Friday, December 30, 2011

Multiple Models of Marketability: My Encouraging Realization from the Eastern APA

I just returned from what a friend and faculty member referred to as "the death-march known as the Eastern APA." Very much like last year, and quite unlike what most people report about their experiences there, I had a really great time. I'm not kidding, exaggerating, or indulging in some weird kind of masochism--I really enjoyed myself, the people around me, and the philosophical content that was being discussed. Okay, perhaps it has to do with the sessions that I attended--I go to pretty cool and inspiring ones (more on this in a bit)--and it probably helps that I am still not on the job market (that's coming up later as well). So maybe this time next year, when I actually will be on the market, I'll be writing a completely different post. Maybe the stress, anxiety, terror, and misery that is usually associated with interviews at the Eastern will finally be felt deep within my bones. But maybe not. And I don't think that it's simply because I've had two years of exposure to this beast-of-a-conference either (more on this later, too).

Some of the delights of this year's E-APA for me were found in the connections that were had there. I met some really wonderful people for the very first time. I saw people again whom I see only about once this time every year. And I finally met a number of people face-to-face for the first time. These are people with whom I've had email exchanges, facebook friendships, Google+ connections, and other sorts of "virtual" relationships for quite a long time...even years. Among my peers, professors, mentors, new acquaintances, and friends, we talked about lots of important things like relationships, planning for the job market, the surprisingly common horror stories from prospectus defenses gone bad, to teaching kids baby-sign language. I know that the Eastern can exacerbate social alienation and awkwardness in many people, but if you are lucky enough to have the social skills and comfort to use them, the whole affair can actually be quite an enjoyable social hub.

All of that aside, the real reason why I went was to present a paper. It was the second time I presented my paper, "Irigaray, (Trans)sexual Difference, and the Future of Feminism." It's funny when people ask me about what I'm going to do with it since I'm not an Irigaray-scholar and I'm not trying to set myself up as one, and although I am serious about the questions that I ask in the paper, it's not part of my current work or even related to the research in my dissertation. Nevertheless, some good things came out of presenting the paper. Just as it was at SPEP in October, I was very pleased with how the audience engaged one another in a discussion afterward rather than simply firing questions at me. I prefer when papers lead to philosophical exchanges among the people in the room who know more and different things than I do, and I've always (even if especially very recently) been skeptical of the productivity of "defense" like attacks from interlocutors. I also got a cash prize for it being accepted to the main program. As one professor said to me that evening, mine was very likely the first grad student paper with "(trans)sexual difference" in the title to ever be accepted to the main program at the APA. That's pretty sweet to think about, but I also like that I just used some of that money to buy a new, cute winter coat. 

I attended some really great sessions while I was there, and while I didn't get to make it to many of the ones that I wanted to, I did go to a session entitled "From Philosophical Training to Professional Blogging." Among the three panelists, two had a PhD in philosophy (the other a BA in Philosophy from Harvard).  Andrew Sullivan, one of the most widely read bloggers at present, had a number of really great things to say that resonated very deeply with me. Whenever he spoke, Sullivan emphasized the importance of philosophical dialogue. Being influenced by Plato's dialogues, he noted how the blogosphere presents greater opportunity for philosophical exchanges in the way of Plato. Dialogues that go back and forth. Invitations to take a step in one direction and see what follows from there. In addition to stressing his conviction that there is a real hunger in people to engage in meaningful, important philosophical questions, he also repeated a few of my favorite key words: "honesty" and "humility."

Without dogging the Academy, which he claimed to revere, Sullivan simply stated that after his time within academia it became clear to him that it didn't fit his style. As he continued to speak, I identified more and more with what he said, and I thought about the blog post that I had written just a week or so before. Academic philosophical writing comes with an air of authority. The arguments have to be well-crafted, exact, and fully-formulated. Essays are written as presenting mostly completed, self-contained ideas. Even if they lead to more questions or rely on previously established notions, academic writing often assumes that it has to come off as "right." But as Sullivan explained, this sense of authority, and the compulsion to write as if one is right, knows the answer, and has it all figured out, stems from a deep insecurity in the Academy about itself. This leads to a defensive sort of writing that asserts itself without really being willing to listen to others, especially those who are outside the walls of the ivory tower. Moreover, this kind of posturing is not conducive for allowing oneself to change one's mind.

In contrast, blogging about philosophical questions, especially when undergone as a philosophical activity in itself, only needs to offer the beginnings of an idea or the start of an argument. Because the writing is more "loose" it's very likely that one will say something stupid, or even wrong. But that's okay, because it can be acknowledged as part of the process...and it doesn't mark a failure unless one assumes authority in the first place. The process is necessarily open-ended, and the one who writes has a more explicit responsibility to respond to readers' comments and reactions. In this way, Sullivan explained that he has often changed his mind on issues in light of what his readers sent him. And if nothing else, he cannot dodge engaging with big issues that columnists and certainly academics can avoid. Sure, being a blogger is different from being a journalist, and both are quite different from being an academic philosopher, but that does not mean that the virtues of honesty and humility are less valuable, if not fundamental, qualities upon which each profession should be pursued.

And importantly, this is all still very much philosophy. Reasons, thoughtful explanations, and logical connections are part of the writing. There is definitely a space to hold a position, one that seems to hold some relation to truth even if that is not a stable truth. AND there is even room from wanting to persuade others through one's writing. But rather than being a political propagandist who seeks to persuade others merely for the sake of promoting an ideology, one is more of a philosopher who engages others through the genuine activity of thought. The entire practice, it seems to me, is housed in making the process the intended result, rather than already having an end point, a position, and a "certain truth" that one only works to preserve.

While I don't have aspirations to become a professional blogger, it was nice to recognize my own thoughts, words, and feelings in Sullivan's words as he continued to speak on the panel (read more of his thoughts here). I saw my own style for writing, which is also often reflected in the way that I teach, present, lecture, and read--one that doesn't formulate water-tight arguments but rather finds connections that lead to asking different questions that in turn spur new ways of thinking. And it's a style that depends on the input from others, whom Sullivan eventually called "friends." I've noted before that I learn most from teaching, and that is because I engage with my students in ways that provoke all of our thinking together. Of course, I start out as the one presenting the material, but I do so in order to provide a launching pad from where we can take-off and not as an authority on the matter at hand (this is a strategy for any grad student who suffers from an "imposter-complex" while teaching: change your attitude and goals for teaching, and realize that you don't have to pretend like you know everything if you don't assume that your students want to know everything that you think you know. My guess is that they are pretty disinterested in acquiring a carbon-copy of your brain anyway).

All in the all, I really enjoyed the session, but I was left with one unfulfilled wish: I wish that there could have been more discussion on movement in the other direction. In addition to noting that maybe there is something significant about the fact that some of the top professional bloggers have philosophical training, I wanted the discussion to at least touch on the other side of the coin, namely, how "professional blogging" could influence "philosophical training." What could professional academics in philosophy learn from those who write in philosophical ways on philosophical questions to public audiences as a philosophical endeavor? I think that could be a really rich and fruitful exchange....Unfortunately, there were a couple of times when it was stated, even by Sullivan himself, "Don't do this unless you want to lose your job. Wait until you have tenure, then you can write in this way and blog about these sorts of things."

This rather disappointing acquiescence to the "standard way of things" is what people usually say about going against the grain. Just wait. Don't do it yet. Despite my efforts to grow into a more patient person, I'm better at this in some areas than I am at others..and after four years of graduate school professional philosophy doesn't get a whole lot of it from me anymore. I don't like to tolerate the status quo without putting in at least some effort in the hope of making deeply desired changes. In that way, I guess I'm at base a pretty idealistic optimist. And ironically, this eventually led to one encouraging realization.

Sadly, I took very few pictures at the conference itself. This is from lunch. At least there's a name tag.

I left the eastern APA with a realization that was actually made from a number of conversations and not just from this particular session. Here's the short of it: I constantly hear concerns about the job market. Aside from the fact that the market itself sucks--there are few jobs, competition is outrageous, and if you are good enough and lucky enough to get a job it will take you to who-knows-where and will overburden you with who-knows-what kind of or how many other unwanted obligations and responsibilities--I hear lots of concerns about doing things differently and how that poorly sets one up for the market. In my own experience, this comes off in comments like "How in the world do you expect to get a job with this?!" Or I've heard it more politely as, "I'm just concerned about how you will get the job that I know you deserve." But what comments like this fail to acknowledge is that there are other ways to be "marketable." If I cultivate my deepest sense of compassionate and open-minded understanding, I can actually see how apparently antagonistic words and actions from my superiors really are coming from a place of looking out for my best interest. Sort of like when parents say,"I'm only enforcing these rules on you because I care about your safety and well-being."

But from my experience of also always being the kind of child who questioned and challenged my parents attitudes about what was "acceptable," "appropriate," and "right," (even when it turns out that at times they were sharing bits of valuable wisdom), I think that parents operate best as parents if they adjust to their kids' specific needs and desires and interests. They can care best if they actually know how their kids need to be cared for (this is a standard line in the ethics of care and maternal thinking..yes, I also went to the APA session in honor of Sara Ruddick's life and work). The same goes for teaching: we are better teachers if we teach to the individual interests, strengths, weaknesses, etc of the student. And the same goes for medicine....and so on and so on.

So in this situation there are a couple of things that I think should be understood and communicated between graduate students like myself and the professors who advise them. First, it was only recently mentioned to me that there are number of types of jobs out there, even among the academic jobs. And there are programs that value research, teaching, outreach, and other things in a diversity of ways that put greater weight on different kinds of philosophical work. So the goal shouldn't be to get a student just any job, and not even "the best" job if that is understood simply in terms of reputation and prestige, but rather the best job for that particular person.

Second, and this is related to the first point, it has to be understood that there are different pictures of "marketability." I can see why some very successful and well-respected philosophers are panicking about how I am going to fare on the job market since I don't conform to their image of marketability. Even though I have plenty of presentations on my CV now and thank goodness I got that prize (not just for the new coat)!, if I wanted to be how they want me to be, I would be freaking out, too. But the good news is that I have a handful of strengths and lots of ambition and passion to fuel me in my philosophical work, and I have other  qualities that I think make me very marketable.  Maybe that means I'm attractive to a different market all together, but I don't think that necessarily has to be the case. I think that there are more ways than one to be marketable even on the professional, academic job market that gives the eastern APA a bad, anxiety-provoking reputation. After all, this session on professional blogging was at the eastern APA and the award for excellence and innovation in philosophical programs this year was awarded to Thomas Wartenberg for his development of the Philosophy for Children.

Maybe doing things differently, being honest, and at the same time humble, in one's work, could actually serve one quite well. I guess only time will tell. Check back this time next year.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Faith in and Frustration with Philosophy

**This week I've been following the conversation on a feminist philosophy listserv about an article that appeared this week in The Chronicle. With each message that gets posted I've wanted to add something from my prospective as a grad student who passionately teaches philosophy to non-majors, but as I started to write, my response got too long. I didn't feel comfortable posting the whole thing on the listserv and thought that maybe people could just follow the link to my blog if they really wanted to read. But that second-guessing is part of the process I've been dealing with for the past few days and even now as I write. I have been self-censoring so that I don't come off as arrogant, but then I swing back and forth, compelled to say something because I am especially frustrated with the lack of internal and institutional support that I have been facing regarding my own research and methods. But I need to write. About philosophy. About life. About my practice of philifesophy. After all, that is precisely why I have this blog. So, I'll write the message that I wish I had the confidence to post on the listserv here.**

I want to thank all of you for engaging with this topic. As a graduate student, I have been following the thread of emails with a sense of optimism thanks to the generally shared sentiments that seem to be coming through in each message. But I've also been concerned about how we seem to be at a loss for what to do about the concerns at hand. I hear the worries about potentially negative student evaluations if one were to bring up relevant, everyday, and very political examples in class, the fears about losing jobs (or in my case, not getting one), the frustrations around philosophy being treated like a mere commodity that could be distributed to bring in more majors, etc. Even though I've only been teaching my own classes now for three years, I've had to face similar worries about how I run a classroom. But I've also had the good fortune of putting together my own course syllabi and use my own pedagogical techniques from the very beginning. While teaching classes like Love and Sex, Race and Diversity, and Philosophy and Feminism lend themselves to difficult yet highly personal and relevant conversations, I've employed the same methods in my Basic Problems and Asian Philosophies classes. I have decided to make sure that every course and every class period takes the issues head on with honesty, integrity, and courage. My students are often surprised by how ethically and politically charged our discussions can become, and I don't even hesitate to show my own cards, but so far, I have had very few students openly state their disapproval of my style in evaluations or on Perhaps my students respond more favorably to me because I am relatively young for an instructor and close to them in age. Maybe this allows me to get away with more polemical and often surprisingly outrageous things. But I have to think it is something more than that.

Could it be that they appreciate my style precisely because I'm not afraid to bring up polemical issues and say and do pretty outrageous things?

An overwhelming majority of my students have loved my classes, precisely because it helps them be not only better thinkers but better people (by the way, these are their words--I have them write final reflection papers on their thought processes at the end of every semester). My classes are never easy-A's; I run intro courses more like 300 level classes. They require young 18 to 21-year-olds to actually think, read, speak, and write in ways that they often haven't ever been expected to do before. In fact, at the start of the semester many don't  really know how to think, read, speak, and write well at all. And it's true that in my class on race, some students even admitted in their final papers to being so filled with anger at me and the material we were covering that they said they hated the class. I already knew, of course. I could feel it during the semester from the line up of four white male students against the back wall. But those same students came around with gratitude and eventually wrote about how and why they responded that way for the majority of the semester. The material is personally challenging, but also personally rewarding. For being non-majors seeking a simple gen-ed credit, I've had students re-enroll to take my other classes and decide to become majors (all good things as far as the college is concerned, right?). But more than that, they see value in philosophy and appreciate the work that we do over the semester because it means something to them in the end. And you know what? It means something to me, too. There have been numerous times where conversations with my students have made me think harder and learn more than any of the graduate level seminars that I have taken since my senior year in college. I suspect that they see how I am also learning with and from them.

Related to Marilyn's email, the real shame here, though, is that no one taught me how to teach. I was just one of those undergraduate students who was always frustrated when my own professors didn't seem to care enough to go out of the box in terms of their own teaching. With the exception of two classes as an undergrad, I found the majority of my philosophy classes to be painfully boring and useless, and so I used the experience to note what didn't work. (By the way, I didn't even want to major in philosophy. I only declared a major because I already had some credits from my religious studies classes and a professor convinced me to not drop out as a sophomore. I used those credits so that I could still graduate in four years. During the fall of my junior year I took a crucial class that introduced me to a different approach to philosophy. Then I attended PIKSI at Penn State before my senior year. It was there, not in my department, where I saw what I could do with philosophy and what philosophy could do...I write more about this journey to academic philosophy and what to do with it now, here).  And I'm one of those people whose passion for philosophy is so strong--how it can change us, empower us, help shed new light on our lives and experiences--that I can't even imagine "talking about" philosophy in the usual way. So, with teaching, I've just had to wing it. Ironically, winging it has worked best. Maybe that's because I start from a place that avoids conventional assumptions about teaching...

Whereas some professors above me have said (quite unfavorably) that I am bull-headed about how I do philosophy, I have wished all along that I didn't have to force my way against such resistance, but that there were more mentors and examples around me who supported and demonstrated how to talk with people and students without excluding them or shooting them down, how to ask questions that invite critical thinking rather than dismissive or defensive apathy. But since I see these unhelpful tendencies around me all the time in many professional philosophy settings, I have started to think that many academic philosophers simply don't know how to relate to others on philosophical issues without it turning into a very narrow, unproductive event. I hesitate to even call them genuine dialogues of philosophical exchange.

If philosophers really want to start teaching in new ways and engaging the public in new ways, then we should probably put more effort into making sure that we are the sort of people with whom others (students included) want to and feel like they can have meaningful, enriching conversations. In other words, I agree with Marilyn that professional philosophers should give more attention to teaching graduate students how to teach. But it has to start with cultivating a sensibility for how to communicate, how to listen, how to openly engage with others, and how to encourage people who aren't familiar with philosophy to think philosophically. These are skills that you simply can't learn from reading the work of your favorite thinker in the history of philosophy or from mulling over one specific philosophical problem for years on end. Being the sort of people who can actually do the kind of philosophy that we are all hoping for and talking about through listservs and higher-ed articles requires a different kind of work. A different kind of cultivation of character that, frankly, most philosophers lack.

And here's the real kicker. The "crisis in philosophy" isn't just about being poor teachers who can't engage students. It's also about the very work that we do. Part of how I keep my classes interesting and relevant is by teaching interesting and relevant material (so, thanks, to you who publish such material). And part of how I keep myself motivated to do philosophy and finish my degree is by working on questions that are professionally and personally important and relevant to me. Trust me, I know that there are risks for how I am doing things. People might say that I am too unprofessional in how I teach because we talk about things very openly and casually, but they could not deny that we are also very philosophical. And thanks to the push back that I get from professors above me who don't seem to like or get what I do (I don't know which is worse), I am constantly reminded that I have to do what is "standard" and "conventional" in philosophy so that I can eventually get a job. Put simply, I probably won't get a job after writing my dissertation, which uses contemporary feminist work on affect and Nietzsche's views on physiology and philosophy to reframe how we can think of philosophical practice (in the old school sense of reading and writing theory) in ways that embrace its potential for therapeutically transforming those who do it as a mode of resistance to oppression.

So let's talk about risks. If people in tenured positions are worried about the crisis in philosophy, the budget cuts in the humanities, or what it means for their livelihoods, what are they doing to respect, support, encourage, and defend young scholars, un-tenured faculty, and graduate students who lack any kind of job security (or jobs at all), but are committed to doing philosophical work that stays true to the notion that philosophy is an intrinsically valuable practice, a way of life? I see how the work that I do is especially risky, but I am unwilling to jump through the hoops of conventional standards of philosophy in order to get a tenured position with the supposed promise that I will eventually be able to do what I want to do. (By the way, so far many of the comments from even the top feminist philosophers are making me question the tenability of such a promise.) Yes, I'm bull-headed on this. But let's face it. There aren't a whole lot of jobs out there to begin with. And if I had compromised on how I do philosophy at any point leading up to now, I know that I wouldn't have lasted this long in the discipline or in my program. I would have burned out, thrown up my hands, and said, "Fuck this, it's not worth it"  (which I almost did, multiple times, much like most people I know who've gone through this whole process).

But that's a real shame, because I know lots of people like me who are passionate and dedicated to philosophical practice, but who just get tired of having to fight the uphill battle against philosophical conventions and hierarchical bullying from unsympathetic professors. However, I know that sticking to it is worth it because philosophy is worth it....when it's done in certain ways. At the very least I know what philosophy has done for me and I see how my students react at the end of every semester.

So rather than wringing our hands and worrying about the backlash that we might face if we actually try to do what we feel like we should do and want to do in philosophy, I think it's most important to actually support each other in doing precisely those things. Be bold with our teaching. Be ambitious with our philosophizing. Be humble with our profession. And be open to doing things differently.  We need to learn how to communicate, how to improvise, how to listen, how to really ask genuine questions (with our students but also with one another) without needing to know the answers ahead of time. Perhaps we could also accept the possibility that we won't get to a stable answers, and that's a good thing. We can make these changes much more easily if we know that we are not alone and that we have support from others in the field, even if they aren't in our departments. If we can trust that others are going to be constructive, helpful, and cooperative, rather than just trying to tear us down or prove us wrong, then we can let our guards down, be less defensive, and actually work with a kind of honest curiosity, interest, passion, and sincerity that seems to be so hard to find and maintain.

After writing all of this, I want to thank you again for having these conversations. When I was faced with a challenging question at my prospectus defense this week that basically asked, "So you mean to suggest that you will go into a room of people who are interviewing you for a job and tell them that what they do is boring and irrelevant?" I responded, "In a sense, yes, because it's a pretty safe bet that what I am doing is not what they are doing. Philosophy can do more than it has typically been given credit. And I know that it's a risky position to hold if one's on the job market, but I also know that I am not alone. There was an article in the Chronicle this week that raises this precise issue, and some of the top names in feminist philosophy have been discussing it on the FEAST listserv for the past couple of days."

Your support and encouragement on these issues are appreciated, even by those (like myself) who you may not know are reading along and following your leadership.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A nice little story about my philifesophy

Thanks to Jamie Oberdick for putting together this short podcast on my philifesophy. I am so grateful for the opportunity to speak about what I've been up to on Youtube, this blog, and in my classrooms. And thanks, too, to Chris, Bryn, Jason, and Michael for their input!

You can find a link to the podcast here:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Open Letter to Penn State: #WEstillARE...but how and why?

After what people are describing as the most trying and difficult week in Penn State's history, it may seem like everything has changed. But I suspect that really, very little has changed at all. And that, I think, is quite unfortunate.

For all of those who felt dismay over the news about Sandusky's repeated sexual abuse of children, who were horrified by the details in the grand jury report, who were struck with rage, anger, or even heartbreak when the Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno, who were filled with disappointment over the unfair, sensationalizing media coverage that portrayed Penn State students as misguided, riotous idiots, who emphasized that the actions of a few do not represent the majority, who gathered with candles in hand to insist that we have not forgotten about the victims, please accept this letter as a message for you.

Given the gravity of the scandal itself and the unbelievable series of events that followed after news broke out, the thousands upon thousands of people who have been directly and indirectly affected by it, and the depth of so many emotions that have been brewing over the past week, it is important to stay clear about the issues at stake. To begin, it doesn't really matter if you were in the riotous mob that turned over a news van or if you were among the mass of students at the vigil, because both events demonstrate the power of groups, and how quickly individuals can get swept up in "group think." There's little doubt that a vigil is a less pernicious collective demonstration than a violent riot, but the vigil, the solidarity marches, the singing of fight songs and the alma mater, and cheers of "We STILL are...Penn State!" raise strong doubts for me because, in large part, the greater context for these actions hasn't changed in light of the scandal. What these demonstrations reveal is that no matter how well-intentioned some groups and their actions may be, the vast majority of people who care about what has happened at Penn State over the past week have mostly failed to truly identify the problem for what it is, thereby unintentionally contributing to the problem itself.

Let me explain.

Here's what most people have been willing to recognize: Eight or more young boys were victimized and sexually abused by Sandusky over fifteen years, and there were repeated failures on every level of administration and leadership at the University and within the community to prevent it from happening again. This means that others--such as Spanier, Curly, McQueary, Schultz, and Paterno--are implicated to varying degrees by their complete impotence, inability, or unwillingness to act appropriately and recognize their responsibilities to aggressively intervene, to help the victims, to contact the authorities, to follow up and hold others accountable.

When Spanier and Paterno got fired, when major networks from CNN to Comedy Central started reporting on the riots that followed, a different "voice" was desperately trying to be heard. Aside from the less than 10% of the student body that rioted, there was a strong presence from concerned students who emphasized that we should be refocusing our attention on the real victims, the children. Of course we should show deep concern and compassion for their lives, their traumas, and their healing, and the vigil, the fundraising for RAINN, and the "blue-out" at the last home game were all student attempts to recognize the victims.

But I really don't want this piece to be read as yet another write-up that emphasizes the "for the victims" messages. To be blunt, I think we're still missing the point.

I don't want to suggest that raising funds and social awareness to stop the sexual abuse of children, holding vigils, and wearing blue to support the victims are bad things. Of course not. They are important actions that demonstrate a compassionate response to devastating realities. What I am trying to do is hold our attention on a deeper problem at Penn State. I think it's quite dangerous to say that we should turn our attention to the victims and insist that this whole situation isn't about football,  that it isn't about Joe Paterno, and that Penn State is more than just football anyway. That's because this situation involves more than just a series of crimes that were committed by one person towards a number of young kids. Many others were complicit in the cover-up and perpetuation of the crimes, which made it into a scandal, and the scandal came about because this whole situation actually IS about football, which means that this IS also about Joe Paterno. Of course, it's about much more, too, but for now, it has to be recognized that PSU football and Joe Paterno cannot be dismissed from the equation.

So here's the real problem--the one that should stay the focus of our attention, and the one to which people SHOULD have responded with anger, outrage, disappointment, and calls for collective action:

The leadership and administration at Penn State failed to do the right things. And the moral failures on behalf of so many people did not occur by accident.

People wonder, "Why didn't the children ever speak out?" or "Why didn't everyone who was involved do more?" To help answer these questions, we have to turn our attention to the power of Penn State as an institution and the blinding, cultural force that is Penn State football.

Sure, there's more to Penn State than just football, but one can't deny that the culture and identity of most PSU students center on that which Penn State is best known for:  football. And this is not a simple matter of exciting games and fun tailgates. Football generates millions and millions of dollars for the university. And with that money and notoriety comes an image, a reputation, a legacy that feeds into itself by generating more money, drawing more people to the university, funding one of the largest libraries in the nation, supporting top-notch research. The success of Penn State football is not separate from the academic flourishing of the university. For this reason, the student reaction to the firing of Joe Paterno was not wholly misguided. People LOVE Joe Pa and showed such dedicated loyalty to him in spite of the scandal because he has done so much for the university. Again, and more specifically, he helped build up a university, sports and academics and endowments and reputations included, by serving as the head coach of a football team.

When so much prestige, reputation, and revenue comes out of any department, which largely supports a university on the whole, the people involved in that department have very strong incentives to protect against anything that would shatter that image. For this reason, it may be unfair to think that the coaches and administrators were only looking out for themselves. One could perhaps even go so far as saying that by failing to do much of anything to stop the abuses, and thereby facilitating the cover-up that sowed the seeds for the present scandal, they were actually looking out for the best interest of the university and the student body at large.

A utilitarian calculation might suggest that when the reputation and culture and image of an institution that carries so much sway and influence over the lives and identities of hundreds of thousands of students and alumni was at stake, it may be better to give Sandusky a warning and a slap on the wrist by telling him to stop showering with boys and not appoint him as the next head football coach. The hope is that it would be enough to end the abuses without making the graphic details public, which would run the risk of jeopardizing the name of a University that so many love and support. In other words, when everyone invests so much into a university (emotionally and financially), that can put a lot of pressure on those in higher positions of power to protect the name of that institution. So it may not be that the particular individual interests of people like Sandusky, Spanier, and Paterno were set above the safety and rights of eight children. Instead, it could be that the interests of Penn State, Penn State football, and all of the students and fans and families who love Penn State took precedence.

What if this is what went through people's heads when they were caught in a position to make an ethical decision? What if the interests of the institution, and those who benefit from its power and prestige (again, not just Spanier or Paterno, but the interests of everyone else too, including all the students and alumni and fans who bleed blue and white), were set above the interests of specific individuals who, in this case, were a handful of young children?

I raise these questions to highlight a tension and put it into critical questioning: Could it be that the dedication, loyalty, love, and commitment to Penn State that has been conjured up by student-led movements for solidarity, to proudly claim that "We STILL Are...Penn State," are rooted to the very same investment in and identification with an institution that fed into the unethical decisions of its administrative leaders? If so, how might this possibility change our responses to the events from the past week?

I'll put it another way. Since we are those very students and fans and Penn State loyalists whose interests might have been protected at the expense of the victims' protection and well-being, this presents us with a valuable opportunity to clarify our true values and real interests as a university.  We have the chance to prove to others, including the administration, that being a Penn Stater means more than just being a die-hard Nittany Lions fan. We have to show that, to us, being a part of Penn State means that we are part of an institution that is committed to leadership and service, and that what makes Penn State special is its sense of support and community, and that these things can be formed outside of parties and tailgates on football weekends.

When we find ourselves in a situation like last week, where the veil is lifted to reveal a scandal, I think it's important to rethink our responses. What does it mean to state things like, "Despite everything that has happened, I am still proud to be a Nittany Lion!" or "I still love Joe Paterno!" It's even worth considering what it means to say, "We Still Are Penn State," for these messages imply that we hold the same commitments, same ideals, and same values that could have led the University's administrators to do wrong. Or, if nothing else, they shift our negative judgments to the "few bad apples" by denying that we have any role in their poor decision-making processes. While this might make us feel better, as if we are able to disassociate ourselves from the administration that guides us, it only keeps us blind to how our loyalties might have actually fed into the systematic moral failures that we so desperately want to reproach.

Fortunately, if you don't buy into utilitarian calculations and you think that there is no balancing act that would ever justify the cover-up of repeated sexual abuses against children, no matter how many people might be distraught and negatively affected if such a secret within the Penn State athletic department got out, then there is an alternative approach. I have in mind a response that places honesty, integrity, and justice above any name or image associated with Penn State and the Nittany Lions. If we as students truly value the well-being of victims over protecting the image of Penn State and football, then our responses this week should have been those that make it resoundingly clear that no matter how much good a person has done for the university that we love, we will not support them if they fail to do what is right. And that is because, no matter how much we proudly and affectionately identify with a university, we will do so only if it holds itself, and everyone who is a part of it, to the highest moral standards.

So rather than rioting in the streets "in support of Joe Pa," and rather than (or at least in addition to) channeling efforts to form counter-demonstrations "in support of the victims," we should look to the heart of the problem, which is the unethical privileging of the interest of the university over the interests of individuals who have been harmed. And rather than reiterating our loyalty to an institution that is clearly capable of committing heinous wrongs by stating "We Still Are Penn State," we as students should take a moment to reflect on the situation and all of the complexities that it entails. We must find ways to prove to the current administration that immoral decisions should never be made in our name, and that nothing is more important to us than our ability to trust in their ethical, admirable, and respectable leadership.

To make these points, we probably should have rallied at Old Main over the first weekend when the news of the scandal became public. We should have supported the decisions of the Board of Trustees to dismiss everyone whose failures to report and intervene made them complicit in the crimes. We should still be encouraging the Board to take further action against those who have not been dismissed and whose legal fees will be paid by money from our tuition. And one of the most powerful public demonstrations that Penn State students could have done to really make the point that we stand for what is right above all else, including the prestige and money and culture that is generated by Penn State football, would have been to boycott the last home game.

I started by saying that, despite all of the events that occurred at Penn State over the past week, very little has changed. And that's because Penn State students have continued to do what they've always been really good at--getting thousands of people together to make a point. They did so in the from of a riot in the streets, at the stadium  in blue to cheer on our football team, and at Old Main to honor victims. The problem, however, is that none of the collective action was directly targeted at the University itself or the powers that be. And very few have taken the time to call their loyalties into question. When we say, "We Still Are Penn State," this does not do enough to make it absolutely clear that we demand moral integrity as a university.  And it doesn't evidence that we do not love our alma mater unconditionally.

Think for a Change (19): The Other Ethical Problem with the Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal

In light of the Penn State scandal that has struck Happy Valley and gained news coverage across the nation, I think it is important to remember that there are multiple issues at stake. Not just Penn State's reputation; not the jobs of a few men; not simply that a number of young boys were abused and victimized. It is important to recognize that all of these elements were combined in such a way that led to moral failures on behalf of university administration and leaders who protected the image of an institutional at the expense of the interests of individual victims. The prevalence of sexual abuse must be addressed at large, but this reveals the dangers of sexual abuse when it is mixed with institutional power. Figuring out how to encourage a greater ability to locate moral accountability and cultivate moral sensibility, along with fostering the capacity to do right actions, should be a major task that is highlighted by this very sad and disturbing situation.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Writing with Feeling

You know what's been lacking in my life as of late?
A little bit of writing that resonates.
All the while I've been writing about writing but failing to find those words that sound right in my body.
I've been distanced from feeling like syllables carry meaning and forgetting that my first love for words occurred when I wasn't buried in constructing sentences
but surprised
by what the words did to my heart rate before they registered in my head.
A couple of words
carefully connected can reveal new insights that change your life.
That's what she said
when she spoke of horizons swallowing up the earth with a kiss
how the ocean is so much bigger than this
from nowhere
I sense that you have to learn something true to spell it out like that.
And I guess that's how experience translates into painting and poetry.
We replicate what is otherwise hard to communicate
and its frustrating if our words fail to demonstrate
that which we want to share and celebrate
with others about
our insights about
how we love what has come to be without
regretting everything it took to get there,
that sometimes nothing is more trustworthy than how it simply appears.
And so we conclude by saying,
I guess you had to be there.
To get it right
you gotta know what it feels like
cuz without raw experience you can't project beyond what you already fear.
Thus, this language seems limiting.

But there's also a chance that the most gifted with speech might pen
into the present a space to be free
to think more clearly about how what we say affects you and me
with consequence on levels more deeply
than what we merely can see.
Metaphorically speaking, the power of words to foster new imaginings is probably frightening
for those who don't want to admit
of a world where painting and poetry can deliver a hit
like a bag of bricks.
Potency and brevity are catalysts for a chain reaction of resistance.
Put them together and you get a message that sticks.

Like "I am the 99%"

So as I continue to write
I wanna show thanks to those who have reminded me that my philifesophy could never be framed in terms of a mind over a body.
At the same time
I can't privilege philosophy over poetry.
The latter gives sense to sentences which otherwise fall short of a love of wisdom.
Like jazz and poetry, philosophy should emphasize the spaces in between.
The silence where one encounters genuine creativity.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

for a friend, far away

today has been a strange day. i woke up with anticipatory dreams, verging on psychic predictions--that a phone charger would be left behind on a loved one's travel, that a conversation with a long-term supporter would address the lessening need for our time together because life and things just continue to get better and better. and in the waiting room, a journal of medicine was resting in the chair next to me, different from the usual copies of AARP. I glanced at the table of contents--new patient-oriented methods, placebo treatments of asthma, and something about leukemia.

i thought of my friend.

it had been a long time since i heard from him, but that was not unusual. for the four and a half years that we have known each other, we didn't stay in frequent contact, but we were always in touch. little emails here and there, short messages that mostly noted how we wanted to write more letters to one another, how we should have a phone conversation. it was clear that we were frequently thinking of one another, even if we didn't always communicate those thoughts directly.

the first day.

when we met, we had both traveled from the west to Pennsylvania. i came from Colorado. he flew in from Arizona. i ended up wearing his shirt since my luggage got lost in the Philadelphia airport for days. and we were about the same size. we laid in the grass in front of old main on the campus of Penn State and i confessed that i didn't know what i was doing at a week-long summer camp for underrepresented people in philosophy. i had only just started studying philosophy, anyway. but there we were, both excited about doing philosophy, graduating, and with hopes of going on to grad school. he noted multiple times in the seminars that he loved the later Wittgenstein. i didn't even know what that meant. i still don't.

the first night.

as we were walking with two others to grab a beer at the corner room, i told the others about my nerves around crossing streets. he told me it wasn't unfounded. his husband was killed just ten months prior from being hit by a car in the cross walk. i remember him telling me how difficult it is to hold the love of your life in your arms knowing that modern medicine can't put brains back together again. and he said that he never wanted tim to have an ipod in the first place.


each day for the rest of the week, the two of us would wake up before everyone else in the seminars. we would meet in the lounge of the dorms, share milk for our cereal, and talk. we called it our family time.


we made a point to get dinner on our own, just the two of us, for at least one night. i had my first meal at kaarma with him,  which, after moving to state college has long been my favorite indian restaurant. he ordered chicken marsala. i don't remember what i ordered. as we ate, a giant thunderstorm rolled in. i ran barefoot through the rain back to the dorms, dodging lightning amongst the tall elm trees and black chains in the promenade, juggling styrofoam containers filled with our leftovers. the next night we went to dinner again. at the green bowl. as usual, the conversation was lovely. the meal itself, slightly less memorable.

sidewalk benches.

late in the week, he started to get pretty sick. i found him during one afternoon lying on a bench on allen street, outside of chili's. he said he had been coughing and had a fever, but that it was probably just the flu. we walked across the street, bought him some medicine, hoping he would feel better soon. then the seminars ended, we all flew back home.  later on i learned that he had been admitted to the hospital one day later and was diagnosed with leukemia.

my plans for graduate school continued. in the fall i applied to various programs. he had to put it off for a year. and then some. i went to penn state. he stayed in arizona.


the last i heard from him was in a letter that he wrote me, about a year ago i guess. he was excited to be going in for his last rounds of chemo, though weak, he still was biking to every treatment and was committed to keeping it up until the process was over. impressive, yes, but from him, it wasn't a surprise. over the years he had been through a lot. and his strength seemed unending.  like, for instance, when he underwent a bone marrow transplant thanks to donations from his sister, which his body eventually rejected, and still commented on how beautiful life was. he made his friends know that they were loved, and he made lots of people smile.


turns out that as our world keeps spinning, time keeps going, and people don't just freeze where we left them, only to reanimate the next time that we make contact and be in touch. i thought of him today after seeing the journal of medicine next to me and i thought of writing him a note on facebook to drop a little hello. i was struck by the posts from others on his wall, and it only took a moment to gather that he had died. i scrolled through older posts, from july, from march, from february, only to finally learn that he passed from cancer on january 3, 2011, just days before his 31st birthday. friends are still noting how hopeful they are that he and tim might be together again. and they write about how much they miss him. all the while, i didn't know precisely how i had missed him.


aeyn edwards truly was one of the most amazing people i've ever met. he was an inspiration, a lovely friend, and a blessing to many. he wrote numerous times about looking forward to the time when we would be able to break some bread, share a pint, converse about love and life face to face again. all we ever had in person was that week in 2007. i'm sad that i didn't know about his passing until now, that we were out of touch despite my feeling like we were actually always very close at heart. just goes to show...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Think for a Change (17): It's Okay to Be Gay!

In light of National Coming Out Day, I discuss arguments for gaining legal protection for LGBT people which target subjective moral judgments, such as the belief that homosexuality is wrong. Rather than arguing in apologetic terms for mere acceptance and tolerance, I suggest that recognizing the role of choice in sexuality does not inhibit making simultaneous demands for LGBT rights.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Public Philosophy and Me

Over the weekend I attended the Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference in Washington, D.C. Thanks to my involvement with the Rock Ethics Institute and the Public Philosophy Network over the past year, I have already met a number of people who have been helpful and supportive of my interests in philosophy. This weekend, however, came with many very pleasant and very unexpected surprises.

The two weeks leading up to the conference left me feeling reluctant to go anywhere and do anything at all related to philosophy. I was feeling exceptionally overwhelmed, very emotional, and like a breakdown could happen at any minute. After a death in my family and feeling far, far away from my loved ones, forgetting my phone charger in another city, the breaking of my laptop screen without a replacement in stock anywhere across the country, and realizing (yet again) that whatever progress I thought I had made on my prospectus was not really progress at all...avenues for communication and connection were not working. The last thing I felt prepared to do was drive myself to another city, attend sessions and present my own at a conference, talk with lots of other philosophers, be engaged and thoughtful at all times, and stay positive about the current relationship I was having with my work. So when I set out to DC on Thursday afternoon and the barista at Starbucks made me the wrong drink that cost nearly $6, I sort of started to tear up over it. I knew it was ridiculous, but I was just that emotionally spent.

It didn't end there. Once I made it through DC traffic and finally collapsed on my bed in the hotel, I read an email from my advisor about our need to set up a meeting to re-frame my dissertation topic. Feeling like I am already pushing my time limit and that this turn in the project (although very necessary) is already months too late...I broke. I cried. I panicked. And, unfortunately, that crack was enough to sufficiently prime me for the rest of the night. An hour later, when I went to the first plenary session of the conference and gave my initial "hello, good to see you again!"s and people asked, "How are you doing?" I couldn't hold the tears back anymore. They had gained their own momentum, so I would say, "I'm doing okay" and try to leave the conversation before any more questions were asked. Yes, to answer any doubt, it was very awkward. I was extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable.

I wasn't so much uncomfortable with the fact that I was emotional though, because I knew multiple reasons as to why I was especially sensitive that day (I was stressed, but it also had a lot do with the abruptly increased levels of synthetic hormone that were coursing through my body). I think I was also uncomfortable because over the previous two weeks the worrying that I have done for years about what to do after grad school dramatically increased. After my second year of grad school I tried to keep the worrying at bay by simply deciding to only focus on one short term goal: get the PhD. But now, as that gets closer and closer, I have started to freak out about the next step. Do I go on the job market next year? What if I'm not sure about how I fit into academia (it's been painfully evident for so long that if I fit into it, I do so very unconventionally at best)? What other options are there? I don't know!!! And what about other important things in life, like nurturing relationships and pursuing other passions. What if I don't want to do a long-distance relationship for years on end and what if I really enjoy talking to people while cutting their hair all day long?! But at the present moment in DC, an equally pressing lurking concern was probably that of  "What if they're on to me?"

My session with Chris Long on Philosophy and the Digital Public

The amazing thing about this conference though is that it is perhaps one of the most appropriate places for me to have a break down of this sort. One of the main theoretical themes of the conference was to ask, "What is publicly engaged philosophy?", and while perhaps the majority of people there would answer in terms of forming public policy, there were also a handful who share my values in doing philosophy more publicly. If there were to be a place where academic philosophers would be sympathetic to wanting to make philosophy accessible and relevant for people outside of the academy, this was probably as good as it could get. Fortunately, that meant that when I would start feeling really frustrated because people started to talk about philosophy in ways that made it sound like either an exclusive club for only the most arrogant of experts or a mere luxury that we do simply for our enjoyment, there was probably another person in the room who shared my sentiments.

Thank goodness I found them.

I was encouraged to hear comments from people whose departments automatically begin with questions of social justice and where one can equally identify as an academic AND an activist. I appreciated the questions from tenured faculty members who willingly challenged a defensiveness about maintaining certain "standards" for scholarship if/when that defensiveness stems from an unwillingness to change with the social climate. And I was intrigued to hear about academics who are planning on leaving academia, even after getting tenure and becoming chairs of their departments.

Dinner with Rock Ethics Institute and Public Philosophy Network folks

In addition to meeting plenty of new, sympathetic, and supportive folks, I was relieved to actually have honest conversations about my academic and professional queries with the people with whom I work most closely. Rather than hiding the fact that I am curious about what other options really are out there for people with PhD's in philosophy, I noted my concerns and was met with great support. Of course people are still pushing me towards taking an academic position when that time comes, and that is greatly appreciated because I am certainly not opposed to the idea of being in academia. What I am concerned about, however, is how to be in academia and still be able to do the kind of work that I want to do, how I want to do it.  To that, the best response I got over the weekend was, "We'll do what we have to do, even if that means putting together a resume for you instead of a CV." Okay. Wonderful. Thank you.

What I could not have anticipated is the terrifically positive, understanding, and warm response I got from people at this conference. I didn't know that I would leave feeling so encouraged, but thanks to the conversations and the connections that I actually did end up having, that was exactly how I felt when I left DC. I felt excited, relieved, and motivated. This wasn't the sort of conference experience that was all about networking and rubbing elbows (though I always resist doing that in these situations anyway), instead it was an opportunity to openly and genuinely discuss questions about philosophy and what it means to be a philosopher today. And it felt good to passionately talk to people about the things that I am passionate about. It also was very rewarding to think that I actually have a voice that can contribute to those conversations in meaningful ways.

Despite my shift in emotional valence, I know that nothing has really changed after the conference. While I have been assigned a new research project for my work on the Public Philosophy Network, which is finding out what people have done outside of academia after earning PhD's in philosophy, I'm still a graduate student with a terribly uncooperative prospectus to write. I still have no clear direction for what happens after graduation, and in many ways I have very little control over that in the near future. People still expect for philosophy to be done in a certain way in order to "pay one's dues." I get it. I know. And the people who are wonderfully supportive of me are speaking from their tenured positions with job security and good salaries. They know that I know that, too. So, my position still feels tenuously underdetermined and overdetermined at the same time. But at least I was able to do one thing. At least I was able to be honest.

Being pretty blunt and upfront is my M.O.  Most importantly, though, I was reminded again of why it's important to be forthcoming: so that you give others the opportunity to respond to you. They may not like what you show them or they might surprise you and become one of your biggest advocates. People might disappoint or pleasantly surprise you. But you have to give them the fair chance at doing one or the other...or something completely unexpected.

I know that my future does not depend solely on me and my actions. I can be a good, diligent, passionate, and honest hard worker, but others are and always have been involved in terms of blazing paths, opening doors, and presenting me with new opportunities. For those people in my life, I am grateful. And I'm thankful for things like academic professional philosophy conferences that are part of the whole process. :)

You can listen to an engaging and wonderfully supportive conversation that I had with Christopher Long, Mark Fisher, Ronald Sundstrom, Jessica Harper, and Vance Ricks on Chris's Digital Dialogue podcast here:

You can see a picture of it here.

Notes from Noelle McAfee's blog:

Chris and I also had a previous conversation last year about the Public Philosophy Network, which you can find here:

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure

My title, "The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure" indicates an underlying strangeness about this piece for at least a couple of reasons. First, for a lecture series on Spirituality and Sexuality, the title already indicates that I am fudging with interpretations of the relationships between philosophy and spirituality on one hand, and pleasure and sexuality on the other.

One way to connect philosophy and spirituality is to follow Foucault when he says, "We will call 'philosophy' the form of thought that asks what it is that enables the subject to have access to the truth" and "we could call "spirituality" the search, practice, and experience through which the subject carries out the necessary transformations on himself in order to have access to the truth" (Hermeneutics of the Subject 15). Viewing spirituality as a set of practices and exercises entails that "for the subject to have access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become, to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself" (HS 15). The process of becoming other than what one already is, of straying afield of oneself in a peculiar type of movement, of a subject working on herself to transform herself, precisely describes the labor of an ascesis. So while philosophy might be understood as merely the form of thought that asks questions of a subject's access to truth, Foucault elsewhere notes that the activity of reading and writing the philosophical text, which is "the living substance of philosophy," is also that by which "one undergoes changes" (The Use of Pleasures 9). That is, of course, if "we assume that philosophy is still what it was in times past, i.e., an "ascesis"... an exercise of oneself in the activity of thought" (The Use of Pleasures 9).

As for the other relationship upon which the title draws--between pleasure and sexuality--this might seem less strange of a connection. Pleasure and sex are often thought together, and although, of course, pleasure need not derive solely from sex, the type of pleasure that I am analyzing in this paper is sexual pleasure. Let it be quickly noted, though, that "sex" and "pleasure" are complexly related. For instance, not all of what might count as "sex" leads to pleasure--there are situations where sexual acts cause great pain, and not a kind of "pleasurable pain," but pain pain, bad pain, the kind that people don't want. Furthermore, even if pleasure is derived from sex, this does not mean that one's pleasures are automatically unproblematic. Some people view particular pleasures, such as homosexual pleasures, as taboo at best, immoral at worst. And other pleasures are part and parcel to forms of oppression. I'm not only referring to how some people get off by seeing really atrocious things in porn that reflect, reiterate, and concretize sexism, racism, and violence (among other things), but also to other ways in which domination and inequality are eroticized to the point where even those who are dominated claim to actually like it, want it, and enjoy it. Pleasure is a strange thing, then, and despite how badly we might want to think of pleasure as a "good," pleasure already appears to be deeply enmeshed in ethical and political grounds which require that it be constantly put it into critical question.

This unsteady ground of sexual pleasure sets the foundation for what follows, but first, there is another reason why I think that my title is strange. The way that I am putting philosophy and pleasure together implies more than simply engaging with philosophical texts about pleasure (though there will be lots of that). "The Philosophical Pursuit of Pleasure" gestures toward the possibility that pleasure itself might be an outcome of philosophical practice. In other words, I don't just want to philosophize about pleasure's pros and cons and the political implications of what we like. I also want to discuss how pleasures, including sexual pleasures, can come out of doing philosophy. The hope, of course, is that these will be ethically, politically, and even sensually "good" pleasures.

* * *

At present, the idea that sexual pleasure could be problematic is probably more evident in arguments over gay and lesbian rights than anywhere else. As Chris Cuomo argues, claiming the right to be queer, and thereby affirming one's queer sexual acts (which can also be done by many straight people, mind you), is an important part of the political agenda for LGBT rights.  More specifically, on issues like legal protection against homophobic discrimination and violence and the right to marry, attempts to undermine moral judgments that homosexual sexual pleasures are problematically wrong, unhealthy, or sinful are implicitly or explicitly at work. The goal, then, is to upset moral frameworks that tend to unjustly trump universal rights to sexual freedom, and an appropriate political slogan would be something like, "It's okay to be gay and to do gay things, so give me my rights!" Whereas this affirmation of homosexual pleasures as "okay" might be a step towards dismantling the normative structures of heterosexuality today (a question that I will get back to in a while), the predominant battle cry about sexual pleasures a couple of decades ago rang out in a different tune.

In the eighties and nineties some of the hottest debates about the problematic nature of sexual pleasure were emerging out of radical feminist circles. Contrary to Cuomo's political suggestion of asserting that it's okay to be who you are, the one who enjoys her sexual pleasures, there was an explosion of theorists who challenged the idea that our sexualities should be embraced for what they are.  That is because, at the very core of our bodies and our beings, even in our seemingly basic pleasures, inequality, injustice, and oppression construct our realities and our experiences.

Adrienne Rich's classic essay on compulsory heterosexuality and the erasure of lesbian existence argued that heterosexuality is not a natural orientation for women but rather the consequence of a "cluster of forces" that keep women in social, political, psychological, and economic, positions under the power of men. Thus, heterosexuality is compelled by patriarchy, and its comprehensive reinforcement occurs through practices, such as the romanticization of heterosexual marriage and limiting women's reproductive rights. These often serve to benefit men at the grave detriment of women. At about the same time, Andrea Dworkin relentlessly pointed out that the central theme of pornography is male power. The access, abuse, and violence that men hold over women and of their bodies is constructed, materialized, and reinforced through pornographic images.

Catherine Mackinnon picks up this argument to claim that both sexuality and gender are constructed only in reference to male power over women. Dominance, force, and violation are what make up masculine sexuality. They are, indeed, what make one a man at all. And women are thereby defined in terms of what men want from women, namely, to be the dominated, powerless, objects of sex for men. Regarding women's sexuality, then, it is assumed that "women really want what men want from women [which] makes male force against women in sex invisible. It makes rape sex" ("Sexuality" 213). Rich, Dworkin, and Mackinnon drive home the fact that our experience of sexuality is not natural.  Women's sexuality is not their own--it wreaks of male dominance. Indeed, it has been constructed by it. And this is because, as Mackinnon states, all of what sexuality means culturally is only understood in terms of "what gives a man an erection. Whatever it takes to make a penis shudder and stiffen with the experience of its potency" (210). That is, domination.  Hierarchy.  Inequality. With a stroke of insight, Mackinnon notes, "[P]erhaps gender must be maintained as a social hierarchy so that men will be able to get erections; or, part of the male interest in keeping women down lies in the fact that it gets men up. Maybe feminists are considered castrating because equality is not sexy" (214, my emphasis).

If, as Mackinnon argues, this gendered sexual system of hierarchy and inequality is the only model of sexuality that we've got then sexuality does seem...yeah, a little problematic. It's force, not love and affection, that frames sex. Furthermore, this means that heterosexual women are not the sole recipients of this model of sexuality.  The same model of inequality is expressed even in homosexual relationship and inverted sadomasochistic scenes where women dominate men. Oppressive structures in sexuality are ubiquitous.

Hierarchy and inequality are so ubiquitous throughout our experiences of sex that it has even become pleasurable for those who are subjected to it. According to Mackinnon, these structures make women live with objectification and domination like fish live in water--"With no alternatives, the strategy to acquire self-respect and pride is: I chose it" (215). But while Mackinnon suggests that women "choose" and accept their subjugated status and domination "only to make it through another day," thus only as victims, not everyone experiences their sexuality as a victim.

Celia Kitzinger responds to Mackinnon's argument by noting that "many women insist that they have voluntarily chosen to engage in sexual intercourse, and that they enjoy it, and have orgasms through it...When radical feminists argue that heterosexuality is an exercise of male power, that it is degrading and humiliating for women, many women feel that their own personal experience is being negated" ("Problematizing Pleasure: Radical Deconstruction of Sexuality and Pleasure" 200). Ultimately, Kitzinger agrees with the feminist arguments that sexuality is constructed and that it is constructed of and by male power, but she explains that these arguments must be sophisticated enough to account for the real, genuine pleasure that many women feel when they have sex with men. For such women, who robustly choose to engage in the kind of sex in question, it doesn't necessarily feel like rape. Lots of sex is actually great, and wanted, and enjoyed. It's pleasurable.

At this point, it's easy to see how women's pleasurable sexual experiences could support the rhetoric of the women's sexual liberation movement from a couple of decades ago, which suggested that an empowered woman should not feel ashamed of, but rather embrace, her sexuality. She can want it, go out and get it, and enjoy it! It would be inaccurate, though, to think that this was a thing of the past. This position seems to be increasingly popular among young, twenty-something-year-old, self-proclaimed lady "bachelorettes" who are just "living free and single." Thus, it's not just that women reluctantly "choose" to have sex because they have no other option. Nor is it that women despise all the sex that they have with men because it centers on men's desires for domination. Many women actively, and quite happily, pursue and enjoy having sex, even if it reflects a model of sexuality built on force and inequality.

But simply recognizing that some, or perhaps even many or most, women enjoy their subjugated sexual roles and find pleasure in powerlessness does not automatically mean that it is "okay," especially when that pleasure is contingent on oppression. A key task of the radical feminists was to question the very idea that "anything which gives pleasure is justifiable" (202). Without denying that many women do in fact enjoy hetero-sex, Kitzinger problematizes this pleasure by noting that women find it enjoyable and pleasurable precisely because domination and subordination have been eroticized. Power differences are sexy because they have been made to be sexy. Or, to echo Mackinnon, inequality is sexy—equality is not.

The political and moral implications cannot be under-emphasized. What these feminist analyses of problematic pleasure reveal is that something so apparently individual and personal and presumably "natural" as one's sexual pleasure is actually produced and developed within social, public, and cultural influences. Even our deepest pleasures are not untouched by politics and structures of inequality. These forces reside within our bodies throughout our muscles and bones. In terms of ethics, it seems important to argue that not all pleasure is good.  Participating in and supporting some sexual pleasures might even be ethically bad. In other words, just because it feels good and you want it does not mean that it should be the case or that we should not put effort into changing the circumstances the produce those pleasures. 

* * *

Not all pleasures are good?! Where else have we heard something like this before? Oh right, in plenty of anti-gay rhetoric. Or, as Marcus Bachmann said, "just because someone feels it or thinks it, doesn't mean that we're supposed to go down that road." That's why he dedicates so much of his time to facilitate "therapy" for gay-leaning kids. And this reminds us of Cuomo's previously mentioned arguments about the claim, "It's okay to be gay!” and how this claim entails doing queer things. For LGBT rights, some pleasures have to be defended as okay so that the people who do them can be legally protected.

At this juncture, I want to recognize that the strategy of "problematizing pleasure" can be twisted in such a way that it seems to be applicable to homophobic positions like that of Bachmann. This means that the arguments for challenging patriarchy and heterosexism can appear to be contradictory at the level of if, how, and which pleasures are problematic. However, there is a serious difference between a feminist attempt to problematize the pleasures that stem from the eroticization of power differences between men and women (which reiterate and reinforce male dominance) and Bachmann-esque attempts to problematize homosexual pleasures. Where the former seeks to critically address pleasure to resist gendered oppression, the latter actually participates in the oppression of sexual minorities. Suggesting that homosexual pleasure is a "problem" simply because it is homosexual only works to reinforce the heteronormative status quo—it doesn't do the ethical and political work of realizing equality. (Again, according to the feminist arguments above, it still could be problematized if the sort of homosexual pleasure in question comes from eroticized power differences.)

With that potential confusion thwarted, there is an important and interesting insight to be gleaned from viewing homosexual pleasure and pleasure from eroticized power differences alongside one another—both reveal that pleasure is subject to politics. I already described how politics are involved in women's heterosexual pleasures because they are based on inequality with specific reference only to male pleasures, i.e., male dominance. The politics involved in homosexual pleasure can be found, even very minimally, in the fact that insofar as homosexual pleasure is homosexual pleasure at all it has to first be named and produced within a cultural system that gives it meaning as such. In other words, to meaningfully talk about homosexual pleasure requires that there be a discourse that structures what it means to be homosexual in the first place. Why are we not just talking about pleasure without specification based on lines of social identities like sexual orientation, or gender for that matter? What makes something a specifically homosexual pleasure? To answer these questions is to invoke the influence of a dominant discourse about sexuality, one that already has established meanings, moralities, taboos, prohibitions, and political effects. Not to mention a hierarchy of inequality between heterosexuality and non-hetero-anything-else. Given our current time and place in history, then, sexual pleasure comes with political ramifications and is already imbued with political significance. However, none of this is necessarily set, as if things are the way they are because they always have been and always will be. It is rather the case that they have been contingently set through the historical development of the discourse on sex.

Which means that it could have been otherwise. And it could still become otherwise. How?

Ironically, in The History of Sexuality Volume I, Foucault famously suggests that the rallying points for resistance against dominant discourses on sexuality could actually be bodies and pleasures. If it's the case that our experiences of pleasure are not necessarily natural and innate but rather produced in part as effects of political discourses, whether that be of heteronormativity or male dominance (or both and more), then it's possible that they can be "constructed" or "produced" in new ways. People change and grow, and as they do, they may come to enjoy or like new things. Pleasures can be cultivated and developed. Consider learning to play the guitar or training to become a runner. Both tasks require practice and discipline, and both change our bodies' muscular structures and how the activities feel to us while we move from the pain and frustration of a novice to the skill, satisfaction, and grace of a musician or an athlete.

This leads to the thought that perhaps a similarly disciplined approach to other kinds of practices can be useful for creating new kinds of pleasures.  In addition to creating new pleasures, these practices might also be pleasurable in themselves.

In an attempt to elucidate what Foucault meant by "bodies and pleasures" as points for resistance to oppression, Ladelle McWhorter suggests that we use pleasure as a mode of discipline to re-create ourselves as new subjects, newly transformed, and perhaps even so new that our subjectivity and experiences exceed the limits that have been set before us by normalizing discourses of domination. She writes

Counterattack against sexual normalization in general and sexual identities in particular...depends on affirming the free, open playfulness of human possibility even within regimes of sexuality without getting stuck in or succumbing to any one sexual discourse formation. We need to find ways to continue to grow in capability, even in sexual capability, ways to be strengthened and enabled, that don't make us more docile, more disabled at the same time. Growth, development, change must be fostered, but it must not lead to a narrowing of behavioral possibilities (Bodies and Pleasures 181). 

McWhorter gives gardening and dancing as two examples of pleasurable practices that she has undertaken that have opened her up to new ways of understanding and being in her body. They also opened her up to new pleasures. Through the experiences afforded to her by taking up the disciplined practice of learning to dance, her relationship to her body changed. She felt it move through space in different ways, and saw that her body was capable of movements and feelings that she had not yet experienced. And it was enjoyable.

Where McWhorter turns to gardening and line dancing to cultivate new pleasures through disciplined practices, Foucault more provocatively suggests that we experiment with good drugs and sadomasochistic sex. Of course, intensifying our bodily experiences through the use of pleasure would ultimately seek “to open new possibilities for new pleasures and for new ways of being" (BP 185).  The arguments from the above feminists suggest that they would be skeptical about the promise of sadomasochism since it frequently involves power play, but Foucault's reasoning is still in line with their main concerns.  Rather than focusing on the eroticizing of power differences, he explains that people who practice S/M are not being aggressive but that "they are inventing new possibilities of pleasure with strange parts of their body—through the eroticization of the body" (BP 186). Rather than merely eroticizing power inequalities, the body is eroticized in new ways to produce new types of pleasures.

According to both Foucault and McWhorter, these are examples of promising bodily practices that we can undertake in order to disrupt the dominant, and dominating, structures that have constructed our experiences of pleasure. Drugs, S/M, line dancing, and gardening can be pleasurable practices on their own, and when they are approached in a particularly disciplined way, they can create new capacities in us for the new types of pleasures that they afford. But this paper is about the philosophical pursuit of pleasure. Where does philosophy fit in all of this? 

* * *

In addition to drugs and sadomasochism, Foucault suggests that the practice of philosophy—philosophical reflection, the exercises of reading and writing—holds promise for political resistance regarding how we experience ourselves and the world around us. As an ascesis, philosophy does not seek to definitively answer questions but rather to continually open onto new questions, and in so doing, open up new possibilities for thinking and being. Philosophy, then, is a great example of a practice that can be undertaken for change and transformation precisely because there is no end goal in sight but to be a continuously open-ended process. As McWhorter explains, "I disciplined myself to the dance, and I became something I never imagined I could become...And in the process I discovered and cultivated immense capacities for pleasures I'd never dreamed of before. The same is true in becoming a philosopher and has been true for me in the practice of writing this book. This discipline of thinking...has changed me in ways I didn't foresee when I started" (187).

But when compared to other practices like drugs, sex, gardening, and line dancing, there seem to be pretty important differences between these and philosophical practice. First, the sort of practices in question should not just open up new capacities for pleasure, such as how one can eventually learn to deeply enjoy dancing, but the process of undergoing that disciplined practice is itself often pleasurable. Like, for Foucault, the drugs and the sex are already pleasurable before (or because) they open up to other and new pleasurable experiences. Does the same apply to philosophy?

Not all people find philosophy to be a source of pleasure. Some find it boring, some find it frustrating, some find it futile. But there are some, even if they are few in number, who do find pleasure in philosophical practice.  We can acknowledge that it might take a certain kind of person to be drawn to philosophy and find the reading and the writing and the thinking intensely pleasurable. Nevertheless, not everyone likes gardening or line dancing either, so the idea isn't that the practice at hand has to be pleasurable to everyone.  Thus, probably depending on things like one’s own predispositions, who one reads, how one reads, how one writes and thinks, and how one engages with a question, philosophical practice can be enjoyable. It can be fun. It can be pleasurable.  But can philosophy really create capacities for new types of sexual pleasure?

Well, maybe. Thinking philosophically about our standard ideas of sex and the historical contexts for these notions is a good place to start. Critically evaluating notions such as that sexual intercourse is one thing and not another, that it is "natural" for some people to do certain acts, that some sexual pleasures are "bad," or that reproduction is the primary purpose for sex, can help open up our minds and bodies to new ideas and experiences that might otherwise be deemed too weird, inappropriate, taboo, futile, or even literally unimaginable. Simply asking, “Why and how has sex contingently become what it is for us today? And who does this serve?” are gateway questions that could lead to the creation of a new model of sexuality that seriously challenges the political limitations that have been imposed on sexual pleasures. It’s likely that such a model could involve different feelings, different kinds of bodies, different roles played by different individuals, different actions, different goals, and different motives.

Luce Irigaray’s early work provides an example of how sexual pleasure might not only be re-figured through philosophical reflection but also through different modes of writing. Her writing, especially her essay “When Our Lips Speak Together,” is sophisticated, playful, and multi-dimensional in terms of what it states and what it enacts, but for now, it’s enough to simply note how Irigaray’s philosophical points manifest through poetic, erotic language.  Challenging masculine, phallocentric metaphysics and economies, while emphasizing reciprocity and inseparability among women, Irigaray writes, “What need have I for husband or wife, for family, persona, role, function? Let’s leave all those to men’s reproductive laws. I love you, your body, here and now. I/you touch you/me that’s quite enough for us to feel alive” (This Sex Which Is Not One 209).  Because we—you/I—are indistinguishable, Irigaray asks, “how could one dominate the other?” And since Irigaray views women as the sex which is not one, but always more than one, she notes, “You touch me all over at the same time. In all senses. Why only one song, one speech, one text at a time? To seduce, to satisfy, to fill one of my “holes”? With you, I don’t have any” (209).  

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that when we push the questions of whether and how philosophical reflection might produce new sexual pleasures, we push toward the fruitful possibility of shifting what we first mean by "sex" so that "sexual pleasure" can refer to something that is not yet considered sexual. This is much like Foucault's example of sadomasochism's eroticization of different parts of the body. As McWhorter explains, Foucault understood that the process of erocitzing the body, and not merely the power relations between players, "eventually turns sexuality against itself, because it draws on sexual contexts, energy, and imagery to create forms of behavior that are not recognizably sexual at all" (186). This means that critical philosophical reflection can help us unhinge pleasure from what we have come to know as “sex” so that pleasure can stand more firmly on its own. As Foucault describes, "I think it's...a creative enterprise, which has as one of its features what I call the desexualization of pleasure" (BP 186).

And maybe separating pleasure from what we know of as sex so far is a really good thing. If the feminist arguments from people like Mackinnon are correct and the only model of sex that we have experienced so far is one grounded in domination and inequality, then maybe challenging this paradigm of what "counts" as sex is the most important first step for us to take. If our experiences of sexuality can only be understood in gendered terms where male dominance is masculine sexuality, and if the cultural meaning of sexuality is currently set up according to discriminating lines of normalization between heterosexuals and homosexuals, then maybe we should aim for cultivating new pleasures that are not "sexual" in the way that we currently think of them. If what we are aiming for is equality, or if what we hope for are interpersonal (and perhaps political) relations that are based on love and affection, there's a really good chance that "sex" as we know it can't get us there. But perhaps pleasure can, especially if we discipline ourselves to imagine, create, experiment, play, and also to philosophically think, write, and teach in ways that cultivate new pleasures.
This leaves me with one last thing to note.

If all of this talk about philosophy being able to produce new pleasures seems a little far out, this might have something to do with another seeming difference between philosophical practice and other types of suggested practices. One striking difference, at first glance, between philosophy and gardening, dancing, drugs, or S/M, is that the latter are all obviously bodily practices whereas philosophy has been typically understood as a mental, rational, thoughtful, intellectual enterprise that engages the mind and not the body. Even if one were tempted to agree with this split between mind and body and suggest that philosophy engages one and not the other, I want to suggest that philosophy itself can also be reconceived, and re-experienced, in ways so that it does directly involve and engage the body.

Due to the limit in time and space at present to make a sustained argument for philosophy as a bodily practice, my sincere gesture to this possibility will have to suffice for now (and this notion is part of a larger project). I think it is important to emphasize a theme that has been running throughout this paper, which is that philosophy could be approached through the reading of a text, or the writing of a text, or even the presentation of an idea in a way that reveals how undertaking philosophical practice is not just something that changes our minds, but changes who we are, including our embodied experience as subjects. Doing philosophy with this kind of attention to its potential as a bodily practice might make it more similar to the other mentioned bodily practices. It could make the doing of philosophy more pleasurable on its own. It might also more readily reveal how philosophy can produce new pleasures, such as the pleasure of ambiguity, of uncertainty, of not knowing the goal, or of knowing if there even is one...and not needing to get there. Not only do such pleasures resonate with the view of philosophy as an ascesis, one which continually opens onto new questions rather than cementing definitive answers, but I imagine that an openness to things like non-teleological uncertainty would also greatly influence and enhance our experiences of things like sexuality and pleasure.