Vas ist dis “thoughtlessness”?

17 05 2011

Have I been thoughtless?

Perhaps, but mostly busy, lazy, and sick; actually, it would be more accurate to state that “busy, lazy, and sick” are the proximate causes for my thoughtlessness.

Anyway.

What do I mean by thoughtlessness (anyway)?

Let’s start with what I don’t mean: I don’t mean stupid (as in lacking analytic and intellectual ability) or ignorant (as in lacking knowledge) or even the general not-bothering-to-think (although there is something to this). Nor do I mean this to be the result of (c)overt propangandistic attempts to alter interpretations of events or peoples’ own experiences of those events.

Nope, I mean something more structural, as in a way of being (and thus also thinking—or not thinking, as it were) which encompasses and conditions all of us. There is rarely any sort of intent behind this version of thoughtlessness (although there are at times (c)overt attempts to justify intentional thoughtlessness) and thus it is rarely malicious, and while its effects may nonetheless be pernicious, it may, at some levels, even be beneficial.

Finally, thoughtlessness is not restricted to modern thought. I think it’s a feature of consciously totalizing systems of thought, by which I mean systems of thought which actively seek to rewrite, suppress, or surpass any preexisting narratives and to corral any innovations or questions into forms recognized by that system. I’m not sure how much I’ll be considering those other systems—I’m thinking at this point specifically of medieval Christianity—but as I have an inkling of modern thought as way to overcome the upheavals of said Christianity, there’s likely to be some engagement.

Regardless, I’m interested in the thoughtlessness of modernity, so that’s what I’ll be lookin’ at.

Okay, you say, but you haven’t yet said what it is.

The one word answer is: negation. Other brief definitions: a plowing-under, erasure, diminution, trivialization, limitation, . . . you get the gist. The slightly longer answer is that in modern thought there are some matters worth thinking about and others not, that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to think about those matters worth thinking about, and that if you think about worthless things in inappropriate ways you will have a hard time getting along in life.

Again, no conspiracy; just a sense of “this is how things are”.

None of this is particularly new. Critics of modernity from both the pre- and (alleged) post- positions have long pointed out what is lost in the movement from one way of being to another. The Catholic Church, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Strauss are among the more prominent critics, and some versions of anthropology are given over to a recovery from/protection against the predations of modernity.

Although I, too, am a critic—not so much prominent as obscure—I’m not terribly interested in trying to return to some sort of pre-modern ontology or in continuing my lament of How Shitty Everything Is. No, I am actively trying to move beyond the lament and it seems to me that such movement requires trying to make sense of where we are now.

There is so much which makes sense and does not make sense at the same time, so much which is simultaneously thought-ful and thought-less—how can this be?

I am curious.





Q&A: Caputo

26 08 2010

how did you come to his works? —dmf

dmf—who clearly knows more about John Caputo’s works than I do—asked me the above question. Given that Caputo is not widely read by political scientists nor, almost certainly, by the general public, it’s the kind of particular query which opens up to the more general: how’dja find this [relatively unknown] cat?

For Caputo and me, the answer is twofold:

1. I read a long review of his works in the online version of Christianity Today; given the length of the essay, I think it was in the Books & Culture section. I was intrigued.

2. I worked in the philosophy section of the Astor Place Barnes & Noble and noticed we had a copy of Caputo and Gianni Vattimo’s After the Death of God. Employees are allowed to borrow hardcover books from their store, so I plucked this one out.

That’s the twinned short answer; here’s the bifurcated longer answer:

Early in my grad school career I became interested in the question of knowledge. It didn’t initially cohere into an inquiry into epistemology, but I did note that many of the questions I had about x, y, or z phenomena would lead me to questions about the approaches to x, y, or z phenomena, which led, ultimately, to questions about any approach to any phenomenon—in other words, not only how do we know what we know, but how do we determine something is a ‘what’ worthy (or at least capable) of being known, and what does it mean that something has been plucked out of the everything to become a ‘what’ in this particular way.

(These kinds of questions, it should be said, can go on for a very long time. You get the drift. . . .)

Epistemological issues were all the rage (really!) in some parts of the academy in the 1990s, which is when I did the bulk of my graduate work. Early on I was a dogmatic post-modernist and quite glib in my denuciations of Liberalism, the concept of the unitary individual, and the notion that we could ever truly know anything. Ah, the joys of the supercharged nihilist!

Then time did its thing, I mellowed, and while I didn’t surrender my skepticism, I no longer held it in such esteem. I don’t know that we can know, but we seem to make do, in the meantime. I toss a lot of knowledge into the category of the ‘provisional’ and go on from there.

There’s much more behind this, of course, but this is reasonable gloss on where I am now.

So I’m much less dogmatic than I used to be, more curious, and more willing to retrieve from my own personal ash-heap notions that had seem dead, naive, or hopelessly problematic. (Note: that something was ‘hopelessly problematic’ was reason both for my know-it-all (!) nihilist self to toss it and my curious self to retrieve it.) One of those things I had tossed was hermeneutics.

My department was very strong in political theory, but most of the theorists were suspicious of the turn theory seemed to be making away from the history of thought and toward considerations of method. Still, there were courses on method, and in one of those courses we mucked around a bit in hermeneutics. This, however, was a hermeneutics of the Gadamer sort, that is, an explicitly backwards-looking interpretation of tradition and meaning.

I have my disagreements with Habermas, but I think he nails it with regard to this type of interpretation: it is the method of the museum.

So to have come across Caputo and Vattimo and their arguments about ‘weak theology’ and nihilism and radical hermeneutics, well, I was intrigued: This was not your father’s interpretive method.

Couple this with an ongoing interest in questions of existence and hop-skip-jump I am led down another rabbit hole.

The second element at play concerns curiosity and cowardice among the credentialed. You see, once you get a degree, you [are able to] assume a level of expertise about your particular field. This expertise requires you both to know the Big Names and Big Debates and to have more answers than questions; it also requires you to shun certain topics and authors as unworthy of Serious Consideration.

In short, you know whose name to drop and whose to dismiss.

Now, I had never heard of either Caputo or Vattimo when I was in grad school, and I have no reason to believe that either had any kind of reputation, good or bad, among political theorists. Still, they were (are?) outliers among my kind, which makes them risky: If others haven’t heard of them, how are you to talk about them? Perhaps there’s a good reason no one else has heard of them; perhaps there’s something wrong with you for thinking so highly of them. . . .

Please note that no one has ever actually said any of these things to me; no, the responsibility for carrying this particular set of neuroses lies with me. But having been acculturated into academia, and by remaining even tangentially involved (as an adjunct) in my field, I remain caught in those cross-currents of ‘credentiality’; perhaps as an adjunct I am even more vulnerable to questions about my legitimacy as a political theorist.

Yet I have also, because I am an adjunct who is not looking for a tenure-track position, had the space to turn around and look at what and why it is I am doing, on the margins, in the academy. What is the purpose of my presence in the classroom?

And that is where Caputo and Vattimo have led me, in their forward-looking or radical hermeneutics: What is your purpose? What is the point? What is the meaning? What are the possibilities?

Answers are fine and necessary things, and in certain contexts require their own kind of courage. But the questions! Those can always get you into real trouble.





Bow to your partner, bow to the corner

3 06 2010

So here’s the other side to my nice, little, ‘enough-with-the-rules-already’ post:

  • Don’t walk out of a building heading right and looking left
  • So you don’t want to lose your primo spot in front of the door on the train. I get it. But can you at least stand sideways when people are trying to get on or off the train?
  • Litter, people, stop littering!
  • Don’t stop on the top of the stairs at Bowling Green station during rush hour to answer your phone—step to the side!
  • Don’t stop in the middle of a busy sidewalk to do. . . whatever—step to the side!
  • And can we talk about those monster golf umbrellas?
  • Gum-cracking? Chewing with your mouth open? Just, no.
  • . . . et cetera

I am a tyrant at heart—at least on Mondays, Wednesdays, and alternating Fridays. These rules make sense, so that if only everyone would follow them, we’d all be muuuuch better off.

See how that starts?

Were I not curious—curiosity is one of the more anarchic sensibilities—I’d be completely out of control trying to wrangle everyone under control.

Some of us are temperamentally balanced, others, well, we gotta work a little harder at it.





Be like Johnnie too good, well don’t you know he never shirks

16 12 2009

Hate grading. Hate hate hate grading.

It’s not just the labor of it—tho’ it is also the labor of it—so much as the pointlessness of the process.

Identify this, define that, explain how this fits with that. . . oh my god, I’m falling asleep already. But don’t worry, I’ll rouse myself with coffee or beer (what the hell) and read every fucking word written before scribbling a number which just might bear some relationship to the worth of that collection of words.

Dot i’s, cross t’s, jump hoops, student and teacher alike. You get a grade, I get a paycheck.

So why bother with grading at all? Well, there’s that matter of the student needing a grade and my desire for that paycheck.

Practicalities, in other words.

Please don’t think that, if I had my druthers, I’d abandon all work requirements for the students. If you are not a prodigy or genius and you want to learn, you have to work. (And if you are a prodigy or genius and you want to be good, you have to work.)

The problem is that the work required for learning is only approximated by the work required for grading, and often, not even that.

I shape and cut and alter the course requirements, but, in the end, what I grade only partially captures what they learn, and, for that matter, what they haven’t learned.

A big part of the problem, perhaps even the main problem, is that most students don’t much care about learning. They care about grades, yes, performance, at times, but learning? Mm, no.

How do I know this? Besides the dearth of students who visit me during office hours to discuss the material, or who approach me wanting help puzzling through a problem I posed, or who show any energy at all in class or in the written work? Besides the slack look on their faces when I ask them the most basic questions about the material? Besides the utter lack of interest in finding their own way into the material?

Simple: because every once in a while, one of them does learn something, and he or she is overwhelmed—because they don’t expect to learn.

Understand? They don’t expect to learn, so when it does happen—when an insight or a question percolates up and into their consciousness—they are visibly giddy or discombobulated or even scared. I never knew. . . .Is this real. . .  ? How could this be. . . ?

I’m not exaggerating. I’ve had students stand in front of me with their mouths opening and closing  and their eyes wide and darting as they attempt to corral this feeling into words. They are agape in the presence of knowledge.

I let them work their ways through it, tell them they have something real, and that they should do whatever they can to make sense, that I will help them to make sense.

It doesn’t always work. You can see them back down, or let it go, or watch as they’re distracted by other matters.

But even then, with those who seem to have tossed their insights aside, you can see an angle to their thoughts, and you know it’s still in there, somewhere.

There’s no way to capture that, that abashed curiosity, in a grade. On the margins, maybe, but in the main? No.

This is why I hate grading. This is why I love teaching.