Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sufficient reason & contradiction, together again.

Meillassoux's readiness to abandon the principle of sufficient reason is not, er, sufficiently remarked. I noted earlier that this step is what validates his argument that "for no reason" is a sufficient response to the "question of being," "why is there anything and not nothing?" I observed then that it is hard to imagine Socrates being satisfied by such a response. To consider this "answer" sufficient requires a revision of the concept of sufficiency. This is what one calls in some circles "re-defining success."

Barfield, to whom I have already contrasted Meillassoux, was (again) here first. He is speaking here of Darwinian evolution, but the point is more broadly applicable:
It was found that the appearances on earth [i.e., of biological life] so much lack the regularity of the appearances in the sky that no systematic hypothesis will fit them. But astronomy and physics had taught men that the business of science is to find hypotheses to save the appearances. By a hypothesis, then, these earthly appearances must be saved, and saved they were by the hypothesis of—chance variation. Now the concept of chance is precisely what a hypothesis is designed to save us from. Chance, in fact, = no hypothesis…. The impressive vocabulary of technological investigation was actually being used to denote its [own] breakdown; as though, because it is something we can do with ourselves in water, drowning should be included as one of the different ways of swimming. (Saving the Appearances p 64)
It would take me far afield to differentiate what is sound and what mistaken in Barfield’s account of evolutionary biology (even if I were assured of my competence). But I am juxtaposing him again to Meillassoux not merely because of his having anticipated the latter’s argument about ancestrality by fifty years (this really is remarkable enough to deserve some comment by bigger enthusiasts of Meillassoux than myself), but also because Meillassoux’s readiness to throw over the principle of sufficient reason is the mirror image and answer to the alleged ease with which, Lévy-Bruhl claims, primitive humanity (rich in the participatory consciousness Barfield unpacks) dispenses with the law of non-contradiction. This, in turn, is the one logical principle upon which Meillassoux builds his edifice, the one he is prepared to stake everything upon.

As is well known, it is these two that Leibniz declared essential to philosophy in the Monadology §§31–32: “Our reasonings are based on two great principles, that of contradiction… [and] that of sufficient reason.”

When I am in an especially Hegelian mood, I find myself thinking that the history of thought unfolds between these two “laws.” In such moments, it takes a considerable effort for me not to construe Meillassoux’s thinking as a kind of dialectical bookend to Barfield’s notion of “original participation.” As if the human race started with a weltanschauung that knew nothing of contradiction, and has ended up apparently ready--at least in speculative realism--to throw over the principle of sufficient reason. Whether this philosophy can be expanded into an entire world-view is another question of course. But hold these two philosophies up and look at them together, especially bearing in mind Meillassoux's campaign against "superstition" (a.k.a. fideism), and it really is as if something has come full-circle. I find myself muttering, "surely some revelation is at hand." However much I remind myself that Meillassoux isn't actually the culmination of any inevitable process (cutting-edge though he may look right now), I am still given pause by this.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The market as metaphysics

Marx told us that a man could "hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner." Is Elie Ayache, derivatives trader and philosopher, what he had in mind?

Here are three links to a three-part video of Ayache discussing his book The Blank Swan, his interpretation of the market as exhibit A for seeing contingency as absolute and irreducible, metaphysically speaking; a fundamentally un-modellable set of contingencies to which the notion of probability is only pertinent by analogy.

I've been postponing putting something up on this, thinking I would come up with some really intelligent preamble to introduce it, but between other commitments and being under the weather, I haven't devoted any attention to writing about it at all. But if metaphysics and money have anything to say to each other, this book is more than a precis of the conversation. Is capitalism in practice just a special case of hyper-chaos?

Or could it be an instance of quantum-indeterminacy crystallizing into macro-specificity, as Willliam Orem suggests here?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

ways of talking / ways of being

[this is re-posted from the great Science & Metaphysics event that Speculative Heresy hosted last month. I had a good dialogue there with Pete Wolfendale, whose comments will inform some later posts on this, possibly modifying what I say below; but I want to have this here as it originally stood.]

I am telling a story of something that happened to me. “I crossed the street because I could see the bus coming; the light was about to change, and I know from experience it’s a long light—if I didn’t get to the stop, I’d almost certainly miss the bus. I was already in the street when I heard the squealing brakes. Thank God the driver was alert; the car missed me by barely an inch. I dropped the grocery bag; all the fruit was bruised—but only the fruit. The driver was gracious, but I can tell you I was embarrassed! Of course I missed the bus anyway—I couldn’t very well just run away after she’d screeched to a stop. I was picking up the apples when it went by.”

This banal anecdote has something in common with dozens of others we relate every day: a first-person account, it relates something I was there for, my own experience from my own point of view. I could tell it in a million different ways, but the essential quality of the events is that they happen with reference to an experiential, first-person center. In fact, there is no other center possible. If “we” were happy, this is two I’s. The only “direct access” available is first person. (We can quibble about whether even this is possible, but I want to keep things simple for now).

Now if instead I am reading a news story or a police report about a traffic accident, a very different set of discourses comes into play from the first person account I just offered. “The sedan strayed across the median line about halfway up the block, colliding with the oncoming truck at 25 mph. Neither driver was seriously injured but both vehicles required towing. One passerby was cut by broken glass.” These are now third-person reports about particular events. This does not change if I back up and ask broader questions—about, say, the history of traffic in this city, or commerce in this region of the country, or relations between immigrants and indigenous population, or the shaping of the river-valley by glaciers. I am still asking historical questions, about what particulars happened, particulars to which I have only indirect access, whether they happened a million years ago or just now, one or two streets over.

I can focus again. Suppose instead of asking what happened, I want to know what happens. This need not be a purely hypothetical question, but it is no longer about specifics. I may wonder about the likely traffic patterns in the city during the summer months, the laws governing physical bodies in motion, the mechanics of an internal combustion engine, or the neural and physiological events that accompany driving a car. These inquiries can draw upon particulars, which this discourse will call “evidence,” but the questions are not historical but scientific; they do not presuppose any particular actors but only general ones. The subjects of this discourse are the values of variables.

One further step back is possible. It is possible to ask, not about what happens, but about the form of these happenings, these relationships and events. One can imagine a consistent world in which a falling object accelerates at a different rate than 32 feet per second per second; but one cannot factor 32 into anything but two to the fifth power. I need not grant that a dropped apple will fall; but if a dropped apple will fall, and there is a dropped apple, it will fall. Abstracted sufficiently, these considerations take us into a pure mathematics or logic (and, arguably, into metaphysics), in which there is no longer any question of what happened or happens or even “what would happen,” but only of tenseless objects and relationships. Here we are at the furthest point from the need for a “center of experience,” indeed seemingly at a point where there is no need for any experience at all. The square root of four will be two, with or without any mathematician, because 2 and 4 are in such-&-such a relation; number itself has (or is) such a structure.

There are here four possible discourses. We might roughly describe them as: a first person-discourse about immediate experience; a third-person discourse concerning particulars; a third-person discourse concerning abstracts; and a (as it were) zero-person discourse at the most abstract level. This four-way figure has an obvious resemblance to a number of other foursquare schemes, ancient and modern, but it is independent of them, and so far my attempts to wrest it into perfect isomorphism with these have foundered.

It will be noted that in this schematic, scientific assertions and inquiry comprise only one quarter of possible discourse. This is not because the ways of being wrong vastly exceed the ways of being right; indeed, by this latter standard, to say that one quarter of all possible statements were right would be a laughable overstatement. We are not speaking of a (limitless) quantity of possible claims, but of a delimitable taxonomy of claims. The four regions can be arranged concentrically in increasing generality; they can also be treated as four quadrants, an array I will consider more closely below.

One can argue that there are lacunae in this schema; that poetry, ritual, legal pronouncements, and other categories of speech acts are excluded; in particular, prescriptive discourse presents a puzzle. If I say: “I should not have run across the street, I should have been more careful,” or, “the bus driver should have waited,” or, “there should be an extra lane of traffic,” or “the internal combustion engine ought never to have been invented,” all these counterfactual or ethical claims seem to appeal to an order of experience which does not readily map onto the quaternity laid out here. These considerations do not necessarily mean the foursquare account is not exhaustive in its own mode, for it is meant to address claims in the assertoric mode; claims of the form S is [or was] p.

This causes the question to arise: Are there natural kinds, which these four sorts of assertions are about? Is our foursquare map one of discourse alone, or is it of orders of being? Is it a map of human inquiry, or is it an ontology?
This question arises in this specific connection because the sorts of assertions we are treating here are distinguished from such other speech acts (like pronouncing a verdict or reciting a poem) by pointing to (or claim to point to) a reality beyond themselves. “I saw the meteor flash across the sky;” “The debris entered the atmosphere roughly above New Guinea and splashed into the Pacific a few minutes later;” “Friction with the atmospheric gas will tend to heat any incoming fragments to incandescence, and therefore only fragments with masses above a certain critical point will make impact on the surface;” and “Earth could not survive impact with another celestial object of moon-size or greater; the Earth still exists; therefore the Earth has not yet collided with such an object,” are four assertions differing in scope, but all of them claiming relevance beyond their own utterance. The truths they claim to name would also obtain if they were not so named; this is not the case with “I name this lunar crater “Carr-54.”

To put the matter thus is practically to beg for the angel of deconstruction to visit, but for the purposes of this post I am going to raise but not answer the question of the precise relationship between discourse and being. Indeed, as I have thought about these four regions, I have often caught myself sliding between treating “science” as a discourse and “the natural world” or “matter” as an ontological realm. The same happens, willy-nilly, with “history” and “the historical,” or indeed “logic” and “the logical.” My working assumption is that, whatever anthropological considerations attach to these discourses, the realms to which they relate have a status that is independent of that discourse. That is: to the degree that we can separate epistemology from ontology (a significant caveat), it makes sense to claim that there are truths of various orders—historical, scientific, logical, mathematical, and indeed metaphysical—which are independent even of there being minds, let alone language. Indeed, the only (and tautological) exception here is the personal realm.

As mentioned, besides being set out concentrically, the regions can also be arrayed as quadrants, along two axes. One axis divides the general from the specific: first-person and historical discourse both concern specific events, instantiations of the general considerations elaborated in the scientific or logical discourses. (Note that this has nothing to do with whether the assertions are true or not. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system is still a general discourse about what planets do; whereas, a narrative that included Venus and Saturn crossing in such-&-such an astrological house would still be a historical narrative, even though there are no such houses, and indeed even if the story included some other celestial events incompatible with such a conjunction.)

The other axis divides the irrefutable from the refutable. Both first-person intentional accounts and logical abstractions share a certain form of incorrigibility. I cannot be shown that I did not see red, even if I can be persuaded that the physical object I saw was not red. Likewise, while there can be incorrect real-world use or execution of logic (e.g., parasyllogisms), logic itself is its own tribunal. It is not quite true to say that logic has no counterexamples, but these examples are themselves logical (Gödel, Graham Priest).

On the other hand, both the historical and the scientific quarters can be regarded as mutually corrigible. Science can correct or construe an assertion of history: whatever is meant by the Book of Joshua’s account of the sun “standing still,” (Joshua 10:12-13), the Earth cannot be held to have historically ceased turning on its axis. The same relation of corrigibility obtains vice-versa; after all, an experiment is precisely a particular occurrence meant to confirm or refute a general thesis.

However, while a historical claim may refute a scientific formulation, science in general as discourse is dispositive. In general, the dispositive fields of the quaternity are, unsurprisingly, on the side treating of generalities. The true sentences in either metaphysico-logical or scientific realms can be treated as having a constraining function on what counts as intelligible, or true, in the historical and personal realms. Science is dispositive as to whether we believe the first-person accounts of another; logic for whether we even understand them. I might conceivably insist that I had beheld a simultaneously transparent and solid black wall; the canons of logic cannot gainsay this, but can dispute whether I understand my own words, and if I am recalcitrant, will conclude that communication with me on the matter is a lost cause.

Another difference between the quadrants is the role of ignorance in each. In practice, there are many occasions for the cultivation of ignorance, the systematic making-unavailable of certain facts. An audience at a stage magician’s show; a child lost in pretending; a hopeful lover letting him- or herself be seduced; the viewer of Oedipus Rex or King Lear; the members of the firing squad, one of whom has live ammunition; the quantum physicist setting up a two-slit experiment; each of these has a different investment in not knowing something. It is not complete ignorance, but carefully held within certain bounds. Sometimes there is a time limit built in (e.g., Christmas morning); sometimes there is a practical insuperability upon which I rely (it would be possible to discover which gun fired the bullet, but I do not want to and law forbids it). But the ignorance is essential for the sake of an experience. This points to one quarter—the first-person—as the particular region in which ignorance especially pertains. For the individual seeking or safeguarding a particular experience (e.g. the delight in a magician’s trick, the excitement of opening birthday gifts, or the reassuring sense that one might not have fired the executing bullet), ignorance is of the essence.

In general, we may say that neither historian nor scientist can countenance any principled ignorance; there cannot be, for them, a reason to maintain or preserve not knowing. But in logic and mathematics there is, as Gödel showed, a particular sort of ignorance (indemonstrability) that cannot be surmounted, without recourse to the first-person. If I can see that the truth of a given proposition, which cannot be proven within the limits of a certain systematic discourse, this is tantamount to saying that I have outflanked the “ignorance” of that system.

The thematic of ignorance clearly has a certain resonance with psychoanalytic and other discourses in which “the unconscious” figures, a fact which points me towards Schellingian or Hegelian speculation, with its dark Urgrund and the labor of the negative, but this is too big a topic to pursue here. But the suggestion of a “hidden” or unknown side to the realities involved suggests one final trope.

One needs to ask of the foursquare figure as a whole: To what discourse does it belong? If it collapsed into any of its own quadrants, could this only be at the cost of self-referential paradox? On the other hand, if we refuse this reduction, do we thereby claim to escape from the dispositive prescriptions of science and of logic? At the risk of taking a schematic representation too literally, one can speculate: if a consistent account were worked out, the best topology for these discourses and their respective objective realms might be not the quartered plane I have presented, but a hypercube, whose turning 3-d “shadow” gives the impression that each of its “sides” in turn contains the rest. I hasten to add that this is a model, not a geometric proof of a metaphysical position, but I use the figure to illustrate why partisans have been able to claim each of these realms to be exhaustive and fundamental. Of course having recourse to higher-dimensional topologies involves paradoxes of its own, e.g., in what “space” do these realms exist? Metaphysics always presses the question back one stage more.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Waking while sleeping, relating while withdrawing

After Siddhartha Gautama gained his great realization under the Bodhi tree, people asked him what he was—god, demon, Brahmin, sage? He always replied, “I am awake,” Buddha.

Reading an interview between Jeff Greenwald and Sri H. W. L. Poonja, also known as Papaji, the Indian spiritual teacher whose hundredth birthday would have been last week (he died in 1997), I came across this passage:
Papaji: What do you see when you sleep?
Greenwald: Nothing.
P: That is the right answer. Now, why do you reject all the things of the world, things you like so much, merely to offer yourself up to a state of nothingness?
G: I do it because I become tired.
P: To regain energy you go to the reservoir of energy, to that state of nothingness…. If it were not a happy state, no one would be willing to say 'Good night' to their loved ones every evening before going to sleep. No matter how close you are to them, you still say, 'Good night, let me sleep'.
There is something superior, something higher, something more beautiful about being alone. Ask yourself the question: when I wake up, who wakes up?
When you woke up, you did not bring the impression of the happiness that you enjoyed for six or seven hours of dreamless sleep. You can only bring with you impressions of the dances you saw in your dreams…. So, I will ask you again: when you wake up, who wakes up?

G: It is the 'I' that wakes up.
P: OK. The 'I' has woken up. When the 'I' wakes up, the past, the present and the future also wake up. This means that time and space also wake up. Along with time and space the sun wakes up, the moon wakes up, the stars wake up, mountains wake up, rivers wake up, forests wake up, men, birds and animals all wake up. When the 'I' wakes up, everything else wakes up. While this 'I' was sleeping during the sleep state, everything was quiet. If you don't touch the 'I' which woke up, you will experience the happiness of sleep while you are awake. Do it for one single second, half of a single second, a quarter of a single second. Don't touch the 'I'. The 'I' is something that we can well afford to be without. Don't touch the 'I' and tell me if you are not sleeping.
G: That is right. In that instant, everything is like a dream.
P: This is called waking while sleeping and sleeping while awake. You are always in happiness, always awake. This awakening is called Knowledge, Freedom, Truth. Don't touch the names, though. Get rid of all the words that you have so far heard from any quarter. And you will see who you really are.
And on the heels of this, as I was thinking hard over these questions, Jeff Bell posted a talk by Paramahansa Yogananda, on this very question: How to sleep correctly.

When Papaji extols the “being alone” of sleep, I am reminded forcibly of what I said about the “souls” of objects, the withdrawn, eternal objects that (to use Harman’s term) “withdraw” from relations—that such eternal objects are “alone with the alone.” Note that this withdrawal is just what Papaji refers to when he says that we bid our loved ones “goodnight, let me sleep,” in order to touch that reservoir of energy that is—nothing.

This is almost precisely what Timothy Morton has been urging on us regarding Object-Oriented Buddhism: sunyata, emptiness, is withdrawal. I have been very engaged by Morton’s presentation. Although, as a Christian, I can’t be quite content with this—I am committed to an ontology of persons (and persons are inherently, I think, in relation)—I do think Morton does make a very striking case for a close fit between at least certain strains of Buddhism and a coherent development of object-oriented ontology. (I've alluded before to my belief that at least some versions of Christianity and Buddhism are compatible by virtue of having to do with different things--though as Amod Lele notes, this view might be vulnerable to a critique similar to that of non-overlapping magisteria.)

But there is a sticking point with this sort of object-oriented account of enlightenment (I think). When Papaji speaks of being able to sleep while awake, this in Harman’s terms would mean being able to be dormant while relating, and even perhaps a kind of dormancy as relating.
The name for an object that exists without relating, exists without perceiving, is a sleeping entity, or a dormant one, to use the lovely term our language has stolen from the French. Dormant objects are those which are real, but currently without psyche. Each night we make ourselves as dormant as we can, stripping away the accidental accretions of the day and gathering ourselves once more in the essential life where we are untouched by external relations.
I don’t see how this can be squared with the claims of being able to have a conscious experience of “aloneness.” Harman’s image in his paper is one that rejects, quite explicitly, the image of the whole—even as it slyly alludes to a traditional image for this experience of wholeness, the image of the ocean. The “dormant” object, Harman says, is like a drop of water on the surface of a bottomless sea. In such an imaginary ocean, some water drops at any moment have no neighbors above. All objects have parts all the time, but not all objects are parts, and those that are not, are dormant.
[A]nything that relates must perceive. Only by becoming a piece of a larger object, only by entering into the interior of a larger one, does an entity have anything like a psyche. This means that entities have psyches accidentally, not in their own right. For our model allows for entities to exist apart from all relations. This makes it not just conceivable, but also necessary, that there be entities at any moment that are at the very top of their chains of parts, so that they relate to nothing further. For various reasons it is good to think of an infinite regress downward in the world, with no tiniest layer of microparticle bringing an end to the chain of beings. But the same does not hold in reverse. The idea of a universe as a whole actually seems like a fruitless abstraction, and there is some autonomy for the various different parts of the cosmos, all of which require work to be interwoven together, which proves that they are not already interwoven.
But this work is precisely the method of perception, a technique which can be learned—though, as I have said before, such a technique cannot by itself grant the experience but only make one open to it. This experience seems to me ruled out by some hyperbolic claims concerning withdrawal.

A great deal of this tension, it seems to me, hinges on the paradox involved in the pairing of Harman's "dormant" (sleeping) objects (construing this dormancy as sunyata, emptiness), and the Buddha's self-given title, Awake. Of course, it is easily said: we do not know sleep from sleep, but from waking. But this does not get us to the bottom of the paradox here (if indeed anything does), because what is at issue is precisely "waking while sleeping, sleeping while being awake," to quote Papaji (who, it must be acknowledged, is not a Buddhist and did not claim to be).

Morton quotes the Buddha’s words which he spoke after his awakening:
“I've discovered a dharma that is sparkling, nectar-sweet, uncompounded and simple. But since no one will believe me if I try to speak about it, I shall remain silent.”
Morton comments:
In OOO, “dharma” means “object.” “Uncompounded” means “not made of other things” and “simple” means “not caused by other things.” So this object is NON-RELATIONAL.
I know that Buddhists and object-oriented thinkers will be debating Morton's mini-glossary. As an outsider who has only done nominal zazen, I don't really have a right to opine. There are, however, two words Morton does not unpack here, and these I think are important. (I hope it is clear that this is not a move in a cheap game of philosophical gotcha.) The first is “discovered.” To discover is an experience, and this entails an encounter. So in some fashion, this withdrawn, this sunya, has yet been “seen.”

The other word is, of course, the word “I.”

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Friends and in-crowds

Regarding the question of political over-polarization, Among the Poseidonians recently commented:
our political culture has not only become permeated with hysteria and the de-legitimizing of one’s political opposition, but with an “ends justify the means” mentality which violates not only my sense of political morality, but long-term political prudence (which are intimately connected in my mind).
This articulates very clearly part of my concern over the acrimonious and distorting nature of political "debate" at present. The more one polarizes the debate, the greater the license for radical, what-you-can-get-away-with tactics. (This is nicely illustrated, e.g., by John A.'s example of the GOP cutting minority membership in committees; and, credit where it's due, in this case the Democrats restored the balance even when it hurt them; this is also Poseidonian's point regarding the Justice Department's defense of the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy's legality even as the Obama administration detests the law.)

As I mentioned in response to John, I sometimes meet a kind of shrugging, so-what, aren’t-we-among-friends incomprehension when I object to the demonizing of rank-&-file republicans (or tea-partiers) by my democratic acquaintances. What I take Poseidonian to be saying is that there’s a link between the end justifying the means, and the stark polarization of political life. After all, there is a referee in a boxing ring or a fencing match, but in a scratch-your-eyes-out brawl to the death, there are no rules of engagement.

In this midst of thinking this over, I stumbled on Grad Student's blog post ruminating on the guilty pleasures of counting oneself right. " 'Demagoguery...jihad...rabidly anti-Islam...incendiary libel...' I’m beginning to suspect," Grad Stdent wrote,
that political rhetoric like this isn’t very good for my psyche. It breeds in me a repulsive sense of smug superiority and anger that I would like to avoid. What’s the antidote? I suppose wishing my enemies well would help.
I think I recognize what Grad Stdent's talking about. Even back in my sign-waving days when I stood outside the Nevada Test Site calling for a ban on nuclear weapons testing, indignation seemed always (to me) the least attractive or compelling feature of any political argument. I have noticed, too, that I have an aversion to my own smugness -- once I've noticed it -- even stronger than my dislike of others'; and my distaste for the smugness of those who agree with me is stronger than my dislike of it in my opponents.

I can extend this to a suspicion of all self-congratulatory, mutually-admiring in-crowds. This is not a horror of joining a group per se, a kind of rugged individualism run amok, but specifically a distaste for the lure of jargon, the secret smiles at each other over the bewildered heads of the others in the room, the nudge-wink, "we know what we mean" question-begging. And yet. And yet, the pleasures of friendship are so close to these, that I have to wonder if there is something of a bad puritan conscience in my recoil? (Simone Weil says someplace that the pleasure in sharing an opinion with one's friend sullies the friendship). I am a high-church Anglican, a lover of Nabokov, a nerd for progressive rock music, and on and on -- all highly idiosyncratic tastes (and more than "tastes") the sharing of which has given me some of the great pleasures of my life. We all know, too, how the little meaningless in-jokes one comes to share with ones best friends, one's lover, and so on, become the subtext of one's life after a while. I don't want to gainsay this. But there’s something that makes me shudder, about the sly way fellow-hobbyists shake their heads over the lost ones -- the ones on the outside, bereft of their meaning-bestowing enthusiasms.

This can only get worse when combined with politics. (In religion, it's positively deadly, and, in Christianity, all the more hard to uproot, as it is very close to -- and crucially different from -- something authentically and legitimately Christian... but that's the matter for another post entirely).

But are there not urgent matters for which indignation and rallying are the only decent responses, where "keeping a cool head" is an indecency? I want to answer Yes to this. And yet... Perhaps at least some of my distaste for indignation comes from thinking this line is in a different place from where others think it.

The difference, as far as I can tell, is that between friendship and something pseudo-, something that imitates it.

In the former, either both of you are looking at some third thing, and it endlessly opens up to you without exhaustion (or even 'withdrawing'), becoming a token of the mystery of the whole world somehow, but never losing its absolute specificity (the Sherlock Holmes stories you both love never turn into red wine or antique Tiffany lamps or even into “the mystery of the world”); or you are yourselves revealed to each other -- the wonder and miracle of another person, shining next to you as if in a pillar of light. This is what love is.

In the latter, there's something else -- something less. Something that comes about by virtue of not being the benighted others who don't get it, in which the miracle that occasions your camaraderie is cheapened by being pressed into service of making you feel better than them .

Certainly, I do also know a kind of reactive appalled-ness at the one who just doesn't see it, who seems to not grasp what is at stake. I long ago despaired over trying to open my parents’ ears to the thrill of certain music, or certain friends’ to the obvious allure of the mind. What refreshment, after so long among philistines, to meet someone who getsMark Rothko, or Led Zeppelin, or Le Morte d’Arthur, or ornithology. The soul exclaims “You too?!” And can one begrudge us if, after this "you too!", we share a moment of relief, or dismissal of everyone else besides we the initiated, as the accumulated exasperation of years is finally expressed?

I know well such moments. I will say, unequivocally, yes, I’d be a better person without them. Pace Nietzsche, there is a difference between pity and compassion, and (at the risk of an almost absurd overwroughtness) one can feel compassion for the one who lacks one's thrill at the sight of a landscape or the fascination of your favorite city, or (slightly less ridiculously) who just doesn't see the obviousness of your politics, without any condescending pity. I also try to nurture a degree of compassion for myself, in feeling these silly all-too-human moments of breathing, "God! Those idiots!", when I've finally found a sympathetic ear. Such lapses of decorum and decency are forgivable. But lapses they are, and I certainly don’t want to mistake them for friendship, just because someone is there to agree with me.

This is the case, even if the listening ear, the kindred-spirit, who occasions this relief and recrimination is my friend. But in politics, all too often, they're only the enemy of my enemy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

My pedagogical priorities

Elisa asks:
how do you cope with performance-oriented students and parents? How do you answer to reproaches such as that your person-to-person approach takes time out of frontal teaching and the like?

This is a really good question. It arose, as can be seen by a glance at the post Elisa comments on, in the context of a discussion of teen suicide, where I was sketchily referring to my pedagogical approach. I do not claim any special knowledge about suicide in general or how to prevent (or cope!) with it, but I do maintain that as a teacher my first and almost only priority is the cultivation of honest relationships with the youth I work with; not their grades, not whether they know their ABCs or their periodic table or Aristotle's categories. Any of these can come naturally enough in the course of a genuine relationship in which neither party tries to impose their private enthusiasms as the agenda for the friendship as a whole. I can share any amount of "knowledge" I may have if I am genuinely excited about it; the moment I try to give it to someone as something they "need," the reek of disingenuousness overpowers the room.

I do get raised eyebrows, and more. One fellow teacher opined that I "keep those kids on a very long leash." (Some remarks one can only allow to pass by in silence.) One mother has told me expressly that my job was not "to be her son's buddy," but to enforce his completing his homework. I have faced adults who were indignant that I would countenance the playing of video games. Happily, I can report that (so far) these are an anomalous and tiny percentage of adult responses.

Since I am employed not by the school system itself, but by a before/after-school program, I am not the one deemed primarily responsible for making sure the kids I work with memorize all the capitols of the 50 states, or even their multiplication tables. Nonetheless, I do get a good share of expectation that kids will finish their homework and so on. When this happens, I am very up-front with my students. I am frank with them about the expectations others have of me and how this gets passed on to them. They are still aware that they can opt out -- it is not their job to spare me their parents' frustration (misguided though I may consider it)-- but usually we realize that we are both faced with something that is easier got through together. There is no demonizing of "unreasonable" parents, though I am full of sympathy for kids who know very well that homework is a waste of time.

The most difficult thing for me is not the fielding of adult questions -- in those encounters, I am very frank about my respect of children's autonomy, and usually I at least get a break as a quaint liberal eccentric -- but the more insidious sense I have of being monitored and evaluated by criteria that is foreign to my own values. The challenge here is to be conscious of it, because it makes an unmistakable impact on my expectations of my students. I would just as soon trust the kids to make any decision that they can; but at the back of my head is always the awareness that someone can ask, Why is he letting them do that? The effect of this is to turn me in to a policeman or an overseer; I pass the feeling of being monitored on to them. Combating this in myself is the reason I am (as soon as I notice it) as honest as I can be with my students about where my own expectations come from -- whether they are genuinely mine, or whether they are something I feel obliged to impose because of others' expectations of me. Still, the snuck glances towards me, the way conversation drops to a whisper when I pass, testifies that I cannot overcome the surveillance to which children are accustomed. (Of course, they could also just be talking about how strange I am.) The contrast between this and the Clearwater School (where I volunteer one to two time a week for a half-day), is so stark as to make one wonder if the cultivation of the sense of being watched and checked up on -- which is not the same as being cared for -- is (whether intentionally or not) a primary function of ordinary school.

To be sure I have answered Elisa's question:

A "performance-oriented student" presents no problem at all; I am interested in what it's like to be them, and if they want my help with homework, I am ready and able. Whatever I can do with that kid, I will do.

When I get an objection from a parent, my response is that my priority is not to be liked by the child, but to have an honest relationship with them. So I can honestly say to them, "your parent wants this homework done, and I will help you do it." In other words, I can usually be true to my own values and still deliver the content-specific work that is expected of me. If I have to make a choice, I will choose respecting the autonomy of a child over getting an assignment done every time. This does not, by the way, mean no student is ever angry or frustrated at me (or vice versa); but they are (I hope) never merely cowed.

And, as I claimed to Elisa, while it is no guarantee of being spared pain, I believe that the more genuine the relationship with a student, the more natural (which does not always mean easier) it is to broach the very, very hard subjects.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A politics of targeted ads

Pursuant to the conversation w/ John A about my post "Left, right, and wrong," I was giving thought to the question of how I see political polarization. This is tricky. On the one hand, I share Ronald Dworkin’s concern, articulated in his popular book Is Democracy Possible Here?, that political polemic has become so divisive and partisan that each side has come to perceive the other as not just an opponent but an enemy. On the other hand, one needs only tilt the kaleidoscope ever so slightly to see Democrats and Republicans as sharing (and, importantly, excluding) a remarkable amount in common, and not in some just-folks, we’re-all-Americans way. (A frequent charge, from critics from Ralph Nader to Ron Paul, is that the problem with both major parties is precisely what they have in common.)

On Dworkin’s account, debate is starting to be impossible because the parties do not recognize each other as legitimate opponents; thus no serious engagement about issues happens, because the encounter never moves past throwing hostility back and forth. Of course, Dworkin contends that the two major parties do share a tremendous amount in common, and if they could remind themselves of this, civility might be restored and public discourse elevated. On George Farah's view, on the other hand, debate never happens because the two apparently opposing views are really too close. Farah is the founder of Open Debates, an organization seeking to broaden the available spectrum of living options and in particular to reform the political debate system. According to Farah, in a debate between candidates (we're speaking now about an actual event, not just a disagreement), what we see is a canned rehearsal of anticipated moves, like Tweedledee and Tweedledum in a WWF match, but no hard questions (from the audience or even from each other). Huge swathes of political tradition -- and public opinion -- are excluded by ideological fiat. A Naderian critique would have it that the ostensible animosity between the left and right wings of the ruling class masks their mutual complicity, and the distraction provided by their foofaraw suits them well. They don't want the elevated discourse Dworkin imagines; they want targeted ads. Farah traces at least some of this shameful dumbshow to the 1988 coup d'etat in which the League of Women Voters was replaced by the newfangled Commission on Presidential Debates.

How seriously, then, ought we to take ostensible differences?

Recently I read a remark by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, decrying feminism that allows itself to be distracted over whether men or women do the dishes or the laundry, while women in Somalia or Pakistan or elsewhere are having their genitals mutilated or being stoned or strangled in honor killings. Against such a background, debates over housework might be characterized as (to put it mildly) confused regarding priorities; one could justifiably argue that whatever the differences between the parties, these are dwarfed by what they have in common, and in this case, they are being distracted from that common ground -- mutual concern for women’s lives -- to concentrate instead on minutiae.

There is a danger of scoring cheap points here, points all the cheaper considering the real suffering they exploit. The point is not to belittle feminism, nor to wave away the stresses of our lives, which are real, however trivial they seem by comparison with a gun in the face. But the case remains that a pressing concern up close does not always loom so large from a distance. In my comment to John A., I compared the question to the differences between Marxist factions in the late 19th and early 20th century. The most obvious of these might be Lenin’s polemic with Kautsky (the specific instance I mentioned), but the period was rife with these disputes, some on fine points of theory, some more substantive, and the parties went at it hammer and tongs. Some of them -- quite a number -- wound up dead, which is certainly a difference that makes a difference, at least to them. From a century’s distance, what do we see? Simply that every one of the parties was on the wrong side? Or is there something more?

And can I really mean that Glenn Beck and Harry Reid are as close and as far apart as Lenin and Kautsky? Is there a danger of the comparison being not false but just meaningless?