Friday, November 3, 2017

Foucault Friday

Probably not the start of a series, but you never know. 

Michel Foucault The Order of Things: An Archaeology of theHuman Sciences Vintage Books, New York, 1994, p. xv.

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought — our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography — breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which it is written that "animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off" look like flies". In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that.

But if you could just see the beauty

My wife has started working on Saturdays and Sundays, which for a while left me stuck at home with not much to do. Until I realized I could go out and watch movies, so that's what I've done the last two Sundays. I've talked about Kingsman 2, but most recently I saw Loving Vincent, which is also good, though quite different.

This is one to see on a big screen, if at all. What I liked about it most is some of the quotations from Van Gogh given near the end of the film. Here's one:
Work is going quite well – I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold.
The idea of death as a reaper is hardly new, but death with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold, and nothing sad in it, is a beautiful idea. If it isn't a lie.

Here's another, which reminded me of Joy Division:
What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart. That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion. Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.
Finally, this idea of walking to the stars reminded me of Wittgenstein talking about going to the moon and a rose having teeth:
Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map.
Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kingsman and politics

Perhaps I was just in the right mood for it, but I loved the first Kingsman movie when I saw it recently. It's fast-paced, stylish*, and funny, a bit like what you might get if Quentin Tarantino directed a James Bond film. [Spoilers from now on.] About half a second later, though, I realized how, shall we say, alt right it is. Let me count the ways:
  1. the only major black character is also the major villain
  2. his sidekick is played by someone from Africa, and is also the only disabled person in the film
  3. the bad guys are extreme environmentalists
  4. the good guys are an organization of highly privileged, almost all male, and all white, British people
  5. when they realize that their lack of diversity is hurting them, they recruit a member of the white working class  
  6. he supports Millwall
  7. it ends with a sexist joke 
  8. there is almost certainly more that I'm forgetting
Thankfully the sequel, though spoiled by some unconvincing CGI, including the terrible idea of killer robot dogs, is much better from a political point of view. The villain is a woman drug-dealer, so once again just the kind of person that neo-Nazis would hate, the heroes include a good old boy or two from Kentucky, and the main hero is once again our white working class Englishman fighting for the otherwise completely posh British Kingsman organization. Also, the film is banned in Cambodia because of its disrespectful (but not physically damaging) treatment of temples there. And yet:
  1. the guy who repeatedly stops a black woman rising within the Kentuckian organization turns out to be a baddy
  2. the recreational use of drugs is presented as unwise but innocent
  3. a Donald Trump-style President tries, with support from at least one military officer, to "win the war on drugs" by letting the villain kill almost all users of illegal drugs worldwide, which is presented as unambiguously evil and leads to his arrest and removal from office
  4. Elton John features as a a comical but also somehow heroic figure (although there is also a questionable joke about him at the end too)  
  5. our hero has several close, black friends
  6. the woman who was before a prisoner he would not release unless she gave him a kiss (and who went on to offer her body as if it were an object for his pleasure) is now his girlfriend and seems free to decide what she wants to do    
There is some other dubiousness, e.g. Fox News features heavily, but mostly the film does not leave you picking swastikas out of your teeth after watching it. Which is a relief.  

Now they just need to find a way to combine the best of the two. I hope that's possible.

*It's not actually that stylish, but I've seen reviews describing it that way, and I suspect part of the reason I like it is that it looks (relatively) good.

Halloween playlist



Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Pigs? In there?

Russell B. Goodman writes, in his paper "Thinking about Animals: James, Wittgenstein, Hearne," that:
Three  years  after  he  published  the Principles  of  Psychology,  James published an anonymous letter in a French newspaper that shows a different  attitude  towards  animals  than  that  of  the  thirty-one-year old medical doctor who defended vivisection. He writes (in French, my  translations  here)  of  walking  daily  past  a  large  masonry  box  in which  a  local  farmer  keeps  his  pigs. It  is  a  sight,  he  writes,  the memory  of  which obsesses  him,  “as  the  poor  animals  are buried alive in a kind of tomb”. The box has one opening at the top to let in air;  another  with  a  lid  that  is  opened  to  throw  in  food.   “When one  imagines  what  the  air  and  darkness  in  this  tomb  must  be”, James  writes,  “and  when  one  thinks  that  its  inhabitants  are  buried all  their  lives,  except  for  the  moment  when  they  are  taken  out  to have  their  throats  cut,  one  must  avow  that  there  is  cruelty  here,  if  not  active,  at  least  passive  and  unreflective  by  men  governed  by ignorance,  routine,   the  refusal  to  think”.  “What  a  destiny”,  he continues, “for a living being for whom the air and the light are the source  of  well  being  as  much  as  they  are  for  us!   Each  time  that  I take a walk again in the magnificent weather we have been having, I see this species of grave where the poor beasts are entombed, and it darkens all my pleasure” (James 1987a: 141). James sees the pigs as fellow creatures who deserve their time on earth, in the light and air. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

How (not) to teach philosophy

I went into reading this blog post (by a non-philosopher) on how to teach Heidegger expecting the worst. I didn't find it, but I do think there are problems. The motivating question behind the post is how to apply lessons from The New Education to teaching a class on Heidegger (no more information provided on what from Heidegger is being taught, what the course is, etc.). Cathy Davidson, author of  the blog post and the book in question, champions:
innovators [who] are breaking down barriers between ossified fields of study, presenting their students with multidisciplinary, real-world problems, and teaching them not just how to think, but how to learn.  
So, how to apply this exciting, disruptive (yes I'm rolling my eyes) approach to philosophy? Davidson suggests the following:
  1. Identify twenty keywords in the essay by Heidegger that you are assigning for the class, giving one of these words to each of the forty students in the class. Their job is to write what they think the word means, and to bring this definition to class. They get credit for trying, regardless of whether they get it right, but not if they don't try. Each student reads their definition to the class, then they get together with the other student who had the same word, compare notes, and then jointly compose a definition they are both happy with. Then they read this to the whole class. You can then collect these written definitions and, if you want, give a lecture during the remaining time.
  2. Begin the class by having each student read aloud the one sentence from the Heidegger essay that "they are still thinking about," which they are to have copied out. That's it--this exercise (as far as I can see) is all reading and listening.
  3. Think pair share (I always want to add 'care' to the list somewhere): You ask a question and then give the students 90 seconds to write down an answer. They get into pairs and read what they have written to each other. Then they have another two minutes at most to talk about it and write down a revised answer. Then you go around the room and one person (chosen at random) from each pair reads their answer.
  4. Before they leave the class students have 90 seconds to write down either the one idea from the class that "will keep them up at night" or that should have been talked about and that would have kept them up all night. These are handed to the instructor at the end of the class.
In all of this you are not supposed to tell anyone they have got something wrong, but you can praise right or good ideas. 
Some of the problems that occur to me in connection with all this have to do with numbers. Heidegger is something of a keywords kind of guy, but not every philosopher is. What if there really don't seem to be twenty key words or phrases in the reading you assign? Another mathematical problem is that step 1 seems as though it could take up the whole class. The definitions are meant to be 100-200 words long, which is about half a page. So it could take one minute for each student to read their definitions. That's 40 minutes total. And they still have to pair up, revise, and read out twenty new definitions. I don't think there would be time for a lecture after this.

Perhaps more to the point, what if you want students to get more out of Heidegger's work than definitions of key terms? Or what if none of them get the definition right? Or the credit available (this work is not for an actual grade) is so negligible that significant numbers of students don't even try to get it right?

I don't mean to be completely cynical. Something like this, probably with far fewer key words, could be useful. And Davidson encourages people to adapt and experiment with her ideas. But there are serious problems that she seems to be overlooking.

I have actually tried something like idea 2. In a course on world religions, I had each student read out a passage from a religious text that had struck them and to explain briefly what they thought was interesting about it. It was pretty much a disaster. Students did not want to listen to each other's thoughts, partly because the thoughts in question were very often obviously insincere, the passages having been chosen simply to complete the required exercise. I don't do this any more.

Idea number 3 strikes me as facing related problems. Is 90 seconds long enough to answer any worthwhile philosophical question? Would Heidegger think so? And when an undergraduate discusses their answer with another undergraduate, aren't the blind leading the blind?

Idea number 4 could be worth trying, because it's good to know what your students are thinking or getting out of a course. But a depressingly large number of people saying that absolutely nothing from the class would keep them up at night is surely highly predictable. Actually, honesty about this might not be depressing. But lots of "nothing"s would make the exercise a bit pointless.

It is perhaps telling to see what Davidson expects this kind of thing to achieve:
I promise, you will never have a more alert, engaged, livelier class on Heidegger.
(Her italics.) As she points out, if students are not engaged they will learn nothing. That's true. But is engagement itself the goal of teaching? And would these exercises even work in that sense? Davidson promises that "we know" they will. But what works with one group of students, or when done by one instructor, or with one text, might not work with another. I haven't found this kind of thing to work with the material I teach to my students. I've also observed lots of other people teaching, and I have never come away thinking that I ought to try, for instance, think pair care share. That isn't just because of my grumpy cynicism. I simply have not observed the kind of lively engagement that Davidson promises.

Here's another possible benefit to the new education:
statistically, minoritized students will be represented and we know that can be life-changing
This is a fair point. There are reasons to try to get all students involved in class more or less equally, ensuring that discussion is not dominated by white men, for instance. But there are other ways to do this, such as calling on students who have not yet spoken in class or making everyone do a presentation of some fairly polished work (to avoid the blind-leading-the-blind problem).

One last reason to adopt Davidson's approach:
You have great starting places for your next lecture or discussion or assignment: you have a way to see what they understand, what they don't, what they are missing, what matters to them, what does or does not make Heidegger "count" in their lives, what they are passionate about.
This is another good point, it seems to me. Some form of Davidson's methods would be a good way to find out what students understand and what they don't, what they care about and what they don't. But that's a starting point, not an end in itself. With a philosopher as difficult as Heidegger I think you would have to do some lecturing, or whatever we want to call explaining to students things they don't already understand (since 'lecturing' is becoming a dirty word). And with a subject like philosophy, in which you want students to develop certain kinds of skills, I think you would have to have them do work that requires more than writing 150 words or speaking for a minute or so at a time. Which is all to say that ideas like Davidson's are worth listening to, but should be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Why does any of this matter? Because the idea that everybody should be teaching in Davidson's kind of way is very widespread. And that means pressure, some subtle, some less so, is put on instructors to practice this kind of teaching, sometimes by people who understand work like Davidson's well, sometimes by people who merely think they do. Which means the world could use more critical thinking about such ideas. Which in turn means that the experience of instructors and the expertise of people in specific disciplines should not be ignored by colleagues from other disciplines, by administrators, or by assessment types.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

New music

I usually have an album or two of the summer, if not here then on my phone. But Saint Etienne being Betjeman-ish didn't seem to warrant a blog post, and Alvvays didn't release their new album until September. Now, though, there are a coupe of albums that seem worth spreading the word about. One, not quite out yet, is by Makthaverskan, who usually sound like an idealized version of Siouxsie and the Banshees but here sound more like Alvvays.

The other tests the hypothesis that the more people are like me the more I like their music. The Granite Shore are middle-aged Brits who have done a whole album of moaning about Brexit. Not very promising, perhaps, but I've had this song stuck in my head for weeks, and I like the rest of the album too. (Fun fact: Phil Wilson, formerly of The June Brides, is in the band, made this video, and once emailed me. End of brag.)