On the Periphery in Crete

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I’m sitting on the porch of my family’s Cretan home, overlooking the city in the valley and the Aegean Sea beyond. I’ve been back here in Iraklion for a week, after four days in the Greek capital, Athens. As always, I’m finding the contrast between the two—Crete, the home of the Minoans, and Athens, the European metropolis, even if a poor cousin of Europe’s—jarring.

Back in my teens, during a visit to a museum in Crete, I read a note that said that Crete was the first European civilization. Even then that struck me as odd and wrong, not only because over a thousand years separated the Minoan era from the classical Greek one, but because Crete just did not feel European. It felt then and still feels now decidedly Mediterranean, not the Mediterranean of the Riviera but more like the Mediterranean of Beirut, more continuous with the silk road heading east than the empire that became Europe.

The note in the museum is, I think, a product of the narrative and phantasy of the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, who dug up Knossos and claimed it as a precursor of European civilization. Europe claims ancient Greece as its own, but Greece, especially this ancient outpost, resists that story.

The Latin American philosopher Enrique Dussel offers a historical account that congrues with my intuitions. Early human civilizations originated and culminated in the Egyptian-Mesopotamian world, with the Nile as its center and an outward radiating periphery. At the outer edge of that periphery sat Crete’s Minoan world, including Knossos, whose ruins now lie just a few kilometers from my porch outside Iraklion. The Egyptian-Mesopotamian civilization later fell from power and new centers arose in Asia, both in India and China. And these too had their peripheries. The silk road from the Mediterranean to the east provided a path for peoples on the periphery of civilization to travel to the center, just as the emperor Constantine of the Holy Roman Empire in the third century AD, aimed to extend his influence toward the center of civilization in the east.

Contrary to the notion I learned, that Europe’s archaic past began with the Minoans in Crete, there was little continuity between the early Greeks and later Europeans. The Myceneans did come along after 1500 BCE to conquer and displace the Minoans from power. They also took to the seas to travel to Athens to erect the walls of what would become the Acropolis. But that historical trajectory heads east, not north or west, with Alexander’s Greek empire laying the silk road heading toward China. There was no reason for Alexander to go north; there was nothing of any value, certainly not culturally or scientifically, in the place that would become Europe. It’s not that Europe was in a funk, later called the dark ages; it had always been dark. The classical age of Greece never belonged to Europe. It was overtaken by those Romans to the west, namely with the founding of the Eastern Roman church by Constantine, in what became a new world center, Constantinople.

By the end of the first millennium of our current era, the Arab peoples and later the Ottomans took power, blocking any passage from Europe eastward. After the Ottomans seized Constantinople, they still called it by the familiar name, “the city,” but now in their own dialect: “Istanbul” is how the Ottomans pronounced “to the city.” So this new center changed hands but remained the global metropolis to which educated people of the world flocked. Remember those Crusades? They were the attempts of a rather backward European people attempting to get access east—to both Constantinople and India—through the blockade of the Ottoman Empire, to where all the action was­. Europe then was a hillbilly backwater, largely, illiterate, beholden to religious dogma and superstition, lacking its own culture and scientific inquiry. But after much failure and bloodshed, the Europeans seeking culture gave up on heading east and decided to get there by heading west instead. En route they tripped over the Americas which they then colonized and plundered. That’s when Europe-the-backwater became Europe-the-superpower, the new center of global power.

So, as I sit here on my porch overlooking Iraklion and the sea and into the distance that becomes Europe, I don’t see a continuity but rather a chasm. Even Athens feels like part of a different world. I feel it in all my daily dealings, from the sound of the bells of the flock of goats and sheep that travel up the side of my house to forage, from the dry air and hazy skies, from the groves of olive trees all around, from the old folks sitting on their own front porches in the neighborhoods of the city, to the narrow winding back roads that my GPS tells me to turn on to for no obvious reason, leading me through ancient alleyways. I feel it when I need to go to the electric utility office, or the water office, or the bank to make sure that the house is okay when all family is away. The house has no street number, getting wi-fi would mean putting in a pole that would cost a thousand Euros. Trying to arrange some order in our affairs, I go from office to office only to find officials in every office pointing to someone in another.

I mention Kafka and everyone looks at me blankly. Franz Kafka, I repeat, the writer who described bureaucratic hell. Who is this Franz Kafka? It is, I slowly realize, my perspective trying to make sense of offices and bureaucracies that do not track neat lines, where no one is in a hurry, where debts may accrue but are rarely called to account, where the people resist Europe’s austerity measures with every possible form of resistance, including refusing to foreclose on a house just because its owners are in arrears. Kafka does not register in Crete because what the Cretan sees is not anonymous disorientation but quiet resistance, however unconscious, to this new cultural center of the European Union, the IMF, the power centers trying to force the Greeks to comply. Athens resists as it can; Crete resists from deep down in its roots.

My house is just off Odos Oulof Palme, a thoroughfare named after the assassinated socialist Swedish leader. A bit behind my house there’s a road named after Cornelius Castoriadis, the Greek Marxist who went to France and became a critic of Soviet-style communism and an advocate for new radical imaginaries. More than half the streets here in Iraklion are named after leftist heroes and martyrs.

Οχι ευχαριστώ. Δεν πειράζει. Αφήστε. No thank you, never mind, leave it alone; in Cretan dialect all these phrases shrug off control and power.

Now finding itself on the periphery of Europe, Crete has no interest in complying. It may go through the motions of neoliberal bureaucracy and taxation, but it also offers a life where one can get along despite it: without a bank account, or an email address, or a landline, even living on the land.Yes, I may well be romanticizing Crete a bit, but this is how it feels. Where my western sensibility sees a Kafkaesque disorientation, the Cretan sensibility seems to see an office one might go to in order to pay one’s bills. But σιγά σιγά, slowly, slowly, no hurry. If the bill is small, nothing will happen if you don’t pay. And where exactly is the bill, I ask. Can I get access to it online? Why not? Where does the mail go when I don’t have an address? The frustration sometimes reduces me to tears.

But maybe I am the one out of sync. If I sit here long enough, maybe I will find my way to sit comfortably in this peripheral zone.

Public Philosophy Call for Proposals

The Public Philosophy Network invites proposals by September 15 for its fourth conference on Advancing Public Philosophy, Boulder, Colorado, February 8 to 10, 2018. Originally scheduled to take place in Denton, Texas, the organizers changed the venue due to the  recent passage of a discriminatory Texas law that prompted California to issue a ban against state-funded travel to Texas.

The conference theme is understanding impact: What practices improve the uptake of philosophy, both across the disciplines, and throughout society? This question will be pursued through workshops and papers, topical investigations (e.g., climate change) and case studies, and engagement with philosophers, STEM researchers, administrators, policy professionals, and journalists. Conference website: https://philosophyimpact.org/ppn2018/.

We invite proposals on a wide range of topics related to understanding and advancing public philosophy, including the following:

  • Questions of how to define, evaluate, and measure the impact of public philosophy;
  • Philosophical work on substantive policy issues (e.g., environment, LGBTQ, health, housing, economics, and many more);
  • Accounts of philosophical work with other disciplines (e.g., STEM), as well as engagement with various non-academic publics – and of the impacts of such work;
  • Best practices in public philosophy;
  • Reflection on pathways to greater impact: How can philosophers increase the impact of their work? And the skills needed to engage in public philosophy;
  • Questions surrounding the responsibilities and loyalties of the public philosopher;
  • Responses to the accountability or audit culture and neoliberal trends in the academy;
  • The institutional dimensions of public philosophy (for example, tenure, funding, pedagogy, the structure of academic units and programs, etc.);
  • Reflections on how philosophy itself is transformed by turning outward: How does public engagement inform philosophical concepts and understanding of audience, credibility, expertise, standards of rigor or excellence; and
  • Accounts of the relation between public and normal (‘disciplinary’) philosophy.

Toward the goal of making our meeting more participatory and interdisciplinary in nature, plenaries and sessions will include (in addition to PPN’s traditional approaches):

  • Presentations by scientists, engineers, and policy-makers on how philosophers can better help with the philosophical aspects of their work;
  • A discussion with university administrators on the changing place of philosophy within the university, and the increase of support for public philosophy; and
  • A plenary on the challenges of doing philosophy in the public sphere.

Submissions: send an abstract with “PPN Submission” in the subject line by September 15, 2017 to philosophy@unt.edu. Abstracts should be limited to 300 words. Please also specify in your abstract whether you are submitting a proposal for a workshop or an individual paper.

Details on these two formats are as follows:

Workshops (2 hour sessions). Proposals should include a workshop title and descriptions of the organizer(s)’ interests and experience with the subject matter and how the topic is of concern to philosophy or public life. Proposals should also include an overview of how the workshop will proceed, highlighting how it will be participatory and experiential, and indicating any non-academic participants you might invite. We anticipate that workshops will take different formats, depending on the issues being addressed and the number and type of participants.

The goals of these sessions can include 1) to foster partnerships and projects, whether new or ongoing, and, where appropriate, to spark substantive dialogue between philosophers and “practitioners” (public policy makers, government officials, grassroots activists, nonprofit leaders, etc.) or 2) to focus on how to do certain kinds of work in public philosophy. A second call will be issued later in the year inviting people to apply to participate in the workshops. Workshop organizers should help publicize this second call. Each workshop will be limited to ~20 participants.  Workshop participants chosen after the second call will be listed on the program as discussants, though they will not be expected to make any formal presentation.

Papers (to be grouped into 90 minute sessions). We are especially interested in papers that report on public philosophy projects or reflect on the practice of public philosophy. Proposals should include the title and a brief description of the paper. Presenters should plan for brief presentations followed by longer conversations.


Conference Website: More details are on the website at https://philosophyimpact.org/ppn2018/.

Serial Monotasking

Let’s see how much I can write in the next twenty minutes. And for these twenty minutes, I only have eyes for you, dear blog. If something else I need to be doing comes to mind, I’ll quickly jot down what it is on the notepad to my side. But I won’t try to do it. None of it. It will have its own time, later. Now, it’s just you and me.

For these twenty minutes, my one and only concern is this one task. This is the secret to my success of late in churning out articles, chapters, a book manuscript, of getting another in the works, of having a somewhat orderly house complete with organized closets, a garden, and a life.

I do one thing at a time. But never for longer than I can handle at that particular time on that particular day.

Some days I can only focus for twelve minutes at a time. Other days, like today, I’ve got more leisure and a longer attention span. So I start off the day with a general list of categories of things to do, by project, and a decision about what a check mark equals, today 20 minutes. Then I decide where to spend the next 20 minutes, set my phone timer, and go. During that time, nothing else matters. When the timer chimes, I give that category a check mark and decide quickly whether to continue there or do something else. Or nothing at all.  If something intrudes entirely I hit pause on the phone and then resume when the interruption has ended.

At the end of this day I can see that I spent nearly two hours on a book project, one hour on a journal I edit, an hour trying to plow through a backlog of email, nearly two hours on a big household project, and some unrecorded time just running errands. And now possibly an entry in my blog. That’s a good summer day.

Today, but not every day, I got a lot of different things done. But I did not multitask. I don’t know that anyone really can multitask—for multitasking is acting in a constant state of distraction, the bane of our times. Just sitting down to a computer to write, on any computer hooked up to the Internet, invites distraction with social media clamoring for our attention, push notifications from news outlets, emails from friends and colleagues, and for many (but gratefully not me, not now) the lure of online games. On top of that, many of us juggle multiple projects. It’s hard to focus on one thing when there are so many other things we ought to be doing.

Hence the brilliance of serial monotasking. As a little Zen saying has it:

Do just one thing at a time.

Do it slowly and deliberately.

Do it completely.

Do less.

Put space between things.

Develop rituals.

Designate time for certain things.

Devote time to sitting.

Think about what is necessary.

Live simply.”

And I’ve got 20 seconds left.


2018 Public Philosophy Network Conference

The Public Philosophy Network is pleased to announce that the Public Philosophy Network’s next conference on Advancing Public Philosophy will take place February 8-10, 2018, at the University of North Texas.  UNT is located in Denton, Texas, less than 30 miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Details and a call for participants will be coming soon — but for now please save the date. Please send any questions to conference hosts, Adam Briggle at Adam.Briggle@unt.edu or Robert Frodeman at Robert.Frodeman@unt.edu.

Kettering Review 2016 online

The 2016 issue of the Kettering Review is now available online here and includes essays by Cornelius Castoriadis, Amartya Sen, Albena Azmanova, Merab Mamardashvili, Asef Bayet, and Elinor Ostrom. Here’s an excerpt of my editor’s letter:

Democracy may now seem mainstream, but at heart it is a radical idea: human beings can create self-governing practices out of nothing but their own aspirations and by their own lights. In other words, they do not need the authority of a god, a sacred text, or a tradition to create something new. The people can found democratic structures by fiat and they need only be accountable to themselves. In the mid-20th century, Cornelius Castoriadis (1922-1997) developed the idea that human beings have the power of imagination to institute something radically new, such as the founding of a country. “In a democracy,” he writes in the essay here, “society does not halt before a conception, given once and for all, of what is just, equal, or free, but rather institutes itself in such a way that the question of freedom, of justice, of equity, and of equality might always be posed anew.”

Fascism in the U.S.A., here, now

Let there be no doubt. Just one week after taking office, Trump has turned the U.S.A. into a fascist state. With complete disregard for freedom of religion and dignity of human beings, he is at this very moment detaining refugees in our airports. He has instituted a religious test on who may enter—Christians, not Muslims—sending a message to extremists that the U.S.A. is at war with Islam, not terrorism.

Trump has zero interest in reading or understanding the Constitution, much less in defending it. He has no qualms about violating it at every step. This man is dangerous. He needs to be impeached by Congress. But if Congress will not step up, let’s make clear that he is being impeached by the tribunal of public judgment. Do whatever you can to mobilize, organize, and monkey wrench. And please do so peacefully and with the respect for human dignity that Trump completely lacks.

Why Trump Cares about Legitimacy

Donald J. Trump is clearly worked up over the question of the legitimacy of his claim to the presidency. Yes, he’s in office. He can move into the East Wing, issue executive orders, nominate cabinet members, and all that. But can he create his own legitimacy?


Years ago the president of the Kettering Foundation, David Mathews, said to me: Governments can create public highways and public schools, but they cannot create their own legitimacy. Only publics can deem a government legitimate.

Stupid as he is, Trump gets that. This is why he is fretting and lying about how many people were at his inauguration and about why he didn’t get the popular vote. He knows he needs more than the okay of the system; he needs the okay of the people.

And he doesn’t have that. Saturday’s Women’s Marches around the world just dug that truth in deeper.

In 1989, new civic movements (with deep and long roots) in Central Europe called the bluff of their governments, which had been claiming to be the “people’s” parties. No you’re not, said these new civic organizations. Suddenly, everyone could acknowledge that the emperor had no clothes.And within days these governments collapsed. When people in the U.S. now say, “Not my president,” they are calling the bluff of Trump’s claim to legitimacy.  Of course they know that he won the electoral college vote; but they are saying very clearly that his presidency lacks the authorization of the majority of the people and that rule by the minority is illegitimate through and through.

And they are also nodding to the the fact of Russia’s meddling in our election and the very real likelihood that Trump’s folks collaborated with the Russians in this, which by the way would be treason.

Whether by treason or merely by creating the illusion of public support, Trump’s attempts to conjure up his own legitimacy are sickeningly desperate and, let’s hope, short lived. Maybe this regime will collapse the way that those of Eastern Europe did in 1989. The more we organize, the better the chance.

First Order of the New Order

Who needs any ethics nowadays? From the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — House Republicans, overriding their top leaders, voted on Monday to significantly curtail the power of an independent ethics office set up in 2008 in the aftermath of corruption scandals that sent three members of Congress to jail.

The move to effectively kill the Office of Congressional Ethics was not made public until late Monday, when Representative Robert W. Goodlatte, Republican of Virginia and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that the House Republican Conference had approved the change. There was no advance notice or debate on the measure.

The surprising vote came on the eve of the start of a new session of Congress, where emboldened Republicans are ready to push an ambitious agenda on everything from health care to infrastructure, issues that will be the subject of intense lobbying from corporate interests. The House Republicans’ move would take away both power and independence from an investigative body, and give lawmakers more control over internal inquiries.

It also came on the eve of a historic shift in power in Washington, where Republicans control both houses of Congress and where a wealthy businessman with myriad potential conflicts of interest is preparing to move into the White House.

Continue reading the main story

Making Fun of the Alt-Right

Many of those emboldened by the election of soon-to-be 45 are already firing up their hate machines, one being a watchlist of supposed radical, un-American philosophers. Yeah, here we go again. I’m not even going to link to it. Just note that the attempt is to intimidate and silence genuine intellectual inquiry, especially any that does not fall in line with the new sur-reality.

So, what could be a better time to fire up a satirical parody? None more than now. So I give you a lovely alternative called the Professor Watchlist Redux, whose main aim is to reclaim the word “radical” as something  important and vital to the advancement of human life. Surely Jesus, Socrates, Ghandi, and those that worked in these veins never followed orders as the alt-Right and their henchmen would like us to do.

So, my friends, here’s the new and still-in-progress Professor Watchlist Redux.

How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator

A former student wrote to me this morning seeking guidance because, she fears, she is watching democracy crumble before her eyes. Referencing two of the books we read in a course five years earlier, the first by Jeffrey Goldfarb and the second by Jacques Derrida, she writes,

Given the current situation I am looking back on all of our course readings. I no longer feel like The Politics of Small Things or Rogues are theoretical.  Unfortunately I am coming to believe these works are now textbooks with potential guidance for the dangerous state of our democracy.

What else might she read, she asks, and what tactical solutions are there for this situation we are in?

He email made me realize that the little book I’ve been working on recently is more timely than ever, that I need to wrap it up right away, and that I should change the title from Deliberation, Politics, and the Work of Mourning to the more direct, though less sexy, How To Be A Country That Will Not Tolerate a Dictator — a phrase I learned from those who led the “No” campaign that got rid of the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. I never imagined that I would one day need to invoke this phrase here in the United States, but the election of the authoritarian Donald Trump and the far-right administration he is assembling does change everything. So, let’s ask ourselves, how can the US become a country that will not tolerate a dictator?

At the heart of my book are the key democratic practices I’ve learned from my work in community organizing and public life, from reading a lot of political theory, and from the collaborative research I’ve done with the Kettering Foundation. I borrow shamelessly from all to list the following practices that citizens—everyday people in a complex political society—can and need to take part in for democracy to work.

Not everyone needs to do everything, but in a large decentered society, all the following tasks need to be taken up in one space or another.

First there is the politics of seeing oneself as a citizen, someone whose office includes the overarching work of deciding what kind of communities we want; deciding what direction the political community should take, and what it stands for. I use the word “citizen” as a synonym for those with a sense of political agency—and this can include the undocumented and others with only residency status. This is  the most important office in a democracy: being people who decide what is right and just and ascertain whether their will is being carried out well.  All who are affected by matters of common concern are, to my mind, potential citizens. To be a citizen is to be someone with the sense that what she thinks matters. It also involves having a sense that one can call a meeting if there is an issue needing attention, that she can call on others to join with her in the work. This is the other crucial part of the First Amendment: the right of association. In dark times it is vital that citizens associate with others. Here the mantra is, Organize! Get involved in existing associations, whether they are civic or religious ones, and if there is a gap, create new spaces and organizations for people to come together. To be a citizen, again, is to be someone who can call a meeting.

Second is the task of identifying and thematizing problems. Importantly, it is often citizens and new social movements, not official agencies, that first notice something deeply amiss in the world and then send out alerts. New social movements often serve as what Habermas calls the “sensors” that identify problems not previously noticed. For example, it was citizens and a new renegade environmental movement that, in mid 20th century, began sounding the alarm about environmental degradation. In addition to identifying a problem, such citizen movements give problems a name and thematize or frame how they should be considered, just as young undocumented people in the United States are thematizing themselves as Dreamers. The Dreamers also show how political agency is not just the purview of those with citizenship papers, but belongs to anyone who is willing to take a stand with others.

Third are the ongoing, decentered conversations that take place throughout the public sphere. These are conversations geared toward thinking through, deliberating, and deciding what ought to be done on matters of common concern. These conversations take place informally throughout society, from a taxicab to a high school social studies classroom. Over time these conversations allow people to encounter different points of view and perspectives, work through the trade-offs, pros and cons of various courses of action, develop public knowledge, and decide what ought to be done, that is, develop public will on the matter that can, in turn, steer public policy. Making deliberative choices often involves deeply felt, and not merely cognitive, processes of working through and mourning loss.

Fourth is the task of identifying and committing civic resources, using the energy of communities and citizens to bring about change. Not all public choices call for government actions. This task also picks up on Arendt’s notion of public generative power, that when people come together they can create new potential. Also they can see how to make use of something that has previously gone fallow. For example, with the sustainability movement we are seeing a proliferation of farmers markets, CSAs, and farm to restaurant and to table movements.

Fifth is the task of organizing and engaging in civic actions, which can include holding governments and officials under siege until their actions begin to align with public will. Both social movements and deliberative bodies play a role here. Increasingly citizens are acting in concert on matters of common concern themselves. When officials act contrary to public will, strong democratic publics will hold them accountable. Various legitimation crises have erupted when publics point out discrepancies between public will and public policy. Publics find mechanisms (whether through protest or nullification) to get public will translated into law.

Sixth, is the task of civic learning, which means learning from the past and remaining open to judging how it all went and what could be done differently going forward. This is the antithesis of any “best practices” model. Any citizen can join with others to revisit a matter that others think was already democratically settled. In a democracy, no one should be ruled by decisions made by previous generation.

By seeing these kinds of tasks as central to democratic politics, we can reframe what citizens are doing when they converse and gather together around public issues. They aren’t merely trying to influence politics elsewhere; right where they are, they are creating the public will needed to imagine new futures. We can also see that democratic power is not a vertical relationship between rulers and ruled but a horizontal relationship of citizens associating with others to identify, name, frame, decide, and act on matters of common concern.

These practices don’t necessarily occur in any linear fashion. They are iterative. A first pass through a problem may turn up new unforeseen consequences and problems. This is what is so important about the sixth stage of learning, which I think resonates a bit more clearly in an Arendtian frame, especially her ideas of thinking and judging. Learning is a process of critically reflecting on a state of affairs, internally and collectively practicing the two-in-one back and forth of considering and reconsidering our thoughts about matters, being open to seeing something differently, not reifying some practice or institutions as “just the way it is.” Learning, then, loops back into re-naming and re-framing problems. The policies that a deliberative process may have resulted in may bring about unforeseen consequences that a social movement then names and begins to frame.

These six practices focus on what publics can do, including both social movements and deliberative publics; but they also point to the legitimacy question I mentioned above. If the public in its informal deliberations (what Jane Mansbridge calls “everyday talk”) begins to develop public judgment and will X, but elected officials are operating on notion Y, then the government’s legitimacy comes under question. For ultimately the power and authority of any state in the modern era derives from public will. When the state becomes oblivious to its real source of authority, then it loses its legitimacy and shows itself to be devoid of any authority whatsoever.