April 2013


5_fig002I’m often asked how I account for norms within my framework and how I account for freedom, purposiveness, or normativity.  The best I can say is that I’m working on it.  I think these are among the most important questions, but also feel that they have to be answered in the right way.  In my view, modern naturalism, coupled with the discoveries of ethnography, has so fundamentally transformed our conceptual space, that old solutions and answers just aren’t plausible anymore.  My reticence to answer these questions arises from– I hope –humility and a recognition of just how difficult these questions are, not a rejection of their importance.

Let’s start with questions of normativity or those values that ought to govern our actions.  Like anyone else, I have my normative commitments or beliefs about what is better and worse.  The question is one of how we ground our normative commitments.  What are the principles by which 1) we ought to regulate our activity and 2)  how do we demonstrate that they’re true or right?  Moreover, 3) are these principles universal such that they’re binding for all human beings, or are the particular or restricted to particular groups and cultures?

read on!

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For anyone who’s interested, here’s the text of my talk at Fordham tonight:

bryantfordham

I posted this on facebook, but figured it would be worthwhile to post it here as well.  The comments made by humanities academics in response to Rebecca Schuman’s Slate editorial on Literature Ph.D.’s made me see red. I’m now thinking that every graduate student in the humanities should be required to take a statistics course. Listen folks, the fact that your department hired one or two people is anecdote and doesn’t get at the job market reality that freshly minted Ph.D.’s are facing. You have to go by the ratio of candidates on the market to available positions to say something meaningful on these matters. Likewise, the fact that you can find an exception to a generalization does not undermine the statistical validity of that generalization because curves aren’t defined by their outliers. I can’t tell you how often I hear folks in the humanities reject a statistical generalization based on an outlier. We should know better.

The worst part about the responses to Rebecca Schuman’s editorial were those who suggested that her tone is the reason she hasn’t gotten a tenure track job. We’re talking about a woman who has been on the market for four years working as an adjunct and a visiting professor. Like so many who have earned their Ph.D., she’s been unable to start any sort of life, unable to put down any roots, unable to start a family (if that’s what she so desires), and very likely had great difficulty supporting herself. Meanwhile, her labor has been exploited by the academic system. Not only is she entitled to her tone– I thought it was humorous but others read it differently, I guess –but attacking her tone is attacking the victim. I don’t see how anyone in higher education can defend the trends over the last decade or so.

I’ll add that I’m not endorsing the advice not to pursue a Ph.D..  I’m aware that a number of struggles for more just working conditions in academia are unfolding.  I think editorials like Schuman’s are valuable for two reasons.  First, I think that they give the public important insight into just how awful things currently are in academia and especially the humanities.  That’s an important contribution to these struggles.  Second, I think it’s important for undergraduates contemplating pursuing a Ph.D. to know what they’re getting into and to be prepared for it.

Karen Gregory has a nice alternative take on the issue here.  For the reasons above, I have mixed feelings about what she says.  As Ranciere might put it, political change first requires enunciation of a wrong as an impetus for change.  I see pieces such as Schuman’s as contributions to such declarations.

Over at An und Fur Sich, Beatrice Marovich has written a brilliant post on contempt.  In my view, she’s describing what Mark K-Punk once called “the sneer from nowhere” that is so common in online discussions.  Over at An und Fur Sich, they’re talking about contempt as arising from class distinctions.  I think there’s a limited truth to this, but it doesn’t explain the ubiquity of contempt as a rhetorical phenomenon on the internet, where class distinctions are far less visible.  Rather, I think it makes more sense to follow a hybrid theory of Lacan and McLuhan, pointing out how a cold medium such as the internet invites a massive return or dominance of the Lacanian Imaginary or rivalrous struggles over identity.  Here’s a taste:

By using language, and the body, to make another body feel worthless and ignored, contempt serves to lift the contemptuous person up. But this is such a trivial and fragile leap. If given the conscious choice, how many people would choose to lift themselves up onto a throne of worthlessness?

Am I missing something about contempt? Have I gotten it entirely wrong? Help me with this. Change my mind about contempt. Really, I wouldn’t mind thinking differently about contempt. Because I am convinced that we are living not in the age of irony, but in the age of contempt. Often, what passes for irony might otherwise be called a performance of contempt. It’s everywhere. It’s layered into the tone of critique and commentary, sustaining its very cleverness. Contempt is just under the surface of almost everything I read in the blogosphere. It appears in little bursts in social media. We go to theaters to bask in it, and perhaps (also) to achieve something else if we’re able to deflect it. In a culture with an absurd distribution of wealth, where most assets are effectively owned by a tiny percentage of the population, we can build ourselves up on the crumbs of contempt. We can live like royalty on the little thrones built of someone else’s pangs of worthlessness. Do you think it’s possible to abstain from contempt? Would this be delusion, or folly?

Read the rest here.

lucretiusIf you’ll be in the area, I’ll be giving a talk at Fordham on April 24th entitled “Lucretius on the Letter:  Notes for a Materialist Critical Theory”.  If you’ll be in the area, the talk will be at 7pm, at the Fordham University Lincoln Center in South Lounge.  It’s open to the public, so please join us.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a scholarly talk about Lucretius, but a discussion of how Lucretius’s materialism continues to inspire critical theory today.  I will be discussing things ranging from the simulacra and their implications, to entropy, psychoanalysis, psychology, and neurology, and what these things entail for our political thought and practice today.  My question is not so much “what did Lucretius mean?” (who cares?), as “what does it mean to be Lucretian today?”  Basically I will be arguing that Democritus/Epicurus/Lucretius offers a third way between the binary choice of Plato and Aristotle that is crucially important to the age we’re living in with respect to questions of economy, cultural struggle, and ecology.  Come play with us!  And if you can’t, please distribute the announcement for this talk.

For those who are interested, here’s my talk at York University in Toronto.  It’s a pity they didn’t record the Q&A session after the talk as we really had a wonderful discussion.  My talk before the Toronto psychoanalysts should be posted soon.