Tuesday, July 30, 2013

For those about to rock the JFP, we salute you...

Have Lectures — Will Travel
Adjunct Lecturer Vincent Price can draw Plato's Cave on the board faster than you can say, "The Matrix?"
Actually, no one salutes you, nobody.  

Not your parents ("Law school's still an option right?")...

Not your friends ("I made SO much money by not going to grad school!")...

Not your classmates ("I'm not, but you should really wait another year before going on the market...")

Not your advisors ("Why would you want to become as miserable as me?")...

Not your dream jobs ("Dear [insert applicant name here], you are uniquely amazing but...")...

And not even yourself ("Maybe I can change the world once my CV's in order?")...

But once you get that through your thick, phd head, you'll be able to become the cold, hard job applicant the philosophy world wants, nay needs you to be.  

Now go get 'em chalkslinger...
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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Philosophy of Cats and the Cats of Philosophy

CatvsKant
My cat tells me all the time, "Do not listen to Wittgenstein..."

From Aeon Magazine - If a Cat Could Talk by David Wood:
Painting by Thomas de Leu (Franco-Flemish pain...
Stop reading this, read Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne, in An Apology for Raymond Sebond (1580)captured this uncertainty eloquently. ‘When I play with my cat,’ he mused, ‘how do I know that she is not playing with me rather than I with her?’ So often cats disturb us even as they enchant us. We stroke them, and they purr. We feel intimately connected to these creatures that seem to have abandoned themselves totally to the pleasures of the moment. Cats seem to have learnt enough of our ways to blend in. And yet, they never assimilate entirely. In a trice, in response to some invisible (to the human mind, at least) cue, they will leap off our lap and re-enter their own space, chasing a shadow. Lewis Carroll’s image of the smile on the face of the Cheshire cat, which remains even after the cat has vanished, nicely evokes such floating strangeness. Cats are beacons of the uncanny, shadows of something ‘other’ on the domestic scene.
The longer I have been with Stella (pictured above)—and I say "been with" to hint at where I'm going with this, insofar as it seems patently absurd to suggest that one "has" much less "owns" a cat—the more it has become obvious to me why cats have long been considered mystical and worthy of worship.

Stella meows, I assume she is hungry, I give her food, she sniffs it, seems unimpressed, returns to meowing.  I beg, plead, pretend to eat, anything to save me the humiliation of realizing I have wasted 79¢ at the supermarket on a can of cat food.  She leaves, triumphant and yet dissatisfied.  I leave, defeated and yet hopeful.  For when I am in another room, close enough that she knows I'm watching but far enough that she knows I can't take credit, she will eat.  She will then let out an unfathomable bellow, perhaps a lament that her meal was from a can rather than a hunt, and then slink off to pee immediately in front of her litter box.

Derrida and Logos
Wood points out that Foucault named his cat Insanity, and Derrida named his Logos, names which he takes to signify how "to experience the animal looking back at us challenges the confidence of our own gaze—we lose our unquestioned privilege in the universe."  When I go to sleep at night Stella is staring back at me.  When I wake up in the morning Stella is staring back at me.  Did she ever turn away?  Rationally I know that she must have—for how else could so much from the bedside table have ended up on the floor?—and yet at a deeper level I know that her stare persists regardless of her physical location or mine.  I am more interested in finding out what she's thinking than what any human thinks, including myself.  Dave Chappelle is likely right that to become Aquaman would mean not conversing with the undersea world so much as discovering how little they have to say.  Yet Stella always appears to be thinking, pondering, working out moves in her head, such that I know were I gain the power to converse with her, I would be the one to bore her.  So in other words, our relationship would remain unchanged.

Cats supposedly have nine lives.  I am desperate that this is true, but I am unsure if this desperation is for Stella's sake or my own.  Humans have invented many words for boredom—"anoy," "sloth," "spleen," "ennui," "Langweile"—and yet cats appear to know an existential depth to boredom that neither Sisyphus nor Heidegger could grasp.  Were cats to live nine lives it surely would have to be out of karmic retribution for some devilishness in their past.  Stella appears to both enjoy life more than I am capable of and to be world-weary to a degree that even my nihilism finds staggering.


It is certainly not the case that all philosophers live with cats, nor that all who live with cats philosophize.  But it is certainly the case that cats make us all more philosophical, and for that we should be forever thankful both for their peccadilloes and their willingness to put up with ours.




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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Heidegger's Sorge Bears

SorgeBears
Who could forget Sein-zum-Tode Bear, Unheimlichkeit Bear, Dasein Bear, and Kehre Bear?


For those of you who need a refresher, the Sorge Bears live in the Erschlossen-Heights next to the Black Forest of Stimmungen.  Using the powers of Seinsfrage, they are frequently forced to contend with their enemies: Professor Descartesheart, his assistant Fregebite, and Auntie Kantie.

And they have important life lessons to teach all the little potential Daseins out there, like:


The structure of human existence...



SorgeBearCard-Sorge


The relationship between death and anxiety...



SorgeBearCard-Angst


And of course what it means to be responsible...


SorgeBearCard-Schuldig


(Adult Swim, I'm available to discuss making this happen...)
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Friday, July 26, 2013

In Defense of Obscurity: Zizek vs. Chomsky and the Continental/Analytic Divide

But I think that that the differences in our political positions are so minimal that they cannot really account for the thoroughly dismissive tone of Chomsky’s attack on me. Our conflict is really about something else—it is simply a new chapter in the endless gigantomachy between so-called continental philosophy and the Anglo-Saxon empiricist tradition. There is nothing specific in Chomsky’s critique—the same accusations of irrationality, of empty posturing, of playing with fancy words, were heard hundreds of times against Hegel, against Heidegger, against Derrida, etc. What stands out is only the blind brutality of his dismissal...
English: Photograph of Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
After Noam Chomsky's recent attack against not only Zizek but also Jacques Lacan—"Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old"—it once again became fashionable to criticize the "obscurantism," "charlatanism," and "nonsense" of Continental philosophers.  Though it would only take a couple of minutes on Brian Leiter's blog to see the excesses of such anti-Continentalism (made all the more entertaining by the fact that Leiter consistently claims to be a friend to Continental philosophers, just not to those he deems unworthy because, you know, he gets to categorically decide such things while hypocritically criticizing what he sees as the divisiveness of others), such views, as Zizek points out, have quite a lengthy history behind them.

That's just Schelling being Schelling...
Ironically, I believe that when Hegel accused Schelling of using his publications as a means to living his education in public a schism was instantiated that has since only grown.  Either your work is completed or it is not to be put forth, either it is clear and concise, or it is obscure and obfuscation. "Obscure" philosophers struggle with what is hardest to grasp yet easiest to take for granted: everyday life. This comes out most clearly in the challenge Derrida issued to Levinas to, essentially, become MORE obscure in order to properly frame a discussion of how language really operates, to put on the printed page what is most ephemeral: real life.

Seriously??
When Plato uses analogies he is attempting to, essentially, say what is unsayable, and, because this is Plato, this is treated as genius that withstands the test of time.  But when Derrida, Foucault, Levinas, or countless others, try to similarly say the unsayable, they are read alongside analytic philosophers, philosophers who say only what is sayable, who struggle with what is not everyday life and do not struggle with what is.  Trolley car problems should receive the mockery reserved for Zizek's attempts to analyze Tahrir Square, but because the former is immediately understandable and the latter is not, the former wins. If you read something and don't understand it, thinking it belongs more to poetry than to philosophy, then maybe you should ponder why "philosophy" no longer looks like the poetic struggle it did for Plato rather than taking for granted that philosophy and clarity are desirable bedfellows.

As Zizek aptly concludes:
I think one can convincingly show that the continental tradition in philosophy, although often difficult to decode, and sometimes—I am the first to admit this—defiled by fancy jargon, remains in its core a mode of thinking which has its own rationality, inclusive of respect for empirical data. And I furthermore think that, in order to grasp the difficult predicament we are in today, to get an adequate cognitive mapping of our situation, one should not shirk the resorts of the continental tradition in all its guises, from the Hegelian dialectics to the French “deconstruction.” Chomsky obviously doesn’t agree with me here. So what if—just another fancy idea of mine—what if Chomsky cannot find anything in my work that goes “beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old because” because, when he deals with continental thought, it is his mind which functions as the mind of a twelve-year-old, the mind which is unable to distinguish serious philosophical reflection from empty posturing and playing with empty words?
Inspiring, and makes
for a great coaster...
I have often thought that the Continental/Analytic divide comes down to the fact that Continental philosophers are disappointed comedians whereas Analytic philosophers are disappointed mathematicians.  What is important to remember though is that comedy is at its best, like the tradition of philosophy that stretches back beyond Plato, when it's trying to illuminate the world in which we live in new and unexpected ways.  But mathematics is at its best when it's trying to explain the world, offering explanations that philosophy was born to criticize for their superficial clarity and their underlying obscurity.  Analytic philosophy—a tradition that stretches back beyond logical positivism—however parrots these superficialities while mocking those who instead prefer to follow a different bird for their inspiration: the Owl of Minerva.

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Thursday, July 25, 2013

How Pacific Rim Commits the Cardinal Sin of Sci-Fi: Bad Philosophizing


I finally got around to seeing Pacific Rim.  This was due to reading "The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim" which offered a defense of the movie as being mistakenly viewed only textually rather than visually, and thus seen as "dumb" rather than intelligent in a different way.  Needless to say this argument intrigued me, particularly as someone who's a student of both phenomenology and deconstruction.  Yet much as the author of the blog post seems to maintain a division between textual and visual registers that does not mirror how real life embodied perception operatesand thus the author's own attempts to defend the movie's intelligence only really work if you were actually watching the movie on mute rather than having to hear the constant cliched dialogue and hammy acting—so too does Pacific Rim operate with a disembodied version of reality.


Now it may of course seem silly to argue with the way reality is presented in a movie about giant robots and monsters from different dimensions fighting each other, but I think that sci-fi when done well actually illuminates reality through taking certain details to an extreme, hyperreal level (not unlike satire).  Hence both Star Trek and Star Trek: TNG involved flying through space faster than the speed of light and shooting lasers at aliens, but more importantly their episodes often revolved around hyperreal depictions of real-world conflicts, such as the Federation vs. the Klingon Empire as a way of discussing the Cold War.

Pacific Rim's wrinkle on Independence Day's Will Smith vs. Aliens storyline is the use of "drifting" as a requirement for how tiny humans could possibly operate the giant Jaegers.  This is described as a way for the two pilots to become linked to each other such that they can divide the burden of interfacing with and operating the Jaeger.  If you know anything about philosophy you might think that this isn't a plot device so much as a thought experiment from a philosopher of mind trying to contend with John Locke's arguments about the relationship between personal identity and memory.

As Locke famously argues:
Law was an ardent disciple of John Locke.
John Locke
For suppose the soul of a prince, carrying with it the Consciousness of the prince's past life, enters and informs the body of a cobbler, the soul of the cobbler exiting the cobbler's body at the same moment.  In this case it's plain that the cobbler is the same Person as the prince—i.e. that he is only accountable for the prince's actions.  But none, surely, would say he was the same human being as the prince.  The body as well as the soul is part of what constitutes a human being, and I think everyone will agree that in this case it settles the question: the cobbler is the same human being throughout this whole process.  The fact that he has the prince's soul within him does not make him a different human being from the cobbler, and everyone (other than himself) will take him to be the same human being as before. ("Of Identity and Diversity," Section 15)
This is not unlike what is depicted in Pacific Rim whenever drifting occurs.  The consciousness of each pilot—presented as memories from one's past—is shared between the two pilots, thus bonding them to each other, as the pilots say repeatedly in case we missed it the first time.  Yet, whereas Locke suggests that for consciousness of one pilot to "enter[] and inform[]" the body of the other would require "the soul of the [other pilot] exiting," Pacific Rim instead suggests that drifting forms only an emotional bond rather than a psychological or existential one.  Hence when Raleigh's brother is torn from their Jaeger and killed, this leaves him emotionally scarred enough to go on a 1980's-esque vision quest of self-discovery that ends with him doing construction work (this is of course very similar to what happens to Clark Kent after watching Jonathan Kent die in Man of Steel, as apparently the death of a loved one drives cinematic protagonists into doing physical labor).  But Raleigh is still shown to be the same person he was before and only needs the love of a good woman to make him whole again.

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Je...
Picard/Locutus
Similarly, when Raleigh and said good woman, Mako, are first drifting Mako suddenly becomes her child-self again reliving in perfect detail the Kaiju who killed her family and tried to hunt her down.  Raleigh is then shown as able to walk around Mako's memories and is so self-aware that he is presented as wearing his Jaeger uniform and tries to remind Mako that this is all "not real."  What does it mean to share consciousnesses in the way that Pacific Rim says is required for drifting to occur if you can nonetheless maintain your personal identity in the way that Pacific Rim portrays?

Now that's what I'm talking about
The failure to delve into the ramifications of "entering and informing" each other is not only a wasted opportunity, but, most egregiously, commits the cardinal sin of sci-fi: bad philosophizing.  When Jean-Luc Picard became Locutus of Borg, this had ramifications that operated on an existential level, whereby Picard was no longer sure of who he was or what it meant that he could become integrated with the Borg hive-mind or whether he was responsible for the deaths that Locutus caused.  Similarly the Vulcan mind-meld was always presented as leaving a trace of the other behind after the mind-meld, for which reason Spock used it sparingly and it was portrayed as an encounter that was both violent and erotic, or, more interestingly, presenting the intimacy of eroticism as inherently violent and vice-versa.  Pacific Rim instead teases us with what should have been a parallel portrayal of the violent eroticism of interpersonal intimacy but leaves us merely frustrated and unsatisfied.

Now go watch some real sci-fi...


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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hannibal, Kierkegaard, and Empathy


Will Graham, a former special investigator for the FBI and someone capable of “perfect empathy” that allows him to see what killers experience, is pulled back into solving crime by the murders of a cannibalistic serial killer in Minnesota. To help him, the FBI calls in a psychiatrist named Hannibal Lecter to consult.
Having heard that NBC was doing a tv version of Hannibal, I was terrified both because NBC seems to be capable of only producing shows that are mere rip offs of their own shows (in retrospect I now realize that the network's fondness for cannibalism of course made them the perfect venue for Hannibal) and because I hate procedurals based around the detective-with-a-gift angle.  Really only Psych and Grimm have done good jobs with this trope, and that's because the former is mocking the trope and the latter has a quick-witted werewolf sidekick.

When Will Graham is introduced as having "perfect empathy," or the ability to enter into the mind of the serial killers he's investigating in order to re-create the murders exactly as they happened, I believed my fears had been realized and wrote off the show.  Fortunately, the casting of Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal and the cinematography of the show were so outstanding that I continued to watch the show regardless.

Though it took me until fairly late into the season, I started to realize that one way of appreciating this gift/curse of "perfect empathy" is to see it as actually a complete fabrication.  I do not mean this in merely the sense that this was something dreamt up by the show's writers, but rather that this is something dreamt up by Will Graham himself, and thus parallels the (un)reality of empathy rather well.

Teaching ethics, and health care ethics in particular, has led me to think frequently about the existence, or lack thereof, of empathy.  Though we might often be led to believe that we can "know how you feel," we have no proof that this is actually true.  And when the one we are meant to be comforting with this refrain responds by rejecting our empathetic overtures, we of course take this as not a failure on our part to empathize, but a failure of the other to appreciate that we are "there for them."  But perhaps the other is right and we are so quick to move from correlation to causation that we cannot see that just because I'm wearing your shoes that does not mean that I can take a walk in them as if I were you.

Deanna Troi
Deanna Troi, empath-ing
This is why I often point out to my students the brilliance of Gene Roddenberry in having Counselor Deanna Troi be an "empath" as a member of an alien species (though of course none of them have ever seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, or are unwilling to admit that they're that cool, and so I also have to spend a lot of time explaining the show to them, which I of course don't mind doing).  Humans are not empathic, thus if we want to portray someone who is capable of empathy we need someone who is inhuman, someone who, as Bryan Fuller points out, would be "so swamped with neuroses that he could, arguably, be unlikable or trying for an audience."  And thus just as Troi annoyed fans for years over her being unable to typically offer anything other than plot-driving silliness and annoyed Ryker and Worf with her come-hither-uniforms, Will Graham not only pushes people away, but can only seem to befriend serial killers, their daughters, or people obsessed with serial killers.

What is most vital though is that Will Graham is human, and thus lacks Troi's even half-Betazed powers of empathy.  He is able to pick up on various details of crime scenes and create fantastic and seemingly realistic re-creations of crimes from out of them, and yet HE CAN HANG OUT WITH THE VERY KILLER HE'S TRYING TO CATCH.  Time and again Jack Crawford or Hannibal Lecter say something to the effect that Will Graham's mirror neuron disorder allows him to know precisely what anyone around him is thinking or feeling.  Yet, much like a psychic in the East Village, he is nonetheless incapable of actually seeing anything.  What is much more important then is not what he can do, but the effect of what he believes he can do on himself and others.

To understand this, look at how Søren Kierkegaard describes empathy in The Concept of Anxiety:
Often the examples mentioned in psychologies lack true psychological-poetic authority.  They stand as isolated notarialiter [notarized facts], and as a result one does not know whether to laugh or to weep at the attempts of such lonely and obstinate persons to form some sort of rule.  One who has properly occupied himself with psychology and psychological observation acquires a general human flexibility that enables him at once to construct his example which even though it lacks factual authority nevertheless has an authority of a different kind. […] Hence he ought also to have a poetic originality in his soul so as to be able at once to create both the totality and the invariable from what in the individual is always partially and variably present.  Then, when he has perfected himself, he will have no need to take examples from literary repertoires and serve up half-dead reminiscences, but will bring his observations entirely fresh from the water, wriggling and sparkling in the play of colors.  Nor will he have to run himself to death to become aware of something.  On the contrary, he should sit entirely composed in his room, like a police agent who nevertheless knows everything that takes place. (Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pages 54-55)
To be empathic according to Kierkegaard is essentially to be an actor, and in particular a method actor.  In studying serial killers and, vitally, in killing a serial killer, Will Graham is able to act like a serial killer and to imagine, through the "poetic originality in his soul," how the serial killer pulled off the murder.  But this does not require mirror neurons, but rather the ability to pull from "what in the individual is always partially and variably present" the source of this originality.  In other words, Will Graham sees not what the serial killer did, but what he shares with the serial killer, he is able to see the temptations to kill and the way to kill that are "partially and variably present" within himself.  This is why it is so important, as Fuller explains, that Hannibal is trying "to help Will Graham better understand who he is and embrace a purer version of himself that he may have become deluded by." Hannibal sees that Will Graham is sensitive to the murderousness within himself and is thus trying to help him, in a very Nietzschean sense, become who he is.

Hannibal is thus not only a great television show, but a great portrayal of everything empathy is (i.e., an act) and everything empathy isn't (i.e., mind-reading).  And, what Hannibal most importantly portrays about empathy is how dangerous it is to not realize that the other that empathy connects us with is the other within us
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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Terrorists, Outrage, and Shadows



We may want the media to reconfirm for us that psychopaths are  crazednuttycreepy recluses whom we can easily identify and thus avoid. But, as this cover reminds us, that simply isn’t the case. Some psychopaths point guns at cameras; others snap selfies in T-shirts. As Tsarnaev’s many friends could attest, we aren’t as good as we’d like to believe at spotting the evil beneath the surface.
When I first saw the twitter outrage (twoutrage?) over the upcoming Rolling Stone cover featuring "The Bomber" Tsarnaev I must admit that I thought it more funny than alarming, mostly because, as Stephen Colbert also pointed out last night, I was shocked people still cared about magazines or their covers.  Yet, upon hearing of the recent decisions of CVS and Walgreens to boycott the magazine with surely many to follow suit, I was reminded of Carl Jung's theory of the Shadow.


Much like The Shadow of pulp novels, radio plays, and a very under-appreciated comic book movie (seriously, watch it again, and tell me that Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy wasn't an homage), our Shadow knows what darkness lurks within us.  That darkness is revealed most clearly in our outrage, our hatred, and in particular in our choice of nemesis.


When I am in line for a movie and someone cuts in front of me, do I get mad because he is disrespecting the rest of us who are waiting patiently and socially appropriately, or do I get mad because he reveals to me what I wish I could do but lack the courage to do?  Similarly, when George W. Bush famously declared that the terrorists "hate us for our freedom," was it perhaps not the case that in fact we hate them for their freedom?  If anything has been revealed by our use of torture, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, drones, and now NSA surveillance, isn't it that we wish that we could use the same freedom from the law and freedom to destroy that terrorists use against us?  That we love vigilante movies and love to mock the hero's foil of the "by-the-book" partner (The Heat is the most recent of a long line of such films) only further shows how much we desperately want to both root for what the bad guy does and hate anyone who would root for bad guys.

This schism is precisely what the Rolling Stone cover and Carl Jung provoke, our listen-to-what-I-admonish but ignore-what-I-watch culture that we live in.  If you fear that Rolling Stone is "glamorizing" Tsarnaev by putting him on their cover and presenting him "like a rock star," you should take a step back and realize that you are the one projecting the glamorization and rock star status onto Tsarnaev, not the magazine.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, "When you look long into the abyss of Tsarnaev's eyes, the abyss also looks back into you."
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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Black Skin, White Jurors: Fanon, Juror B37, and Not Getting It

Start with the general observations already raised in Gawker: B37 consumes no media beyond the Today showno radio, no Internet news, and no newspapers used for anything but lining her parrot's cage. Perhaps because she does not consume any media, she was under the false belief that there were “riots” after the Martin shooting. She also described the Martin killing as "an unfortunate incident that happened."
In my previous post on this case I chose to focus on the issue of guns rather than of race, but upon hearing the revelations of the views of "Juror B37," of someone who believes that "everything is a lie," and thus "doesn’t care enough to learn that the riots she believes to have happened did not," I could not help but be reminded of Frantz Fanon's studies of the relationship between White colonizers and the Black colonized.  As Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks:
It is of course obvious that the Malagasy can perfectly well tolerate the fact of not being a white man.  A Malagasy is a Malagasy; or, rather, no, not he is a Malagasy but, rather, in an absolute sense he "lives" his Malagasyhood.  If he is a Malagasy, it is because the white man has come, and if at a certain stage he has been led to ask himself whether he is indeed a man, it is because his reality as a man has been challenged.  In other words, I begin to suffer from not being a white man to the degree that the white man imposes discrimination on me, makes me a colonized native, robs me of all worth, all individuality, tells me that I am a parasite on the world, that I must bring myself as quickly as possible into step with the white world, "that I am a brute beast, that my people and I are like a walking dung-heap that disgustingly fertilizes sweet sugar cane and silky cotton, that I have no use in the world."  Then I will quite simply try to make myself white: that is, I will compel the white man to acknowledge that I am human. (Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Markmann (New York: Grove Press, 1967), page 98)
As Fanon is trying to elucidate, following Sartre who is in turn following Hegel, one becomes who one "is" through not merely the eyes of the other, but through simply the existence of the other.  The Malagasy is not "a Malagasy" until a European "white man has come."  Before then, the Malagasy man is simply a man who does not think of himself in terms of "his Malagasyhood."  I become an "is" therefore only when my "reality as a man has been challenged."


This then raises the question of whether the astounding disconnect from reality of Juror B37—much like the astounding ignorance of Zimmerman's lawyer, who claimed that there not only would have been no difference had Travyon Martin been white and Zimmerman black but that Zimmerman then "never would have been charged with a crime"—is not then a form of "white privilege."  In other words, not having had one's reality challenged in the way of the Malagasy by the European, or Travyon Martin by George Zimmerman, or countless minorities by members of majorities, allows one the comfort of being a denier of truths that these others do not merely believe but live everyday.

We could all learn a lot from
South Park's Stan and Token
In many ways this was explored most deftly by the recent South Park episode "With apologies to Jesse Jackson." Stan's dad goes from believing the N-word to be the right answer on Wheel of Fortune to joining a group of fellow white men who had become alienated by publicly using the N-word (insert Paula Deen joke here).  In turn, Stan tries desperately to apologize to Token (whose name is itself a perfect encapsulation of portrayals of race in pop culture) by repeatedly telling Token that he "gets" what's upsetting him but Token keeps rejecting his apologies.  Stan and Token are only able to reconcile upon this closing exchange:
Stan:Don't you see, Kyle?? I don't get it! [smiles, then walks up to Token] Token, I get it now. I don't get it. I've been trying to say that I understand how you feel, but, I'll never understand. I'll never really get how it feels for a black person to have somebody use the N word. I don't get it.
Token:Now you get it, Stan. [smiles]
Stan:[smiles] Yeah. I totally don't get it.
Token:Thanks, dude.
Imagine how differently the trial might have gone if Juror B37 had similarly been able to realize "I totally don't get it."  What's worse, imagine how differently the Zimmerman-Martin confrontation might have gone if Zimmerman had sooner been able to come to such a realization too...
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Monday, July 15, 2013

Enhancement, Responsibility, and "Tragedy"

World Athletics Championships 2007 in Osaka - ...
Tyson Gay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


"It just triggers you off to think if it is possible to be even more diligent in our awareness, if it is possible for us to remind athletes of their responsibility and accountability for all these things, to make sure they are looking at every aspect of what they do, what they take, when they take it, why they take it. Check, check, check, check, check.

"When in doubt, don't take it."
This argument is remarkably similar to that of Jeff McMahan's in his recent Killing in War, wherein McMahan argues that it is the responsibility of any potential combatant to ensure that his side is just before becoming a combatant, and, when in doubt, don't join up.

Such an argument sounds entirely plausible.  Surely if I am to put anything in body, or, more importantly, put myself in a position where I am a danger to others, it is on me to guarantee that what I am doing is right rather than to plead ignorance as Gay and Powell have thus far done.

What is meant in both these cases by "responsibility"?  Is it right to assume, as these arguments do, that responsibility is simply to be understood on the model of "accountability"?  To ignore the larger structures in which these decisions to enhance oneself are being made—through PEDs on the one hand and through weapons on the other—is to suggest that I am always perfectly aware and in control of my actions independently of any mediating factors such as what could be called the "culture of sports" or the "culture of war."

Cheating is a part of sports, a part that extends from athletes and coaches down to fans and non-fans.  When a baseball player (I'm a Red Sox fan, so of course I'm thinking of Derek Jeter here) pretends to have tagged out a player trying to steal 2nd base, even though he knows that no such tag was made, we do not cry "Cheater!" but instead laugh along with him and congratulate him on "giving it a shot."  Such theatricality has become so engrained in sports that South Park recently did an entire episode suggesting that World Wrestling Entertainment had filled the void left by our modern-day disinterest in opera.  If athletes are not making ESPN-worthy highlights—whether those highlights are of plays within the rules of the sport are not—we lose interest.  We do not merely expect athletes to cheat, we demand it.  What we further demand though is that they not get caught.  Getting caught reveals our hypocrisy, and that we will not stand for (think similarly of the disparity between our claimed abhorrence of government-approved torture and the success of 24).

Go read it (again)...
Similarly, in a time of war we expect potential combatants to join up, to not question the reason for engagement but to be patriotic and to serve when called upon. This struggle, as Cheyney Ryan rightly pointed out in his contribution to Just and Unjust Warriors, is not between a commitment to morality and a commitment to patriotism however, but is rather a struggle between two moral commitments.  And, as Tim O'Brien beautifully portrayed in his famous The Things They Carried, this struggle can be seen to operate an even deeper level, at a level that I would describe as existential.  This is a struggle then between who we are and who we want to be, between how we want to be seen by others and how we want to see ourselves.

So before we get on our high horses and cry foul (or, worse yet, declare it a "tragedy") that Gay and Powell cheated, or accuse young men and women of immorality or ignorance for signing up for wars we disagree with, we should take a step back and ask why these decisions were made rather than hypocritically and naïvely telling them what they should have done differently.
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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Aristophanes' Lysistrata Illustrated by Picasso


Having recently come across this book—a book I had never heard of before and feared I'd never again come across (it cost $85)—I felt duty-bound to at least photograph as much of it as I could before I pissed off the guy behind the counter.


The book is a part of the Limited Editions Club.  As AbeBooks explains, "The Limited Editions Club of New York was started in 1929 by George Macy. At 29-years-old, he was an avid reader who wanted to make his living from books. His business revolved around publishing beautifully illustrated classic titles in relatively small quantities with club members paying a subscription."



For more information, also check out: The Limited Editions Club & Heritage Press Imagery Blog


From the accompanying pamphlet:
"[Picasso] is a charming person to talk with, a horrifyingly difficult person to do business with.  It is probably that only the fact that we suggested a book he liked caused him to undertake the commission.
'When I first got in touch with Picasso in Paris, he said he was willing to illustrate the book for a very stiff price.  I agreed.  I was in Paris again when Picasso had finished the plates, and I sought to take them from his apartment.  But he insisted on treating the transaction on a no-trust basis.  He made me send to America for the money with which to pay him; he made me hand him the actual cash with my left hand while he handed me the plates with his left hand.'"

Some sample illustrations:
"Five days later, in the same place. Late afternoon."
"Kinesias: A plague on the war. It's you I'm after."
"Lysistrata: Henceforth, the war's a woman's business."

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Saturday, July 13, 2013

Zimmerman, The NRA, and Gunning Your Ground

From NRA News: Why Zimmerman Verdict is Important to All Armed Citizens:

A not-guilty verdict will reinforce the principle of armed self-defense, even against a more powerful unarmed attacker, while a guilty verdict — either for second-degree murder or the lesser crime of manslaughter — could have a discouraging effect on the use of firearms in self-defense.
In the wake of the Supreme Court decision to partially repeal the Voting Rights Act, the news that Zimmerman was found not guilty for shooting and killing Travyon Martin has already given rise to framing this verdict in racial terms.  However, as you can see above, the NRA actually helps to remind us that this case can and perhaps must first be framed in terms of gun rights and 2nd Amendment debates.

For the NRA, Zimmerman was exercising "the principle of armed self-defense," a principle that Florida turned into law when they passed the infamous "stand your ground" law under which Zimmerman has now been found to be not guilty.  That Zimmerman, and the NRA, believe Martin to have been a "more powerful unarmed attacker" is sufficient, under this law, to justify Zimmerman's actions.

If we were to continue with the racial framing, we'd surely ask whether "more powerful" is code here for "black male."  As plenty of others far more qualified than me are already making this connection, I think it's important to think about whether the "stand your ground" law and our current understanding of the 2nd Amendment both helped to precipitate the death of Martin.

There is an argument to be made, in accordance with what is known as "affordance theory," that the very existence of a weapon makes it more likely for people to use the weapons.  This is sort of like a real-life parallel to Chekhov's rule that if you show a gun in the first act of a play it's going to be used before the play is done.  That almost anyone watching a play—oh who are we kidding, we don't watch plays today—a movie where a gun is shown early on knows that someone's getting shot, should already give some credence to affordance theory here.  Hence the very ability to not only have a gun in the US, but to shoot someone who you feel is a danger to your "ground" in Florida, simply makes it more likely that people will be shot.

We need to remember that just because we can exercise a right (like shouting in public or walking through a crowd swinging your arms and legs) doesn't mean that we must exercise that right.  If you want to believe the 2nd Amendment entitles you to live as if you're a well-regulated militia, go ahead.  But it doesn't force you to live that way.  Rights and laws are weapons too, as Martin's death and Zimmerman's acquittal have made all too apparent.

See also: Emily Bazelon's Zimmerman's Not Guilty. But Florida Sure Is.
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Military Suicide and PTSD

From BBC News: UK soldier and veteran suicides 'outstrip Afghan deaths':

Clinical psychologist Dr Claudia Herbert said PTSD is the body's "natural response" to distressing events. 
It can take years to emerge but is treatable if caught early. Symptoms include flashbacks, severe anxiety and depression. 
The number of soldiers with PTSD has more than doubled in the past three years among those who served in Afghanistan, according to MoD figures obtained via Panorama's FOI request.The MoD said 2.9% of serving soldiers develop PTSD, which is lower than the general population. 
But Dr Herbert said: "Post-traumatic stress disorder in itself should not lead to suicide." 
"PTSD is a condition that indicates something has deeply disturbed the system and is a warning that the system needs help and needs to regulate again." 
Nobody can be sure how many of the 21 soldiers and 29 veterans who took their own lives in 2012 were suffering from PTSD as the reasons for suicide are complex.
This is a rather indicative account of how PTSD is discussed in terms of military suicide in particular and the suffering of combatants in general.  As is clear, in terms of PTSD the combatant has been reduced to a "body," a "body" which is further reduced to something that operates not unlike a machine.  When the machine-body has its "system" "disturbed" then, like a factory wheel that has ceased to spin, the proper grease (PTSD medication) is applied.  When this doesn't work—and as the article's statistics make clear, this isn't working well—the onus of blame is put on the combatant's "system" rather than on this paradigmatic reductive approach to understanding suffering.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the suffering of combatants might best be understood instead through an approach that went beyond what happens on the battlefront to include what happens on the homefront as well.
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