Sunday, December 12, 2010

QOTD: Some Self-Indulgence on Derrida

(((living impossible lives; Marco Roth's paean/elegy/no-something-else to Derrida upon the latter's death in 2004; me and Derrida and Kierkegaard -- if you don't care about either me or Derrida, you will probably find this hopelessly boring; also some Badiou)))


I just stumbled across an essay from 2004 regarding Derrida's death. It's more memoir-ish than Derrida would write, but otherwise, he makes the appropriate derridean gestures. More than that, I appreciated much of what he said about Derrida and deconstruction.

Reading this essay was the first time since a course on Postmodern Theology in grad school (where we read Heidegger, Lévinas, Derrida -- and Mark C. Taylor) that I haven't felt essentially alone in my thinking about Derrida. And in the last sentence I quote (not the last of the essay), I feel as though someone has finally explained to me why I love Derrida (and, might I add, precisely what he has in common with Kierkegaard, whom I loved first), which had been a mystery, ultimately, even to me. 

I wanted to post it here partly because I know there are a few who will appreciate it, although perhaps in somewhat different ways than I myself do. But also because I think it sets up a way of understanding Badiou as filling the gap left by Derrida and Deleuze, and also as providing important -- even if problematic -- rejoinders to their work. When I finally cottoned onto Badiou, I immediately saw his work as an extension of what I had found compelling in the work of Derrida (and Deleuze, as well, more so in some ways, less in others). Clearly Derrida and Badiou were coming closer to each other toward the end of the former's life, and there is a note about this (or anyway something close to it) in The Logics of Worlds.

There's also something to be drawn from the full essay, not quoted here, about teaching. Not just in the story of Derrida's sporadic and horribly long "lectures" at the Haute École, but in the author's observation that where or who or what Derrida was could not "be transmitted." So then one wonders what the teaching part is, and I note that it is mainly in his reflections many years later that the author comes to understand things he learned way back when. Some he got then. Some he didn't get until now. Derrida was, you might say, a certain absence of a teacher. And that's the only clichéd deconstructive move I'm going to make. I leave the rest to Marco Roth, who said it all so much better -- and so much less in strained and painful imitation of Derrida -- than I imagine myself being able to do that I can only quote him for the real substance of this note.


----
But now isn’t the time for such games. To do so would be disingenuous and accede too quickly to one of the charges often leveled against “Deconstruction”: sophistry, a fondness for the play of rhetoric and metaphor over truth, facts, and history. The charge, never just or fair though leveled by vocal supporters of justice and fairness, ignored that Deconstructionists were incredibly wary of saying aloud that they’d discovered a truth for fear that they’d uncovered another metaphor. The conviction that all was metaphor or trope could grow into arrogance, but more often bred a dull hesitancy about concluding. Old school literary critics always understood this, and so warned against Deconstruction as a school of resentment and its hermeneutics of suspicion. Neither poetry nor ‘hard’ philosophy, sharing aspects of both, Deconstruction is loved by neither.

[ . . . ]

The fashion for theory and the words “Orientalism” and “Deconstruction” was as much a result of intelligent, angry and alienated Americans fastening on to a promise without quite grasping the training and the commitment to lonely thinking through a fixed tradition required to make it a reality. Despite its rapid politicization, “theory” in America or la pensée 68 in France, was not going to change the world (if by world we mean government). Theory, however, could and did change individual lives. Briefly, it redeemed difficulty and especially a discomfort some people felt intuitively about subject and object, language and self. Those people who felt they stood on shaky foundations suddenly had a home for their native anti-foundationalism. They too could become theorists. Think of it as a job creation program for all intellectual nerds, outcasts and misfits, people whose kind of intelligence meant that they weren’t even comfortable around most other intelligent people. The betrayal by the American system of higher education of those who’d enrolled enthusiastically in these job placement programs is a sad but minor footnote to the history of the 1990s. I don’t mean the dwindling number of jobs for French, German, and philosophy PhDs or the corporatization of the University, although that’s part of it. The betrayal began before, when those who showed glimmers of interest in theory were led to think that their curiosity would be nurtured into knowledge by a series of occasional course offerings and visiting instructors who rarely stayed long enough to ground a program. Instead of finding themselves in an academy, however, these students found themselves in the agora, fighting for money, time, attention, and space against better organized guilds. Theory did not, in itself, corrupt the young. The siege mentality surrounding theorists and theory did.

[ . . . ]

In the institutionalization and translation of Derrida’s philosophy, something was always lost. A way of thinking that emphasized the singular and unrepeatable, the absent and the paradox could never offer the satisfaction that one was leading the good life, only that you and others were leading an impossible life. [emphasis added -- jf]

Sunday, October 10, 2010

QOTD: Donna Haraway and blasphemy as faith

(((Donna Haraway and "A Cyborg Manifesto;" cyborgs and blasphemy; religion, faith, and irony.)))

I came back to this today as part of a(n e-mail) conversation I was having about feminism and freedom (I am resisting the urge to put that word in quotation marks). There's a particularly great line about "the fathers of illegitimate offspring [like cyborgs]" being "inessential" that I remembered and wanted to grab. But in the course of doing so, I found myself once again for the first time in a long time re-reading parts of the essay. The opening is, well, lovely. It could go on a religion blog, like that other one I'm working on, but not before that blog has established a character and voice of its own that is not just this blog somewhere else. So I'll put it here for now, because (a) it fits, and (b) it's time to also revive this one and start posting again. But I do a lot with irony in my classes, and it occurs to me that they really probably should read this, as difficult as it is. Maybe not in 100 courses, but in 200 and up they should try to wrestle with it.

This chapter is an effort to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism. Perhaps more faithful as blasphemy is faithful, than as reverent worship and identification. Blasphemy has always seemed to require taking things very seriously. I know no better stance to adopt from within the secular-religious, evangelical traditions of United States politics, including the politics of socialist feminism. Blasphemy protects one from the moral majority within, while still insisting on the need for community. Blasphemy is not apostasy. Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humour and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method, one I would like to see more honoured within socialist-feminism. At the centre of my ironic faith, my blasphemy, is the image of the cyborg.
It could be taken as a reading of Colbert before Congress, come to think of it . . .

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Money is not the way to motivate

(((Ayn Rand is wrong; more money does not lead to better performance in skilled work; autonomy, mastery, and making a contribution matter more.)))


American-style capitalism, particularly as it is instantiated in IP laws (see especially the DMCA), operates on the basic assumption that innovation only happens with the promise of a financial payoff. Never mind that money did not motivate Einstein to work out relativity, or Oppenheimer to develop the bomb. Why is it that we think the people who really do everything for money (if there even are such people) are the people we want making decisions?

In any case, Dan Pink has a really interesting, very short talk (animated by RSA), in which he makes the case that, when you put enough money on the table that work is no longer about money (a point you reach fairly quickly), then the other factors matter more: autonomy, mastery, and contributing to something bigger than yourself. I don't generally go in for the sort of stuff that Pink does, but there's something really interesting about this when I think of it in terms of those of us in academics. Specifically, we get scared and angry about financial insecurity; we do things often for the express purpose of getting more money, but that doesn't mean we do it completely or entirely well; we get frustrated at how undervalued we are by society, when no one expects doctors to work for peanuts, but we're supposed to because we "believe" in what we're doing. But the truth is, we keep doing it. For some of us, it's partly because we have no options. But I think Pink's analysis gets at the heart of the frustration of teachers when people who aren't us start trying to tell us how to do our jobs, as if our jobs are the kind of menial labor where an increase in pay would improve performance, but instead of increasing our pay, they take away our autonomy (teach these things, teach them this way), our mastery (no one *needs* mastery like you have, certainly not your students, and by the way, you're not any good at it and we're not going to pay you either money or respect for extending and maintaining your mastery), and our contributions (we in the humanities are a smaller and smaller and smaller part of even ostensibly "liberal" education, because we are not "practical" in that narrow utilitarian way).

If people want better schools, and I'm betting this applies in some way to K-12 also, stop telling us how to do our jobs. Stop making us feel incompetent or lazy for wanting some control over what we do, especially when you're going to hold us responsible for it. Stop treating education like a factory whose output is functional, healthy, normalized, trained-for-the-workforce-but-also-fully-actualized people. Not only are these contradictory sorts of goals, but people are not factory outputs, not widgets, not burgers, and not the customers who ordered the burgers or buy the widgets. Analogies of liberal education (which is to be distinguished from job training) to manufacturing or service utterly obscure the truly human aspects of the process.

And they only make us hate our jobs more, because it's not what we signed up for. It's not what we spent years in grad school for. And it's not what many of us are still paying off thousands of dollars of debt to have gotten.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Pushing NCLB for Higher Ed

(((Extending the principles of K-12 to college; soon also grad schools -- why not?; all the stifling institutional crap that makes our students so bad when they get to college is about to ruin their college educations, too.)))

A Chronicle article by the policy director of an education think tank makes the case that Obama's "Race to the Top" should be extended to colleges, including a set of 60 standardized credits-worth of courses at all public universities, which would be accepted at all public universities (of course, this would happen at the state level, but it would be mandated at the federal level, and would not at all mean that everyone essentially goes to the same university, wherever they are); annual "audits" of "student learning" which would be where colleges prove that (and what) their students are learning (since it's just like proving that you mop your restaurant floors properly, or that you pay your bills); and "work-force outcome" measurement, where you prove that your students get jobs and make money "in their fields," ('cause lit majors who don't go to grad school in lit are failures, and anyway the point of college is just to make money).


Part of his argument on standardization is that students transfer a lot, and "assemble" their degrees from a variety of institutions. But it's not at all clear to me why, if you want my institution's name on your degree, you shouldn't take most (I might go as high as 80%) of your courses at my institution. Am I the only one thinking of Sarah Palin, here? Also, this seems clearly built around support for online-only institutions.

Anyway, while there is much to dispute in the column, the real issue is efficiency. For some reason, we just cannot admit that liberal arts education is not technical training, and will not be efficient. Look at online courses, where students go at their own pace. This is only "efficient" in the sense that students have no instructor, and it requires that they take initiative and do actual work. Shoot, if my students would do that in my live classes, my classes would be more efficient, too, and students would actually get much, much more out of their interactions with me and their class-mates. The one up-side I see here is that students in online courses have no one but themselves to blame when they fail a class. That said, at least one purveyor of online courses has 24-hour live online tutors. In other words, pretty soon there will be no faculty jobs except at the elite institutions (where the value of such things is recognized and the people have money to pay for it -- in other words, for the privileged), and instead of teaching in a classroom, I'll have the instructional (not educational) equivalent of a tech support job.




Sunday, December 13, 2009

QOTD: Parmenides Wasn't Stupid

(((Quote of the Day; the poetic and the mathematical; being and non-being; Parmenides; Lacan and the Pre-Socratics; Badiou on Lacan on etc.)))


Lacan sez in Encore (Badiou quoting Seminar XX page 22):
Fortunately, Parmenides actually wrote poems. Doesn't he use linguistic devices - the linguist's testimony takes precedence here - that closely resemble mathematical articulation, alternation after succession, framing after alternation? It is precisely because he was a poet that Parmenides says what he has to say to us in the least stupid of manners. Otherwise, the idea that being is and that nonbeing is not, I don't know what that means to you, but personally I find that stupid.
Of course, this very simple statement has consequences in Parmenides, consequences that make Parmenides an enemy of Badiou. But the point remains about the importance of the articulation, and this will then have to do with the distinction between knowledge and truth, between the banal (like, say, this post) and the revelatory (Parmenides), and then, still further, the poetic as a sort of precursor or movement in the direction of the matheme.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Vatican Assimilates Marx

(((Marx turns out to have been pretty important, even from the point of view of Catholicism, which has traditionally not been so warm -- leaving aside, of course, a wing of the Society of Jesus.)))


I see that the Vatican has extended its recantation of past hostilities from Darwin to that other bete noir of contemporary piety, Karl Marx, the (grand)father of "godless" communism. Said The Times,
L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said yesterday that Marx’s early critiques of capitalism had highlighted the “social alienation” felt by the “large part of humanity” that remained excluded, even now, from economic and political decision-making.

Georg Sans, a German-born professor of the history of contemporary philosophy at the pontifical Gregorian University, wrote in an article that Marx’s work remained especially relevant today as mankind was seeking “a new harmony” between its needs and the natural environment. He also said that Marx’s theories may help to explain the enduring issue of income inequality within capitalist societies.

“We have to ask ourselves, with Marx, whether the forms of alienation of which he spoke have their origin in the capitalist system,” Professor Sans wrote. “If money as such does not multiply on its own, how are we to explain the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few?”

With Darwin, Galileo, and Oscar Wilde now in the fold, what's an atheist to do? Is there nothing that is incompatible with Catholicism? Maybe this is like the parable of the rich man's banquet . . . they're out in the streets dragging in the scientists and atheists and social delinquents. That'll do.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Mandating and Incentivizing Health Care

(((The logic of mandates and penalties in health insurance; it's really hilarious to be lectured on how the penalties actually have to mean something by industry representatives with actuaries who probably do those very calculations for every move these companies make.)))


Blue Cross/Blue Shield representative on Morning Edition this morning sounding all sternly maternal, pointing out that a mandate has to be a mandate, and if there's no penalty for not buying into the health care system, people will find it much more reasonable to pay some small fine than to pay what it takes to buy insurance.

Wait, you're saying small fines for breaking the laws, not abiding by guidelines, missing certain kinds of targets, and so on, those fines can be worth paying when you stand to pay less overall -- or even, let's say, make lots more money -- by going ahead and doing what you're not supposed to do?

Shocking. It's as if the private sector has thought about this before. And, well, it's like they've all become . . . socialists! Obama wins!