a night at elaine’s

Reading Ian McEwan’s piece in the New York Times on the passing of his friend Christopher Hitchens, I am transported to a night many years ago when my friend Jonathan Tasini invited me to join him for dinner with Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham and friends one evening in New York. And so we gathered at the famous restaurant, Elaine’s, at a nice round table in the middle of the room: Lewis Lapham, his good friend Christopher Hitchens, “Hitch’s” girlfriend (and subsequent wife) Carol Blue, someone rather pompous from the New York Observer, Jonathan, and me, with Elaine hovering around to check on “Louie.” Clearly she was as delighted to have him and his friends there as we were all delighted to be there. There was much drink, great food, and amazing and rowdy and boisterous conversation. I didn’t know how they could all drink so much and still be so brilliant. The night ended hazily, gray, with us all reluctantly leaving the warm restaurant for cold streets and taxis home.  But the warmth of that night will never leave me.

The restaurant Elaine’s closed its doors last May, and now Hitch has taken leave of us too.  If there’s a heaven and he finds himself in it, I’m sure he’ll be really pissed. Brilliant man, Mr. Hitchens, I miss you already.

Action 2.0

I am coming to see that Marshall McLuhan’s mantra, “the medium is the message,” is true today in a whole new way.  In his day, the mass medium showed the world as a global village that one could only watch. Big broadcasting nailed home the message that people are passive bystanders and that the only action that could change that was mass action that might or not be picked up by mass media.

The first generation of the Internet did little to change that.  There was more opportunity and ways for individual one-to-one communication (email) or one-to-many communication (corporate web sites) but only e-mail listserves allowed for many-to-many communication, but only for the group subscribed.

Beginning in about 2005, Web 2.0 — with social media software as well as software for blogging and creative production (music, art, magazines) — exponentially increased space for many-to-many communication.  It also brought new conceptions of production and action.  Anyone could be a producer; no intermediary stood in the way (unless your web site gets hacked or blocked).  The new norm is that anyone can initiate action.

That translates into a different conception of citizenship, civic agency that doesn’t have to wait on authority, whether the authority of a group’s elected officials or the authority of a vetter.  This morning’s NYT’s piece on the new “literary cubs” perfectly illustrates this phenomenon.  Rebuffed or turned off by the literary establishment, they started their own venue, offline and online, creating a space for their own work and a new audience for it.  The Occupy Movement has worked along the same lines with activists acting on their own authority to take over a park or block a government building.

The key thing here is they act on their own authority, much as the real meaning of citizenship conveys: a citizen is someone who can call a meeting.  If you have to ask for permission, you’re not a citizen.

Many in my generation just don’t get this.  They still have libidinal relationships with their leaders (see Vamik Volkan’s Bloodlines), whether love or hate, and seem to think that any independent action is a political rebuke.  In a way, it is.  But it’s not a rebuke of the legitimacy of leaders; it’s a rebuke of the idea that members, citizens, people should wait for permission to act.

Many in my generation criticized the Occupy Movement for not having a plan, a list of demands, more central lines of authority, as if the power of the movement is the power to push back.  They miss the power of collective action to create a space of appearance, a “who” that is we imbued with the message that we can act.

Gendered Conference Campaign Continues

You’d think that by now philosophy conference organizers would stop and think — if all my keynoters are white men, might there be a wee bit of a problem?

I have to think about this all the time as associate editor of the Kettering Review.  We put together issues by topic and include pieces ancient and contemporary, some reprinted, others published first by us.  Often the first pieces that come to our attention are written by those who have had easier access to the world of letters, generally men of European ancestry.  But any one of our  issues is always much stronger for seeking out the pieces written by people from the rest of the planet.

So, kudos to the Feminist Philosophers’ Gendered Conference Campaign for keeping us appraised of all those oblivious ones who keep churning out conferences featuring men only.

The favorites’ favorites — another round of PGR rankings of continental philosophy

I see that Brian Leiter has posted a preview of the five 20th century continental programs that his reviewers like best, certainly all fine programs: Columbia University; Georgetown University; University of California, Riverside; University of Chicago; and University of Notre Dame. I wasn’t surprised by the absence of “spep-ish” departments, as the bleiterites are wont to put it, for it is rare that a “spep-ish” continental philosopher serves as an evaluator. (Never mind that the big tent called the Society for Phenomenology and Existentialist Philosophy is the second largest philosophical society in North America, next to the American Philosophical Association, and, I would hazard, the largest continental philosophy society in the world. So to call a program with strengths in continental philosophy “spep-ish” is like calling any program in philosophy “apa-ish”  —  it’s practically trivial.)

(Also, I am not at all surprised by the omission of the Emory University program for we simply do not participate in the rankings.)

I have long argued that the fatal flaw of these reports is that the evaluators do not represent a cross-section of the field.  So, to try to make this point a bit more pointedly, take a look at the names of the 24 evaluators for 20th Century Continental Philosophy programs:

James Bohman, Steven Crowell, Maudemarie Clark, David Dudrick, Gordon Finlayson, Max de Gaynesford, Charles Guignon, Gary Gutting, Beatrice Han-Pile, Scott Jenkins, Pierre Keller, Michelle Kosch, Brian Leiter, Dean Moyar, Stephen Mulhall, Brian O’Connor, Peter Poellner, Bernard Reginster, Michael Rosen, Joseph Schear, Iain Thomson, Georgia Warnke, Mark Wrathall, Julian Young.

This is a great group, including many I personally know and admire.  But let me explain how it does not at all represent a cross-section of philosophers doing work in 20th Century Continental Philosophy.  I took a couple hours this evening to consult the websites and phil papers sites, etc. of members of this group, and made notes of what areas they worked in — in their own words.

Only three-quarters specialize in any area of 20th Century Continental Philosophy. (Unless I am mistaken, Maudemarie Clark, Max de Gaynesford, Scott Jenkins, Michelle Kosch, Brian Leiter, and Dean Moyar have specialties elsewhere, but not here.)

There is a solid group doing work in existentialism, phenomenology, and critical theory, but only four of the 24 specialize in post-1968 French philosophy.  Of those four, only two of the 24 evaluators (Stephen Crowell and Charles Guignon) profess to have any expertise on any of the major thinkers of French poststructuralism after Foucault.

Nietzsche scholars were very well represented (nine of 24), including many who have been published by or with the author of the reports.

So for students interested in the full range of important work in 20th Century Continental Philosophy, especially work post-1968, I encourage a trip to the library, not to the PGR.

the responsibility of being a woman in philosophy

As i’ve posted before, the website inviting people to report what it’s like to be a woman in philosophy is a huge gift.  In many places, apparently, it sucks. I gather especially in those “Leiterrific” departments that see themselves as doing hard core philosophy.   Hmmmm.

I know it can be awful, intimidating, and all that.  But I dare say than anyone complaining on the “what it’s like” blog also needs to be complaining to your university ombudsman and the local police.  If you are too afraid to rock the boat for your own career, then you are, I fear, part of the problem.

[This post has been slightly edited in light of anon grad student’s comment below.]

Notes from Advancing Publicly Engaged Philosophy Conference

I am only now catching my breath — in between teaching and before I head off to my next conference — to stop and reflect on the Public Philosophy Network’s first conference.  Never mind the bias that I was a co-chair.  I just helped throw the party.  But the party glittered because of everyone who really helped create it.   It was fabulous, with participants ranging from graduate students doing amazing public philosophy work via youtube (e.g Cori Wong) and in poetry slams in NYC (Travis Holloway) to renowned philosophers working on climate change and poverty (Thomas Pogge and Henry Shue) as well as journalists E.J. Dionne and Hannah Rosen, political theorists Bill Galston and Mark Sagoff, Penn State’s Anita Allen, and more than a hundred other amazing people.

Here are some of my notes, which I also posted here.

We had roughly 150 people registered and, in the midst of the conference, reached a milestone of having 500 members in the network.

The most exciting thing about the conference was its participatory nature, with one full day of collaborative workshops followed by another day of interactive panel sessions.  On the workshop day, I attended Vance Rick’s and Mark Fisher’s workshop on social media and ethics.  It was lively, especially with lots of great provocations from participants about the need for both walls and bridges in cyberspace and how to maintain both at the same time.  In the afternoon I attended Chris Long and Cori Wong’s session on philosophy and the digital public.  This session was a little more formal, with both organizers giving short presentations.  Both were followed with great conversation.  And in the end we tried to create a social media product and learned a lot about the fruits of collaboration.

Altogether there were 15 workshops the first day, and I heard great reports all over.  The next morning I facilitated a plenary on the outcomes of that workshop and pushed my own pet concern to interrogate the meaning of “public philosophy.” We heard from people who took part in lots of workshops, including philosophy in the city; collaborative research; academics stand against poverty; and feminist bioethics.

The rest of that second full day was taken up with panels, which, at their best were highly participatory. I really enjoyed the session on “eating in public” put on by an interdisciplinary team at Michigan State University.  Actually, this was a presentation of a paper written by four authors.  Each took five minutes to explain his or her own aspect, then for the Q&A they turned the table and asked the audience questions.  At the end of the day I  attended a session organized by Elizabeth Minnich that asked wonderful big questions about what we have all learned from doing this kind of work.  The panelists started but then the question went all the way around the room.

In short, this conference modeled a new way of thinking about philosophy.  It was not at all an exercise in “applied philosophy.”  It was an exploration of engaged philosophy where we could all think about what is public in our work and what being public means for doing philosophy.

For others’ notes, go here here here and here

Helen Foley (School Teacher)

Helen Foley died in 1998 and I didn’t even know it.  Not a month has passed without me thinking of what came of her and I often went online to try to find out, but nothing ever surfaced.  But now tonight I looked again and here rises to the surface a death notice 13 years old that says absolutely nothing about her life or whom she left behind.

I should contact Rice University to find out if she ever finished the dissertation she was writing on film in the English department 20 years before anyone did that and while she was teaching full-time at my school, Sharpstown Senior High, a school that later became so miserable that later George W Bush would make it his poster school for No Child Left Behind.

In a sea of kids with nothing much on their minds, some of us signed up for her “major works” English class.  She treated us all like geniuses, and we became a wee bit so.  She had us study Macbeth by way of watching John Huston’s, Kurosawa’s, and Orson Welles’ versions, over and over again, and then by reading the play outloud, then analyzing the Huston version scene by scene.  We formed the high school film society, and she got us all the equipment we needed so that we could film our own documentary (with actual film, back in that day). And I took on the job as camera man and went around the side of the building to film all the kids smoking dope and to ask them about it.  The result was a narrator-less narrative, so avant garde for a bunch of kids in the suburbs of Houston, Texas.

She taught us the Scarlet Letter, but she also taught us to write like like the 20th century demanded — no frou frou, no cliches, strong verbs, active voice, clean lines, and do it so that people actually feel what you are communicating.  I took this charge with me to the new Houston Public Library, all clean lines and bright structure, and tried to write a few lines like that building.  No cliches. One of the hardest things I ever did at 16.  One of the best.

She worried about kids like us.  I didn’t really know this until I came across the one article that pops up from her on JSTOR.  Here’s the first page:

To Sing the Street: Using a Community Film Program to Teach Composition

The English Journal © 1971 National Council of Teachers of English

Later in the decade that she wrote this, our little group showed up as her students.  I think she saw in us hope that her ideals might make contact with earth.  Maybe they did a little, but probably not a whole lot in her lifetime.  One of us went off to an elite college and bounced back the next year, unable to navigate the cultural divide.  Three years after high school I invited her to my downbeat apartment where I was finally starting college.  I was very happy to show her that one of us was actually going to college — at this big state U.  I can’t imagine what she was thinking, but she was very nice about it.

I don’t know who Helen left behind, but I can attest to this.  Helen pushed me forward.  If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.

I write this not so much to pat on the back all those tireless teachers out there but to recognize, and leave something behind, of this singular human being.  Adieu, dear Helen.

Breaking News: I Am Obama’s Mama…

according to a commentator on the very reputable (sic) fox news site:

just wanted to let some of you know about something i discovered and it has made me go hmmm i went in Ancestry.com and typed in Ann Dunham and there was some info came up with photos.there was the usual photos of Ms.Dunham where she is with her hand to her face holding sunglasses and then there was one photo that had a woman with short dark hair that was really nice looking and stated her name was Stanly ann Dunham.It was from Obamas family tree.This photo stuck in my mind and was i surprised when the other day i was surfing the web and i came across the photo of Ms Dunham with the short dark hair,but her name was not Dunham but Noelle Mcafee and she was a professor with a university.this really blew me away.i tried to research her but there is not much info on her other than her writings.is this ANN DUNHAM or did some of Obamas people put this photo out there to confuse us?i don’ t know.maybe someone can find the answers to these questions.i could not find very much info.hope you all will do better than me.

Funniest thing I’ve seen all day….

Full disclosure, I was born in Libya — on Wheeler AFB and…

BTW, Obama and I are the same age.

Public Philosophy Conference

Advancing Public Philosophy, a conference of the Public Philosophy Network, takes place October 6-8, 2011 in Washington, DC.  Keynote speakers and panelists include William Galston, E. J. Dionne, Elizabeth Minnich, Peter Levine, Thomas Pogge, Mark Sagoff, Marilyn Friedman, and Henry Shue. Andrew Light and I are co-chairing the conference.

The conference starts with a plenary at the Center for American Progress and continues with two full-day sessions at the Washington Plaza Hotel.  The first full day we’re holding concurrent workshops in the morning and afternoon with a maximum of 20 people in each workshop, on topics from climate change to social media ethics.   If you’d like to see the offerings and sign up to participate, check out this wiki.

The final day will include a mix of paper sessions and plenaries, including one on global poverty and the Millenium Development Goals.  The full program is available here.