Tuesday, February 27, 2018

How Did I Fail To Read Any Books In January 2018?

I could be wrong, but I think that January 2018 was the first month since I started this blog that I read zero books. I mean, zero of the non-philosophy books that I read for fun and general interest and list here on the right hand side of this blog.

A month with no books disturbs me. Not because I have some weird hifalutin idea about the life of the mind and not because I'm snobby about books as opposed to other forms of entertainment -- but just because I like to read, and I'm like, what the hell have I been doing with my time? Why didn't I read any books in January?

Of course, the "what have I been doing with my time" invites the honest, universal, and prima facie relevant answer that "Well, I've been busy." It is true that my job is time-consuming and I've been extra busy lately. But I don't think that's the crucial issue. In the past, there have actually been times when I've been extra busy and I've read more books, because I'm extra in need of the distraction and decompression that novels provide. And I can read anywhere. I like to eat alone and read. I read when I'm waiting in line or early to something. I read before dinner, when I'm just home from the gym, and I read after dinner.

So it's not a brute time factor. I have two hypotheses, which are equally uncomfortable for me in different ways.

The first is: I've been looking at the internet. Yes, all those times when I'm sitting around or early to something or whatever, instead of looking at a novel, I've been looking at the news on my phone. GAWD -- as my mother would have said. It doesn't even have the interactivity of social media, it's just stupid stories about Brexit, and Donald Trump, and school shootings, and more Brexit. I don't know if I have a soft spot for British news because Britain is truly dysfunctional in a more entertaining way than the US or whether I'm kidding myself about that, but man, do I read a lot about British dysfunction. In any case, as a way of spending time, it's ridiculous.

The second is: I was catching up on my New Yorker reading. OK, I know this sounds like an absurd thing to be concerned about but hear me out. Throughout my life, I've heard always hear people talk about how they were "behind on their New Yorker reading." For me, this was in the same category as something like "I have eight books on my bedside table that I've started and haven't finished." And I felt like they were both absurd in similar ways. Because, when it comes to art, I prided myself on doing the things I liked doing and not doing the other things.

I don't like having "guilty pleasures." When I have pleasures, I like to stand up for them. Like Beavis and Butthead, or the song Blurred Lines (yes. I wrote about it here.) And I don't like having the opposite of guilty pleasures -- which, whatever you'd call them, are like things you feel you ought to do for culture but you don't want to. Artistically, I am invested in doing the things I like doing and not other things. And "catching up on" New Yorker reading always felt to me like the opposite of that. 

And yet here I am. I got like ten issues behind, and I couldn't bear to just let it go and start up again on the new issue. I'm not sure why. So all those moments, when I could have been reading a novel, I was catching up on my New Yorker reading -- I mean, when I wasn't drowning in news about Brexit.

The good news is, I'm all caught up. And before February was over my friend said to me, casually, Oh, have you read An American Marriage? It's really good. Got it, on it, hopefully back on track.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

For Your Consideration: Some Images

Hello loyal readers! I wasn't able to write something for you this week because I am trying to revise a book manuscript and it is taking up all my words. For your entertainment pleasure, however, here are some images of interest.

First, we have the following phone capture, representing a text message I received when a family member had a health procedure in the United States.


The way it works is you give them your phone number and they put you in a system so they can text you with news, updates, and offers. I also received a special welcome card with an offer of $2.50 off any food or beverage purchased in the hospital cafeteria. Maybe it's because I've been in Canada so long, but this all seemed such a perfect representation of the capitalism of the US heath care system. Minus: many people with no health care! Plus: texting and welcome gifts for the well-insured!

Next, we have the following iPhone auto-correct on my phone. I don't know why, but I'm easily amused by auto-correct humor. A site like this can amuse me for -- well, minutes on end, anyway.


In this case, I just couldn't get over that mistyping "Hello" as "Vhello" would lead to the suggestions of "Chelonia" and "Chelicarae." WTF?

Finally, we have this graffito (on the bottom) in the Women's bathroom at Robarts Library in Toronto:


It says "Change the world, idiots, not yourself." This is a useful and philosophically sophisticated statement. I don't know if it is meant to apply to this ad specifically (which is for birth control, though you wouldn't know that from the ad, I guess because the have to be cagey about it?) or whether it's just a general statement.  Either way, I'm always happy to see it and be reminded. It's not me, world -- it's you.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Problems of Love and Autonomy

I was invited to join others in contributing a post about love to the Daily Nous in honor of Valentine's Day. Mine is cross-posted below, but you can check them all out here

It's Valentine's Day, so let's talk about ... death! In the grand tradition of philosophical debate, I'll start with an anecdote:

Kay Sievewright and Ernie Sievewright of British Columbia were married for 55 years, and when their health declined, they hoped to die together. They were each approved for Medical Assistance in Dying, which became legal here in Canada in 2016, but their request to die at the same time was turned down. Instead, they died four days apart, in early 2017.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association, which provides legal advice to physicians, said they couldn't comment on this case, but they did make a general statement: "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence ... It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they're agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence."

You might think this has little to do with Valentine's Day, but I think this case highlights in an interesting way some deep complexities of love and personal autonomy. It's often thought to be in the nature of love that you come to feel the way you do about things partly because of the influence of the other person. In union theories of love, merger can mean curtailing individual decision-making, and in caring concern theories, the fact that something will increase the well-being of the beloved is a reason to do it. Drawing on accounts of shared agency, Andrea Westlund proposes shared egalitarian deliberation, in which each person should be open to guidance by the perspective of the other.

On the face of it, love is thus in tension with autonomy, where there is an emphasis on the importance of doing things for your own reasons, free, as the statement says, even of "influence" from others.

This tension can be resolved in various ways. Some concern theorists point out that if you act for the other person because you love them, this is acting for your own reasons. And as relational theorists of autonomy like have long emphasized, what enables people to be autonomous is not isolation, but relationships. Westlund says that autonomy is about being "answerable" for your commitments, so love means mutual answerability. 

These ways of resolving the tension aptly show how autonomy and love are compatible, but as is often pointed out, they may not fully resolve deeper questions of undue influence from our intimates. What makes influence inappropriate? When one person prioritizes the interests of another, this can be because of love, but it can also be because of pressure, coercion, or socialized deference. How should this distinction be understood?

Even when deference is systematic and gendered, a result of feminine socialization, there is debate over how "autonomy" should be conceptualized. On the one hand, a person who is systematically deferential to another in this way seems paradigmatically non-autonomous, since they are not deciding for their own reasons. On the other hand, if a person chooses deference, that's their choice; who are we to say they are not being themselves?

Anita Ho highlights the relevant complexities in bioethical decision-making. Given the vulnerabilities and stresses of illness and treatment, relational perspectives force us to acknowledge that for whose whose family is central to their existence, consideration of family members' "advice, needs, and mutual interests" is part of being autonomous. Still, she says, exploitation, indoctrination and false consciousness are real possibilities. Clinicians should "listen to the family’s concerns and reasoning process, and then explore with them various options that can best respect the interests of all parties." By default, however, Ho says that health care teams should trust the patient's own final expressed wishes -- not because manipulation is impossible, but rather because family relationships are highly complex and typically opaque to clinicians.

This brief investigation highlights some of the limitations of appealing to autonomy to solve complicated ethical problems, especially where love and intimacy are involved. It seems appealingly simple to say that for important decisions, we should prioritize individual autonomy. But autonomy is complicated and contextual, and may not be able to bear all this theoretical weight.

The Sievewrights may have come to their decisions in a context of mutual respect, or one may have felt obliged to go along with the other out of love, or one may have pressured the other. From the outside, we may never know -- and in a deeper sense, there may be no answer to this question, even if we had the transcript of the Sievewrights's intimate thoughts.

The same is true for any difficult and important decision, no matter when or how it takes place. The presence of people we love has a powerful effect on us. Sometimes that shapes us to make us who we are. Sometimes it shapes us in more disturbing ways. We may not ourselves always know how to tell the difference. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

I Thought Being Cool Was Going To Be So Much More Important

Even though I was a nerdy and mostly unpopular young person, I had some cool early musical tastes. At least, they were cool in a certain ways. In high school I fell in love with the movie The Hunger, and watching The Hunger I quickly developed an obesssion with the song Funtime, which was co-written by David Bowie and Iggy Pop and performed by Iggy Pop. I knew David Bowie, but I had never heard of Iggy Pop, so I went to the record store (pause here for a Gen-X Nostalgia Moment™) and I bought an Iggy Pop double album.

I was blown away by its awesomeness, but I didn't really understand for a while how cool Iggy Pop is thought to be in certain circles. Now I often listen to the WTF podcast with Marc Maron and a topic that often comes up is how people found out about cool music when they were young. Iggy Pop is a main example of a certain kind of cool, along with bands like MC5. In these discussions, there's frequently a mention of some older person -- a sibling, or cool friend, or even guy-at-the-record-store -- and how you need that person when you're young, to help show you the way. Otherwise, how would you know what's cool?

Sometimes these conversations give me a pang of impotent indignation. "Hey!" I want to explain. "I figured these things out all  by myself! I didn't have a guide or a guru. I heard a song and instantly understood its peculiar genius! Don't I get .. points for that?" In fact, not only did tenth-grade me buy Iggy Pop albums, I also figured out to switch off Dom Imus and switch on WXCI, the local college radio station. WXCI was at 91 on the FM dial. Ha ha, get it? When I was young that allusion knocked me out! Over at WXCI I learned to love a band called "The Art of Noise" and their allusive and fragmented hit song "Close (to the Edit)."

It's ridiculous, but part of teen me always thought that being cool in a way that was different, clever and non-conformist was going to be a Big Deal in life, at least once I got past high school and into the wider world. I thought it would connect me to cool people. I thought others would value and praise me for my coolness. I thought there would be many moments in life where the discussion would turn to some obscure topic and I could say, non-chalantly, how when it came to Art of Noise, oh, I yes, I liked the Close (to the Edit) song. Wasn't the replayed sample of a sound of a car starting just the best? How cool.

Well, it wasn't like that. For one thing, I then went to Wesleyan University, where on the different-clever-non-conformist cool scale I showed up way, way behind. Wesleyan was full of kids who'd been networking in New York City high schools and elite New England boarding schools, taking LSD at age 11, traveling to Thailand in the summers and making art films for fun. The bar was high. Sure, I liked Iggy Pop. But I also liked The Cure. What kind of dopey suburbanite was I? I worked at channeling my inner cool, learned to love the Velvet Underground, and still hoped for for some kind of recognizable line on an invisible resume.

But the sad truth is that as time went on, I found it wasn't that big of a deal. People don't really care. Or if they do, they have their own coolness issues they're trying to sort out. That either makes them annoying and pretentious, or they're too busy with their own coolness issues to pay any attention appreciating yours. On top of everything else, in the age of social media it's hard to share about your cool things without sounding like you're showing off. But mainly, I found that the real stuff of life doesn't have that much to do with showcasing sophisticated tastes and obscure knowledge. 

Sure, I still value trying to be a non-conformist, and sure, it matters to me that I read cool non-conformist books and go to cool non-conformist movies. But I don't care about these things because I think they will make me cool, I just care about them in the normal way.

These days I tend to think of cool in the way Jane Austen described women's fashion and beauty in Northanger Abbey: "Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone. No man will admire her the more, no woman will like her the better for it."