Thursday, September 7, 2017

Funding Opportunities and Award Competitions

It's that time of year again, that time when competition season heats up for various prizes, awards, and fellowship opportunities.  As always, we provide here a list of the possible riches that could be yours. So sharpen your pencils, crack your knuckles, and go out there and WIN, Deviants! 

Using an Ox Cleaver to Kill a Chicken Prize [1]. Deadline: Sept 15.
This award is granted annually to the book review that shows the least mercy and most unreserved glee in shredding the modest philosophical work of others.  So if you have a book review that engages in wild overkill and, better yet, conveys your superior intelligence in brutal blood-letting fashion, send your submission now!

Four in the Morning and Three at Night Fellowship [2].  Deadline:  Oct 2 (or Nov 8 or Dec 12 – whatever makes you happy since it’s all arbitrary anyway)
This one-year fellowship is granted to support work that cheers and impresses other scholars while cleverly declining to offer anything substantively new or different.  Successful proposals should leave everything intellectually just as it is, yet create the happy impression that they have offered novel innovation.

Questions which Tend not Toward Edification Fellowship [3].  Deadline:  Nov 10.
This fellowship is awarded to that work which most successfully dodges all real human struggle and problems by taking the least urgent, most abstract, and utterly obtuse speculative endeavor as a totalizing, life-governing obsession.  Scholars submitting proposals for this fellowship, be warned:  Unless you have devoted years of so-far-fruitless labor to compiling extensive notes that will almost certainly never yield any identifiable human good, this is not the fellowship for you.  I.e., competition for this fellowship is especially fierce.

Climbing Trees in Search of Fish Fellowship [4].  Deadline:  Dec 1.
This fellowship is granted annually to that “mainstream” and “western” philosophical work that fulfills two key desiderata:  1) The work must avidly and energetically seeks to address a question historically neglected by the “mainstream,” and 2) the work must ignore vast – nay, mountainous! – heaps of work on the question pursued in “non-mainstream” and “non-western” literatures.  Successful projects will heroically ignore whole territories of human inquiry in favor of retrieving the tiniest scraps of possibility from recognized and thus reputable “western” and “mainstream” sources.

Uncarved Block Prize [5].  Deadline:  Dec 1.
In the interest of promoting “diversity,” this award is granted annually to work that engages the “non-mainstream” and “non-western” while simultaneously bundling everything that might be so described into one amorphous blob.  Successful proposals should mistake Buddhists for Daoists, India for Japan, and make free reference to fortune cookies while discussing Confucianism.  NB for the unaware:  All past successful proposals have utilized the phrase “The One” wantonly, so if you apply, make sure to go there.

Notes for the curious:
[1] Phrasing from Analects 17.4, in which Confucius snobbishly insults an overeager, too ambitious musical performance heard in the provinces.
[2] Zhuangzi, Chapter 2:  “When the monkey trainer was passing out nuts he said, ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ The monkeys were all angry.  ‘All right,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’  The monkeys were all pleased.  With no loss in name or substance, he made use of their joy and anger because he went along with them.” (Trans. A.C. Graham)
[3] Phrasing from the Buddhist text, “The Lesser Mâlunkyâputta Sutta.”
[4] Phrasing from Mengzi’s critique of rulers who insist on moral posturing and punitive measures while the common people labor in poverty and deprivation (Mengzi 1A17).
[5] Phrasing employed in “Daoist” sources, Laozi (Daodejing) and Zhuangzi. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Department of Lost Things: Moral Disappointment

We here in the DoD continue our efforts to pick up the shards of our curiosity following the unhappy discovery that indeed we did not, and do not, want to know all the things.  Worried that this discovery could prompt others equally unhappy, we decided instead to focus on something we would like to know:  How to get good at moral disappointment.  This seems to us an understudied area in need of urgent attention.

See, what strikes us here in the DoD is that the world is presently full of provocations to rage.  Well, to be fair, moral outrage.  There is much to inspire anger and a lot of it would be righteous moral outrage.  But the problems with this are several.  Rage, and its better-groomed cousin, moral outrage, can get pretty indiscriminate.  It’s hard sometimes to attach them to the right targets and we note in ourselves a vulnerability to making one target the symbolic stand-in for many.  Which is to say pity the poor hapless creature that encounters us in that moment long accumulated outrage must at long last erupt.  Rage and outrage resist our efforts at measure, though we fancifully sometimes imagine how delightful it would be to host a dinner party of rage, one in which we invite all our enemies and serve each just his allotted portion.  Alas, we do know ourselves well enough to realize it could never be so.  We might start decorously, allotting a teaspoon here and a ladle there, but in the end, ‘twould be but a food fight.    

Not only are we bad at keeping things in measure with our targets, we also note about ourselves a certain inconstancy with rage.  What sets us off can be unpredictable and a little arbitrary.  This is nothing so simple as getting mad at the wrong things for the wrong reasons, but about how fractious and unreliable our attention is.  We’re never sure we’re noticing all the things we ought, and so have to grant that we might well be raging at one while legions pass by without note.  We’re a little worried that we’re sounding like Seneca, that endearing old hypocrite, but he did know how to turn a phrase so let’s go ahead and imitate him to say plainly:  Why get angry at parts of life when all of it calls for your rage?  That may be a bit too far – surely we can summon enough optimism not to write off all of life – but the point is that rage arrives when it does, not always when it ought.  And if it did arrive when it ought, it would have to set up house with us.

Noticing all of this, we decided that the better course than raging would be to address ourselves to resisting it.  So we engaged in one of our more reliable strategies for building equanimity.  To wit, the Buddhist injunction to greet rage with the mental recitation:  “We here are struggling.”  Alas, times are tough and we are weak, and our efforts to quell enmity this way produced but pain. For it turns out that, at least for us unenlightened sorts in the DoD, a good thing can go bad if overused.  Like an overtaxed racehorse, we pulled up lame with the massive effort at answering so much of life this way:  “We here are struggling.   We here are struggling.  We here are struggling!  We here are GODDAMN FUCKING STRUGGLING! AUGH!  That’s a more entertaining way of saying something radically disappointing about ourselves:  We find that peaceful strategies for containing rage sometimes just piss us right off.

In light of this, we have had to resort to more elaborate strategies of managing ourselves.  If the Buddha could not help, perhaps a little judicious navel-gazing could.  What, we asked ourselves, is it about us that so tempts us to rage?  Not wanting to get derailed by the easy misanthropic thought that it is the awfulness of other people that so provokes us, we looked elsewhere.  What we found is that, at root, it comes out of a rather optimistic longing: We really want to think well of other people.  We like liking other people.  This is not to say that liking them is easy, but to say that it is nice.  Nicer still is when they make it easy to like them – like by not fucking up, doing awful shit, and being mean.  One way to think about our rage, then, is to see it as hooked in to disappointed hope, a way of saying:  You are making it really hard for me to like you.  And maybe in the worst cases, making it hard not to hate all of humanity.  But if that’s the case at least some of the time, then what we need most is a way to register all of this without resorting to rage.  Enter moral disappointment.

Compared to moral disappointment, rage seems easy.  We’re not entirely sure what all a philosophy of moral disappointment would need to include, but it would have a heady dose of longing:  longing to want to think well of others, longing to have relationships with them stay fruitful and meaningful, longing to take both moral challenges and the people who stumble through them seriously.  It would avidly partition and parcel rather than totalize, seeking to hold out for hard thoughts, that good people can still be good even when they let us down.  It would avidly resist contempt and humiliation in favor of cultivating a capacity to tarry in the knotty mess of human complexity and incompleteness.

We thus find ourselves wishing that somewhere along the way philosophy had swerved into close study of this, into the phenomenology of moral disappointment.  All of the usual stuff that moral philosophers natter on about – moral evaluation, judgment, accountability, responsibility – can obscure this far less abstract human side of it all.  Assuming all those things are in the right place and you did morally mess up, the more experientially salient thing might just be this:  I wanted you to be better than that precisely because I want to like you and want powerfully not to despair of you or of humanity as a whole.  (Not to mention that when we ourselves mess up, it would be nice to have others feel this way about us.) Because of that, what we need is not some way to justify outrage and attach it to you, but instead a rich emotional language of moral disappointment, a way to feel our way through the contradictions and complexities of human relational hopes.  That would be nice.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Big Ag Normal

While doing chores today at the DoD satellite ag campus, we were struck by the idea that Normal has become like Big Ag.  It tends in various ways to operate the way Big Ag does, most especially by its pronounced preference for monocropping.  Monocropping can have certain advantages from a profit maximization standpoint.  We here at the DoD satellite ag campus have lots of field fescue and it is, to be sure, reliable and steady stuff for making saleable hay.  But you wouldn’t want to monocrop farm fescue.

Different crops do different work on the soil so the spectrum of nutrients a single crop represents will be narrow and you risk wearing out your soil or needing chemical supplementation.  Monocropping will also have all sorts of unintended consequences.  Out here at DoD-Ag, for example, the quail population radically declined with the influx of field fescue in the region – fescue grows in tight clumps the quail can’t navigate to establish coveys.  And perhaps most of all, Nature doesn’t much like monocropping so if you want to keep out all her extras, you’re going to need lots of pesticides to keep your fields free from deviant incursions. 

That cluster of tall white-blooming growth is hemlock,
 the historical enemy of deviants.  We here at DoD-Ag love
variety, but all the same we’re not taking any chances and are
about to bushhog that pestilence down.
On our worst days, we think Normal acts a lot like Big Ag.  Many of its formal structures and informal norms appear to favor monocropping:  Its conferences, journals, and curricula favor, sometimes insistently, uniformity, whether that be uniformity of methodological approach, source materials, or demographic identities.  Put more plainly, it excels at growing upper class white heterosexual people, mostly men, who work with Normal sources using “mainstream” methods.  It also seems to cyclically re-seed with more of the same, hiring most from a small clutch of institutions, thereby performing something like a single-sourcing of each new year’s crop.  At its most aggressive, its efforts at preserving the purported integrity of its monocrop can register like aerial dusting of pesticide, a kind of indiscriminant removal of all that isn’t fescue.  At least it can sometimes feel that way if you’re not part of the monocrop.

None of this is new.  Small family farm types have been remarking on it for years, objecting to the intellectual and demographic homogeneity of Normal.  But perhaps identifying Normal with Big Ag is useful in illuminating the costs it incurs not to the individual stray deviant plants but to the ecosystem.  Ag polycultures work best over the long haul precisely because variety and, dare we say, deviation, infuse vitality into growing processes.  They prevent exhaustion of nutrients or, to translate the analogy, a kind of boredom, stagnation, and endless stale repetition of topics, approaches, and perspectives.  What one sacrifices in reliability and familiarity, one gains in variation and natural supplementation of nutrients that can make the whole show better. 

To be sure, polyculture farming is more work.  You have learn about more than one crop to pull it off.  And you have to tolerate some complexity rather than immediately reach for the straightforward and easy.   We here at DoD-Ag are trying real hard to use manual control techniques rather than chemical as we fight off a variety of plainly bad invasive species.  That means lots of labor, but we’d rather not kill off those walnut saplings when we take out the buckbrush.  In similar fashion, we’re studying up on the myriad possibilities for land use.  So too, if Normal could become less Big Ag, it would have to ensure its much vaunted “standards” and “quality,” not by aerial dusting of the “non-mainstream,” the “non-western,” and the “unpedigreed,” much less the “non-white” or “non-male.” (So many “nons,” so little time!)  It would also have to cultivate curiosity about more than fescue and summon up some courage for novelty.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Deaths that Matter

Eric Schliesser responded to my post about the “problem of death” and raises issues that I can perhaps elaborate upon. 

One of the issues Schliesser raises is that many philosophers “may well think that grief is best left for the self-help section or the bio-chemical industry.”  I think that perception correct, though I despair of it.  I once gave a talk at a conference on death.  The conference had two full days of papers, with multiple sessions running concurrently.  Mine was the only paper on bereavement.  In the questions that followed, one colleague asked skeptically, “But what is there to say about grief?  It doesn’t seem there’s anything to say.” Here are a few things I would say, in addition to what I’ve already said.

Schliesser catches a version of my meaning by noting:  if we have lived well, our deaths are not so much a loss to ourselves but a loss to our friends (and community,) and loved ones. Saying you'll miss me when I am gone may well be the most truthful thing one can say about one's own death.”  The Chinese philosophical version of this (and my version) is stronger still.  Where we love our companions well and eschew that hopelessly, bloodlessly abstracted individuated self so common to much philosophy, we recognize that the phenomenon of death does not easily individuate.  In looking at those for whom I care, I can attest to myself:  “You will take me out when you go.”  On this, the best way to capture the phenomenon is to appeal again to Zhuangzi and his reaction to passing his friend Huizi’s grave.

The friendship between Zhuangzi and Huizi is one of more enlivening and comic in any philosophical corpus.  They argue, they contest, they quarrel.  Huizi is committed to logic while Zhuangzi regularly skewers him for this.  They argue over whether fish can be called happy, whether Huizi should better appreciate “useless” things, and when Zhuangzi is widowed, Huizi arrives to comfort him, only to quickly descend into their familiar pattern of argument.  It is an exquisite scene for one feels that the best Huizi can do for Zhangzi in his grief is to quarrel, their disagreement itself the consolation announcing that while Zhuangzi has been fractured by grief, not all is lost.  Arguing with Huizi gives purchase and stability where the ground has slipped from under Zhuangzi’s feet.  But here is what Zhuangzi says in melancholy to Huizi’s grave:

There was a man of Ying who, when he got a smear of plaster no thicker than a fly’s wing on the tip of his nose, would make Carpenter Shi slice it off.  Carpenter Shi would raise the wind whirling his hatchet, wait for the moment, and slice it; every speck of the plaster would be gone without hurt to the nose, while the man of Ying stood there perfectly composed. 

Lord Yuan of Song heard about it, summoned Carpenter Shi and said, ‘Let me see you do it.’ ‘As for my side of the act,’ said Carpenter Shi, ‘I did use to be able to slice it off.  However, my partner has been dead for a long time.’

‘Since [you, Huizi,] died, I have no one to use as a partner, no one with whom to talk about things’ (Graham, 124).

This is, I think, the most exquisite and concise statement of an orientation ubiquitous in early Chinese philosophy:  The sociality of persons is such that the loss of intimate, beloved others constitutes a loss of self.  We come to be selves by way of others and in dependence on those others.  As Zhuangzi makes plain, even skills we might incline to consider “mine” are shared, developed in relation with and to others.  So it is an altogether too simple conception of skill and of human beings that would have us think Carpenter Shi is, himself and by himself, the actor in wielding his ax.  Likewise, Zhuangzi does not merely lose a friend, nor merely a shared language of disputation in friendship, he loses that Zhuangzi he can be with Huizi.   Lest this seem an idiosyncrasy of early Chinese philosophical views, this is caught in what is surely the most melancholy poem of bereavement ever penned, W.S. Merwin’s “Elegy,” which reads, in its entirety, “Who would I show it to?”  This is the poet gone mute without his reader, the poet who cannot write a poem and so be a poet without his reader.

If selves are social, so will death be.  Yes, we “die alone,” in the altogether trivial sense that the biological phenomenon of death happens to one.  But no one cares about this – it is not, in the phrase of Thomas Lynch, another poet, “the death that matters.”  Because the Chinese philosophers took this seriously, they argued hotly and long about what to do in loss.  Should one, as Zhuangzi implies, seek to greet the radical fracture of self induced by loss by cultivating a capacity to turn on a dime, developing a fluidity of self that accommodates change and (tries to) resolve on cheerful, playful acceptance of one’s own transformations in loss.  Or, as the Confucians suggest, ought one develop distinctively social mourning practices that will place the bereaved in company with others in sorrow so that reparative relation can close the perilous gap in self-understanding and personal identity wrenched open by loss.  These, then, are some of the “things to say” on the subject about which some would doubt there is anything to say.  And they cut right to the heart of how we understand personal identity.  Such is to say that where personal identity is concerned, me-without-you can, in some relations, no longer be the me as was, nor will I be able to achieve that future me-I-aspired-to-be without you.  If we want our accounts of the self to have traction in lived experience, this, then, is something formidable to consider.

I confess that much of this, as I intimated in the original post, is so intuitive to me that I struggle to articulate it other than evocatively.  I find myself impatient with any philosophy that fails to recognize that the lived experience of oneself is so tightly wound into the well-being and continued existence of others that talk of any self apart from this reads as utterly abstract fiction.  I simply do not recognize anything of my own experience in it, so perhaps I am constitutionally ill-equipped to make philosophy of this, left as I am with conviction that cannot shift.  And this is part of why I struggle to make sense of philosophy that makes so much of my own end.

Relative to my own, other deaths matter so much more in terms of how I will live and understand myself.  My parents are alive, and when they die, I will live in a world I have never inhabited before, a world in which I am orphaned and which, for me, is wholly unprecedented.  I mercifully do not yet know any world that does not have them in it, that does not have the me that is daughter-of-them in it.  The Confucians get this – this is one reason Confucius observes that one of life’s most demanding experiences is the deaths of one’s parents.  For it is here in human experience that one enters into the uncharted terrain that lies beyond all of the maps of experience one has already constructed.  However difficult this stands to be, there is of course worse.  Consideration of some deaths utterly transforms thought of my own death into an affirmative good I can embrace without reservation.  Put less obliquely, I will count it the finest piece of good fortune to die before my daughter does.  In any reflections on deaths that matter, thinking of hers is one from which I so utterly flinch that I will say no more.  Suffice it to say that what I prize in philosophers such as the early Chinese thinkers is that they exhibit a finely wrought understanding of the fragility of the self.  They speak to a self that can be shattered, and speak of what this means to us, and about how we might pick up the shards and carry on as life demands we must.  

It is true that one can retrieve commentary about grief and even some consolatory philosophy out of the western tradition.  I do not deny this.  However, one must retrieve it.  It is not typically there on the surface.  The few who are on available on the surface are too often committed to identifying relationships with others as “external goods.”  So for consolation we could turn to Stoics who compare friends to tunics that get stolen and must be replaced (Seneca), or one’s own children to vases that can break (Epictetus), even as some of them (Seneca!) can’t quite seem to persuade themselves of this.  We can look to philosophers who characterize friendship as a skill (several of the ancient Greeks and Romans) that one exercises and so retains even in grief, though this again declines to imagine skills as seated and sourced in more than an individual agent.  We can hypothesize that Plato writes his sorrow into and through the dialogues, with these as memorializations ruefully written into the silence of Socrates’ voice and the impossibility of Socrates making any response.  We can even excavate the slight and subtle signs that much lies under the surface, asking, for example, why, if Socrates wants to liken the body to a cage, he couples saying so with affectionately touching one of his interlocutors, a bodily gesture that may say much.  And of course we do have Montaigne, though not enough read him.  Montaigne is, from what I have read, the closest we come to courting the idea that bereavement may do much to unsettle the human being and, along the way, longstanding ideas about personal identity.  But, again, few read Montaigne.

My point is not that the western canon is without resources, but that one has look harder than one ought to find them.  They must be retrieved and sometimes excavated from the barest indications.  The ones easy to find are works that I at least judge insensate to how I in fact live.  To me, this intellectual poverty reads as testament to an impoverished tradition for addressing the complexities of the self, or at least the self that actual people walk around with.  Should philosophers care that people do not live like the entities described in our philosophies?  Obviously, I think we should.  But I think that means we need to care about bereavement.  I said that philosophy should help – I do think, perhaps archaically, that philosophy ought equip us to reflect upon and manage well common human struggles – but let me emphasize the obverse of this coin for the skeptical.  Philosophy itself will not be very good if it cannot entertain the complexity of experiences people attest to finding exceptionally complex where their lived personal identities are concerned.  It likewise will not be very good if it decides, in advance of substantive inquiry, that we can learn nothing from one of the most significant and painful experiences in human life, bereavement.

For what it’s worth, the early Chinese sources do suggest that the Chinese philosophers themselves did die well, in line with the courage and equanimity we see in figures like Socrates.  Tellingly, though, this just isn’t counted a very interesting aspect of who they were, how they lived, or what constitutes their wisdom.