Try to see it your way

1 12 2011

I am not, as you know, a particularly religious person.

An agnostic, I believe I have called myself on severaleventy occasions. A-gnostic, as in, I lack knowledge [about matters of God]; skeptic regarding claims of god/s would also work, as would unbeliever when it comes to the supernatural (such that if there is any kind of being who might be called a god, that being would exist within and not outside of nature, insofar as I don’t believe that anything exists outside of nature).

Hm, perhaps I should have included more brackets and/or parentheses.

Anyway, despite by a-skepti-gnosti-naturalism, I remain interested in many things religion, and for all kinds of reasons (none of which—look! more parentheses!—I’ll discuss here).

Which brings me to this little jewel of a thought, quoted by Kurt Frederickson, and re-quoted by Fred Clark:

Swedish Lutheran theologian Krister Stendhal offers us three guidelines for broader religious understanding. He says: (1) When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its critics. (2) Don’t compare the best of your faith to the worst of another’s. (3) Leave room for “holy envy.” Recognize elements in the other religious tradition that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own. These suggestions change the conversation. It enhances the dialogue and our lives.

A fine set of guidelines, easily adaptable for any kind of conversation in which anyone seeks to understand anything.

Now, if I didn’t have a cold and my brain wasn’t fooked by microbes, I’d use this as a take-off for a discussion of John Caputo, Gianni Vattimo, radical hermeneutics, weak theology, and just what the hell is meant by the “hard” versus the “soft” sciences and why that distinction is fucked up and bullshit, but, like I said, my own brain is fucked up and bullshit, so there you go.

Anyway, understanding. Yeah.


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.

I’m lying by the road/because she cut off all my clothes

2 06 2010

Enough, already. Enough.

Enough with the rules, with the regs, with the rights and wrongs and victims and perps and goods and evils and innocent and damned. Enough.

No, I haven’t deliquesced into a moral puddle on the floor—I’ve got a fan in the window—or lobotomized myself with an icepick*. And I’m as cranky and squint-eyed as ever.

But I’m also finally, finally beginning to understand what Caputo and Vattimo are getting at with their radical hermeneutics and weak theology and the utter necessity of resignation.

A resignation of a particular sort, I hasten to add, one which begins rather than ends inquiry.

Part of this understanding began amidst my adjunct teaching, when I gave up punishing students for handing in work late. Just get it done, I now say. The work matters more than the date.

I could do that because the terms of my contract are clearly defined: I’m paid for x-number of hours, full-stop. I’m not trying to get tenure, not trying to impress colleagues with my dedication to departmental norms, not trying to impress students with how ‘hard’ I am. To get paid, I simply need to fulfill the terms of my contract.

But since I don’t get paid that much, I had to ask, So, why am I doing this? I’m doing this because I like it, because I think it matters, because I think the students should know this, because there is something more in the material itself.

I’m a pretty good teacher—not great, but not bad. But because I am finally learning to clear out the bureaucratic hedges which have occluded my pedagogical sight, I’ve given myself the chance to offer those students a glimpse of . . . of. . . of knowledge, of questions, of human being beyond those hedges.

Ahh, crap, this all sounds. . . woo, and I am most definitely not a fan of woo—metaphysics!—nor am I trying for some kind of vagueness as a way to avoid the hard edges of being. I do, after, still follow rules, still bitch when others don’t (is it really so hard to put your trash in the can?), and still impose rules on my students.

But the rules are provisional, practical in the most rooted sense of the term: as means to ends, not ends in themselves. Will this paper help the students learn something? Yes. Will punishing them for handing it in late serve any purpose? No.

And I’m lucky in my ability to dissolve some of these rules: I don’t have 150 students and two TAs who have their own work. Perhaps if I did I could work out something else, but, honestly, had I gone the tenure-track route at a large school, I almost certainly would have not only left those nice hedges alone, but planted a few more. The point, then, would have been to get tenure, and everything else would have been shaped to serve that purpose.

That’s not a rip on tenure-track faculty—some of my best friends have tenure—but a recognition of how one’s necessities get ordered, how my necessities would have been ordered, and without me quite realizing it.

Perhaps I would have come to it, eventually; perhaps, after earning tenure, I would have thought, Okay, so what was all that for?

This is what Vattimo means by nihilism: the shedding of the unnecessary, the recognition that almost nothing is necessary, so that one is confronted with the question, Now what?

I have resisted this, largely because I like the sharpness of edges, because I do hold to my allegiances, and because I not only do not want to let some people off their hooks, I actively want them to remain on the hook. I think there is a distinction between clear thinking and obsfucation, between teaching and manipulation, and between domination and liberation.

But these are, in the end, practical skills and political positions, and, as much as they matter, there is still that question beyond them: What for?

I don’t have the answers, don’t know if I even know what these answers would look like.

But, still, I am giving up: there’s too much to see.

(*Yes, there really was a type of lobotomy performed with an icepick: the transorbital  lobotomy. I’ve got pictures!)

h/t: J., for the 3pm walkabouts. . . .


8 09 2008

C. is FINALLY finishing a big job, so I hope this means she’ll be able to create her blog sooner rather than later. Yeah, lady, I’m a-waitin’!

I’m reading John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, in part because it’s at least somewhat related to a course I’m teaching, and partly to get at the issue Lucretia raised some time ago: how to deal with those who demand respect for claims you, in fact, don’t respect.

And I will talk about this, but first, I have to say how much I dislike reading philosophers on politics. Contemporary philosophers, I mean: those who have to nail down every last damned point before they can even begin their argument. (Nevermind that in the process of the nailing they are, in fact, shaping the argument. Some acknowledge this, some don’t.) It’s not that I don’t appreciate the work, or that I don’t think it’s not, on some levels, necessary. But it sure ain’t sufficient, and to a non-philosopher like me, it’s tiresome.

I know, I know: as a political theorist I should bow my head in before the clearly superior philosophy, and I should be ashamed—ashamed!—to admit my boredom with the perspecuity of the philosophical presentation. But I don’t and I’m not.

This isn’t a slam on philosophy generally. I took up John Caputo’s Radical Hermeneutics awhile ago (along with some other stuff), as well as the work of Gianni Vattimo, and I’d really like more time to get back to their stuff. Their work on the theology of the event and weak theology, in particular, is fascinating. And I’d like to read more Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel and more names than I can conjure on this Sunday evening.

But not about politics. It’s not that philosophers or economists or psychologists can’t or shouldn’t discuss politics—I’m a big believer in cross-contamination—but however acute they are in their analyses, I’m unwilling to yield the field to them. Yeah, there’s a bit of boundary patrolling going on, but there’s also something to be said about studying politics as a subject unto itself, and not merely as an adjunct to another subject. In short, I think boundary crossing works best when there are, in fact, boundaries.

Politics is largely a mess. Philosophy, arguably, is about cleaning up messes. Good for them, but I prefer the mess.