Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Teaching Against Evolution

For over a year now I've had mounting suspicions about Evolution, but since I know very little about evolutionary theory, the most I can really say about why I raise an eyebrow is that, well, maybe Darwin isn't 100% right about heritability, genetic fitness, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest. And yes, I fully acknowledge that beyond those "catch phrases," there is literally very little else that I am able to say. I don't know the lingo, let alone the theory, to say much more about it. And I think that's significant for reasons that I will later explain.

My doubts, vague as they are, are not, however, leading me down the path toward Creationism. Actually, it's even more ridiculous, naive, or foolhardy than that because I want to challenge evolution on its own terms. But let's face it, I've been educated in the liberal arts and I'm not in a position to read or study enough to intelligently argue against the droves of scientists who have been trained to revere Darwin as the evolutionary king of the life sciences. That's why people with science backgrounds scoff (usually as politely as possible) if I even mention my rebellious plans. To speak on their levels would require lots of education, but while I'm finishing my own degree, the last thing I could imagine doing right now is getting myself up to speed in the basics of biology.

For now, then, I've decided to let this project of identifying the problems and finding the loop-holes in Darwinism sit for a later date, but I do have him on the periphery of my mind. I allow my ears to perk up when my favorite podcasts mention Darwin and evolution, and I listen with an imaginatively skeptical ear for hints of where things could be understood differently. And much like I've done before with other philosophical hunches, I already purchased a four volume collection of Darwin's "greatest hits" earlier this summer. Ever since it arrived in the mail, the collection has been dutifully stationed on my kitchen table but the books remain entirely unopened. I don't want to force things between Darwin and me, but I do keep him close.

As Irony would have it, now that I've resigned myself to the fact that I won't be able to dive deep into the hard sciences for a good long while, which means that my chance at uncovering any new scientific breakthroughs will have to wait, evolution has only become an even bigger problem. In the past few weeks I have been teaching my summer class, "Philosophy of Love and Sex," and evolution has developed into nothing short of my theoretical and pedagogical arch-nemesis. This is because, when it comes to matters of sexuality and the related topics of sexual intercourse, men and women, and the pulls of our desires, my students seem to think that evolution can explain almost anything. It's like I am Bill Murray in a twisted philosopher's version of "Groundhog Day,"--no matter how hard we work one day to critically engage topics of sex and sexuality and how far I think we have traversed into new theoretically territory, by the next day, it's as if none of that ever happened. Once the discussions begin, we are back at square one. Back to evolution.

But just because one can play the evolutionary card doesn't mean that "evolution" is the best explanation, the whole explanation, or even a good explanation with which we should find ourselves content for why things are the way that they are or why people do the things that they do. In fact, I am beginning to realize that the more "acceptable" and comfortably satisfactory an "explanation" is, perhaps the more we ought to critically think about it again. I let my frustrations shine through last week in class after one student evidenced the typical, uncritical recourse to an argument from unquestionable, evolutionary natural facts. She defended herself by saying, "But it's the easiest way to explain why this happens." I said, "Yes, it is easy, but I don't want us to fall back into that so quickly." "But I can't think of any other reason if it's not evolution," she replied, herself now pretty visibly frustrated. To which I responded, "Perfect! All the more reason for us to think harder." I pointed to my head and said to the class, "Make it hurt!"

I feel that as a philosopher and an educator I have a certain kind of duty to direct my students towards their own greater intellectual freedom. (This is super hard.) I tell them from the beginning of the class that I don't ever need for them to agree with the texts that we read, but neither do I want to hear them explain why things are the way the way they are based on what they already thought before reading the material. The idea is to use the material so that we have a shared ground for our discussion and to provoke our thinking. Sometimes, it’s better if they disagree.  I tell them, "I don't want to know what you already think. I want you to demonstrate to me and the rest of the class that you are thinking." This is an incredibly difficult task for any educator, and it is made even more difficult since thinking is itself a really hard thing to do, especially for students if they haven't been shown what it means to really think or how to do it. Because evolution, day in and day out, has become one of the biggest obstacles to overcome in order to have real, genuine thinking in my class, I have become a lot less worried about evolutionary theory per se and much more concerned about the role of  "evolution" in our thinking.  So while I still may not be able to say much about evolution as a scientist, as a philosopher, this experience has led me to a few insights about "evolution."

One of the scariest parts about "evolution" is that, in a sense, my students are right about something: evolution can be used to "explain" almost anything. Consider the following:

1. Why is that most people are heterosexual? Because in order for the human species to perpetuate itself, men and women must procreate, so they are naturally attracted to one another.  The continuation of the human race depends on it, so it must be natural.
2. What is considered to be "real sex," and why? Well, when a man finally puts his penis in a woman's vagina (sorry to be so crude, but this is what they say...), that's sex. Anything else is at best just foreplay but not the real thing. At worse, anything else is unnatural and perverted, like when two guys have anal sex. This is because sex is for reproduction, and clearly, penis-in-vagina sex is the necessary element for making babies.
3. Why are the penis and the vagina recognized as the most obviously sexual body parts? Why not the breasts, the clitoris, the prostate gland, or any other area on one's body that could also be experienced as an erogenous zone? As stated before, because you need a penis and a vagina for biological reproduction.  Duh. The rest might be fun to play with, and having them played with might make one more interested in actually having sex, but all of that would in the interest of has-the-potential-for-baby-making sexual intercourse with a penis and a vagina.
3. Why is it that men seem to struggle more than women to be monogamous (Dan Savage is a huge fan of referring to "human nature" and evolution with this topic)? Because, by virtue of the sheer body mechanics of it all, men can "spread their seed" to an many, many women in one day, whereas if a woman gets pregnant, she can only select to mate with one man. So, clearly, men are on the prowl to propagate their genes to as many people as possible, while women will have to be choosier and just cling to the one man who gets her pregnant. 
4. Why is it that women are so frequently attracted to jerks and are less attracted to the nice guys? Because men are stronger and more powerful which, in terms of survival, means that they would be more capable at providing and protecting the young. A woman is then naturally attracted to men who can demonstrate their power, which these days means anything from muscles to money. 
5. Why do many women find it erotic to be "taken" by a man, or overpowered, even to the point of fantasizing about rape? Because women are weaker than men, and they have to be taken care of, eroticizing the power differences between men and women might make it more "enjoyable" for them to be where they naturally are; i.e., weaker than, and submissive to, men. If you are naturally going to be weaker and submissive, you might as well find it hot. (A couple of students even stated that because women are weaker when pregnant and they can't do as many things as they normally could, they need a strong man to take care of them. So, again, it's a matter of survival and protection over the need to worry about basing such a view on the relatively short period of time in a woman's life during which, if she has ever babies, she is actually "weakened" by pregnancy...)

It's amazing to me how quickly my students can develop explanations like these to account for so many different phenomena.  The more I teach, the more wary I become when the first words out of someone’s mouth are “This is the case because...” or “The reason why is that...” since this just screams “I’m not going to take even a second to ponder the question itself.” More important to note, however, is that a very bizarre epistemological insight is revealed in how people who espouse such views often fail to see that there are at least two sides to the evolution coin. Claims to survival of the fittest and natural selection for the sake of biological reproduction can also be employed to argue in the other direction. For instance, homosexual behaviors can be found throughout the animal kingdom (thereby not just in the acts of sinners or pedophiles) which would seem to indicate that it is completely "natural" and not just a symptom of some prior trauma, disease, or the consequence of being exposed to gay culture or being raised by gay parents. Since homosexual behavior has been around throughout human history and across cultures, one would think that it would have been "bred" out by now if it was not somehow beneficial to the species. Perhaps, one could say, homosexual behavior hasn't disappeared on its own because it is actually good for the species by encouraging particular social bonds and the building of communities. Furthermore, biological reproduction can't be the only important end, at least in the sense that not everyone should be or would be driven to procreate (evolutionarily speaking). In fact, if everyone had babies, that would probably be to the detriment of the species, right? At least it would be in terms of overpopulation and the planet's carrying-capacity. So rather than specifying that homosexuals, people of "degenerate" races, or those with mental illnesses are the particularly unfit who should not be reproducing, perhaps we should question the idea that the main goal of our human existence is reproduction at all. What if it was something else, like pleasure? We could say instead, then, that the reason why humans have evolved to be such smart, rational, and technologically advanced creatures is so that we could come up with even more tools, toys, procedures, and contraptions to increase our pleasures. Now isn't that a fun alternative to imagine?

These counter-examples can be creatively thought up in many different ways, and although it took a little while, eventually a couple of my students identified this strategy of argumentation and started using it to pose counter-points to those students who are the most incessantly devoted to evolutionary explanations. It’s a classic case of giving someone a taste of their own theoretical medicine.  Unfortunately, this only goes so far. After a few rounds of tit-for-tat battle, in the end, both sides usually have to acknowledge that they will just disagree on matters. I get the sense though that pretty much everyone in the class views the side that offers counter-points from an evolutionary standpoint as only playing the role of "devil's advocate" while the side that defends the naturalness of heterosexuality as the necessary means for biological reproduction is still judged to be more compelling. This is because, as I have tried to explain to my students, the counter-arguments engaging with the other side work on the same level of "scientific explanations" and with reference to "natural facts."

But there are at least two levels of concern at stake: 1) Even if science could be shown to support something like the naturalness of homosexuality or the outrageously insatiable sexual appetites of women, that is, even if counter-factual discoveries were made by further scientific investigations into gay genes or that support increasing recognition for women’s sexual pleasures, these are small pebbles that will not be able to crack the fortress of "naturalness" that has been built up and reinforced by centuries of what is trusted and recognized as "good," objective science. 2) Furthermore, such an approach still reflects an attitude that places unwavering faith in science’s ability to uncover pre-social truths about the REAL, natural world, where neither science nor the world itself are considered to have been shaped or influenced by politics and values. But this simply is not how science has been developed nor how it has been used.  All scientific inquiry has been pursued by particular individuals within a particular historical, social, political, and cultural context. Rather than throwing small stones at the tower and arguing at the same level of scientific facts, another strategy with greater political promise can be employed that works to undermine “scientific facts” by paying close attention to these “extra-scientific” influences.

On this note, I can't really get into the ways that scientists have approached evolution in particular right now because it's a long, involved discussion that brings up challenging approaches to metaphysical things like truth and reality (ya know, the simple stuff). What should be mentioned, though, is that plenty of philosophers have issued many compelling and very important critiques of notions like pure objectivity, neutrality, and impartiality in science and knowledge production. They have also revealed the influences that things like identity, social values, cultural metaphors, and political interests have on shaping the direction and evaluation of scientific inquiry. Despite the recognition of these critiques within some philosophical circles, however, their force appears to be hardly felt by most within scientific communities and are even less acknowledged by the general public (as evidenced by the brute assumptions that my students boldly assert upon entering the room on the first day of class). But again, since I'm skipping over the issues with scientists in particular for now, it's time to explore this latter issue of how "evolution" works on the streets.

The conversations I have been having with my students have helped me realize a very important thing: Most people have heard of evolution, but very few would be able to say a single intelligent thing about it that wouldn't be able to fit on the little slip of paper in a fortune cookie. I think this is both philosophically and politically significant. As I confessed at the beginning of this post, I may be one of those highly-evolved apes, but I am also shamefully ignorant when it comes how I actually have evolved in relation to the apes or the amoebas or the dodo birds.

However, thanks to the story I have been told throughout all of my growing up, I can tell a quick story about "evolution." It goes a little something like this: Life begins with small, rudimentary, simple organisms that contain the basic building blocks of life in their genes. Through a series of many mutations, organisms develop different characteristics and behaviors that enable them to adapt to the external forces that they encounter (such as predators, diseases, bad weather), which increases their ability to survive against these conditions. This is survival of the fittest. Those organisms that are too weak, sickly, or poorly protected from the elements will be killed or die off on their own...that is, nature will run its course and clean out the gene pool of weakness. But it's not enough to live; Life seeks to reproduce itself. So for those that survive because they are fit enough to live, we can say that "nature has selected them" (natural selection) as fit enough to reproduce and pass on their good, strong genes.

What might not be fully acknowledged by the general masses but that is implicit in this story is the idea that life develops toward a higher goal, and that the direction is one towards greater perfection, a higher realization of...something. There is a teleological development on a mostly-one-directional path, which allows for a recognition that development can be stunted, leaving some at the "more primitive" stages of life, like lower animals, or those organisms with less complex nervous systems, or even certain types of humans may be "less developed" than others. With this developmental march toward the highest realization of the species, or of life, or whatever else we think we're talking about, whenever someone or some things step off of the path of higher development, it is presumed that they or it will eventually be "corrected" and brought back on track, or be eliminated ("You shouldn't have stepped off the path in the first place!").

I believe that many people are quite familiar with this story of “evolution.” In order to understand why I am so concerned about it and how familiar everyone is with it, we must first note what is at stake here. Aside from the fact that the view of linear, consistent, teleological development to the highest realization of life already represents a view form a particular lens that identifies what it wants to see (in other words, other scientific studies could show that this is not actually how things go...but we’re not engaging on that level, remember?), I find it terrifying that so few of my students seem concerned about the implications of what they say when they bring up arguments from evolution. If we uncritically buy into this stories about how human nature has evolved and accept it at face value, one only has to go a half-step further along this path of thinking to see how it can be used to support discriminatory practices, unjust institutions, hateful attitudes and behaviors, and even multiple forms of violence on individual and state levels.

If we return to the series of questions above about phenomena that can be explained away by evolution, a really rudimentary half-step ahead reveals that "heterosexuality" (as we have come to think of it today) assumes and maintains the status as the natural sexual orientation for humans, thereby making anything else (for example, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality) unnatural, a deviation from normal behavior, which then can (or even should) be regulated, corrected, or extinguished for the sake of the species. Since this thinking also associates what is natural with what is morally good, right, and justifiable, whereas unnatural things are things to be shunned, heterosexism is not considered a matter of political bigotry, but rather a plain, "straight-forward" defense of the natural order of things.

There are lots of worrisome implications if "real sex" is considered only that which involves a penis and vagina for the sake of reproduction. For one, contraception becomes a problem, though most people have somehow gotten around having any qualms about preventing reproduction, which indicates, I think, that it's the kind of sex that matters, not necessarily whether or not it actually brings any subsequent generations into the world. If it's the kind of sex that matters, namely that which could result in biological reproduction, then any other sex acts are superfluous at best, unnatural at worst. Lesbians can't actually have real sex. Gay men are gross perverts. And all the other things people can do (even if done by heterosexual couples) can be judged as "dirty" or so kinky that it's freaky. Pleasure is displaced as an unnecessary bi-product of sexuality. If penises and vaginas are the only parts that matter for sex, and pleasure is not a main concern, then other pleasurable parts and practices are dismissed, ignored, or rejected. Let's not forget how this affects people with certain types of disabilities. Furthermore, given that it doesn't matter if a woman gets off for reproduction, concerns of woman's sexual pleasure in particular can be completely dismissed as unimportant. But since I doubt that babies really care if their parents thoroughly enjoyed the process of conception, limiting views of what counts as "real sex" by focusing on a reproductive goal is really only preventing people from being open to even greater pleasures (and giving lazy dudes a good excuse to not be worried about satisfying their lady partners). If people won't allow themselves to pursue pleasure for the sake of pleasure and only for reproduction, this certainly has implications for straight men, but it has even more serious implications for women, non-heterosexual, and non-normatively-heterosexual people.  (As for my own two cents: Because it applies so widely to many situations and people, I think that the sheer act of expanding notions of sex for the sake of pleasure itself would be enough to make the world a significantly better place.)

Finally, to say that men have a naturally hard-wired urge to impregnate everything that moves works as a wonderfully comprehensive "get out of jail free" card. Sometimes, literally, because this explanation doesn't just bring up issues around monogamy and infidelity, but also makes excuses the apparently uncontrollable male sex drive that leads men to sexually harass and assault other people, especially children and women. But if we say that women are naturally attracted to meat-head jerks who push them around as an assertion of their power, and go even further to say that its "natural" for women to like it and find this erotic, this easily develops into the first-cousin of "blaming the victim" rhetoric. "No" is taken to mean "Yes." And while this way of thinking is, once again, a convenient way to say that women have lower sex drives than men and that having pleasurable sex is less of a concern for them (and the lazy dudes win again!), such a naturalized conception of men and their power paints a rigid yet precarious portrait of masculinity without accountability.  This view is detrimental to men, gay and straight alike, since if you cannot act like a hard, strong, powerful, and horny man then you are inadequate, weak, unattractive, and undesirable....I mean, unfit for reproduction. And we wonder why so many men are insecure with their masculinity.

Aside from the fact that these "reasons from evolution" are the justificatory building blocks of so many social and political ills like homophobia and sexual violence (not to mention that pretty much any talk about evolution easily links more generally to things like eugenics practices; here's a quick story that was recently published in the Huffington post this week), the role "evolution" plays in our thinking is one of deflection. It distracts attention away from particularly political issues and thwarts the ability to seriously consider the mechanisms of systems of oppression. Forces and institutions like white racism, compulsory heterosexuality, and gender policing are less readily recognizable in terms of their actual operation and are rather quickly explained away with "evolution." And because evolution is a fact of the natural world, whatever forms of oppression might be accounted for in terms of "evolution" are also naturalized in a way that suggests that this is how things just are. In other words, the status quo is what it is naturally, on its own, and has not been produced through the maintenance of economic inequality, social limitations, techniques of medical interventions, violence and terrorism, or even the progress of scientific discovery itself.

What this means, then, is that "evolution" functions more like a place holder that, while itself a pretty empty concept, fills an epistemological space so that there does not appear to be a reason to question what people assume to know about sex, sexuality, gender, and the lot. This is another example of what Charles Mills coined as an epistemology of ignorance. With respect to matters of race, Mills notes that an epistemology of ignorance is "a pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional),. producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made" (18). Understood in this way, ignorance isn’t about getting things wrong and erring in scientific discoveries--it’s about setting the conditions up for something to be or not be.  With respect to heterosexism, heteronormativity, partriarchal sexism, ableism, and racism in conjunction with sexuality, "evolution" is a key element in an epistemology of ignorance that "precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities" so much that heterosexual and/or white and/or men can say and act as they do under the safety of it all being presumably natural, instinctual, biologically motivated thanks to the force of "evolution." In many ways, then, to explain oppressive systems and behaviors in light of "evolution" is to be complicit in the maintenance of this ignorance, upon which oppression depends.

Here's the video I did a while back about discussing the concept of an epistemology of ignorance:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Being Affected by Nietzsche

[I tried to write something to introduce myself to the idea of writing an introduction for my prospectus. And this happened...]

You know those times when you meet someone new and pick up a certain kind of vibe from them? Sometimes, even if your encounter with them is brief and superficial, you might get the sense that you could really get along well together or that they are someone who you don't particularly need or want to get to know any further. In some cases, you might get a weird read from them that leaves you somewhat unsettled, or maybe there is just something about them that makes you feel better, lighter, more relaxed, or even happier. It may be that you don't even know precisely what it is about the other that resonates with you, but for whatever reason, you just have a hunch about them. Call it sheer intrigue or an insight from intuition, these experiences reflect the idea that there is something there. Even if this "I don't know quite what" can't be described, it sometimes suffices to say, "It's just a feeling."

These types of experiences have been described by the late feminist philosopher Teresa Brennan in terms of the transmission of affect. For Brennan, the felt dimension of another person's presence, how they can lift you up or bring you down, is a phenomenon that reveals something about our ontology as social subjects. More specifically, such phenomena exemplify how affects are literally transmitted among individuals and within groups. More than just sensations and "feelings," Brennan explains that affects are themselves material. Gesturing to the role of things like pheromones, Brennan notes that they are literally "in the air." Furthermore, affects can be understood in terms of the material, physiological, and biological changes that they engender in our bodies, which means that the affective dimension of our embodiment and such experiences of being energized or depleted by the presence of another are not just psychological in character, but biochemical. According to Brennan, there is also a cognitive dimension to affective experiences since affects are not mere sensations but rather occur at the moment of a (perhaps mostly unconscious) judgment. So even if you don't know what it is that makes you feel a certain way, people like Brennan want to say that an affect does, in a sense, "know" on its own. The affect indicates a judgment about whether one takes in and incorporates the affects of another or rejects and deflects them.

Brennan's analysis presents a number of important implications. Perhaps most importantly, the transmission of affect reveals that our social interactions with others affect, alter, and shape our biological bodies, for better or worse depending on if the transmitted affects are positive ones like love or negative, as in the case of anger. This is a provocative inversion of the more typical view that our social interactions are mostly guided by our biological constitution, as if one is more nurturing or aggressive because of one's biological sex (and all that this is presumed to entail in terms of hormones and "natural tendencies") rather than the affective atmospheres within which one engages with others. Already, then, the transmission of affect blurs the boundaries between what is social and what naturally biological and if one can actually be thought before the other.

A second implication arises in light of Brennan's suggestion that affects are judgments, which gestures to the epistemological importance of affects. There are various and contradictory views espoused across and within numerous disciplines regarding affective embodiment and cognition, and although there is little agreement on the precise nature of the relation between cognition and affect, the sheer volume of attention dedicated to the topic is noteworthy in that, if nothing else, it reflects the social, political, and epistemological value that is already attached to what people can "know" by virtue of their affects. This is especially evident with respect to heavily value-laden social and political issues such as discrimination and oppression or the evaluation of morally right or wrong actions. In such instances, an epistemological link is often tacitly acknowledged in appeals to things like "gut instincts" about what is right or wrong, what sort of actions are viewed as disgusting or attractive, or which groups of people evoke fear, distaste, or aversion in others.

Finally, the transmission of affect and subsequent biochemical changes in one's self that occur in light of this blur the borders between self and other. The notion of a self-contained, independent individual disintegrates. At the fundamental level of our ontology, we come to be recognized as thoroughly intersubjective beings. I (and my affects) affect you while you (and your affects) affect me. So much so that we can literally feel it when we encounter one another.

While each of these issues regarding the transmission of affect merit further analysis, I will not yet pursue them here. At this moment, I bring up Brennan's emphasis on the transmission of affect to shed light on a specific and peculiar kind of hunch that I've had in the past that is different from Brennan's analysis of the transmission of affect but that certainly shares a kind of resonance.  My hunch was about a man, but I didn't ever meet him in person. I only read his books. But it was more than that. As I read, I was deeply affected by his words. I felt charged, giddy, and much like one on a high from a new crush, this excitement would often materialize in outbursts of laughter. Sometimes his words would make me feel uncomfortable. Not just uncomfortable because I couldn't understand what he was saying, but really, physically, or better yet, physiologically uncomfortable insofar as considering the implications of his arguments would put my stomach on edge in ways that he often anticipated throughout his own writing. At other times, I would fall silent or even cry because his writing is just so poignant. So beautiful. It possesses such resonance. This man, of course, is Friedrich Nietzsche.

My first introduction to Nietzsche was in the fall of my junior year in college when I took a phenomenal class with an amazing professor entitled "Meaning and Truth in Religion."  Though I really didn't understand much about the theology we were reading, I was exposed to a different kind of philosophy, or a different way of doing philosophy; different questions, different problems, different understandings. I have since realized that this was my first exposure to what is frequently referred to as "Continental philosophy." Although I found Nietzsche's critical thoughts on metaphysics and ontology interesting then, I wasn't quite yet grabbed by him. In fact, from what I had gathered in the short time that we focused on Nietzsche in class, I was more interested in making him politically palatable--the will to power seemed to be too frequently interpreted (by myself, too, at the time) in violent and forceful ways that didn't sit well with me. I gather now that my initial desire to make him more "acceptable" reflects a good deal about my philosophical sensibilities then, but it probably also indicates that  I didn't really "get" Nietzsche yet.

We can fast forward a couple of years ahead when I found myself in graduate school in a predominantly Continental philosophy program surrounded by other philosophers and enthusiastic new graduate students. As is probably the case in most academic disciplines, whenever philosophers meet for the first time, one of the first questions people raise to break the ice asks about what kind of philosophy you are interested in and who you study.  Having declared my major rather later in my undergraduate career, I was still relatively new to philosophy, and given that I had a mostly analytic background, I wasn't even able to make sense of most of the names and topics with which others would align themselves and their projects. Heidegger and phenomenology were pretty empty signifiers for me then. But I do recall the moment when I started to align myself with two particular thinkers. It was within the first couple of weeks of my first semester in graduate school when I said to an older graduate student, "I don't know for sure what I am going to do in philosophy, but I have a hunch that I will become quite involved with two figures: Nietzsche and Foucault."

At that point, I still had a hunch, but it was only a hunch. I guess it was significant enough to act on though since, despite the fact that I still hadn't ever read a single book by Nietzsche or Foucault, but thanks to the convenience of online shopping and the impulsiveness of my spending, I actually already owned a number of them. My guess is that my theological glimpse at Nietzsche and the references to Foucault made by feminist philosophers I read during the last two years of my undergraduate studies planted some seeds in my mind, and from those seeds, my own little library had already started to sprout even before moving to graduate school. I was probably able to anticipate my trajectory just from the things that I had gathered about them through what other people had written. But even once I recognized that I had this hunch about the two who would eventually be adoringly referred to as "my philosophical homeboys," I didn't want to force things. Like with any healthy love relationship, I was willing to let it develop organically on its own. Instead of making it a point to test my feelings by immediately diving into their books, I chose to let it sit as it was for however long it needed to. I trusted that there would be a time when their relevance would make itself known, and I suspected that it would be at a time when I was ready for it.

It wasn't until the second semester of my first year in graduate school (Spring 2009) when I took a seminar on 19th Century Continental philosophy that I became fully involved in what became known to myself and others as my semester long love affair with Nietzsche. For those fifteen weeks, I truly was in love and everyone around me knew it. It even became the topic of my seminar paper. Here's the shameless introduction:
Upon my first close reading of some of Nietzsche’s work I felt myself being wrapped up in what was to be light-heartedly referred to for the rest of the semester as a love affair.  Whether I was reading in my bed at home or at a coffee shop surrounded by other people, Nietzsche made me toss my head back in laughter and throw my hands up in awe.  Literally, there were times when I read something that would make me exclaim, “Yes, Nietzsche!”  At other parts of his texts, those that proved more difficult to swallow, I noticed my discomfort rise. And there were even times in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that made me cry.  How could I explain to my friends and colleagues the experience of my semester-long fling with Nietzsche—the way his words would resonate with me, or rather, the way they would sing? This little love affair of mine might have been aptly named at the beginning, for it had quickly turned into an impassioned exploration of Nietzsche’s pages and of my own relationship to them. I am grateful that I can continue to carry around The Gay Science even after the semester is over, yet I have been left sheepishly wondering, “Could this really be love?”

While affects are certainly at play in how and when  I read Nietzsche, their presence and operation differs in important ways from the kind of transmission that Brennan discusses. Rather than being transmitted via biochemical pheromones and olfactory cues that happen when people physically encounter one another in the same time and space, my affective experiences occurred in the presence of books. Beyond mere books, however, I want to suggest that my affective experiences while reading Nietzsche indicate at least one possible way in which affects can be produced through philosophy; more specifically, through the reading of certain philosophical texts of a particular character which reach intended audiences through specialized aims.

It is because reading Nietzsche's books has so profoundly affected me on personal, physiological, and certainly philosophical levels that I will argue that the nature of philosophy itself can be understood as an embodied practice that can, at the level of our physiological constitution, affect us in ways that produce greater health, well-being, and vitality. This claim is found in the content of Nietzsche's own work (and it harkens back to more classic conceptions of philosophy among Hellenistic thinkers. This is something I will pick up at a later time). One of my aims is to show how an appreciation for Nietzsche's philosophical emphasis on health and physiology, along with the distinctive style of his writing, reveals an underestimated, and so far under-explored, connection between affect and philosophy. By no means does this mean that Nietzsche is the only philosopher to have this effect on others, but I will refer to my own affective experiences while reading his work as a kind of case-study for this connection, which involves other issues around pedagogy, rhetoric, and the "ends" of philosophy. I think it may even implicate a revision of what is characteristically understood to count as "philosophy."

This means that there are at least two distinct approaches for unpacking the relationship between affect and philosophy that I will discuss in turn. Not only are there interesting insights to be understood with respect to the philosophy of affect, that is, in terms of how we are to understand the ontological and cognitive (or not) dimensions of affect, but a greater sensitivity to the potential for affects of (or within) philosophy reveals exciting new possibilities for how we might understand, and undertake, philosophy as a transformative, even therapeutic, practice. Numerous issues surface when philosophy is undertaken as a kind of therapeutic practice that can produce such transformations, including questions about the connections between mind and body, and psyche and soma.  Metaphilosophical questions about the nature and aims of philosophy itself also become relevant. For instance, new lines can be drawn that reinterpret the classic analogy between medicine and philosophy as perhaps more than just an analogy. Furthermore, the relationships among truth, philosophy, and pedagogy can be reevaluated in terms that echo, once more, a view of philosophy as a practice, as an art of life.

Exploring the connections between affect and philosophy in both directions and raising such questions invites a dialogue of different voices and views from apparently disparate disciplines including philosophy, psychology, physiology, and neuroscience. As disparate as these fields might initially appear, on issues related to affect, emotion, and embodiment they have already been brought together in ways that reveal exciting new possibilities for health and healing. Furthermore, understanding the particular methods by which affects are cultivated, produced, evoked, or transmitted is valuable in order to better appreciate the role of affect with respect to personal well-being and political oppression or resistance. This is because, as was mentioned above, I want to suggest that not only are affects philosophically significant, but they also already operate in politically charged ways. While much of what I will explore deals with the two pronged approach to the philosophical significance of affect (that is, the philosophy of affect and affect of philosophy), this investigation is motivated by a sensitivity to the already political dimension of many affective experiences and their role in perpetuating and justifying discriminatory attitudes.

[After writing this, I went to an empty classroom with two chalkboards and sketched out a rough outline of what I think will shape up to be my dissertation.]


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

"Oh, Philosophy. So what do you want to do with that?"

"Do you want to teach?"


In fact, before I even knew what philosophy was I wanted to teach, at least in some capacity. I didn't know what I wanted to teach, but I knew that I have always felt comfortable in the role of an educator, leader, and mentor.

"So do you want to become a professor?"

Well, I don't know.

I only ended up here--in academia, in graduate school pursuing a dual PhD in Philosophy and Women's Studies--thanks to a unexpected and, yes, lucky turn of events. The tale of my path includes the moment when I decided to not drop out of college after my second year and then when I declared a major in philosophy, not because I loved it so much, but because it was pretty much the only thing I could do and still graduate in four years. There was one justifiable benefit of becoming a philosophy major though. As one of my not-so-warm-and-fuzzy professors at the time told me, at least it would teach me how to read, write, and think, which are helpful skills no matter what you end up doing. So, I stayed in school and studied philosophy. 

I could not have anticipated how my life would change so quickly after that.

In the fall of my junior year I took an amazing, mind-opening, totally inspiring class with a brilliant and enthusiastic young professor who has since retained his position as easily one of the most influential people in my life (Shout out goes to David Deane!). And with that class, as I heard about new ideas that I had never even considered before and was introduced to concepts that seemed already familiar because they made sense of my experience but that I couldn't have articulated on my own, I knew that something big was happening.

I felt the metaphorical path beneath my feet twisting in new directions, leading me, a naive, but excited twenty-year-old, to board planes to Syracuse, NY on my own and attend a conference for no other reason than to just go and listen to some of the people whose work I had started to read, such as Judith Butler and Helene Cixous. Being that this was my first conference and I was so new to everything in the world of philosophy, I didn't really care enough to heed the advice of my professor to make connections and make myself known (to people who, for example, are now vice-presidents of the American Philosophical Association..and my facebook friends! Ha!). Motivations for networking were out of the question, but I was so moved by Cixous's keynote paper, "Promised Belief," and again, so unaware of professional etiquette, that I did follow her around and pester her until I was able to tell her about the amazing experience I had during her reading of her paper and ask about feminine writing. The funny thing was that I was actually disappointed when she responded to my question. She stated, "I am a philosophical poet. Derrida is poetic philosopher. But I never intend to "demonstrate" anything with my writing. I just write to write." At the time, I didn't really even know who Derrida was, let alone appreciate how awesome it was that she followed this deflating comment by saying, "That is not my project. But it could be yours!" Despite how incredible it is to me now that one of the most significant figures in feminist theorizing and writing passed a torch on to me (a torch that I guess was never really her's but perhaps was already my own), at the time I was more intimidated by my young professor's comment during one of our coffee-fueled conversations when he said, "Of course you will go on to graduate school, and you will write a book, and you will become a professor. And you will be superb." A BOOK?!? Now that was unfathomable.

But he was right and my path was obviously heading in that direction. I got more involved in philosophy, went to a week-long summer nerd camp for aspiring young philosophers at Penn State before my senior year, returned with even more passion and energy for doing philosophy in new ways, and when I returned to Colorado, I used that newly found perspective and confidence to become more outspoken in the many philosophy classes and graduate seminars that I took during my senior year to complete my bachelor's degree. And in the course of those two years between nearly dropping out and being admitted to graduate school, I totally fell in love with philosophy. More importantly, though, I developed my own voice.

The unpleasant truth about graduate school, though, is that no matter how much you love what you do--the research, the learning, the intellectual stimulation--and no matter how passionately your pursue it for noble causes like greater justice, equality, and positive social changes, it doesn't take long for doubt and disillusion to set in. Even (or perhaps especially) those who are most passionately motivated for all the right reasons come to the conclusion that academia is just not for them, that they can't actually bring about the changes that are most important to them, that theory and practice don't really intersect in sufficient ways. So people burn out. And a lot of people leave. And at some point, many of those who remain do so only because they've already gotten so deep and dedicated so much time that there don't really seem to be any other viable options.

For the first two years of my graduate career I was constantly tempted by the thought of quitting, especially when the end of the semester rolled in and paper-writing season consumed every hope for sanity and a healthy, balanced life. I would have emotional break downs and cry. I would be in physical pain from typing for so long and cry. I would think about a lifetime ahead of me of doing this all the time for my career--reading things that other people wrote that nobody else ever read or cared about except for a few people like me, who were trapped in the depths of hell forcing themselves to write papers that nobody else would ever read or care about. And then I would sometimes cry some more.  Much like when other people find themselves in an unhappy marriage and have a mid-life crisis, for graduate students it is during those times when papers have to be produced and turned in that everything else seems to lose its meaning and you really question your life choices. However, even when my now best friend (whom I met when we both started the philosophy PhD program together) left before Thanksgiving break of our first semester, I decided to wait it out at least a year before making any drastic decisions.

With time my perspective shifted, but only a little. During my second year, most of the graduate students I knew in my own program and in other disciplines had gotten quite comfortably blunt about their dissatisfaction of being in graduate school. My own discomfort manifested itself in explicit questions that I directed to my advisors, professors, academic superiors, and even "philosophical role models." I asked many of them, "Do you have any regrets?," meaning, would they have gone a different route in life if they could do it over again? Some actually had the nerve to forsake any kind of consolation for why I would ask such a question and said yes. Others gave a very qualified no. Only one person could say, "Absolutely not. I love what I do." (This person was Ladelle McWhorter, another of the most influential philosophers in my life, and definitely one of the handful of people who have encouraged me in ways that have actually kept me in philosophy. I am hugely grateful for her, and my style and approach to philosophy are significantly indebted to her example.)

Despite the lack of overly-encouraging hindsight from my superiors, it was at the end of my second year when I was finally able to come to my own decision about whether or not I would stay in graduate school and finish my doctorate degree. And the decision was made because during my fourth semester I was able to teach my very own classes for the first time. I was able to craft one syllabus on my very own, and I taught it to two classes, about 65 students. And I loved it. It wasn't easy, especially since I was taking four graduate classes of my own, but I did it. As part of all of the experiences that we had in those rooms together, I learned an awful lot. I learned about philosophy. I learned about my students. I learned about myself, as a person and as an educator. By the end of it, I was very aware of how cool it was to be able to say that at the age of 23 I was actually able to do exactly what I've always wanted to do. I was getting to teach material that I wanted to teach, how I wanted to teach it, and we were all learning as a result of that. Given that finishing my degree would mean that I would continue teaching for at least three more years, I had come to better appreciate that I was in a pretty cool situation. Not only do I get to do what I have wanted to do for so long even before I finish my twenties, but at the end of it, I will also have a couple of degrees. Sweet deal. So I stayed in it.

That justification worked out well throughout my third year of graduate school. I was able to put the pressure and anxiety aside about "what I would do" with a PhD in philosophy, not worry so much about working hard to look super impressive for my impending run on the job-market gauntlet, and focus more on simply doing what I love to do. It's worked out well. So far I'm one of only two people in my cohort to actually be on track in terms of our program's timeline. I even heard through the grapevine that when a somewhat skeptical, and very befuddled, professor in the department questioned how it was possible for me to be getting through the program as I am, he surmised for others that it was because I said, "Screw the expectations of everyone else! I'm doing it my way! Why? Because I want to." In  a sense, he's right. But moreover, it's not that I am doing my work as I am just to be a rebel, but rather because I actually enjoy and love the work more when I do it in my own way. In fact, I think it is the only way for me to be able to produce or teach anything at all.

But now, as I prepare to enter my fourth year (and yeah.....I am still working on putting together my dissertation prospectus), I have entered a new stage in my graduate career, one that makes evident that I am steadily approaching the end of this journey. I still have a couple more years to go, but there's really only one more thing to do. Write the dissertation. And then what? Well, I guess go on the job market and try to get a one of those very rare, tenure-track jobs.

But for all the same reasons that I worried during those first two years about what it means to live a life in academia, I have some reservations about my future and to where this current path is leading. Is that all that is available for someone who has reached the end of formal training in reading, writing, and thinking? I realize that all of the people around me who have doctorate degrees in philosophy are professors, but aren't there people who have also earned their degrees and gone on to do other things? What do they do? What other options are out there? Without a very clear or bountiful set of answers to these questions, I have spent a good amount of time imagining what other things I could do with my life after graduate school. This morning (though there was nothing particularly unique about this morning, it just came up in conversation over breakfast) I allowed myself to say a couple of things that I have always tried hard to recognize and appreciate:

I love to teach and I want to keep teaching. But I don't know if that has to happen in a university, or if I really want to deal with all of the other (less pleasant stuff) that comes with that kind of job. If I could do absolutely anything, I think I would really love to teach philosophy in a more community-based setting and within a greater demographic range. Sure, I like college students. And it would be fun to go with a older-than-college-kids crowd and do philosophy with grown adults, but my real passion for philosophy compels me to go the other direction--to work with younger kids. Like kid kids, middle schoolers, and high school kids. Those years are some of the most formative times that I can remember, when your peers are more influential than your parents, and they can also be some of the most difficult of times. Especially for those who are going through a lot at those ages, who have to deal with a lot of "grown up" issues and face "real life" experiences but probably lack sufficient tools to help them make sense of their experiences, I think that philosophy can be a very rich resource for those tools.

The greatest value for me in practicing philosophy has been found in the confidence, strength, and empowerment that it has cultivated within me. As I have gained new insights on how to understand myself, others, and the world around me, I have also developed a voice that has enabled me to articulate my thoughts and describe my experiences. So I would love to teach philosophy in a way that encourages the development of minds, bodies, and voices of those who need to know, and embody, their own sense of strength, value, and significance. I want to help cultivate the skills that have so drastically shaped me in those whose voices need to be heard.

In short, practicing philosophy has literally changed my life. And I have changed as a result of that. Thanks to the texts written by innumerable others before me, and the guidance, conversations, and examples from my professors and peers around me, I have become who I am today, and I continue to grow and change. Philosophy has the capacity to make significant changes and powerful transformations. In those moments when I begin to question the importance of doing philosophy, I only have to remember that I am a testament to the powerful affect that philosophical practice can have on our lives and how we live them.

So when I finish my degree, yeah, I want to use it to teach.

On a side note about how people accidentally get into philosophy and what it's about for some contemporary intellectuals, here's the title sequence to a film by Phillip McReynolds (Penn State). 

AND. I really like this part of the film. If you're into it, go watch other clips from his film.