Wednesday, November 2, 2016

DoD Asked to Justify its Existence

In this age of merciless budget cuts, admin has asked the DoD to justify its existence.  After our first answer – having our department chair beatifically smile and simply hold up a flower – was rejected, we had to settle down and find some less accurate answers admin might like.

Some in the department were tempted to trot out all the usual old saws about how deviance is one of the Grundwissenschaften, a foundational source for most all other forms of human inquiry.  That pleased us, both because it sounded so heavy it must mean we’re important and because hey, German.  But ultimately, upon closer examination, it also sounded rather silly in its self-importance.  We might as well just tell admin we need to exist because we are All That.  Or, more accurately, the Primeval Source of All Your That.

We then turned to our measurable excellences, such as our ability to produce students who perform exceedingly well at standardized tests we find intellectually dubious and rather loathsome.  This at least was the sort of quantifiable “learning outcome” admin prizes.  Still, it struck us as rather spare and stingy in its instrumentalism, as if studying deviance was akin to eating some especially potent vegetables or indeed a form of Popeye spinach for the LSAT-taking crowd.

Our next candidate for explaining ourselves was to emphasize the sometimes radically critical aspects of deviance.  Deviance, we could say, is the brazen art of questioning everything.  It is untethered by unexamined commitments and thereby performs a crucially important social function.  It brashly exposes weaknesses in human understanding, pulls down idols of the mind, slays sacred cows, and generally produces mayhem wherever people find themselves in thrall to bad or ill-considered ideas.  As heroic as all this makes us sound, we decided it was more than a little overwrought and, really, bizarrely pugilistic.  After all, we just want to know more things and we’re not trying to be mean about it.  Plus, we’re rather fond of cows.

Next we considered whether we should emphasize the ways deviance takes to the nth degree inquiry all people pursue, an Olympics-caliber form of the wonder, curiosity, and clarity-seeking all human beings sometimes exercise.  This seemed initially attractive in its emphasis on our common cause with people more generally, but then we realized that the same may be said about many activities – lots of things that human beings generally do can be done with extra punch and vigor.  After all, do not avid scrap-bookers simply pursue with uncommon intensity the human effort to remember?  Finding nothing to block this intriguing thought, we immediately became enchanted by the prospect of forming an alliance with hardcore scrap-bookers.  Just think of the interdisciplinarity!  We could be the scrap-bookers of human curiosity everywhere and, not incidentally, buy X-acto knives on the university dime and create our own Pinterest page too.  But then we recalled the purpose of our discussion and realized that pleasing ourselves with delightful imaginings is, regrettably, not the same as satisfying admin.

At long last, we resolved that we were closest to correct in our first effort.  Consequently, we sent our chair back to admin with his flower.  Since the above deliberations did take considerable time, the flower was now quite wilted and perhaps also suffering from the stranglehold in which our chair, no longer beatifically smiling, held it.  Still, we concluded that all of this was for the best.  After all, a grimacing chair choking a dead flower was itself an exquisite remark upon the transitory nature of all things.  We now await admin’s response.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

DoD Creates Supply Closet of Bogus Things

We here in the DoD have created a very special storage place within the department.  Attached to our labrythine library of Deviance, its aim is to store away all the myriad bogus things we’ve seen and heard and, alas, sometimes probably said in our pursuit of knowing more things.  While we want to know more things, we often find that half-known things and, let’s face it, patently ignorant things can get in the way.  Those things are the worst sort of things to have cluttering up the department.  So, in a fit of what the self-help industry assures us is a commendable impulse to “de-clutter,” we created the Supply Closet of Bogus Things.

We did of course deliberate about the wisdom of storing our mental garbage.  After all, we do love a good trash fire and there’s some pretty dry tinder here just begging to be set alight.  But, we reasoned, knowing more things profits from recognizing things not known but perniciously assumed or mindlessly endorsed.  Therefore, on the keep-your-enemies-near principle, we decided to store our Bogus Things instead. 

So, without further ado, let us begin cataloging our Bogus Things, albeit with rather arbitrary catalog numbers that betray just how superficial our organizing impulses truly are.

Item 784.WTF:  Liking Deviance is a form of identity politics – after all, it comes from
people who have identities, unlike the stuff produced by people without them, people so free of their own contingent features that they’re rather atman-like.  Uh oh.  Look what we did there.  We used Indian philosophy, which is super deviant and carries the identity marker “Indian,” to talk trash about identity politics.  It’s almost like Indian philosophers said things about the tangle between contingent features of a person and more abstract, universal conceptions of personhood.  We’ll never be sure about that unless we can stuff this garbage about identity politics into the Closet of Bogus Things and get on with investigating what Indian philosophy has to say.

Item 456.LOL:  Cosmopolitanism requires a western canon, since those western
canonical sorts had the Biggest Ideas, ideas so big they embraced us all in the warm hug of the ambitiously universal or at least the quick squeeze of the suitably general.   Step outside this canon and you’ll find only the cold loneliness of small ideas, a hug-less hellscape of the merely parochial and culturally idiosyncratic.  Seriously, out there you’ll only find the quaintly peculiar, like vast swaths of philosophy that never really went theistic, as if postulating a deity wasn’t the most inevitable explanation for all manner of things (as if!).  You’ll find eccentric bits of theorizing that never divided reason from emotions, as if splitting these off isn’t the quick work of a moment and indeed as if wisdom might involve some emotional competency (as if!).  You’ll find quirky and bizarrely prolonged ruminations of obscure phenomena like family, talk that makes it sound as if we all have one (as if!).  On second thought, and maybe we’re just being emotional here, these small, parochial ideas are sounding pretty cool.  So let’s stuff this “cosmopolitan” conceit in the Closet of Bogus Things.

Item 287.SMH:  People only want quality, so if deviants could just show them “the
Proust of the Papuans,” they would read him.  To be sure, this bit of Bogus is only said by the Proust-ignorant, given that no real readers of Proust could wish more of him on the world.  Well, maybe that’s unfair to Proust.  But having read Proust ourselves, we can’t help observing that Proust is an acquired taste.  We noticed this most when, in a fit of Proust-passion, we gave everyone Remembrance of Things Past as Christmas gifts.  Their lack of appreciation and gratitude alerted us that maybe judgments regarding quality are least reliable where something is newest and unfamiliar.  True, we’re tempted to say that Proust is just excruciating, but let’s be clear, we’ve not gotten better reactions by subsequent efforts.  The Kant Christmas also didn’t go well.  Despite our beneficence in giving the whole family copies of the first critique, efforts to stimulate happy dinner conversation about the transcendental unity of apperception have so far come to nought but blank stares.  It’s like part of learning is learning to be curious, and maybe even tolerating the unfamiliar and initially quite confusing in order to discover complexities one couldn’t initially discern.  We, at least, are going to run with that as an operating assumption.  And so “people only want quality” as a na├»ve dismissal of the new (to them) will be stuffed away to gather the dust it so richly deserves.

Item 184.ADIH:  Truth-seeking is best accomplished through agonism and if you don’t
like that, you’re probably a weenie or (gasp) a girl.  Aggression is practically an untruth-seeking missile:  Fire it off and next thing you know all the untruths will be righteously slain, littering the dialogic landscape like so many bloody corpses.  Truth:  The Last Man Standing.  Truth:  Thou art an angry god before whom we sacrifice all manner of lesser creatures, consecrating thy clarion bell with blood our victims (a.k.a., people who don’t see things the way we do).  Truth:  Thou hast felled all before thy mighty wrath and thy even yet more formidable pedestrian bad manners.  To those lesser sorts who behold thy divine visage and say, meh, maybe I’ll go where people are nicer:  Damn them to the hell of the inconsequential “truths” they discover in agreeable verbal intercourse with friendly others.  Yes, this pestilential hell of polite, good-humored, and generous inquiry is better populated and looks more fun, but that’s only because truth is hard and unhappy.  And, if we want to convince more masochists people to join our cause and take up arms, we may just have to whip and spank them into it!  Or, in the alternative, we could just mock their distaste for pugilistic self-display and call them weenies.  Aware that our critical excursion into middle-school romanticization of conversational combat is itself snarky and indeed gleefully aggressive in its mockery, we best leave off this performative contradiction while we still can.  So with that, let’s jam this association of truth-seeking with agonism into the Closet of Bogus Things… forcefully, belligerently, violently jam it in there.  

Monday, October 24, 2016

Deviant Therapeutics

We here at the DoD are enamored of archaic sources that provide shorthand techniques for coping with the travails of life.

Some of these are purposeful, self-consciously mantra-like statements that function to re-set attitude, emotion, or reaction, as when the Dhammapada suggests encountering enmity with the statement: “We here are struggling.”  Apart from being a finely apt representation of just about every human experience, this has to be one of the finest uses of “we” we have ever beheld. 

Some of these techniques are embedded in wider arguments but have a catchy therapeutic punch that begs to be made a mental refuge, as when Zhuangzi registers the sagely capacity for subtle adaptation to circumstance with the injunction: “Out in the world, follow its rules.”  In this he remarks an internal freedom that need not bother itself with frustration and resistance to things that likely don’t matter much.

And some of them work on us via humor, providing relief by asserting one’s ability to laugh at that which annoys, upsets, or bothers, as when Seneca suggests greeting Fortuna’s dirty tricks with the bold claim:  “You have to deal with a man!”  We confess that, not being a man ourselves, this is one of our favorites.  Indeed, we revel most in announcing it, along with raising a fist to the heavens, as something of a ritual prelude to changing flat tires, an activity in which we excel.  (True, Seneca wasn’t trying to be funny, but we never let that stop our finding him so.)

And, finally, since our childhood involved playing cops and robbers (and always being the robbers) more than was likely healthy, we have a mantra preserved from childhood, from that esteemed source Mad Magazine.  It serves as our go-to mental recitation upon encountering the Normal border control agents, those boundary police ever ready to catch us out in deviance:  “Cheese it, Rocko, it’s the fuzz!”  This allows us to enjoy our intellectual naughtiness almost as much as playing robbers. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Department of Lost Things: Herd Sense

Out at the DoD satellite ag campus, we recently found ourselves idly studying cattle and courting dangerous ideas.  The cows were napping en masse in the shade of some trees.  Then, as one, they all headed into the sun to graze awhile.  Presumably having eaten their fill, they then meandered to the muddy pond for some spa bathing.  Finally, all together, they headed back for the shade and another round of napping. 

We here at the DoD are well familiar with the ways bovine and herd are deployed pejoratively to describe people. And of course, deviant itself is a term that might well invoke the opposite of just these pejoratives, the deviant being that which strays from the herd.  But given that we inhabit an age in which purported independence and non-conformity are all the rage, perhaps the more deviant gesture is to cast a more charitable eye on cattle?  At any rate, what we’re really ruing around here is that too few thinker types ever engaged in farming or indeed any manner of manual labor.  The lack of hard physical work among the intellectual class of course leaves all sorts lacunae in human inquiry, but we’ll stick for now to cattle or, more particularly, exposure to actual cows, as opposed to the fictive cows of thinker-imaginings from the armchair.

 Professional Bovine Types Doing Herd Stuff
In watching the DoD satellite ag campus cattle, we could not help noticing how much plain good sense their behavior makes.  We can’t go so far as to say we want to be like cows, but neither can we find being bovine or part of the herd the insult it is meant to be.  For we were struck by how admirably untroubled those cattle were by anxiety about their group and how none brought any pressure to bear on their peers to come along and follow.  It was more as if when one cow acted as a pilot cow, going off in some new way, the others thought, huh, that looks interesting, let’s try that. 

It’s surely fanciful to suppose that cattle know a good idea when they see it, but there are some more commendable things going on here.  Where human “herds” are depicted as coercive, cattle herds seem significantly more friendly.  Cattle are vulnerable creatures and so their tendency to stick together is sensible.  When a calf gets separated from the herd – say, by straying through a fence – the others tend to wait around rather than leaving it behind to fend for itself.  Likewise, cows appear to babysit each other’s calves, such that an unrelated heifer may take charge of another’s offspring for a bit.  Where calves are concerned, they seem to get that it takes a village.  Or a herd.  Best of all, cattle generally accept newcomers to their herds.  They’re not prima facie suspicious of additions and incomers, but instead tend generally to greet new cows with an unexceptional, “Oh, hey, let’s eat.”  So while they together constitute a bovine herd, it’s not the bovine herd your sneering non-conformist thinker types warn you about.  In fact, it looks a lot like a rather generous solidarity.   

Because of all of this, we can’t help wondering how thinker-types with actual farming experience might have swerved human sociality and solidarity differently.  Or how much more interesting discussion of the individual might get if we could drop the dripping disdain in announcing the “bovine” in others.