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.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Teaching for Transformation and the Transformation of Teaching

This is a presentation I did in August at the first Liberal Arts Scholarship and Technology Summit at Penn State University. I reflect on the work that I have been doing on YouTube and this blog. You can see the video I did just before this presentation on "Complex Human Interactions" here. (I'm reposting it now mostly for archiving purposes.)

Video streaming by Ustream

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Philosophers Can Be Fun(ny), Too!*

Tonight I finished reading Tina Fey's Bossypants, and yes, it's worth your time to read it. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you have other work you should be doing. Especially if you are depressed. Especially if you have to eat some food tomorrow.  Because it's not only very funny, but also very inspiring.

Before I had even finished the book I wanted to write a post about the little insert on pages 84-85 entitled, "The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat." I used to know these rules thanks to my brief stint with improv during high school when I was part of the theater freaks clique (yes, I used to call us that because theater people are weird, eclectic, and very often queer and those are all reasons for why they should be loved even more), but I was so happy to be reminded of them again because, as Tina notes, these are some good rules for life. They are:

1) Agree and Say "Yes", which means that you should respect what the other person has created and start with an open mind about where your scene will go.
2) Say "Yes, and...", which means that after agreeing you are to add something of your own. Don't be afraid to initiate and make your own contributions. They are worthwhile and will help keep things moving.
3) Make Statements, which means don't just ask questions about the scene, thereby putting extra pressure on the other person. Instead of simply raising questions and pointing out obstacles, be part of the solution.
4) There Are No Mistakes, only opportunities. Obviously, this means that what might be feared as a mistake could actually present the best opportunity for something really original, creative, and new. A happy accident. A new discovery, and something that could turn out to be really, really good.

If you stopped reading right now, I won't be hurt because if everyone lived by The Rules of Improv alone, the world would probably be a much better place. I envision a world with lots more collaboration and experimentation where statements that something is "random" or "awkward" would actually carry meaning again. (You should still buy the book though.)

If you are still reading because you are curious about what I finally decided to write upon finishing the book, well first, thank you for your perseverance. Second, I want to write about writing, philosophy, and how I wish I could be more funny like my friends. I'll start with the last one.

I have loads of funny friends. The handful of people from my high school theater clique with whom I am still in touch have, like me, gone to college and earned their degrees. Unlike me, they continued doing improv and sketch comedy over the past number of years, moved to big cities like Chicago and LA, and are really just a few laughs from the right people away from making it big time and living the dream. As a result of all that improvising, their levels of comedic timing and originality have undoubtedly exponentially eclipsed my own. (If you haven't heard of the Luke, Lee, and Matt Barats then I assure you that someday you will. And that someday is today, because now I expect for you to look up their respective stuff on YouTube.) Where they are acting and performing for live audiences multiple times a week, I have spent the years since high school graduation attending bigger and bigger universities while living in smaller and smaller towns, all the while reading dense (and mostly incredibly boring) philosophical texts from old men of centuries past. The only outlet for my humor is in poorly referenced jokes while teaching when I forget that my students are of the generation that was born in the early nineties, so they hardly know who Mel Gibson is or that "Willow" was actually a really scary movie. It makes me feel old and completely out of touch.
Over the years, while I have accumulated an ever-increasing library of books by dead people on things like death (so not funny...unless you pick any random page of Heidegger's Being and Time to read aloud and give a little chuckle at how utterly and ridiculously difficult it is to understand his writing (perhaps only philosophers will understand that reference, and perhaps that was actually Heidegger playing a joke on us that we're all just too dumb/take ourselves too seriously to get)), I have been fortunate enough to continue meeting more funny people. One of my friends is a super hip-artsy-cool lady who's rubbed elbows with the Groundlings peeps (think the cast of Bridesmaids if you are unfamiliar), who is now utilizing her openness for play in psychotherapy for kids. One of my other best friends' first response to the question, "What is the most important thing to you that you must share in common with your partner?" was that they needed to be able to play together, to act silly, to talk to one another in ridiculous voices. When I first met her, I walked into the living room of her one-bedroom apartment to find her making a fort while listening to The Sound of Music. Maybe that's not funny ha-ha, but it is fun-fun-fun-fun, especially for someone who at the time was twenty-four and a doctoral student.
She was also wearing this.
And finally, I tend to date really funny people. My boyfriend, who happens to also have some pretty hilarious friends, was singing Tenacious D's "F*** Her Gently" like a professional to a whole bar the night that we met. During our first real conversation with one another, we discovered that he was already familiar with some of my previously mentioned friends' videos on YouTube. I'm not surprised by this at all now given that he checks up on in the morning like it's the source for daily funny news, has introduced me to videos of  amazingly hilarious sketch comedy duos, would love to make a career out of doing his own sketch comedy if his band doesn't hit it big and he decides to not dig in people's mouths for money (I mean, he wants be a dentist, not that he doesn't know that picking pockets would be more lucrative), and he makes me laugh all of the time.

There are other funny people in my life, but I'll stop describing them here so that I don't make myself feel any worse about my decisions to become a perpetual academic nerd who hasn't had time to watch Billy Madison or Anchorman enough to laugh when my boyfriend quotes them or to know from experience that Modern Family is actually a really quality television show (I fake the latter when my grandmother talks to me about how great the show is, and when the former happens, I'm usually just met with countenances of subtle disappointment, mostly from myself to myself.) But before this turns into a pity party, let me quickly turn to the other two things I said I would talk about: writing and philosophy.

The short of what I am about to say in everything that follows is this: Perhaps it is the case that philosophy doesn't have to be boring and writing philosophy doesn't have to dry/tedious/painful/anxiety-producing, but perhaps reading philosophy, writing philosophy, and teaching philosophy can be fun....or even FUNNY.

Just because philosophy tends to be very "intellectual" doesn't mean that it's somehow above comedy--trust me, all of funny friends are as equally smart as they are hilarious. Nor is it the case that comedy can't address really important social and political issues--think of all the comedians who have been able to see the really effed up shiz in society and then make other people see it by getting them to first laugh at it (Two relevant examples most people recognize: Jon Stewart, whom I love, and his satirical counter-part, Stephen Colbert, whose early days on the Report proved how scary it is when Americans are unable to tell the difference between satire and right-wing neoconservativism. And don't forget my feminist, anti-racist, queer-mingling, even-less-bourgie-than-Fergie inspiration, Tina Fey. That's really why you should buy and read her book). Without saying that philosophy is not seriously valuable for personal and social change, perhaps there lacks an easily-identified or readily-produced overlap between philosophy and humor because philosophers often take themselves and what they do too seriously.

Fortunately, I can think of two exceptions, and they are not new names to appear on my blog. The first time I ever heard Charles Mills speak about his book, The Racial Contract (an extremely important book about very serious matters, mind you), he opened with a little routine about how, thanks to an epistemology of ignorance about the workings of global White Supremacy, one might be led to think that Africans, Native Americans, and everyone else in the world said, "Oh hello, White People! We are so happy to see you!" and then offered up their labor, their land, and everything else they had, like freedom and a quality of life, as a welcoming gift. Charles then noted how philosophy could perhaps be done a lot more like stand-up. I think that is a really good thought. If you've never been to a philosophy conference or heard someone give a philosophy talk (which actually means they just read aloud the paper they wrote in front of you for AN HOUR), then trust me on this. You would most definitely want it to be more like stand-up. I heard Charles give the same presentation about six months later. He opened with the same joke. It was still funny and his presentation was still a pleasure. And, truthfully, there are very few philosophy talks that I would actually enjoy sitting through a second time.  

The other funny philosopher who comes to mind is Ladelle McWhorter. Del is a philosophical role-model and inspiration to me in many, many ways (look around this blog and you will find her name everywhere), but one way that she inspires which I have not mentioned before is in how she writes her books. Like Charles, she's easy to listen to when she gives a paper, but like hardly anyone else, reading her writing is challenging, thought-provoking, inspiring, intensely philosophical, and really, really funny. Probably thanks to her Southern upbringing, Del can tell a great story. But it probably comes down to the simple combination of her terrific wit, honesty, and an unmatched willingness to speak in her own voice that makes Del's work so damn funny and fun to read. There are times when her sarcasm drips off of the page, and if one is diligent enough to check her footnotes, one quickly learns that footnotes can be so much more than places to put bibliographic references and self-indulgent digressions. They can turn reading philosophy into an activity that's more like a conversation with a really smart, but really weird friend. The kind of friend who throws strange tidbits of information in a story that aren't really necessary but that actually make the conversation way more interesting.

Charles and Del are two contemporary philosophers who make me laugh, and they are two who have been absolutely integral to my own ways of thinking about very important philosophical and political issues like racism and homophobia. And my man Nietzsche, well, he may have been really depressed and lonely, but he was also a syphilitic genius, and all of that together makes Ecce Homo a super entertaining read. Not just that, it's also the book where Nietzsche sheds the most clarifying light on what he was up to in all of his previous works. And one thing that is often mentioned about my other philosophical homeboy, Foucault, is that he would laugh in response to a lot of questions people would ask him about his work and what we should do. He read Nietzsche. I read them both. And I think there's a reason for my affinity towards them because, while I would never feel comfortable saying that I am the funniest person in the room, especially not when I'm with my friends and perhaps only if I'm the only one in the room, I would pretty comfortably guess that I might be the one who laughs the hardest, the loudest, and the most.


Why is that important?

Well, to show you how redundantly unoriginal I am (because I've already blogged about this a number of times before), Lynne Huffer writes, "As Nietzsche affirms, 'there seems to be nothing more worth taking seriously' than morality, a territory whose excavation will render the future rewards 'of a long, brave, industrious, and subterranean seriousness.' Among those rewards will be what Nietzsche names as cheerfulness. Such hope in cheerfulness is something Foucault and Nietzsche shared, as Deleuze reminds us in his description of Foucault's inimitable laughter. So perhaps the quintessentially Foucauldian cheerfulness of a self-shattering, life-affirming laughter will be the reward of a practice of thinking Nietzsche calls, in his own queer language, 'a gay science'" (Mad for Foucault, 186).

It's probably a consequence of being personally and philosophically influenced by the personalities and works of Charles Mills, Ladelle McWhorter, Nietzsche, and Foucault (not to mention all of my hysterical, non-philosopher friends), that I feel strangely comfortable with what some people have noted as my very "casual" style--which perhaps is a more polite way of noting that I have insisted on doing things (teaching/writing/philosophy in general) how I want to do them simply because I want to do them that way, regardless of how other people say one should do it. (There are other ways that people have described this attitude; put in terms of non-verbal communication, I think it involves thumbs or at least one finger.) Really, though, it's simply that I try to not take myself and academic philosophy too seriously, which again, doesn't mean that I don't think that academic philosophy can't do very important and meaningful work. I just mean that I think it's okay to have fun and enjoy it, too, and it may even be that doing so makes our philosophy better.


When I teach, I often....I mean, on a daily basis, I say really outrageous things to my students. In class, they laugh, I laugh, we laugh, and quite a lot actually (no, not all of my jokes are about Willow, and yes, sometimes I can craft a pretty witty little quip). I think that my approach to philosophy and my personal style helps make class fun, exciting, and engaging. I enjoy teaching, and I think that my students often enjoy learning about and doing philosophy with me. So I may not be doing improv in Chicago with the best of them, and I will probably never get to realize my childhood dream of being on Saturday Night Live, but that doesn't mean that I don't also have plenty of opportunities all of the time to practice being a funnier person. My students might not appreciate being the guinea pigs of my slow comedic development, but somebody else down the road might really appreciate that he or she didn't have to be the one to grimace and shake her or his head at all of my bad jokes. Sorry, reader, you're still a part of the grimace and shake-head audience of the  present. 

I know, I still haven't gotten to the bit on my own writing yet.

If it isn't obvious by now, and I think it really ought to be, I am seriously considering the possibilities for how to write philosophy in a way that mimics how I teach philosophy. I've noted before that I can write on this blog in one sitting for hours on end without hitting the walls of my writer's block, and that maybe I could just write my dissertation in pieces on here (kind of like what started to happen with this post). But I was probably putting too much emphasis on the formatting differences between the encouraginly small-ish text box that I see when posting here on my blog and the blank Word document that spans the monitor screen when I sit to write my "real" work. Maybe it's less a matter of what medium invites my writing and more a matter of how I write at all.

When I teach my class, I'm totally myself. I'm a whole person and I let my students see that. I'm honest, I make mistakes, and actually, my best classes are often when I don't prepare lectures but instead improvise to facilitate discussions after my students give their presentations. When I write, though, I often feel restricted by what is "appropriate" in terms of structure, voice, style, and language. I usually feel disconnected from my academic papers when I go back and read them again months later. They hardly ever sound like me (and yeah, I even think that they can be pretty boring).

So here I sit, having read Tina Fey tonight and not enough on theories of affect, having written almost 3,000 words in one sitting and hardly any at all in the past week and a half on my (still not enough to even be called a sufficient rough draft of a) dissertation prospectus, but also feeling really inspired and excited about philosophy. What's a girl like me to do, huh?

*In case you didn't know, the use of parenthesis to create a play on words and meanings in the title or body of a philosophical piece is now commonly employed and widely considered a mark of one's complexity of thought, of one's affiliation with the traditions of post-structuralism or feminist theory, or simply as evidence of one's desperate desire to prove that she can be clever, too, just as clever as her non-philosopher friends.