One of the things I noticed during the extraordinary events that took place in New York was that there seems to be a sort of antipathy/insecurity in other disciplines with respect to philosophy. In discussions– and I must say that this was the finest set of events I’ve ever attended and I’ve attended some pretty damn good events –people would often preface their remarks with statements like “I’m not a philosopher, but…” or, coming from the more political crowd I would hear something like “philosophy is detached from such and such an engagement, but…” This is something I’ve encountered in a number of venues and which I have a difficult time understanding.
I suspect that my lack of understanding on this issue has something to do with my own background. I failed my second year of high school through a combination of our school burning down through arson and the total chaos that ensued, lost love, and substance abuse. I was even homeless for a somewhat lengthy time during this period– during which I learned the importance of objects due to a prolonged experience of Heidegger’s famous broken tool, i.e., I experienced the infrastructure required to sustain a life such as simple things like washer machines to wash my laundry so as to work to make the money to pay my rent and buy food –and was, in many respects, simultaneously discovered and created by a teacher to whom I’m infinitely indebted today. I had never been a good student and this teacher was the first person in my life that recognized that I might have a talent at writing– I’m still skeptical on that score –and that perhaps I should pursue advanced courses. Although, as a child, I had dreamed of writing (fantasy/sci-fi novels and “modules” for gaming), I had never seen it as a real possibility. I had expected to be dead by the time I was 18… Mostly, no doubt, because adulthood looked so miserable and hopeless to me (the grind of the factory or corporation).
This teacher’s speech-act lit a fire under my ass and brought forth a new being. It made me a different person. For the first time in my life I had been recognized. For the first time in my life I felt valued. For the first time in my life I felt like perhaps I had something to offer. An intense desire for knowledge erupted in me. The next year I began taking advanced courses. I wasn’t any better about attending classes. Rather, my time was spent at the local coffee shop– Aberth’s –drinking coffee all day long, reading Will Durant’s volumes of history (my grandmother had a collection that I stole), reading Freud, reading Durkheim, reading great novelists like Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Joyce, and Proust, reading ethnographers and sociologists, and, above all, reading philosophy: Kant, Descartes, Spinoza, Husserl, Sartre, Heidegger, Santayana, Josiah Royce, Wittgenstein, James, Whitehead, Russell, Dewey, Peirce, and a host of others… Whatever I could find. I knew at that time that I was a disciple of Heraclitus the Obscure. At that time the mega bookstores had not yet arisen, nor did the internet (in any form I was acquainted with) yet exist. There was only Walden Books and B.Dalton’s. I read whatever I could get my hands (which wasn’t much in the coal mining/steel community in which I grew up) and I drove all over the country side, going to out of the way used bookstores in former socialist/utopian villages like Zoar, picking up whatever I could get my hands on. I had to cut the pages of my first copy of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Everything was a treasure. The State even tried to bring charges against me for my truancy, yet the teachers and school came to my defense: “this is working for him, let him alone.” I spent a lot of time in “In-School Detention” looking at a cinder block wall upon which they had painted a window with a squirrel eating an acorn on a branch. They still had to exact their pound of flesh and I understood this.
I was shocked when I was accepted by university. I was even more shocked that I was scouted. My PSAT scores had been very good, especially in the language portions, so Ohio State invited me to a collective dinner with the president of the college. This was a complete shock to me. Again, I had expected to either be dead by 18 or to spend the rest of my life working in a factory making cardboard boxes. These weren’t possibilities that I envisioned for myself. I did know that I wanted to study philosophy, however. My father and I spent many nights discussing this, sitting on our driveway in New Philadelphia, Ohio. I smoked then– and still do occasionally now –and we would sit there among those hills, beneath those expansive skies, arguing back and forth about the merits of a philosophy degree. They were amiable discussions and good discussions; not the fraught discussions that youth sometimes have with their parents when talking about “majors”.
Yet for me, I don’t know that philosophy meant “philosophy”. Philosophy meant the humanities, the arts, and politics. A fundamentalist religious revival had swept through our town at this time and with it came actual burning of books (Orwell’s 1984 was burnt because of its sexual content and the AP English courses began teaching Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities instead… I wonder if they knew he was a socialist), the teaching of evolution ceased, and they shifted to abstinence only sexual education as well. It was a traumatic time in the classes with heated and impassioned discussions that sometimes left all involved in enraged tears. I wanted to understand this, especially since I was reading so much at this time about the history of fascists and dictators. There seemed to be parallels here. For me philosophy meant “theory” and theory meant understanding these sorts of things and finding ways to do things about them.
So I suppose what I’m saying is that philosophy is something I fell into. It was my way of being able to pursue the “humanities” and theory. My work is never restricted to “philosophy”, but moves fluidly between philosophy, psychoanalysis, sociology, history, ethnography, art, literature, the sciences, and so on. I don’t really understand what “philosophy” as such is. For me, there’s just theory and practices. Disciplinary boundaries are artificial. In high school, when I first began writing on these things, I would obsess trying to figure out what the “essence” of philosophy is, what it is that distinguishes it from psychology, sociology, the sciences, and so on. I never found an answer. And today I no longer worry about finding an answer. How can these things be separated? They can’t because they’re all of a fabric. I detest those that are perpetually trying to champion their discourse as a master-discipline or juridical body over all the others. Assholes.
Last year my brother called me fraught with the suicide of a friend. He had, I think, an etymological understanding of “philosophy” as a lover of wisdom and expected me to have wisdom. I truly, ardently, and deeply wish I had wisdom, but I just don’t have the sort of wisdom he needed from me that night. No, at this point in my life, the only wisdom I have is a deep belief and respect for what Haraway calls “local knowledges” and a deep respect for the craft of people. Each orientation in the world of theory, each practice, each discipline, each form and style of life outside of academia produces it’s own local knowledge. A few years ago I got drunk with a farmer in a small town in Ohio. He was a genius about soil chemistry, plant dynamics, the equipment he used and so on. He could wax poetic and arcane, going toe to toe, with any academic I’ve had the privilege of being acquainted with. He had a profound local knowledge. The medievalist can kick my ass. The painter is able to dialogue with her medium and knows a logic of colors. The sociologist is able to discern things about inter-thing relations that I scarcely notice. The Alaskan construction worker– one of my more brilliant students this semester –knows all sorts of things about the properties of steel and engines in harsh below zero temperatures and knows that building something in this environment never works exactly like the blue prints suggest. The athlete knows the dynamics of the body forming an extended mind with this or that particular medium, collective and synchronized action as in the case of the gymnast/cheerleader, the tendencies of the ball, the fluid dynamics of water as in the case of Michael Phelps or the surfer, and so on.
There are local knowledges everywhere, yet academic ego perpetually wishes to assert the primacy of its discipline and the ignorance of all the other disciplines. Philosophers wish to claim that we’re the true “shephards”! Ours is the master-discipline of every other practice. Rhetoricians point out that everything involves an argument and rhetoric and therefore they’re in possession of the master discipline. The historian comes along and points out that everything has a history and therefore they have the master discipline. The scientist comes along and points out that everything is natural and that therefore they have the master discipline. The political theorist points out that there are interests involved in everything so therefore they must have the master-discipline (even set theory must be political and we must ask set theorists what radical politics arises from their set theory!). And so it goes. Everyone dreams of domination, it seems. Everyone refuses local knowledges. No one seems capable of saying “I learned something from you at dinner!”
All of us are now involved in talks about what future events should look like based on the strange serendipity we experienced in New York. We shouldn’t call them conferences or symposiums, I think, because that’s too disciplinary and ignores practices like the work of art. Eileen Joy and the good Babel folk seem to be on the same page here. What we need is a new sort of event, a post-disciplinary event. Just as post/humanism and OOO do not announce the exclusion of the human but rather the ontological truth and Lucretian teaching of wilderness or amongstness, such a happening wouldn’t announce the erasure of disciplines, but rather the locality of disciplines and practices. As I have tried to articulate it, such happenings would strive to create a Jacob’s Ladder where, to use Deleuze’s language in The Logic of Sense, divergent series nontheless pass a creative spark across their disjunctive vectors. Performance art, painting, ethnographers, literature people, sociologists, architects, engineers, scientists, computer programmers, social and political theorists, and, yes, philosophers, would all participate in such an event seeking not to establish themselves as ground of all the rest, but rather seeking to create lively sparks. This is what I dreamt of when I encountered the world of thought.