Do you feel real?

19 08 2016

I am not a successful academic.

I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’ve neither attended a conference nor submitted any papers for publication in over a decade. And yes, while I’m working on this ideologies project (which means I may end up submitting paper proposals to a conference or two), I’d have to say that I have not done the work of a good scholar.

I don’t like admitting it, but there it is.

Which is my way of wandering into this New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is, of course, a successful—a very successful—academic. She has, per that profile,

published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas.

Very, very successful.

Now, it’s true that I don’t like all of her books, but I have a number of them on my bookshelf and have used her work in my classroom. I’d guess that not only does she work harder than me, but that she’s also smarter than me and that if I ever got into an argument with her I’d almost certainly lose.

So, I’m not competing with her because I can’t compete with her: she’s way out of my league.

That said (you knew there’d be a “that said”, or maybe a “but still”), reading that profile made me uneasy: Is she for real?

~~~

“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”

This makes a great deal of sense, and Nussbaum certainly does seem open to the world.

Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”

But, as Rachel Aviv observes,

In Nussbaum’s case, I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. [. . .]

. . . when I first proposed the idea of a Profile . .  [s]he responded skeptically, writing in an e-mail that she’d had a long, varied career, adding, “I’d really like to feel that you had considered various aspects of it and that we had a plan that had a focus.” She typically responded within an hour of my sending an e-mail. “Do you feel that you have such a plan?” she asked me. “I’d like to hear the pros and cons in your view of different emphases.” She wasn’t sure how I could encompass her œuvre, since it covered so many subjects: . . . “The challenge for you would be to give readers a road map through the work that would be illuminating rather than confusing,” she wrote, adding, “It will all fall to bits without a plan.”

I understand that one may seek to control as much as possible about one’s own life in recognition that there’s so much that can’t be controlled, but there’s appears to be little that Nussbaum accepts as out of one’s control.

That philosophers write one prescription and follow another is so common as to be axiomatic. But I find it jarring that a scholar of humanity who, remarking on operatic role she’s rehearsing, says “I feel that this character is basically saying, ‘Life is treating me badly, so I’m going to give up,’ ” she told me. “And I find that totally unintelligible.”

Oh my Hera, Martha, so many of us give up so often, how can you talk of a “society of citizens who admit” being shattered, needy, and vulnerable when you can’t see that humans who are shattered sometimes give up?

As Aviv notes, Nussbaum does give emotions pride of place in her philosophy, as a kind of ur-cognition. And there’s something to that, to the breakdown of the affect-vs-intellect duality. But in assigning emotions a cognitive role, she overlooks that emotions have their own role, as emotions.

This is tough for me, not least because I once aspired to the kind of Stoicism that Nussbaum seems to have achieved (and which may be yet another reason I respond so strongly to her). Yet I’ve spent too many years twisting and then untwisting myself not to see that feelings are more than just thoughts untamed, always to be subordinated to reason. I have difficulty with this still, but I can at least acknowledge that sometimes, sometimes, it is not the worst thing to feel, first.

Nussbaum allows the feeling, but only properly tamed. She feels through her thoughts, which is an accomplishment. And a loss.

~~~

There’s a great deal more in the profile—the discussion of her colonoscopy, her willingness to strip in front of others, her use of Botox and plastic surgery, and more—which, as someone who’d rather not appear in my skivvies in front of colleagues, older or younger (and would prefer they keep their clothes on, as well), only heightened my unease.

But then, on submitting that feeling to reason, I admit that it doesn’t make sense to feel embarrassed on behalf of someone who is matter-of-fact in dealing with her facts of life. And it allowed me to see Nussbaum, in all her determined discipline, as, well, a bit odd.

And thus, all the more real for her oddness.

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You thought you’d try a little danger

9 07 2014

Ohhh, I’m so lucky I don’t have a smartphone.

If I had a smartphone, I’d be on Twitter, and if I were on Twitter, I’d never leave.

I’m not at all tempted to join Facebook (ha!), but I see Twitter as a kind of endless cyber-can of deliciously salty Pringles.

The only defense I have against deliciously salty Pringles is not to buy them. If I have them in the house, I scarf them all down in one or two (sometimes—rarely—I can stretch it out to three) days, after which I tip the can back so I can suck in those  remaining splintered bits.

So, Twitter=Pringles—only in this case it would be the tweets I’d write rather than consume that I’d find so addictive.

Women shouldn’t have sex. . . with people who think women shouldn’t have sex.

Brand loyalty is for suckers.

Know where you live, live where you are.

These aren’t bad, really, but I often think I’m more clever than I am, and could see myself dropping  line after line thinking each were a bon mot, when really they’d be less literary than littering.

Which would be embarrassing, but even worse would be that I’d have yet another distraction from my work: instead of thinking, I’d be twinking.

*Uhkf* It’s gonna suck when my dumb phone dies.





Running to stand still

18 11 2012

What is the line between acceptance and resignation? Is there a line?

I do not accept my body.  No, wait, that’s not right: It’s my body, and it feels like my body, and some parts are fine and some parts are not, blah blah.

But it is rounder than I would like and I wonder if this is what inevitably happens with age or with the shifting assertion of my Absurd and Beat genes or if this is simply the result of my unwillingness to give up cheese and beer and chocolate or to work out more than I do.

If it is a battle of wills, then my will for my kick-ass home-made peanut butter bars is kicking my will for a taut ass.

I’ve been going to the gym for over two (three?) years and have “progressed”: I am stronger and my muscles have more definition and despite my recent back-induced sabbatical, I’m confident that this trend will continue.

Why the scare quotes for “progress”? Because in this context I’m not sure what it means. Is progress about gaining strength, or staving off decline? Is it about being healthy for my age, or to be healthier than others my age—to be healthy for someone younger than me? Is there some point at which I won’t add be able to add more weight, to increase my speed on the bike or treadmill or loop around the park? Will it be progress simply to be able to do anything at all?

I’d like to run the New York marathon some day, and to do that I will train, with a clear goal in mind (finish within a respectable period of time).

But I’m not now training for that marathon, I’m training for. . . huh: I’m not training at all. I want to look better and feel better even if I don’t know what “better” means, I know that it’s not what I look like now. I’d like to be leaner, tighter: I’d like my discipline apparent in my body.

Ah, and there it is: my discipline is apparent in my body.

*Sigh*





Mayan campaign mashup 2012: Twisting round to make me think you’re straight down the line

14 08 2012

Let’s play pundit!

C’mon, it’s easy: Just take a stray thought (either your own or one you overheard standing in line for coffee or maybe from that always-wise taxi-driver) and expand it into a Theory of Everything, alternate wrinkling your brow with raising your eyebrows, slip in a cliche or two to assure your audience that you’re not straying too far from the reservation [see what I did there?]—and don’t forget at some point to say, “Look, . . .” And if you can, work in a hand gesture to emphasize your insights; it also helps to sell your sincerity.

Here we go:

“I think one angle which has been neglected is the question of comfort. Mitt Romney is a famously disciplined man, so is it any surprise that he would choose another man with a reputation for discipline? Ryan has, rightly or wrongly, the reputation of a man willing to do the heavy-lifting on arcane budget matters and to make the tough decisions. He’s also known for his punishing workout routine.

“Ryan also knows how to stay on message—a terrifically important factor to the machine that is the Romney campaign. Romney has to know that his running mate will reinforce his message, not step all over it, or, as President Obama once said about Joe Biden, ‘get out over his skis’.

“Romney could have chosen someone who contrasted with his image, someone like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie’s blunt talk would have served him well in the traditional attack-dog role assigned to vice presidents, and I think not a few journalists following the campaign would look forward to the jousts between the let-‘er-rip vice-presidential candidates.

“But it is precisely that let’s-wing-it approach to politics which likely put Romney off Christie. And, let’s face it, that Christie is overweight could be seen by Romney as evidence for a general laxity. Could you see these two men sitting down together—well, not over a beer [ha ha!]—to shoot the breeze? You can just see Romney cringe as Christie lets loose with a few choice words.

“Tim Pawlenty, I don’t think, was ever a serious contender. He ran a terrible campaign and quit far too quickly. I think Romney appreciates ambition and boldness, and Pawlently is conspicuously lacking in both.

“I have to say, I’m a bit mystified why he didn’t choose Rob Portman. Ohio is crucial to victory in November, and having Portman on the ticket might have made all the difference. Maybe a chemistry thing.

“Speaking of chemistry, could anyone really see Bobby Jindal running alongside Mitt Romney? Sure, a fine family man, but he’s been shrinking ever since his disastrous Scarecrow-sounding response to the president’s State of the Union speech. And Louisiana, hm, Romney is definitely not a laissez-les-bons-temps rouler kind of guy.

“And the women, well, the women I’m sorry to say were probably never considered due to the Palin factor. Nikki Haley is a first-term governor, as is Susan Martinez in New Mexico, and Kelly Ayotte has been in the Senate for less than two years. These women might be serious contenders in 2016, but putting one of these women on the ticket would draw comparisons the Romney campaign would prefer to avoid.

“It’s also not clear how comfortable Romney is with women. He has four, excuse me, five sons, worked in private equity—a very male, and, I should point out, a very white field—and as an elder in the Mormon Church hasn’t had a lot of exposure to women in powerful positions. Sure, his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts was a woman, but how much interaction has he had with women as equals?

“I mean, look at this campaign staff. It’s all men—all white men. Look, I’m not saying he wouldn’t have chosen a Hispanic candidate if that person was head and shoulders above everyone else, but Romney is clearly most comfortable with people most like himself.

“Paul Ryan is a lot like Mitt Romney. Intense, ambitious, disciplined. A religious man, a family man, and hey, with a nice head of hair [ha ha!] There may be a downside to having someone who seems to reinforce some of Romney’s more robotic tendencies than to soften them, but Ryan’s sincerity likely resonates with Romney’s own straight-arrow demeanor and, who knows, his earnestness may come across as endearing to undecided voters.

“None of this is to discount the policy implications of the pick, of course, or whether any of this will pan out in November, but I do think this pick tells us something about Romney and what kind of people he would surround himself if he does win the presidency.”

~~~

See how easy that was? Plausible, sober, and completely without recourse to any research whatsoever! I have no idea who his closest advisers are, and I know for a fact that there are some women high up in his campaign, but why bother with the labors of an internet search when I can just pull this stuff out of my navel? (Or, to be honest, from a shoot-the-shit conversation with T.)

Now, I did run a search for his campaign staff before I wrote the piece and found a handy sheet documenting his various staffers and advisers, but I didn’t look at it until just now. Whaddya know, there are a number of women in key positions (chief of staff to the exec director Kelli Harrison, deputy campaign manager Kelly Packer Gage, senior adviser Beth Myers, among others)—but hey, why let a few facts get in the way of punditry?

Besides, a really good pundit knows how to spin away inconvenient truths, noting that “it is well-known that his closest adviser is Bob White, and let’s not forget his campaign manager, Matt Rhoades, who’s been with Romney since the ’08 campaign. It’s not that women don’t have a role, but, with the exception of Myers, they’re all more organizational than strategic.”

Again, I have no idea if any of that is true. If I were a real political reporter and not just a Sabbath gasbag I would talk to people in and around the campaign, closely observe the candidate when he’s with his staff to see who he consults, see who’s quoted in the newspaper and who gives interviews, and then and only then, and based on a general background knowledge of what is expected roles of various staffers and advisers in any campaign, would I venture any suggestions as to the possible meanings of the Ryan pick.

But that’s too much like real work, and the evidence might get in the way of my narrative—and as a pundit, you should never let anything get in the way of your narrative.

That’s how the pros do it.





Watching the tide roll away

6 09 2009

I am the most undisciplined person in the world. The world! The universe! The MULTIVERSE!

Okay, maybe not the multiverse. Maybe just in my apartment.

Where I live alone.

(The cats? They’re cats! They do want they want.)

Lack of discipline differs from laziness—tho’ I am, of course, also prone to laziness—in that the problem is located in the lack, not in the effort. Properly harnessed, I can work like the dickens.

Left to roam free, however, and I simply wander, nose about the field, and am apt to lie down for good, long, nap.

As an occasional phenomenon, this is not only not a problem, but even a delight. As a regular occurrence, however, it doesn’t refresh, but enervates.

Low-key folk may welcome enervation, but I am not a member of that particular tribe. It’s not—exactly—that I’m high-strung, but I am restless, ambitious, and voracious. I need to do.

I’ll avoid the whole doing-vs-being discussion (for now), noting simply the fulcrum for  balance may be set differently for me than it is for others: I need a fair amount of doing to make sense of my being.

Unfortunately, I’m shit about doing unless forced. The mere need, in other words, is insufficient motive.

Fortunately, I can respond to the flimsiest of force, especially if that force makes a kind of sense. A self-made list is indeed flimsy, but it also makes sense: Here are the things I want to accomplish. It sets out in physical form tasks I set for myself, makes it separate from me, and gives me a means of satisfaction when tasks are completed, i.e., I get to cross them off the list.

I don’t know why it’s satisfying, and I don’t care. It makes sense because it works for me, even if the underlying reasons for why it works remain murky. I don’t need endless epistemological iteration of the appeal of list-making and crossing-off, I need something to get my ass in gear.

‘Working model’ or ‘beta-version’ or ‘jury-rigged’ or ‘throwing spaghetti at the wall’—whatever. It’s a means, not an end.

Now, not everything is on the list. I don’t need to put things like ‘brush teeth’ or ‘clean litter box’ or ‘eat’—these are sufficiently habitual and/or vital that they carry their own force. (And besides, I’m not that pathetic.) Nor do I need to remind myself to read for my courses, print out notes, or grade: the requirements of teaching keep me in line. Ditto with wage-work generally.

And I don’t need any (well, not usually) prompts to keep in touch with friends. Pleasure has its own rewards.

The only kind of work for which I need no external constraints is writing. When I want to write, I do, and once I start writing, I almost always want to continue writing. I think this is partly due to knowing that I’m pretty good at writing, partly that it’s not hard for me, and largely because I write to find out what happens, i.e., I’m curious, and that’s enough to drive me on.

This is also why I don’t sketch out what I’m going to do in advance. As I paused in writing this post, I was thinking about writing my dissertation, and how different writing that was from writing my novels. Yeah, duh, but there’s something central to both types of writing: not knowing how it ends. In fact, I had a hell of a time writing my dissertation as long as I thought I knew all that I would think about the argument. I had to tell myself that I did not, in fact, know how the dissertation would ‘end’, that I had to let it play itself out. It was only then that I was actually able to sit my ass down and write the thing.

So writing I can do because writing is something I can do.

Pitching and selling what I write? That’s on the list.