Popular Culture


In recent discussions here and elsewhere surrounding neurology, I get the sense that many approach neurology with a highly specific set of assumptions that very much color their reaction to this field. Turn the television to the Discovery channel on any given evening and you will find documentaries dominated by the theoretical orientation of psycho- and socio-biology. Within this theoretical orientation, any particular human practice, psychological phenomenon, or form of social organization is explained in evolutionary terms as a biological adaptation that promotes reproduction and survival. As a result, this form of psycho- and socio-biology ends up naturalizing and essentializing human practices, social organizations, and forms of subjectivity in ways that can only be described as reactionary.

Those of us who have developed intellectually in the milieu of the last century’s revolution in the social sciences– whether in fields like ethnography, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, linguistics, etc –cannot but encounter this form of theoretical explanation profoundly ignorant by virtue of the way it is commonly unaware of both the findings of ethnography where we discover that if you can imagine it there is probably some group of people somewhere or somewhen that have organized their social, exchange, and kinship relations in this way, and, as a consequence, ideologically debilitating as it ends up naturalizing the contingent forms of subjectivity, social organization, amorous relations, etc., that characterize our contemporary historical and cultural moment.

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It seems to me that within contemporary academia, there is a good deal of anxiety among philosophers as to just what the vocation of philosophy is. Just as Kant famously observed that “time was when metaphysics was the queen of philosophy”, there seems to be an underlying anxiety, among continental philosophers especially, that “time was when philosophy was the queen of the sciences”. Any honest appraisal of philosophy today cannot fail to acknowledge that philosophy has been dethroned from its privileged position among the various disciplines. Where Kant could still teach geography, anthropology, physics, and philosophy, seeing all of these disciplines as, in effect, a part of philosophy, for us today philosophy has increasingly become pared down and marginalized in such a way that it often appears, to the outsider, as a sort of archaic curiosity. The various sciences, both as forms of serious research and in popular culture, have taken on the mantel of answering the questions of metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Thus, when the layman searches for answers to the question of the fundamental nature of reality, he generally looks not to the tradition of philosophy, but to popular science texts such as the works of Brian Green, Frijtof Capra, Stephen J. Gould, and Richard Dawkins. Where philosophy pursues a game of one upsmanship, presenting ultra-radical, whizbang critique to end all critiques, these figures dogmatically present their various accounts of the nature of reality. When the layman looks for answers to the most fundamental and basic questions of ethics, to the classical questions of Aristotle, Epictetus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, the layman looks not to the ethicist, but to the psychologist and self-help books or to mystogogues selling their latest permissive snake-oil. When the layman looks for answers to questions of politics, they look not to political philosophy, but to popularized works of the social sciences. Everywhere it appears that philosophy has become eclipsed by other disciplines, such that in its own disciplinary practice it becomes addressed only to other professional philosophers addicted to something like Magister Ludi’s glass bead game.

Not surprisingly, this state of affairs has led to rather tiresome and reactionary attitudes among philosophers. It is not uncommon to find a sort of “Luddite” mentality among philosophers, where the world is implicitly described as fallen, where the Enlightenment is seen as the pivot point where this fall took place, and where thought prior to this period was a Golden Age. The vocation of philosophy thus becomes a “recollection” or “retrieval” of this forgotten truth, of this ground of all grounds, that has been lost through the fall into the natural attitude initiated by the Enlightenment. As a result, philosophy in the classroom, journals, and books becomes the history of philosophy and the retrieval of this truth from errancy. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that far from denouncing a decisive errancy of thought, this posture is instead based on a combination of envy at the triumph of one philosophical school over the others (a victory that is very carefully suppressed and denied), self-importance, insecurity, and a phobia towards all things mathematical and scientific.

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Update: The Madisonian, a legal blog, weighs in.

Update II: Andrew of The Transcontinental weighs in.

These days, one of the more frustrating and tedious aspects of working in an institutional setting such as a secondary school, a college, or a highschool has been the shift to constant mechanisms of “quality control” that are implemented from year to year, semester to semester. What I have in mind are the constant calls to codify things such as student learning outcomes, assessment criteria, and curriculum across the body of educators. These mechanisms, in turn, lead to endless meetings, professional development seminars, and piles of paperwork that often have little or no connection to teaching or what really takes place in the classroom. At the end of the semester, for example, your department might be required to gather assignment samples from students in each professor’s class. Tenured faculty then review these copious materials, evaluating whether or not they meet the learning outcome criteria, put together a report and then send this report on to division deans, where these reports are further distilled and sent to the administration. At the end of each year I thus find myself beset by a weighty pile of papers from our adjunct and full time faculty that I must evaluate in terms of our student learning outcomes that we spent a year or so devising to meet state accreditation requirements. There, across the room, the books I have had to set aside gaze longingly at me, giving me their coy seductive looks, inviting me to read them, but I am awash in student papers that must be evaluated.

The galling part of this whole process is that it really has no impact on what we and our professors actually do in our classroom. Perhaps I should not say this publicly. The issue is not one of of being opposed to high standards. We already do have high standards. We believe strongly in pedagogy and teaching excellence. The issue is that the assumptions and thought process behind this sort of modeling is fundamentally wrong-headed, diminishing, rather than enhancing education. What we have in United States educational philosophies today is a shift towards a sort of “pedagogical Taylorism”, where it is assumed that education can be codified, instrumentalized, and quantified, such that assignments necessarily take on a generic and simplified structure– for this is what can easily be replicated –and where gradually these reforms have a morphogenetic effect that feeds back on the classroom, giving form to what is taught, how it is taught, and how assignments are structured. In short, these reforms are molarizing machines, designed to create regularities in the Brownian motion of students and faculty, insuring that there is little change or deviation from a pre-delineated form. All the while it is assumed that every discipline can be taught in the manner of the various sciences and branches of mathematics, or that students compose a “smooth space” that can be manipulated and moulded freely, without any singularities.

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STUDENT: Professor Sinthome, when you were discussing rhetoric and the distinction between expression, content, and structure in language today you made me think about my shirt.

ME: Oh? (Confused)

STUDENT: (student turns around) Well if you read what it says– Peace, Love, and Happiness –it expresses one thing. Yet where did it come from? Where was it made? This shirt was made in x, not exactly the nicest place in the world. It’s like, it’s like, the packaging says one thing and that’s what you endorse, yet when you look into what’s behind the packaging, the message all falls apart. Like with all those organic foods I buy.

ME: So what is it you’re really consuming when you consume these things?

At Lars’s prompting I’m posting an unedited version of the Newcastle Keynote paper for any who might be interested. A teaser:

It is easy to think of society as a thing, substance, or entity. We often talk of what “society does”, what it thinks, and how it behaves. We talk about the properties or qualities of the social as if it were a substance possessing attributes. We treat the social as a substantial being, like the identity underlying all the qualitative transformations of Descartes’ famous wax in the Second Meditation. We might, after the fashion of some tendencies in Levi-Strauss, for instance, speak of self-identical structures of mind persisting throughout time. However, if we consider the newborn infant or the feral child, and if we consider the disappearance of societies, their dissolution in history, we see that the social is not something that can be thought as a substance, but is rather something that must be constituted, produced, engendered. And not only must the social be produced or engendered, it must be produced or engendered again and again in the order of time as a series of ongoing actions, operations, or events. The social, in short, is a process.

You can find the rest of it here: territories_of_music1.pdf . The key concept in everything I’m working on is that of individuation and how individuation requires us to recast a number of philosophical questions. As such, this paper might productively be read in relation to this old blog post.

American television really says it all. Last night there was a two hour documentary on the lost books of Nostradamus. The “experts” speaking on the show were various psychics, “metaphysicians”, and members of the Nostradamus society. There was also another show on the Shroud of Turin. The night before there was a two hour documentary on the apocalypse as described by Revelations, where various Christian fundamentalists carefully explained how we are living in the End Times(tm), ignoring any historiographic readings of this text. Lodged in there was Psychic Detectives, Animal Psychics, haunted houses, and Ghost Hunters. Then there was a show on UFO’s. Then, of course, there is the endless parade of shows on crime and new weapons. Don’t forget the obligatory show on the Bimini Road and the lost city of Atlantis. For those of us who don’t like “educational television”, there is a whole host of “reality television” shows. I can’t express how depressing I find this.

I can’t go on. I must go on.