We’ll take a cup o’ kindess, yet

31 12 2011

I think I say every year that I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, after which I, well, I go ahead and resolve.

That’s not much of a tradition, but why not go with it?

So, I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing to be less afraid.

Fear as fog—yes, that sounds about right. I like fog, like how it makes things both close and far away, intimate and alienated all at the same time, but I’d rather keep it off my mind.

Less fear, then. And more kindness.

I wrestle with the whole sharp edges/soft hands approach to life and have tended to valorize critique over gentleness, but there are moments in which it is less important to be right than to be there.

There is more work, of course, but perhaps I should start with these two, and see how it goes.

Have a peaceful New Year, whether and whatever you resolve.

(Video: Albert Brooks and Rip Torn, Defending Your Life)





Where was I?

29 12 2011

No work, not enough work, too much work, work.

That’s been the last six months. Nowhere near enough money, even with too much work (really blew it on this last freelance job—shoulda charged double), but now things to be evening out: three courses for the spring, half-time admin work for a local-international organization.

I have some idea of what I’ll be doing with the teaching, no clue on what exactly I need to do with the admin work, but hey, I’ve gone from clueless to clue-full before.

~~~

Hey, I’ve got some a few new readers! HI!

Thanks for poking your head through my window! I’ll try not to slam it down on your noggin’. . . .

(And yes, I’ll return the favor and check out your blogs as well, now that I have the time to do so.)

~~~

I really hate not knowing things.

The problem, of course, is that the more I learn, the more I learn what I don’t know. Frustrating, that.

And embarrassing. Before I embarked on my jaunt through the European medieval period, I knew nothing about this history. Nothing.

Oh, something about the break with the Eastern Church in the 11th century, and Luther in the 1500s, but I couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, or between the various emperors and the pope.

Yeah, it was bad.

So now I’m learning stuff (yay!), but I’m running up against the parameters that I had initially set for this project. It was conceived as an investigation of intellectual history, with not much room for social (writ large) history, but I’m too much of a materialist to dismiss the conditions (see below) under which these ideas were generated and spread.

This is a very long way of thanking petefrombaltimore for his suggestions in reading.

Yes, a project like this can sprawl out over any boundaries set—hence my initial attempts at capturing only intellectual history—but sometimes the most interesting bits are discovered in the spillage.

Anyway, I just finished Peter Gay’s The Enlightenment and am now on Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation; I may then mix in some close-up histories, as well as tackling some of the primary sources.

Can’t say I’ve yet gotten anything solid on the late-margins of modernity by poking around in the early margins, but I am still poking along.

~~~

Got my first round of applause for teaching in. . . ever?

It was for my bioethics course, a class which was terrible the first time I taught it (at another university), pretty good the first time I taught it here, and now, well, good. I’ll continue to tweak it as I go along, but I’ve got a solid set-up which should hold for at least another few semesters.

It’s much easier to keep teaching the same thing over and over—all that prep work is already done—but I get antsy. I don’t think there’s a perfect syllabus or course (see: not a Platonist), so after a certain number of repetitions I overhaul the course to try to capture something missing from the previous go-around.

It’s not always better, and almost always requires adjustment, but it keeps me thinking.

Anyway, the applause.

It was common at UW-Madison to applaud professors at the end of the semester. Most of my classes were large lectures, so the performative aspect of teaching was more apparent than in seminars, but classes were similarly large at Minnesota, and I don’t recall the students applauding professors there.

It’s nice, both to applaud and be applauded. I liked that I could show my appreciation for a good professor (or lack thereof with tepid clapping); it seemed to signal that there was something more going on in that lecture hall than a contractual transmission of information from instructor to user.

The best professors gave us knowledge far and beyond that necessary for a good grade: they gave us an appreciation for the wonder of knowing.

I don’t know if that’s what my students were applauding. I work hard to tamp down my urge to overwhelm them with my words—as the person who constructs the syllabus and leads the discussions, I already have great, if indirect, influence on how they approach the subject—but on this last day of class I gave them a concentrated shot of my approach to bioethics.

I started with a truncated version of the epistemology/ontology/practical lecture, zeroing in on the significance of being (or Being, if you please) in one’s understanding of practical ethics. I then moved on to Hannah Arendt’s distinction between human nature and the human condition, namely, that while we cannot with any certainty know our nature, we can approach our condition.

And the most basic of our conditions are that we are biological beings, we are social beings, and we are mortal beings. We may be more than this, I noted (spiritual, philosophical, etc.), but we are damned-near-incontestably conditioned by our biology, our relationships to others, and the fact that we are born and will some day die.

This matters to bioethics, I argued, because any ethics which does not take account of these conditions cannot be of any practical worth.

(You might think that this would be so obvious as to be banal, but it is not.)

I can’t tell you that consequentialism or deontological ethics or casuistry or any other way is the correct approach, I said. We need standards to keep us from justification-by-convenience, to force a critical appraisal of our actions, but, pace our conditions, we have to allow deviation from those standards: the rules are to serve the human, not the human, the rules.

Finally, I said, circling back around, this is where I center my ethics, on the matter of  human being. What makes us who we are, and what we could become? It’s not that our abilities have to be unique among species, but we should think about ourselves, as humans, in how we approach one another.

We don’t have to be heroes, I observed. It’s not about pulling someone out of a burning car or tackling the bad guy or dodging bullets; it’s about recognizing one another as humans.

And then I told the story of a group of people in a small town in Wisconsin who decided to hold a funeral for an unknown woman who had been found, murdered, in their town. She wasn’t one of their own, and would never know what had been done for her, but through the donations of the funeral home and money raised for a plot and marker, and in the service at the cemetery, these people did in fact claim her as one of their own.

There was nothing heroic in this ordinary act of burying the dead, but by taking care of this dead woman’s body, they recognized her as one of them; they demonstrated their humanity in their recognition of her humanity.

We can take care of one another, I said. Our ethics ought to be centered on how we take care of one another.

They seemed to like that. I didn’t expect the applause—I thought I had gone too far—but even if I had, they didn’t seem to mind.

It was nice.

~~~

As a coda, I’ve consolidated my earwig approach to teaching (“I want this stuff to bother you for the rest of your lives”) into a line stolen and adapted from Serenity:

I aim to trouble you.

It’s not me, really, who can do this, but I can bring the trouble of politics and theory and ethics to my students, and hope that it disturbs them a good long time.





All things weird and wonderful, 13

24 12 2011

Leapin’ lemurs!

Verreaux sifaka photo by Robyn Gianni/Nat Geo Photo of the Day

Okay, so she looks like she’s dancing (or maybe skipping) more than leaping, but still!

Those sifakas are somethin’ else.





All things weird and wonderful, 12

20 12 2011

This is a real thing in the world:

Photograph by Andrew Coffing/Nat Geographic Photo of the Day





You should wear with pride the scars on your skin

19 12 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died this past weekend.

Both men were writers deeply engaged in the politics of our time; one was more in love with words than ideas, the other, the other way around.

One man engaged in politics, the other, engaged in the engagement; both are worthy pursuits, but they are not equal to each other.

One man knew that, the other didn’t.

One was a hell of a s/wordsman, and I would have loved to have had the chance to have lost (as I would have) an argument to him. Fight above your weight class, I say, and Hitchens was certainly far above mine; losing to him would have been instructive, and if I could never have hoped to have bested him in argument, I could have applied the lessons of those beatings elsewhere.

But if I wanted to learn more than verbal fisticuffs, I would rather have sat down in a smoky pub with Havel. If Hitchens had great verbal reflexes, Havel was the far better reflector. He questioned, he doubted, he admitted the possibility of error in his steadfast search for moral clarity. He lived an absurd life, and was imprisoned by an absurd regime for pointing out its absurdity.

His stint as leader of Czechoslovakia, and later, as president of the Czech Republic, was not an unqualified success, and some of us were disappointed by his support for the Iraq war. He based that support on the grounds of the threat Saddam Hussein held for the Iraqis, not the Americans, and even that support was qualified, arguing that  “the international community has the right to intervene when human rights are liquidated in such a brutal way.”

I have some sympathy for liberal interventionism—the legacy of inaction in Rwanda—but even more suspicion; still, I can extend that sympathy to someone whose country was ripped apart by Hitler, then stomped on by the Soviets in 1968. Havel’s idealism got him through prison terms and decades of oppression, and if that same idealism led him to underestimate the Hobbesian in politics, well, I can still appreciate his admonition that Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.

Hitchens was a champion hater and, to be honest, I can take altogether too much comfort in my own contempts. I enjoy the fight, enjoy the hardness of verbal combat and in slamming back a volley aimed at my own head. I like to win—ohhhh, do I like to win.

But winning is not enough; what is the win for?

What is needed is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.

. . . We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. . . . In short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

From a speech before the World Economic Forum, 1992

I do not share Havel’s moral idealism, Havel’s hope, but I don’t think he’s wrong to tell us to look past ourselves, our interests and our fears, and to live in the full possibility of this human world.

I might have had fun hanging out with Hitchens, and been discomfitted by Havel, but I think the discomfitting is more fitting: unease propels me more than certainty ever will.





My eyes beheld an eerie sight

12 12 2011

I am not a particularly visual person.

It’s not that nothing visual moves me, not at all; it’s just that I am more likely to slow down to take in sound or text than I am an image.

Still, there are some images that I find positively disturbing, and I don’t know why. There’s nothing particularly scary or nausea-inducing or horrifying about these images, but they set off a shuddering in me that continues long after I’ve turned away.

The image of the Korean office towers, for one—you know, the design which evokes the planes crashing into the Twin Towers?

Can’t handle it; won’t even post the image here, because I don’t ever want to see it again.

Again, this isn’t a moral complaint about the design, but a straight-up shiver over that image of the—I assume, apartments—exploding out of the towers. (I don’t even like describing it, it makes me so uneasy.)

It’s worse than fingernails on a chalkboard or squeaking styrofoam, but it’s akin that kind of involuntary wince. There’s something about images like this, this kind of unnatural bunching or tumoring out or frantic growth or whatever it is, that has long sent me squirming. It could be inanimate objects or biological ones, involving blocky or spiky or rounded growths (okay, I can’t say anything more about this without wanting to peel my skin off), and it’s not every kind of bunching: grapes, for example, are just fine.

Like I said, I don’t know what it is, but the. . . uncanniness of it freaks me out.

*Shiver*





Rose, RIP

12 12 2011

Sad news from Jon Katz: his beautiful heroic no-nonsense hardworking lovely lovely lovely dog Rose died Friday night.

Last Photo: Rose, a celebration

My sympathies to Jon, Maria, and the Bedlam Farm family.

(Photo and caption: Jon Katz)








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