All’s Aflutter

Hi all,

So, my promise to blog more after Blogathon hasn’t really come to fruition, mostly because I’ve been spending my time since then frantically preparing for the Center for Inquiry conference at which I spoke, paneled, rabble-roused, and have finally just returned from and slept off. The audio/video from my talk will hopefully surface soon, in which you’ll get to see just what it looks like to be ridiculously nervous, somewhat unprepared, sleep deprived, and angry on stage.

In the meantime, I’m working on turning that talk into a blog post, and reworking it a bit for the Secular Student Alliance conference in 10 (!!!!!!) days. Before then, and before I jet off to Connecticut for three weeks of desperately needed relaxation, I hope to complete another post stemming from my discussion of Habermas and Taylor, and advance my philosophical project a bit.

Before I go, a huge, huge thank you to Debbie Goddard for bringing me out to Amherst for the conference. Despite being extremely tired, I had a great time. I met so many incredibly awesome people, including Rebecca Watson, and hung out with lots more who I knew, some well and some not so much, from previous conferences. James Croft and I even avoided challenging one another to a duel! 

All in all, it was a blast, especially hanging out in the green room with Amanda Knief and Ed Brayton, who I give full credit (along with Sarah and Ben) to keeping me sane through my darkest moments. 

Til later.


My Kingdom for a Decent Mayor

What is it about American cities having evil mayors? It seems like it has been a theme throughout our history, from Mayor Ogden building Chicago on the back of speculation capital to line his own pockets, and continuing ever onwards; even in films, it seems like it’s always the mayor who’s the scheming mastermind (Bullitt comes immediately to mind for my fellow McQueen fans), to the contemporary example of Boris Johnson in London, who until recently I did believe was actually a character on a BBC show and not actually their mayor. He is that much of a comedy villain.

So, for the past couple of years, there has been some solace in my heart knowing that, after years of the likes of Giuliani and Jerry Springer (yes, he was really the mayor of Cincinnati. For real), that All American Hero Cory Booker was holding down the fort in Newark, New Jersey. This dude seemed like the real deal: a Rhodes Scholar, who while at Yale Law School ran free clinics for low-income people in New Haven, during his tenure he has vastly reduced Newark’s sky high violence rate, spent hours of his own time patrolling the streets where police presence has been low, and just recently, sent the nation a-swooning when he first shoveled an old man’s driveway after his daughter asked him on Twitter to help because she feared her father could not do it, and then topped that by running into a fucking burning building, unable to be restrained by his police escort, and carried a woman to safety from it.

Is your chest swelling? Did you sit up a bit straighter? Let a bit of light in, hum something patriotic, think, just for a moment, that everything’s gonna be okay, because Cory’s out there somewhere, being a badass on the mean streets of Newark?

Yeah, mine did too there for a while. Then this happened:

Cory Booker, the popular and progressive mayor of Newark, New Jersey, attacked the Obama campaign for making an issue of Mitt Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital during an appearance today on Meet the Press. 

Romney has placed his career at Bain the center of his campaign. On several occassions Romney has asserted that, while at Bain, he was responsible for creating 100,000 jobs. Multiple independent fact checkers have concluded that Romney’s claims on jobs is simply false. 

The Obama campaign has responded by highlighting instances where Romney’s actions at Bain Capital resulted in substantial job loses. On Meet the Press, Booker called criticizing Romney’s time at Bain “ridiculous” and “nauseating.” He also equated criticisms of Romney’s buisness record with racially charged attacks against Obama centered around Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Yeah, you read that right. Our hero, like so many others, has fallen to corporate cash and influence. Turns out he’s got massive ties to Wall Street, and is looking to preserve those for future campaigns.

I mean, come on. This is just madness, now. I still like Cory Booker as a person; the amount of effort he puts into his city are unparalleled, and he’s done a lot of good things. Fact of the matter is, the realist/pessimist/miserabilist (delete as accurate) in me has to admit that you only get elected in this country these days with massive amounts of money; just look at the recall in Wisconsin. He’s clearly making a pragmatic move, hopefully to continue doing good deeds.

But fuck it, Mr. Mayor. I can’t help but be depressed. This might just be the last straw, man. While it’s never been strong, I’ve always had a tiny flickering light of optimism in me in regards to politics. There have been just enough decent people, like Bernie Sanders, Jan Schakowsky (minus the Zionism), Sherrod Brown (ditto), Pete Stark, and Elizabeth Warren, who have kept that lick of flame alive. Five people out of 535 Congresspeople, governors, mayors, and president ain’t a whole lot, but in sad times, it was enough. Shit, those hundreds of people I mentioned above are mostly fighting to end women’s rights, destroy education, and make everything privatized while bombing as many brown people as possible. But when Bernie Sanders gets on the floor and rails against corporate greed, I get a little bit of optimism back.

You, Mayor Booker, were one of them. You were the shining light amongst the mayors, against free-speech hating Rahm Emanuel and Thomas Menino, against megalomaniac supervillain Michael Bloomberg. Now, you’re not crushing your own constituents, but the superhero guise is gone.

You’re just Clark Kent now, Mayor Booker.

And in the end…

Well, today has been something quite amazing. This blog has gotten fully four times the number of pageviews it had in total before today, and I have written on everything from high school to Husserl to The Who. I really enjoyed the experience, and hanging with Chana, and getting suggestions and feedback from all y’all.

I hope you’ll stick around and listen to me rant some more in the future. I also regularly write over at In Our Words, I’m on Twitter, and this summer I’m very happy to announce that I will be speaking at the Center For Inquiry Student Leadership Conference in Buffalo, NY as well as appearing at the Secular Student Alliance Annual Conference in Columbus, OH. I hope to talk to/meet some of you soon!

Why I Think That Art, and Art History, Are Important

For my final full post today, I want to write about why I study art history and why I engage in the art world.

I probably get more shit for my art history major than my philosophy major; there’s either a snort, a roll of the eyes, or at best, a “do you want to teach?” type of question. It’s a discipline that’s seen as old fashioned, from that Walter Pater era of lace cuffs and learned white dudes with whigs who hung out in salones. And, to a degree, that’s fairly accurate even now; the history of art, like its practitioners, has been made out in a canonical sense, so that the artists that are well known and celebrated are the reflections of those who write art history: white, male, conservative. Think: who do you think when you think art? You think Leonardo, Michelangelo, Monet, van Gogh, Pollock. White dudes. The classic essay on this topic, by Linda Nochlin, is a great starting point to understanding why.

It makes sense, in a certain way, given that, with certain exceptions, societal constraints meant that anyone who didn’t fit that description could not become artists, much less make work or be noticed by patrons. Similarly, those in power were white and male; why do I point all this out? Because of my belief that art matters because it reflects the political circumstances of when it was made. Art was used to back up the regimes of kings, to subvert the power of others, to give voice to marginalized groups. Visual culture, meaning everything from paintings to manuscripts to movies, has always been primary in society, for good and for ill. The history of art is the history of human civilization.

And, if history is doomed to repeat itself, I want to know what’s coming. Because, if art history has taught me one thing, it’s that human’s tastes for the gaudy and shameless never really change.

Phenomenology, Part 2

Last post, I very briefly introduced you to the thought of Edmund Husserl, specifically relating to his philosophy concerning the natural sciences in order to illustrate to you the kind of reason why many “rationalists,” particularly atheists, scorn not just continental philosophy but the discipline as a whole. I will now follow the same formula for Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology, but hopefully, will leave you with a very different conclusion.

The first point to make about Merleau-Ponty, and in fact for his relevance to us, is that his philosophy in Phenomenology of Perception in particular is based in a basic refutation of Descartes’ dualism. In the latter’s famous claim of “I think, I am,” from the Meditations, the subject’s knowledge of itself is its basis for understanding all of the other things around it, as based upon the sense. It is an essentially egotistical view, as everything comes through our biased lens and thus gives us a sense of power over the things around us. Merleau-Ponty takes the opposing view to this, arguing that in fact we cannot have any true understanding of those things that are not us, for they are “transcendent… I do not possess them… they are transcendent to the extent that I am ignorant of what they are, and blindly assert their bare existence” (Phenomenology of Perception, 168). We can certainly see that there are things in the world around us, living and otherwise, but we can never truly know anything of their “factual existence.” It is precisely because we perceive the world around us in this manner that we cannot understand that which is not us, because then it is us who ascribes meaning and information to the world. No human being has or will ever be able to fully comprehend the ashtray that Merleau-Ponty speaks of, because it is viewable from a myriad of angles; never in one of those do we see all of its sides, or every burned-in mark from discarded cigarettes.

This line of reasoning follows to matters relating to ourselves as well. In discussing those strongest of feelings, love and will, which always seem the most true and authentic to us, Merleau-Ponty complicates the matter by investigating feelings that are found to be illusory. If these feelings are genuine, then how are we to explain that I lost the romantic intentions I had towards the beautiful woman I met at the bar after a few months of dating, for no discernible reason? It is, the philosopher says, because when I seemed to fall in love with her, I was not, nor am I at any time, fully in possession of an understanding of myself. In falling for the woman, I left my true self behind, and became enraptured by some aspects of her; her smile, her hair, her quick wit, but only aspects nonetheless; it was not true love because I did not love her entire being, and was only able to realize my misstep when I returned to my true self and was able to cast an eye back over my conduct; only in this way can we know ourselves.

This is not, however, to be an argument for doubt, for an existence so steeped in a need for authenticity that it keeps us from going into the world and experiencing life; instead, Merleau-Ponty states that “My love, hated, and will are not certain as mere thoughts about loving, hating and willing; on the contrary the whole certainty is owed to that of the acts of love, hatred or will of which I am quite sure because I perform them” (181). Our inner thoughts about the world around us cannot serve fully as rationales for living because we cannot be perceived by ourselves; we make our own realities, and only through doing can we find ourselves. By doing, we are able to relate ourselves to the world, and here is where understanding, and Merleau-Ponty’s argument comes to its conclusion: instead of Descartes “I think, I am,” we should instead say “I am, I think,” for perception can only exist if we are beings in our worlds.

This is a MASSIVE conclusion, one that goes against centuries of philosophical background that essentially took the cogito to be gospel. Why is it important? Because in the years since, science has proven Merleau-Ponty’s assertion; neurologist Antonio Damasio, in his book Descartes’ Error (which should be, I think, required reading for EVERYONE), presents evidence for the refutation of the cogito based upon empirical studies of human behavior. His studies of emotion have been accepted and are now taught, and his book is considered a classic 50 years after Merleau-Ponty published his argument. Even though the latter was certainly hostile to the scientific establishment (thought not necessarily the practice of science itself), he was way ahead of the labs in this arena.

My point is, please do not give in to the hubbub and lazy talk of philosophy being for dreamers and impractical types. Yes, some philosophers are scary in that they speak foreign languages and get mistranslated, but that’s not a reason to write them off, as I think I have demonstrated here.

Let’s Talk About Phenomenology

So, while taking a class on phenomenology last quarter, in between hating pretty much everything about Heidegger and Husserl, I managed to find some aspects of it from one thinker in particular that seemed, contra the two just mentioned, quite logical and empirically based. In this post and probably more to follow, I’m going to examine two famous phenomenologists, Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and see what I can pull from them in order to further my project of reclaiming continental philosophy for those (i.e., the rationalists) who claim it’s nothing but fancy wordplay.

Now, there are absolutely legitimate critiques against phenomenology; Husserl is exemplary of most of them. Ideas I, Edmund Husserl put forth a conception of phenomenology in which he advocated for the primacy of consciousness over the natural attitude, or empirical scientific thinking. In parenthesizing, or leaving out of our thoughts, the latter, in a process he called the “phenomenological reduction,” he posited that we would be able to investigate our beings through pure intuition, and only in this way could we reach greater understanding of it. Such a radical idea, such a notionally pure idea, free of suppositions, naturally leaves much to question about it, and thus we have the topic.

The goal from the outset for Husserl is unity, towards which his work has striven. He has constituted it in many different levels now, he says, but must fix the limits of his analysis in order to reach “the ultimate one, the level on which the Objective material thing is actually constituted” What he searches for now is the actual reality of the thing, how it exhibits itself according to its essence, and how that depends upon the human subject for its conception. In the end, he says, “The qualities of materials things… prove to be dependent upon my qualities, the make-up of the experiencing subject, and to be related to my body and my “normal sensibility.” This is because, he says, the Body is the lens through which all perception passes, thus making it an essential part of all perception. It is on this foundation that the Ego is built, and through which the Ego intuits space and senses; the Body is a rock, of the “here and now,” that remains steady and capable of supporting the Ego; it is only in relation to this rock that the Ego can create perception, and know whether the imagined centaur is to the right, or left, whether it is moving or stationary. Without this “center of orientation,” as Husserl puts it, senses would not be able to function as specifically as they do, and without the Ego, the body would be unable to move within the world.

So far, so good, right? Unfortunately not. See, Husserl decides later on that all of this empirical thinking, trying to note how he actually thinks his body works using sense perception and the like, is just not adequate enough, and so introduces a concept called “parenthesizing,” sometimes translated as “bracketing off,” meaning basically to eliminate or to put aside, in this case referring to our “natural attitude,” or the naturalistic account that many might use to view and analyze the world. This way, with the nasty reality forgotten, Husserl believes that we can truly engage with perception and through that connect with the mental and spiritual realms, which are subject to their own rules.

It all sounds just a bit religious, doesn’t it? Despite all of Husserl’s objections to the contrary, we still find him in a strange, Zen-ish idealism. This is the caricatured face of phenomenology; next post, I’ll show you the decent, down-to-earth side.

Habermas and Taylor, Part 3: Radical Secularism

This is part of my blogathon for SSA Week. Donate, and suggest topics for me, here!
In two previous posts, I have laid out the arguments as they stand from Jurgen Habermas and Charles Taylor, two of the more prominent philosophers of religion working today. The former laid out a type of secularism that incorporated religious notions of community and such into an overall “postsecular” mode that would define society, while the latter proposed a total redefinition of secularism, a new variety that is not primarily concerned with religion, but one that is devoted to serving the absolute needs of its people while maintaining equality of voice as greatly as possible. In this post, I will lay out my own view, such as it is at this moment.

While I do not think he would necessarily agree with how I would like to characterize it, from these two men I take Taylor’s redefinition of the secular to be the most important step for me here. This is not to say I discount Habermas: far from it, I agree wholeheartedly with him that the return to political theology is a dangerous turn (though I disagree with him on the importance he believes religion plays in culture; another post for another time). But, I think, as Taylor does, that his solution does not adequately deal with the “fetishization” of religion in western secular democracies, which I believe is possibly the strongest opponent to the removal of reactionary and regressive tendencies from our governments. Religious privilege is amongst the most odious in our society; as Greta has written on before, religion tends to get a free ride from those with the power to check it. To criticize religion or religious belief in our day and age is still a massive taboo.

Hence why a redefinition of secularism is in order. Taylor writes of the new secularism not referring primarily to being a “bulwark against religion,” but creating equality of voice across a society, so that, as he wrote in A Secular Age, to celebrate the integrity of not just one, but many ways of life; sex and celibacy, war and peace, dogs and cats. This is a noble sentiment, and one I agree with, but the question becomes of how such a redefinition becomes possible.

It is tempting, if for but a moment, to take the Marxist view and demand immediate action, a revolution to overthrow the established order and install one based on, as Adorno put it, a perfect mixture of theory and practicality. This would, however, be committing the same crime that I mentioned earlier; that we would be creating a hierarchy of value, where one way is right and all the others are wrong. This will lead to disaster.

So what, then? I still think secularism as an overarching ethical is needed, but revolution of rationalism is not going to cut it. Any redefinition of secularism must, I feel, have a progressive, humanist ethics at its core. This is an ethics that demands action and stances that support true equality for women, full and equal rights for queer people, access to complete medical care and housing for those who want it, the decriminalization of drugs and sex work, and an end to state violence, to name just a few. Secularism must be about fighting oppression, not creating a new privileged class; and in this fight, we fight against all oppression or we fight against none of it.

These three posts should serve as an introduction to my thought on politics and the secular. Throughout the summer and beyond, I will be developing in full the ideas and claims I have laid out here in greater detail. I hope you have found these posts interesting, and if you have questions, objections, or general comments, please put them below and I will answer them as soon as I am able.

And now, for the rest of the night, I may just harp on phenomenology to taunt my rationalist readers. Stay tuned.