Monday, August 25, 2014

Philosophy 101, Fall 2064! Brought to you by RitBull™! The "Smarter" Energy Drink!

Welcome! And thank you for signing up for Fall 2064, Phil 101, a.k.a. "Philosophers: They're Just Like Us!"

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Topic 1: Theism and the Problem of Evil

In this topic we're talking about the question that just won't go away: if God is so great, why does bad shit happen? Special focus on: does bad shit really happen, or does it just seem like bad shit is happening?

NOTE: We're grateful to our sponsor, Pontifex Maximus, for helping us bring this topic to you! With your purchase of this topic, you get a FREE DOWNLOAD of their hit song, "With You or Without You, This Really is the Best of all Possible Worlds"!

Topic 2: Justice and Inequality

In this topic we get very current-eventsy, asking deep questions about whether it's "fair" that some people just inherit huge sums while others have to beg for food. Our discussion will center on the question, "Wait, 'fairness?' Is that really even a thing?"

NOTE: We're thrilled to be sponsored by the Liberty-FTW! Institute for presentation of this great topic! Thanks, liberty guys!

Topic 3: Philosophy of Science

Is science for realz? You may not know it, but for hundreds of years philosophers have been, like, OMG we're not sure! Special consideration of the question: Science after Hume: is it all just a matter of faith?

NOTE: A big shout out to our fantastic sponsor, the Center for a Happy, Healthy Climate. Check out their new video: Carbon Dioxide Is Your BFF!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Online Education and the Fragmentation of Society

For various reasons I recently agreed to make an online version of my philosophy of sex and love course. This is not a "MOOC" -- and it's not going to replace my on campus philosophy of sex and love course or anything like that. It's just going to be offered alongside the campus version in the regular way, through my university, with graduate students grading the tests and essays.

As I set about constructing the lectures that I would later read into the microphone, I noticed right away a certain problem arising: I couldn't know which parts of what I was saying would strike people as obvious, as new but plausible, as mysterious, as dubious, or even as offensive. It's something relatively straightforward to deal with in a classroom. But online? Not so much.

For example, one of the first readings we do in that class is Martha Nussbaum's paper "Objectification." Early on she refers to the ideas of the feminists and legal scholars Dworkin and MacKinnon, that the objectification of women is a huge societal problem and that it is deeply connected to sexuality and the depiction of sexuality in pornography.

It's a difficult set of ideas to explain briefly. I like to focus on the quote from MacKinnon that "All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water" -- which I take to mean roughly that because of the way society is set up, women are not only surrounded by objectifying practices, they often have to choose to be objectified to get along in life, and may come even to experience a preference for objectification -- to, in Nussbaum's words derive our "very nourishment and sustenance from it."

That's just an interpretation. In class, I like to bring up this quotation and ask the students what they think it means and what they think about it.

It's often a pretty lively discussion, because the ideas seem to some people kind of obvious, to others surprising but maybe true, to others completely obscure, and to others implausible.

It's in moments like this that three significant things happen in IRL classrooms.

First, the students who find the idea obscure or implausible can say why they do, and we can talk about it. As I was making my lecture, I realized how many different questions people had had over the years, and how the diversity of experience in our world guarantees the range of what seems "obvious" or "expected" will be vast. Since the world changes and there are always new students, I have no idea what, in the future, they'll be puzzled by or think is weird. If we're there in the classroom, they can tell me, and we can talk about it. Online? Not so much.

Second, students encounter first-hand the range of other student views. In some cases this makes more of an impression on them than anything I might have to say as the teacher. I remember teaching Intro to Philosophy years ago and we were doing a discussion about the existence of god and the problem of evil, and this one student said very in very strong terms that of course he was an atheist, that he had never believed in god, but thought that blah blah blah. And this other student was in my office the next day and his eyes were wide as he said "And that one guy -- he said he was an atheist, had never believed in god! It's kind of more OMG if it's your peer than some weird grown-up at the front of the room.

Finally, students - duh! - learn from one another. Almost always someone who finds the fish-in-water remark intuitive can explain to someone who doesn't why it rings true to them.

It  might seem that all of these things can happen in an online course, because ONLINE DISCUSSION. But I don't know. For various reasons it is difficult to replicate online the particular kind of constructive -- even interested -- back and forth that can happen when a bunch of people are in a room together.

Often, online interaction entrenches people in their own views. They see commenting as offering, rather than listening to, an opinion.

And so it occurred to me that if you start with a bunch of people coming from different viewpoints, the move to online education might erase, even further, the tiny opportunities we have no to exchange with one another in ways that make us see our commonalities as well as our differences.

In an online course, I can try to guess what will seem obvious to people, and try to challenge it through my lectures. But really -- those future people, who the hell knows what they'll be thinking?

Monday, August 11, 2014

We Are In Exile, From We Know Not What

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft, via Wikimedia Commons

What if you were plucked up out of your life and sent to another planet where things were similar but just worse all around? What if the people were sort of like people here, only they were really slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? What if the natural environment were really harsh, so that just getting food and water took a huge amount of time and effort?

What if your travel transmogrified you, so that when you arrived, you too became slow-witted, ugly, unhealthy and quick to anger and indignation? Suddenly you're scarred and mottled and covered in acne - and so is everyone else.

Got the mental picture?

Confession: sometimes I feel like that person now. I mean, I feel like I came from somewhere else, where beings were beings -- where intelligence and beauty were everyone's birthright and peace and pleasure had a proper home. The home planet. A better place. Then I look around at the human condition and think to myself, "My god, how do people live like this?"

If you think of humans as essentially noble intelligent creatures, the conditions we're living in are appalling. We're easily brought down by any number of simple viruses. We're a weird assortment of misplaced orifices and skin you can damage with a fingernail, without even the dignity of fur or a tail. We can't get our basic needs met without either enslaving other people or coming up with ridiculous gadgets. You get even two of us together and get us on virtually any subject, and we'll find something to disagree about. And our poor little feelings are so easily bruised. The icing on the cake: less than a hundred or so years of muddling through, BAM! It's over. No do-overs. No second chances. No probation, and no court of appeals.

I feel like it's the kind of thing you're not supposed to talk about in polite company. The Party Line, at least these days, is gratitude and appreciation. The idea that you're dreaming of better world seems vaguely politically suspect, something like a First World Problem.

And, indeed, I used to think I was in a small minority feeling this way so often, missing the home planet, that maybe I was depressed or sick in the head in some other way.

But the more I thought about it, the more I started to see it as a pretty common feeling -- it just has other names. What is heaven, but a home planet that's in the future rather than the past? Same for post-humanism. Same thing for any number of yearnings for Something Else.

And then I remembered reading in Proust about art and the way a painting could be an indication of something from a better world. This article in the Independent about Dutch art in literature confirmed my memory and put it in context. It's in The Captive, and the character of Bergotte is dying, and he goes to revisit Vermeer's "View of Delft."

As the article says, there is a tiny patch of yellow wall, so perfectly painted as to represent beauty in itself. And the yellow patch -- and particularly the perfection with which it is painted -- "appears to the dying Bergotte like a coded signal from a better world, 'based on kindness, scrupulousness, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again.'"

My garden-variety Disappointedness With Life, the tech geek's post-humanist Dream, and Proust's hearing of the faintest call from a world, unlike our own, of sense and beauty where we can finally live in peace and happiness -- these might seem like different things but I think they all speak to the same feeling, widely shared if not widely discussed.

It's the feeling of Exile from Something Else, We Know Not What.

Monday, August 4, 2014

On The Self-Satisfaction Of The Casually Dressed

Thomas Gainsborough, The Blue Boy, via Wikimedia Commons

Here at The Kramer Is Now we have a belief -- not a confidently held belief, not a conviction, but still, a belief -- that whatever they might say to the contrary, the vast majority of people care a whole heck-of-a-lot about their clothing and appearance.

The Accidental Philosopher is an uninteresting case. I've always cared a lot about my appearance and I've never been shy to say so. I want to wear just the right sort of thing; I want my hair just so; I love a beautiful pair of shoes. I'm frustrated when my reality fails to measure up to my ideal, which it almost always does. Many of my earliest memories are of clothes: the blue and green dress I loved so much that after I outgrew it I wore it as a shirt; the crazy '70s backless one-piece jumpsuit; the first pair of high-heel sandals, purchased years after I started begging for them.

A lot of people are with me on that. But this post isn't about us. This post is about those other people. In particular, it's about those people who think, and often feel compelled to point out, with a hint of self-satisfaction, that they're the kind of people who really just don't care what they put on, as long as it's comfortable, warm, easy to clean. This post is about how we cannot cede to these people the moral high ground they think they're standing on.

A couple of years ago a guy wrote in -- I think it was to The Chronicle of Higher Education -- explaining exultantly that he just couldn't understand all this talk about clothing in academia and what to wear to teach class, because he just didn't care about clothes, in fact, he boasted, he just got up and put on whatever his wife bought for him and that was that. Voilà! Man, clothed!

In the comments a lot of people were already like, WTF?, pointing out that if a woman said that about husband it would be weird all around. But I found myself thinking more directly, "There is no way that is true."

Imagine if the wife had set out comfortable, warm, easy to clean pants that just happened to have giant red, white, and blue stars on them. Imagine if what she set out was made of skin-tight latex. Imagine if she set out a shirt that was comfortable, warm, and easy to clean, but just happened to have a visual depiction of the man's naked chest sewn on to the front. Do you think he'd just put these clothes on, go to campus? There's no way. I think he'd freak the fuck out.

Years ago when I was young I dated a guy who liked to say he didn't care about clothes. He was a jeans-and-T-shirt type. My own clothing interests he seemed to classify under the category of "Yeah, you never know what interests women are going to have." Any role my clothing might have played in his being sexually attracted to me was an issue swept under the rug and never discussed.

Then one day I borrowed someone's sensible and ugly winter coat. And gee -- it turned out this coat wasn't very attractive -- a fact that this guy eventually told me, going on to suggest, with an attempt at tact, that I wear something else. Hmmm. A little later someone offered the two of us a bunch of quality hand-me-downs. We had very little money and always needed stuff, so anyone who didn't care about their appearance would have said "yes" immediately. But I suspected this guy would not like these clothes. They weren't the right cut of denim. They weren't the right kind of shirt. There were brands suggesting class issues he didn't want to identify with. And I was right: he turned down the offer.

I don't blame him -- I wouldn't have wanted to wear them either. But it shows: in this case, "not caring about clothes" was really more about projecting a certain image of not caring about clothes.

And I think that is often true. Or, perhaps we can say more charitably, that it's not about projecting "I don't care" but rather about projecting an image identifying with a certain set of people -- people who aren't bankers, who don't read GQ, who've never shopped for a tie in their lives. I think this is probably right. And I think most people who "don't care about clothes" are hoping to project an image identifying themselves with a particular set of values, or to reject pretension in favor of simplicity or anti-elitism. Everyone can wear jeans and a T-shirt, you might say, so if we all wear jeans and T-shirts, we can all be the same.

That's fine. Admirable goal. But let's not get confused. It doesn't mean these people don't care about what they wear. They care a ton. They just care in a particular way. So right away, just forget that whole self-satisfaction that is supposed to be based on being Above All Of That. Nobody's above anything here.

And once we're clear that we're all in the same boat about caring, and it's just some people care about X and others care about Y, I think the hope that T-shirts and jeans are somehow inherently more closely associated with progressive values than other clothes isn't quite sustainable.

Look at it this way. For obvious reasons, women can't just opt into the whole "I just wear T-shirts and jeans." Women face relentless bizarre pressures to triangulate sexy-but-not-too-sexy-and-don't-be-frumpy norms. Unless she happens to be a hottie, a woman who throws on comfortable jeans and a T-shirt isn't going to command respect in the workplace and she isn't going to be found attractive by the men she's hoping to date. So it's never so simple.

Other people can't opt in either. Because of racism, black people have to craft their self-presentation just in the service of simple aims like catching taxis and not being harassed in stores.

Still other people, for all kinds of reasons, aren't going to be comfortable in the standard-issue-anti-elitist uniform. Maybe they grew up wearing something else, and jeans feel alien and strange.

So there's at least one sense in which that particular uniform rests on certain assumptions about conformity, and even on some white-guy-privilege.

Furthermore, when people wear all different kinds of clothing, and there's less pressure toward conformity, it's easier to be different: more people can feel like they belong, because belonging doesn't mean dressing the same.

If that's true, then the world needs the backless jumpsuit, pink boots, wearing some crazy stuff people.

So next time you see someone in a crazy outfit, don't think "I don't care about what I wear." Think, "Maybe it's time to buy some pants with giant stars on them." Dress all in blue. Or something. Fly your freak flag, knock yourself out, all of that jazz.