We might as well try: You make the best of what’s still around

15 07 2012

We’re a mess.

You want to know why social scientists like models and abstractions and formalisms? It’s because we’re a mess, and it’s tough to know where and how to begin in a mess; impose order, and all of a sudden those messes reveal a clean kind of meaning, shorn of stray bits of paper and belly lint and someone suddenly slamming on the brakes for no apparent reason.

This isn’t a knock on modeling, and I’m a big fan of models precisely because they bring clarity, allow us to see patterns where, before, there was only mess. But when using models you can never forget that they are, in fact, models, a cleaned-up and edited version of reality, not reality itself.* Models are great for understanding a particular thing about a general phenomenon or a number of things about a particular phenomenon, but they can be both stretched out of shape trying to explain too much or so stingy in what they take in they explain nothing at all.**

Anyway, I don’t want to get too bogged down*** in measurement or even conscious interpretation, especially since I’m trying to figure out what comes before said measurement or conscious interpretation.

Which is to say, the mess.

If I don’t have a theory or a model for this mess, I do have a direction—find damned-near-indisputably necessary bits to human being.

Damned-near-indisputably-necessary bit 1: We are mortal beings.

We’re born, we live, we die. No one enters life without having been born****, and no one stays forever. Whether there is something before or after life is disputed, as is the significance of that extra-life existence, but, today, every yesterday, and for the foreseeable future, our mortality is sufficiently indisputable as to be called a fact.

D-n-i-n bit 2: We are biological beings.

This goes along with our mortality: as far as is known, everything biological is of necessity mortal. But this has a particular meaning beyond our mortality, since as biological beings we have particular needs required to keep that biology working. We need food and water and protection from both the elements and predators. We can become ill, get better; we break, we mend; we live as physical beings within a particular environment and if we are not able to meet our biological needs within that environment, we either move or die.

D-n-i-n bit 3: We are social beings.

Some people dispute this; those people should be ignored.

This is not about a kumbaya vision of cooperative harmony, but a recognition that we are all helpless at the beginning of life (and many at the end); if we are not cared for during that extended period of helplessness, we die.

Furthermore, given that that period is so extended—ten years, minimum—the process of said care results in the child learning the basics of species-being, that is, language, which in turn allows one to interact with others of our kind.

I want to say more about the centrality of language to human sociality, but that would take me into less-than-indisputably-necessary bits, and the point in this post, at least, is to try to nail down something about us which any model or theory has to take into account if it is worth considering at all.

Do you remember my bit on epistemology-ontology-the practical? Of course you do! Well, I’ve hopped over the epistemological and landed us in the ontological, or, er, the proto-ontological(?!): If I won’t rely on FOUNDATIONS, then I have to at least tack a few boards together before we swing out over the abyss or float down the river or whatever metaphor doesn’t give you vertigo or make you seasick.

Where was I? Yes, the basics: We’re mortal, we’re biological, we’re social.

We’re also other things—important other things, which I’ll tack on in later posts—but I wanted to reiterate those basics on which I not only build my interpretations and theories, but upon which all interpretations and theories about human being should be built. Other people will legitimately tack on other things (that mess gives us a LOT to choose from) and swing or float in different directions, but if they start with such nonsense as “assume a can opener”, well, then they’re engaging in social-science fiction.

I got nothin’ against science fiction—I’m a fan, actually—but if you want to claim you’re saying something “real” about the world, then you better damned well deal with the damned-near-indisputable realities of this world, and our being human in it.


*Well, okay, this gets epistemologically tricky, insofar as the view through which one views a phenomenon affects the phenomenon itself. Reality is never just “there”; it’s always and unavoidably worked on. But there is a distinction between unavoidable oft-unconscious interpretation and the conscious imposition of a schema, which is what I’m trying get at, here. The distinction itself matters, and deserves further investigation—but not in this post.

**This goes for theory, as well, although theory tends to err on the side of trying to do too much than too little; a theory which does too little tends to lose its status as ‘theory’.

***That’s why this stuff is in the notes rather than the body. I’m one of those who thinks you ought to be able to skip the footnotes without missing anything important—notes are for sources and elaborations on basic points, not the introduction of novel material—so imma gonna just drop the whole shebang for now.

****What if we ever manage to figure out how to hatch a person or otherwise build one in a lab? What if we figure out how to live forever? Well, then the conditions of existence would have changed and we’d have to figure out what those new conditions mean. But we ain’t there yet.

They tell you not to hang around and learn what life’s about

4 06 2012

Another late-late, quick-quick:

Started my summer class last week, and man, it was a good start. A small class, but lively, and ready to talk about anything—crucial when you’re stuffed in a room together for 2 1/2 hours at a pop.

(I give them my standard warning: I do love the sound of my own voice, but ye gods, that’s too much even for me. If y’all don’t participate, we’re all going to want to throw ourselves out the window. . . .)

Anyway, what I wanted to mention was their reaction to my standard epistemological-ontological-practical mini-lecture: they could not get enough of it; specifically, they could not get enough of the ontological piece.

Only one student had any familiarity with the word (which, for the purposes of this course, I define as being or being-in-the-world) itself, but they keyed in immediately on the meaning of the concept, especially after I mentioned that while most folks don’t think much or ever about epistemological matters, and while most of live day-to-day at the practical level, the ontological does intrude. Moments of crises or transition, I observed, are when we really question ourselves, who we are and what are we doing.

And with that, they were off, offering all kinds of insights about being and how they’ve handled their own experiences with the question of being. They kept going and going and it’s quite likely almost the entire class would have stayed past the third hour had I not signaled that it was time to go.

And even then, that wasn’t enough: They came up one by one to say something more, anything more, to keep the conversation going. One man, probably around my age, came up to me, eyes wide, and said, I never heard of that word before, but I know exactly what that is. I didn’t know there was a word for that, but I know it, I’ve lived it. He was, simply, stunned.

I joke that my pedagogical mantra is I aim to trouble you, but, honestly, this is the best kind of trouble.

This is why I teach.

Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is

15 11 2010

We’re fucked.

That was my response to Jtt.’s question of how to think through this present historical moment. Jtt., of course, is a ‘dogmatic Marxist!’ [said with downward chopping arm motion] while I am merely marxish. Regardless of our differences, however, we share a, ah, certain skepticism with regard to the consequences of a capitalism unfettered by any convincing and practical critique.

Who is there? we asked ourselves. Zizek? Please. The man has the intellectual chops and global scope, but he’s rather too impressed with his own cleverness, a cleverness which substitutes for actual imagination. Habermas has aired himself out into abstraction, and the [post-]Marxists such as Laclau, Mouffe, and Eagleton have either turned inward or narrowed their vision. Their works are still worth reading, but hardly inspiring to the non-theorist.

What happened to critical theory? Marx wrote at a time of great intellectual ferment, following hard on the works of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, and mixing it up with contemporaries such as Proudhon (‘property is theft’) and Feuerbach. And not only did he inspire 20th century theorists and revolutionaries, he laid out a critique to which even non-Marxist felt compelled to respond.

And now? Well now we get, as Nicholas Carr points out, critics of the current modes of communications economics squeaking that they’re ‘not communists!‘ Nope, instead of rigorous historical analysis, we get cotton-candy encomiums to ‘quadrants’ of innovation or the glib giddiness of ‘free‘.

I could point to a certain enervation on the part of capitalist theory as well, but as I am not a capitalist, I leave it to those folks to figure themselves out. I will at least note that there is some stirring in the small pots of ‘behavioral economics’ which take note of how people actually make (or don’t make, as it were) economic decisions, but however welcome is this dose of reality in the sclerotic delusions of the freshwater economists, it is, still, small.

And we leftist and leftish and pink and red folk? Christ. Completely out of it.

Our problem is twofold. One is the collapse of anything like a communist world. There’s Cuba and then there’s. . . Cuba. China is authoritarian capitalist, and North Korea a cultic autarky; Chavez in Venezuela fashions himself a modern-day Bolivar, but his brand of charismatic strong-state leadership is more populist than socialist, and while there are so-called revolutionary leaders in a number of African countries, the politics and economics in these countries instead simply revolve around a party or a personality.

What about Vietnam and Laos, you say? What about ’em?

No, I am sorry to say, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rule of Communist parties across Eastern Europe not only mirrors but in fact reveals the poverty of socialist thought today. I am not at all sorry that the USSR and its client states—almost all brutal regimes—have collapsed, but that they have done so means that capitalist theorists no longer see the need for a vigorous defense of capitalism per se and, as such, content themselves with such matters as quantitative easing and currency manipulation.

More crucially, those of us on the left are left to grapple with the failure of both the ruling and the rule and of communist regimes. Communism was supposed to liberate people and instead it imprisoned them, and no amount of weasling about Stalinist or even Bolshevik distortions can get us around the plain fact that communism failed.

The second piece involves the shattering of a unified epistemological field. Nietzsche began poking his fingers into the cracks of modern liberal thought in the 19th century, but not until the cataclysms of the two world wars and the Cold War confrontations in which the end of everything became possible did the optimism of knowledge shrink back into silence. Dare to know! Kant had exhorted; but now we are thrown back to the Baconian knowledge is power—with the slogan rewritten as threat.

The hermeneutics of suspicion have infected us all, and we who seek liberation distrust liberation movements. What is the downside; there is always a downside.

Bereft of confrontation and confidence, we marxishts have gone into hiding. Oh, we may be able to pull out the old man as a way of seeing into today’s historical conditions, but no longer can we say that there is anything better beyond this—and to those who do say so we can only say, with contempt, Prove it.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone, running away from sustained engagement in this historical-political moment and content to lob water-bombs of derision at the likes of those who squeak that they are not communists or intone on the verities of free.

Marx is dead and the revolution will not be televised. Mouthing revolutionary slogans or whitewashing the past in what-ifs is no substitute for thinking, for thinking down through the failures of communism and down into the successes of capitalism and through the fragments of the-truth-will-set-you-free.

Only then—perhaps—can we say if there is anything better.

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.

And fear the silence is the voice of God

19 09 2009

Legos or coins—which are you?

What, you don’t get what I’m referencing? Oh, that’s right, you weren’t in class this past Thursday.

As I’ve mentioned, I teach political science at a CUNY school, an endeavor which doesn’t pay much (or not at all: see previous post), but which I enjoy. Most of what I teach is pretty basic—100- and 200-level stuff (with occasional forays into the 300s)—which means I don’t usually get much of a chance to toss mind-blowing stuff at my students.

Except. . . except for the one lecture near the beginning of this particular 200-level course. I tell the students this will help them make sense of the readings, and I’m not lying, but, honestly, they could get by without this. I spend 60 or 75 minutes on this stuff because I dig it.

I begin by writing on the chalkboard the following:

The Good




(Because I’m html-illiterate, I’m unable to show the arrows running up and down between the levels. Luckily, the chalkboard doesn’t require html.)

I like to explain this spatially: epistemology is deep in the ground, ontology is in the middle layers, the practical-reflective on the surface, and the Good out in the sky.

After the requisite this-would-not-pass-muster-in-a-philosophy-class disclaimer, I dive into epistemology, or, How do you know what you know. The stuff of late night conversations, drug trips, or too many viewings of The Matrix. It’s tricky, I note, not least because any answer you give can be parried with a ‘. . . but how do you know that?’ and lead to endless regress.

Above that is ontology, which I define existentially: as a matter of Being-in-the-world. The key question here, I note, is Who are you? How do you understand yourself, your relationship to others, and to existence itself.

The practical-reflective: this is where most of us live, with the main question What to do? The use of the practical often stands in for pragmatic, but in this case I use it in terms of practice, as in the practices in which we engage, of how we order the doings of our lives. These aren’t merely banal issues: what to do can involve questions of love, work, where to live, whether to have children, etc.—hence, the reflective part. (And, as I tell the class, it’s also the level of politics, of how to arrange ourselves vis-a-vis one another and any authority we choose to install over and above ourselves.)

Before ascending to the Good, I pause and note that at times of crisis the ontological may crack open, and people may question who they are and what they’re doing with their lives. (More rarely, they may tumble into the epistemological abyss, a place more mind-blowing than any intoxicant, and one best scrambled out of as quickly as possible. Voluntary spelunking in the epistemological is to be discouraged, especially if unaccompanied by a guide.) In any case, while most people don’t think of their lives in terms of ontology, the questions which arise from it are not unfamiliar. I then point out that while most of our work for the course will deal with the practical-reflective, we will occasionally bounce down to the ontological—or up to the Good.

Finally, then, the Good. This term is taken from Plato, and denotes an eternal, fixed, reality—the Really Real, the True. Given that most people on the planet are religious, I point out, the Good is often understood in terms of God or gods*. It is that around which people orient themselves, or seek, or toward which they aim. Understandably, then, contemplation of the Good can affect how one approaches the questions at the other levels as well as how one acts.

(*The main secular competitor to god/s may be nationalism, with very strong versions allowing the nation to stand in for the god/s; less common would be an utter devotion to science and methodological naturalism. There are likely other ideological permutations as well.)

At this point, I gesture toward the arrows running along side of this little chart. One happens at one level can affect what happens at other levels, both up and down, but not necessarily so.

And thus, the Lego-vs-coin question.

For some people, the four levels are locked tightly together, as if they were Lego blocks. Knowing the Good can tell you how to act in the world, how to understand yourself in that world, and how you know anything at all. It is a comprehensive vision.

I’ll give at this point the example of the devout Christian who has a very strong sense of God, who tries to live her life according to her understanding of God, who thinks of herself as in this world but not of it, and who knows what she knows because God allows her to know. Even if her understanding is imperfect or she is occasionally confused, she nonetheless allows for very little light between the levels.

For others of us, however, the relationship between the levels is less certain; we have at best partial visions. I’m an epistemological skeptic, I’ll admit, and am not sure if we can know anything, not even, against Descartes, whether we exist. This past Thursday I analogized the levels to lumps in a bag, shifting and bumping against one another, but I think the better analogy is that of coins. Yeah, I can stack them on top of one another, but they don’t lock in, and they can be fairly easily scattered.

I didn’t go so far as to state that followers of the Good are all Lego-folk, and agnostics, coin collectors—and not just because that would  have taken me away from the point of this exercise (which was to tie it all back into political analysis). I think the predisposition to Legos or coins is a temperamental one, and that this temperament has no necessary relation to belief or skepticism.

(Okay, so dogmatic skepticism is difficult to square, but it’s also clear that devout believers may  carry a doubt or a humility great enough to prevent any lockdown. In any case, if it is temperamental, it’s not clear how much it can be changed.)

The students are popping in with questions and comments all throughout this exercise, and when we finish with the Good, usually one student will ask But what if we don’t all have the same Good?

Yesss! This leads rather nicely to a discussion of the theory we’ll be examining for the next month or two, and how it seeks to create framework for development which allows individuals to choose their own versions of the Good, and which discourages the imposition of any, one, version. Onward to politics!

This is all very nice, you might say, but I’m not your student, so why are you telling me this?

Because I’ve been preoccupied of late with matters which, I realize, are related to Legos and coins, and I don’t know that I could have approached them in this blog without sketching out the underpinnings of that approach.

Of course, now that I’ve so sketched them, it’ll probably be awhile before I bother with the matters themselves.

What can I say? My coins have scattered.