Productivity?

As the years go on, I see the false idol of long hours. Long hours, when meaningfully deployed are great, but so often quantity takes the place of quality. I worked x hours, instead of getting x done. Or in its more haunting form, I still have time and work to do today, so I can’t rest.

I think of a distinction raised in Sogyal Rinpoche’s Tibetan Book of Living and Dying between what I call lazy laziness v. busy laziness. Lazy laziness refers to what we normally consider lazy: the archetypal the couch potato, the binging of Castle reruns, the downing of Atomic-Fire-Lazer-Charged chips. Busy laziness refers to the layering on of hours that ultimately distract us from more meaningful activities, simply exhausting us until we pick back up the next day to do the same thing, ad infinitum. Though I think we rarely fall in either extreme, that spectrum has followed me through the years.

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Return (for now)

Hey all, it’s been a while. Though I’ve kept blogging on a school-based site, the nature of the blogging has been more academic, mostly reaction to readings or conferences. It wasn’t the sort of writing I was doing here.

But I think I’ve come to miss this space. Primarily for three reasons. First, it’s a chance to voice my thoughts in a public setting that is a more involved than most social media. It’s uncanny, for example, that my last post before the hiatus was about gun control, since the news of the Orlando shooting has left me blank and sort of shell shocked without a space to vocalize anything. The echo of the news is sort of reverberating in my body and thoughts but not really going anywhere. I’m not ready to talk about it, but I need a space to just sort of say that. That I am literally sickened and dazed at the news and can’t seem to figure out next steps or previous steps or any steps at all. This blog used to be that space, and I guess it is today.

Second, while I’ve been doing a lot of writing, I’ve been writing in a vacuum. True, I’ve been writing to peers and professors, occasional strangers, and fellow academics at conferences, but I miss a public place interface with an audience on a semi-regular basis outside of academia. Not a big one. Or a constant one, likely. But someone. Because I miss the sense that now and then my writing was doing something. It was a small something, but the occasional thank you message or thought was more nourishing than I gave it credit.

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Some thoughts about Objects and Expression

Source: Food for the Hungry
Source: Food for the Hungry

I’ve been thinking a lot about objects lately. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that touched on a few of these ideas. At the moment, a friend and I are working on a panel proposal for the CCCC conference next April, centering the proposal around our object-centered and thing-related interests.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the relationship between people and our tools and interfaces.

A lot of this comes back to Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), in which Heidegger sketches out an ontological landscape that maps all the “beings” that “are” and how “being” expresses itself more generally. Breaking down the abstractions, at one point, Heidegger uses the example of a hammer.

When we first encounter a hammer, it is “ready-to-hand” for the most part, meaning that we encounter it as a tool in use. We associate hammers with hammering. This defines the hammer, making it intelligible to people and to the world at large. This contrasts with “present-at-hand,” which places the being of the hammer in a more speculative, observed frame. With “present-at-hand,” I am studying the hammer, observing the smooth maple handle, running my hands along the metal hooks that pry. I may balance the weight. But I am detached in a sense.

In short, “ready-to-hand” defines the hammer as one uses it; “present-at-hand” defines the hammer more abstractly as a series of properties.

Tool-Being (2002) by Graham Harman takes up Heidegger’s broader outlook on these issues to explore the being of the tool more directly, becoming a flagship book in “object-oriented ontology.”

But I want to go back to the tools, back to the “things themselves” as Husserl would put it, being careful of the sort of interface  or relationship that develops as people encounter the tools. This may sound a little out there, but digging into this gritty, abstract question may have pretty dynamic consequences.

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Brain Vats and Jaegers

Hey all. The philosophy club that I help out with at school has a weekly column now in the paper, so in place of my usual post today, I figured I would send a link to that to give it some traffic. It also is much along the same things I normally write about, so it fits well here.

Here is the link. Feel free to comment here or the school paper page, if you do wish to leave a comment. You may also e-mail a question to SBUPhilosophyClub@gmail.com. (I made a mistake with the e-mail in the piece, but there is the correct one right below).

The piece centers on reality: essentially, can we trust our sense or our mind? Until next week!

The need for philosophy

I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

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Would Kant do the Ice Bucket Challenge?

Most of you are probably familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Celebrities have taken part, including Bill Gates, and it’s been filling social media.

But for those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s pretty simple: when challenged, you either dump ice water on your head or donate $100 or ALS research and treatment. Many donate the money regardless, but if you do dump the ice water, you can challenge three more people, giving them 24 hours to comply. In effect, it goes like this:

The goal, besides raising money, is to spread awareness. The viral quality of the campaign has proven particularly effective, raising over $100 million dollars, according to this article from Aug. 15, and bringing ALS to the forefront of the public sphere. It is a brilliant viral campaign, seeming to make a positive difference.

But for some the project feels too public, too self-broadcasting. It reeks of shallow millennial-led narcissism and low-effort activism, where over-rich Americans throw cold water on themselves, film it, send it to the world, and think it constitutes “help.”

Well, despite some reservations, I think it does.

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Simplicity

I apologize for not posting lately. I’ve been moving into school and prepping for the semester. I have a post in mind that I hope to write soon, but in the meantime, I wanted to post a video that I come to now and then: Alain de Botton’s take on Epicurus.

Epicurus and the “Epicurean” way of life has taken an odd turn through the ages, earning the connotation that it’s easy, hedonistic, and pleasure-focused. We have Epicurean.com, for example, which is all about food. It often contrasts Stoicism’s emphasis on endurance and austerity with a fat, easy life of comfort and self-gratification.

Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]
Oh, the decadence! [Image from Epicurean Life]

But, as you can probably expect, the original Epicurus and his followers were not nearly so “epicurean” and had much in common with their rival school, the Stoics, in ways of general beliefs and lifestyles. Both wanted the good life and both emphasized that one’s behavior required a certain logic and virtue in order to find it. Moreover, both emphasized simplicity.

For Epicurus and his philosophy, one of the key means to this happiness was simplicity. Simply your life, he might say, and you have less to fret over. A bit like Thoreau’s philosophy with Walden: strip life to its must fundamental points, and you can live it with fewer distractions, getting more out of it. Or as he famously put it:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

"Live deliberately" in this replica of Thoreau's cabin
“Live deliberately” in this replica of Thoreau’s cabin [Image from Wikipedia]

Epicurus also wanted to “reduce [life] to its lowest terms,” emphasizing fundamentals like friendship, freedom, meaningful tasks, and time to reflect. He ate simply, preferring water, bread, and vegetables over wine and and banquets. He also worked hard. But he kept those fundamental “pleasures,” like friendship, nearby.

Epicurus and Thoreau are not alone in this perspective. It’s common to many religions and many self-help guides–from the mundane to the truly helpful. The Buddha, for example, has a famous story in which a farmer interrupts his teaching to ask if they have seen his cows. The farmer is fretting and saying he might kill himself if he can’t find them. The Buddha cannot help. When the man walks away, the Buddha tells his followers how lucky they are that they do not have to worry over such things. For him, the greatest possession is freedom.

Currently moved into my townhouse, I have a very simple arrangement–few decorations, the basics in kitchen, clothes, and hygiene. I’m sure I’ll acquire more, especially as my fellow suite-mates move in, but for now I must content myself with these and seek out other, deeper pleasures. We shall see how that goes. But for now, I’ll remember Epicurus:

Dada, anyone?

Dadaism may be one of the slipperiest and most deliberately annoying movements of modern art. It’s the sort of”art” that draws the rolled eyes, shaking heads, and remonstrating fingers of skeptics. One can see Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “Art,” but making the same case for this “sculpture” is a little difficult:

1964 Replica of Duchamp's "The Fountain" (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]
1964 Replica of Duchamp’s “The Fountain” (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]

This piece is from Marcel Duchamp, representing his Dadaist “ready-made” art. For these pieces, Duchamp simply took everyday objects, here a urinal, and slapped them with a signature or set them up as art with little to no effort.

Other pieces, like this collage by Hannah Hoch required more effort but resulted in a mishmash bricolage dissolving into irreverent chaos, not a balanced aesthetic masterpiece:

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]

As one can expect, the Dadaists challenged conventions. But why? As one can see from the dates of these pieces, 1917 and 1919, respectively, Dada was an early 20th Century movement of avant-garde, in the midst and aftermath of WWI.

This timing is no coincidence. The “War to End all Wars” created a climate of despair and anxiety for many intellectuals. High death tolls, mutual destruction on both sides, little political gain, and an economic depression that brutalized Europe–these cracked the facade of meaning and progress that had kept Europe pumping through the 19th Century.

Artists responded by doing the same with art. New pieces were deliberately anti-aesthetic, challenging and breaking rules of taste or logic. Meaning crumbled into collage. The artistic genius simply found readymade pieces or compiled cut-and-paste poetry. Irreverence, obscuration, and the subconscious–not reason –became guiding principles. The name itself, though of uncertain origins, signified this, with its playful sound and French meaning of “hobbyhorse.”

Many Dadaists, especially in Germany, were also political. Manifestos, public gatherings, and magazines, like the infamous 291 by Francis Picabia, spread the message and hoped to change the world, redrawing it in more Dadaist lines. It was a way of life for many, not just a style, and influenced many fields.

Inevitably, this leads to the “so what” question. Here, one could put it even more bluntly: Were the Dadaists a bunch of overly educated cranks or heroic geniuses?

While they proved instrumental to the avant-garde, still felt in art and philosophy today, Dadaism’s deeper relevance, I think, came from their inclusion of irreverence and counter-discourse into the public sphere. In a modern world that often tries to articulate what something is, like art, the Dadaists tried to show art that was both art and anti-art, voiding traditional categories. This matters because categories can often oppress or limit.

Here, the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu helps clarify. Bourdieu’s work often references the role of “doxa,” a term he draws from another sociologist, and  aesthetic taste. Doxa are habits that fly below our scrutiny because they seem so natural and obvious–even universal. But as Bourdieu argues, they are socially constructed.

Matters of taste, i.e. a person’s ability to discuss beauty in a seemingly disinterested manner, provides an example. People in wealthier, upper- and middle-class homes gradually acquire the correct doxa to make aesthetic claims through exposure to art, etiquette, criticism, and general conversation about elite topics. Others don’t. Then, as adults, those with the doxa can make rules about sophistication or taste–whether in language or movies–excluding those who can’t. And since such doxa remain invisible, they have no reason to doubt their perspective.

Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]
Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]

But as the Dadaists and other irreverent composers show, such rules are often transient and empty. They can be broken, sometimes to brilliant, comical effect. With this in mind, we shouldn’t try to impose matters of taste on those who “lack it,” flaunting a refined love for theater as a passport for pretentiousness. Instead, we should strive to see what’s aesthetic in the non-aesthetic. Or, as some argue, we should just see it as a form of pleasure.

Along with this, the Dadaists also vitalize humor. The role of humor, can be a key tool in moving an audience and inspiring social change. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Moreover, humor can breakdown the seriousness of a debate so an agenda stalls. At times, this is a problem, but having a plurality of discourse, including anti-discourse, can challenge power structures, keeping them from too dominant.

For example, as I noted in my post on hashtags, the #McDStories campaign suffered after irreverent composers took this readymade hashtag to mock McDonalds with stories of bad experiences. This brought to light a fuller, more truthful “story” and challenged the authority of McDonald’s, a huge company, with the irreverence of scrappy Tweeps.

Or, at the very least, the Dadaists are simply fun and fascinating to learn about, as this documentary, Europe after the Rain, shows. Just as their pieces are the dappled, awkward rebels of the art world, their own story proves colorful and oddly insightful.

Existential Comics

I’ll be going on a trip today for about a week, so I won’t be posting. In the meantime, on the lighter side, here’s a link to one of my favorite sites, “Existential Comics.” It’s always good for a laugh. This comic, though not as timely as it could have been, remains one of my favorites: World Cup Philosophy

I suppose you can read this in tandem with Monty Python’s “Philosopher Football” for the full effect of philosophy on the pitch.

Cheers.

[Image from University of Glasgow]
[Image from University of Glasgow]