will help you minimize those dangers, but ultimately, there's also a good degree of luck.  I'll give you the best information that I can, but whether I like it or not, you'll be the one who chooses what you do with that information.  Whatever choices you make yourself, it also doesn't necessarily affect the choices your friends make.  So I want you to look out for your friends.  And surround yourself with friends who will look out for you when you make bad choices too, because you inevitably will.  Sometimes you'll be lucky and even when you make stupid choices things will turn out fine.  And sometimes, whatever choices you make, bad things will happen to you and your friends.  When they happen to your friends, I want you to be there for them.  When they happen to you, I want you to know that I will be there for you, no blame attached.  Love yourself, because your worth doesn't come from what you do to yourself or what others do to you.  Love yourself as much as I love you.  And love your friends, and treat them well.  Don't be cruel to others, even when you don't like them or even when you think it will benefit you.  When you see weak people or vulnerable people, reach out to them.  Never take advantage of them.  And when you are weak or vulnerable yourself (because we all sometimes are), reach out to those you trust for help.  And let them help you.  Because justice begins with you.  For better or worse, fair or not, the responsibility falls on all of our shoulders.

I'll drink (with you) to that.  And I'll make sure you get home safely too.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ideas Man Sees An Action Movie: Nietzsche help us all.

I know you are all awaiting my reaction to The Dark Knight Also Rises with bated breath, but you'll have to keep the air bated for one more gasp whilst I make the following caveat:  I've seen maybe 3 action movies over the last decade and all on the small screen.  As near as I can recollect, this is the first time I've been to what I believe is called a summer blockbuster since 2001's disastrous Swordfish.  After that, I swore the genre off.  So my reaction to the movie might be purely physiological, the consequence of not having habituated myself to the noises and images that were thrown at me at a dizzying clip, lest I not notice the thinness of the story.

So I'll dispense with anything but the shortest review: The effects were cool, lots of shit got blown up, lots of famous actors acted so famously you didn't notice there wasn't anything approximating a genuine exchange between two characters anywhere in the movie, the requisite objects of lust were luscious enough you'd hardly noticed how unsexy the movie was, and any "message" was muted enough it won't interfere with your entertainment.

The truth is, I don't know much more of what to make of the movie than that.

I don't know whether it would be more correct to say

  • that Nolan produced a masterpiece of cinematographic crispness in the style that high end digital photography cum special effects permits OR that the images lacked any depth.
  • that said special effects were tightly and lavishly composed OR that they belied the lack of any other compositional considerations.
  • that the narrative at such a quick clip that it kept you constantly engaged OR that the plot induced such whiplash you didn't notice it didn't really hold together.
  • that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the left to attack Mitt Romney [actually no, pace Rush we can be pretty confident that's wrong] OR that Bain is a clumsy attempt by the right to create a caricature of Fox News's left-wing anarchist vaguely Islamofascist (and steeped in the rhetoric of the French revolution to boot!) lunatic.
  • that the movie contains a sharp critique of the paramilitarization of the police (with the corruption of the bloated Gordon police force at the beginning, with the allegations of people kept in prison without due process) OR that it celebrates the paramilitarization of the police (as the "true" protectors of the peace not only of the post-industrial city of consumption but also of the operation of democracy)
  • that (speaking of consumption) the movie is a clever commentary on the decadence of our own consumer culture OR that this "critique" was just a chance for product placement (See the rich getting thrown out of Saks! And with this 30% off coupon, you can look like a million bucks too!)
  • that the movie takes a pleasure (perhaps the only pleasure in the whole movie) that borders on pornographic glee in the technologies of the military-industrail complex (think of Catwoman molding herself onto Batman's oversized bike with its two gigantic cajones --- I mean wheels) OR reflects what is perhaps an equally pathological distrust of that technology, with the  specter of nuclear devastation and the ease that Batman's toys can be turned against us.
  • that the movie is a critique of the dangers of vigilantism OR that it is a vindication of vigilantism.
  • That the movie was Occupy Wall Street propaganda with its buffoonish, incompetent stock traders and board members who are the puppets of villainous criminals OR that the movie was a parody of Occupy Wall Street rhetoric, with its dystopian vision of the consequences of overthrowing the 1%, with its apparent belief that even though the 1% are the site of so much injustice they are also the only group that can fight against it (OR that the movie simply clumsily used a story of class warfare only kept in check by police force as a backdrop for what is ultimately a paranoid worldview, a worldview where the world is fundamentally and intractably unjust, where the various oppositions and contradictions in our society are intractable, where the only recourse to dealing with them is violent contest, where the winners inevitably perpetrate more violence on the losers and where the losers experience nothing but pain and desperation).  (As an aside, the movie is at its very sharpest when it makes this feature explicit, as for example when Bain explains that the reason why the prison from which the villain comes is the most painful prison of all is because the constant presence of the sun and open air invokes the hope of the outside, or when Alfred invokes for Bruce Wayne a peaceful life outside of Batman --- but even there not that the possibility of pleasure and joy are presented as lures to the haves and taunts to the have nots). 
  • OR that it was just mindless entertainment.

Still when, after the end of 3 hours of the cinematic equivalent of what would happen if bare knuckle boxing met WWE wrestling as my stomach unclenched (this more or less coincided with the audience's "spontaneous" applause at the big happy-ending reveal that I won't give away), I couldn't help but think about the sheer number of people there to see one of two late night showing at just one theater in a mid-sized city in the Midwest, people who in age (I would estimate I saw people aged from 4-90), gender, race, and apparent class were about as diverse as the city itself.  Tragedy, we all know, produces a mass effect of catharsis, which comes from the Greek word for purging.  I didn't vomit my popcorn and beer (You can buy beer at the movies now! Yipee!)  But my I did feel my stomach unclenching.  Did everyone else feel the same thing? Maybe it's that I have young kids myself, but I wondered how a movie like that (a villain with giant teeth, a weapon of mass destruction,  the threat of martial law taking hold in a banal American city) couldn't cause nightmares in a child (Ideas Boy, at 4, still has a very tenuous grasp on the line between reality and fiction, and although Ideas Girl is cognitively more sophisticated about such things I doubt she is emotionally).

With my physical reaction to the movie, was I abnormal or was I the norm?

You'll likely think I'm asking this question rhetorically.  You likely think I think I have the answer to the set of interpretive possibilities I list above.  I don't think that at all.  I don't even hew to a theory of meaning that would allow me to think I have the answer , since I think that under the right conditions of interpretation, and given the right context all of these readings (except maybe Limbaugh's) are possibly efficacious.

But whatever interpretation we adopt, a at least one conclusion seem warranted.  There's nothing new to it, but for me The Dark Knight Also Rises highlighted it in a deeply physiological way.  We as a society --- and I include myself --- are fascinated by violence.  It occupies us and, what's more, we allow ourselves to experience our fascination with violence collectively.  We seem to want to experience it together.   Why are we so quick to gravitate to stories where the only real motivators seem to be violence and resentment?  What motivates us not to share narratives of pleasure and joy in the same way?

I do think our willingness to collectivize brutality in this way has something to do with the collective paranoias we seem apt to indulge in. It's a shame, because any world, no matter how unjust, is still rich, is still beautiful.   It seems to me that in any world that  still qualifies as a world, there are always possibilities for joy and pleasure, the joyless applause of the audience at the end of a three hour study in resentment and revenge notwithstanding.