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Monday, October 25, 2004


That's what everyone has been around here, for what seems like weeks. I got the flu; then week passed, and Caitlyn caught a stomach virus which had her throwing up everything. Then once she got through that, it was passed around again, to the other girls. (I've been up three times tonight with Megan.) And now Melissa has it. Ugh.

In the meantime, I've been doing a lot of thinking. I think that I'll be able, over the few days, to finally get out the "manifesto" posts which I described as "upcoming" more than three weeks ago. I think there will be three parts, each built around a different blog post or article (or several such) that I've read over the last few months and which have stuck in my head. First, I need to lay the groundwork for my basic political orientation, which means talking about Marx and socialism and communitarianism. Then I want to put that into the context of American populism and tradition, which means a focus on religion and conservatism as elements in our current class and culture divide. Finally, I'll try to pull all that together into an observation or three about the Democratic and Republican parties today. Much too much, of course, and I'll just have to eat these words (or, more likely, embarrassedly delete them) if sickness gets in the way of my writing these posts. But I promise I'll give it a shot.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Thoughts on Derrida

Via Crooked Timber comes the news that Jacques Derrida, the "father of deconstruction," has passed away of pancreatic cancer. Jack Balkin's comments on Derrida's passing are worth reading; no doubt many other philosophers will add their remembrances in the days to come. Let me just say something about Derrida's impact on me as I once was, the political philosopher as a young man.

In 1991, I was attending Brigham Young University, and dealing with a great deal of intellectual and emotional baggage. (Or, at least, it seemed like a lot at the time, though in retrospect it probably wasn't all that different from what any number of other frustrated and unhappy young men carry around inside them on college campuses.) I had a relatively clear idea of where I wanted to go--spiritually, academically, emotionally--but I didn't seem to have the tools to get there. A friend of mine (Matt Stannard; read his own very thoughtful tribute to Derrida here) recommended I take some philosophy courses with him; perhaps that would help me find some sort of intellectual foothold. I agreed, and the class I ended up taking was on philosophy and literature, taught by a great and good man, one James E. Faulconer. In that class, we became acquainted with a great deal of structuralist and poststructuralist thought; we talked about the history of Biblical hermeneutics, and the philosophy of history as well; and most importantly, we were introduced to two rival schools of interpretation: philosophical hermeneutics, represented by Hans-Georg Gadamer, and deconstruction, represented by Derrida.

The class didn't solve all or really any of my problems, I should add. (Indeed, most of my hang-ups just got worse in the months and years which followed.) But it did engage me in a world of thinking that permanently altered my perspective, for the better. People often knock "theory" as a component of knowledge; the whole idea complicating a text or argument or event by applying theoretical constructs (or de-constructs) which emphasize the contingency or divisions or hidden implications and presumptions in any account of such can drive folks interested in "practicality" or "praxis" (however you define that) batty. I can certain bash theory, and have done so on numerous occasions. But I am nonetheless extremely grateful to have been introduced to Derrida and all the rest of those thinkers, because for me, at least, it was important to be able to get away from the sterility of certain habits of thought, and to be able to theoretically look back over an argument and see it as something which I and my perspective of things was intractably, yet ambiguously, connected to, rather than as something wholly external to myself. (Yes, I know Derrida was hardly the first to make this point; the critique of the Enlightenment is as old as the Enlightenment itself. But these postmodernists and deconstructivists were the first I'd ever heard of it.)

As for Derrida's ideas themselves, I was never much of a fan. I was always far more sympathetic to the use which hermeneutic thinkers like Gadamer, Paul Ricoeur, Charles Taylor and others made of Martin Heidegger's legacy than to Derrida's and other French thinkers' use of it. You could call this (as many have) a "conservative" appropriation; I prefer to see it as a more sensible approach to Heidegger's greatest theme, which is also the theme of many of the German romantics and pietists: namely, worldhood, or the question (and, therefore, moral meaning and significance) of being in the world. Heidegger sought to (through his examinations of language, art, and other media) get us thinking about how it is that we appear as we are; to put it in extremely simplistic terms, he wanted us to focus on what it means to understand existing as something given (es gibt--"there is/gives"), meaning that there is something more to beings than that which they literally "appear" to be, or (once again, more carefully) than that which in its appearance we (again, through language and our own thinking) appropriate as our own (what Heidegger called ereignen). Deconstruction, as it spread beyond philosophy and to numerous other disciplines--law, psychology, architecture, and especially literature--didn't hold onto or express this fundamental ontological insight very well, in my view: as I read works influenced by Derrida, or indeed by Derrida himself, it seemed that the drive to expunge foundations too easily replaced the need to rethink foundations: his greatest Heideggerian contribution to the study of language--his employ of the formerly theological, even metaphysical term "trace" to refer to the effaced thing signified by a text, the sign or symbol of which both delimits and also defers it--became in the hands of many, and perhaps his own, simply an excuse for play. The seriousness of that play, in the sense that it invites consideration of how it is that through speaking we become players in a world which is both prior to and in excess of ourselves, didn't seem to me to come through nearly as well as it should have. (The clearest example of this is, I think, the strange failed "encounter" between Gadamer and Derrida at a conference in Paris in 1981, during which--as well as after--Gadamer struggled to understand Derrida's evaluation of hermeneutics, without any comparable apparent interest on Derrida's part. This book has all the relevant texts from the encounter.)

I admit, however, that I may have misinterpreted Derrida. I don't speak French, after all. And perhaps I've allowed the rather jovial pragmatic nihilism of Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish, who both so often adopt a Derrida-like pose, to poison my appreciation of his particular approach to the spirit and ethical form of rethinking. My old teacher, Jim Faulconer, has always insisted that there is more going on in Derrida's play than most American interpreters (at least after the initial rush of Derrida enthusiasm in the 1980s began to wane) recognize; to Jim, Derrida--though not a theist--in recent years became a religious thinker of the highest order, a man who was helping to bring the sensibility of negative theology back to philosophy. As he put it:

There are two moments in negative theology. One is to discover and to say as accurately as possible the right names and descriptions of the Divine. Paradoxically, the second is to show that these names are inadequate. For example, one must say 'God is just'; it is blasphemy to say otherwise. Nevertheless, once that is established, it is also true that the sentence is inadequate; from the point of view of a claim to have said the complete and final truth, it is untrue. For, we only know what justice is by using our own justice as a reference point. However, God's justice surpasses ours, so much so that it is inadequate to use the same name for it. Thus one must also say, 'God is not just' -- but readers must take care how they read what looks like a simple denial of God's justice. The negative theologian recognizes the absolute necessity of speaking about God....He worries, however, that our theology may give us the impression that we are now done with thinking about God; we may believe, at least implicitly, that our knowledge has encompassed the infinite. So the negative theologian reminds us of God's infinity by showing us the failure of our affirmative theology. The point is not that there is no God or that God is, in a straightforward sense, not just, but that we must continue to speak of God, to praise him, to wonder at his justice....The common assumption of deconstruction and negative theology is that language necessarily 'fails' to say everything, to remember everything, but that it nevertheless says something, even something about what it fails to recover....Derrida is interested in this 'logic' of saying and not saying, of inclusion and exclusion, of presence and absence, of speaking and silence, of memory and forgetting....Derrida continues to be concerned, though he is not a theist: 'I am addressing myself here to God, the only one I take as a witness, without yet knowing what these sublime words mean, and this grammar, and to, and witness, and god, and take, take God, and not only do I pray, as I have never stopped doing all my life, and pray to him, but I take him here and take him as my witness, I give myself what he gives me, i.e. the i.e. to take the time to take God as a witness.' (Circumfession, 56-58)

In the last several years, at least partly because of the many misunderstandings of his work (misunderstandings for which he admits some responsibility), Derrida has been explicit about this focus on absence and omission as an ethical focus. Like negative theology, his work is not nihilistic or merely playful....Ultimately, Derrida's work is ethical. The point of deconstruction is to help us remember what the text calls us to remember but then forgets by its very nature. Deconstruction calls us to the act of remembering, wonder, and praise, and in that to a remembering relation to what we have forgotten rather than to the descriptions of what we have forgotten....As Derrida [writes]: 'What we have said about writing and the trace shows that no autos is possible without an inscription of alterity, no inside without a relation to an outside which cannot be simply outside but must remark itself on the inside.' (Circumfession, 47-48)

The comparison to negative theology is strong...[Derrida] does not believe that deconstruction can, by showing us our ethical and other kinds of omissions, make it possible to exclude no one. As Derrida explains, pure hospitality, including everyone is impossible. Actual hospitality requires decision, discrimination. That discrimination, always a limit on hospitality, on inclusion, is indispensable. The point is not the end of exclusion and forgetting, but our thought about them. The point is for us to face those omissions and exclusions and, through facing them, to rethink what we are about.

Jacques Derrida, negative theologian? A not implausible conclusion, I suppose. My preference will remain with the romantics and their intellectual descendents, who accepted the political and moral problem of subjectivity bequeathed by modernity, and earnestly tried to find foundations, or rethink foundations, in the context of the sublime, naive, revelatory, linguistic, "appearing" experience of being in the world. But if that's simply too heavy (too German?) for you, perhaps one can find the same attempt to think about first things in the midst of Derrida's slippery, challenging, effervescent play. Requiescat in pace.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Us (National Service/ Greatness/ Community) Nobodies

Chris Lawrence was pretty emphatic a few days ago: "nobody wants a draft." Which is, strictly speaking, untrue: Paul Glastris wants there to be some sort of draft. And Charles Moskos. And E.J. Dionne. And John McCain. And possibly John Kerry (as long, of course, as we're not talking about that kind of draft). And me. Of course, I'm playing a little fast and loose here; the above examples of national service advocacy range from thoughtful considerations of military conscription to simply wanting to beef up the budget of AmeriCorps. When most people hear the word "draft" they assume (rightly) that it is the former that's being discussed, and insofar as that goes, Chris's general point is clearly correct: no major political figure running for office in America today is talking about drafting men and women to fight in Iraq or anywhere else (despite Jonathan Alter's warnings about how irresponsible avoiding such talk is). Seeing as how the most recent political action taken in regards to a possible military draft resulted in a 402-2 blowout vote, it's probably also right to say, as Chris did, that the people keeping it alive as an election issue right now are mostly just engaged in scaremongering. But I'll still insist that there are people out there who ought to be recognized as proponents of the draft--if only to keep the whole idea of national or civic service and obligation on the table.

Of course, I'm well aware that my particular left communitarian/social conservative/progressive Christian political perspective is an unpopular one; that's nothing new. But when you look at this in light of the debate over national service, or the draft, or just the whole idea of civic obligation, it's clear that the "nobody" charge, while technically accurate, covers over a much larger, amorphous, multifaceted body of thought. It is, as Michael Walzer said of communitarianism in general, a "recurring critique"; you see it amongst Republicans, Democrats, socialists of various stripes, Greens and more. Since communitarian thought is really more a matter of philosophical anthropology or ontology than ideology, perhaps it is to be expected that it'll take numerous different forms and suggest numerous different alliances--but that's no reason to dismiss it as an argument without partisans. You just have to look harder for them, and link them together (sometimes against their will) when you do.

As always, it is the libertarians (who make up for what they lack in political savvy with intellectual rigor) who are the quickest to see these links. It was Jim Henley (with an assist from Dave Trowbridge) who called my attention to Marshall Whitmann latest doings. Whitmann, a former aide to Senator McCain and a self-described "progressive Bull Moose conservative," has endorsed Senator Kerry and signed on to the Democratic Leadership Council and the Kerry campaign, writing in an essay published in the DLC's magazine that the effort "to forge a new politics of national greatness....[including] an energetic federal government that would implement a foreign policy advancing American interests and human rights, along with a domestic policy that would promote national service, and an economics focused on benefiting the middle class," is now, in his judgment, a far more likely possibility under a Kerry administration than another under George Bush. Of course, "national greatness" used to be what the Republican party of The Weekly Standard and David Brooks was going to be all about (and he still talks as if it's true, sometimes). But as Josh Marshall cogently puts it, "[when] 9/11 came along....most of those who'd classed themselves with the McCainiac/National Greatness clique decided that as long as Bush could rack up the votes that they could live with Karl Rove, Texas-style conservatism and plutocracy just fine. And with that, there just wasn't much need for National Greatness Conservatism any more." So the conservative iteration of this general concern with civic and progressive values collapsed, and its leading lights moved on--to Kerry.

Of course, as Josh also notes, Whitmann's nationalist/civic concerns weren't necessarily "conservative" in any deep sense; if anything, they were closer to Cold War liberalism. Well, of course they were--because the liberalism of FDR and Harry Truman was (for the most part, anyway) culturally sensitive and civic-minded as well as egalitarian. But when the liberalism of the Democratic party evolved away from that, you suddenly had the "Reagan Democrats" flocking to the GOP. Were they well-served by the Republicans? Not especially--but then, in a society where conservatism is incoherent and liberalism has (mostly) lost its class concern, where any serious (as opposed to merely formal) talk about national obligations and civic virtue gets you labeled, as I've complained ad naseum before, an "authoritarian", you take what you can get. No, we're not going to get a draft, or probably anything like it, any time soon. But maybe we'll get Kerry, and America and the cause of community could certainly do a lot worse than that.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

What Class is Academia?

This is a question which, in some ways, connects to that long tangle of class and culture matters which I've promised to blog about sooner or later; in some ways it fits in with the discussion about academia, the costs of parenting and family life over at Laura McKenna's blog; but mostly it just stands on its own. It started out as a thought internal to the small (but growing!) world of Mormon blogs which I also inhabit. Amy at Nine Moons wrote about something she'd observed among many of the Mormon graduate students she has known: a tendency to band together (she calls the result "Little Utahs") and make use of every government subsidy they can--via low-cost housing, food stamp programs, WIC, and much more--in order to reduce costs and make it possible for them to go through graduate or professional school (most of those she immediately had in mind were aiming to become dentists) without piling up much (if any) debt while also beginning their families (which, for most Mormons, usually means having children early and making sure one spouse is at home full-time). As she notes, most of these people are not poor--they come from families well-off enough to have supported their children in their efforts to excel at school and get into good graduate programs, and more importantly, it's not as though most of them aren't looking forward to earning good money fairly soon anyway. So she asks whether this is an ethical practice, especially considering all the self-reliance rhetoric Mormons are regularly exposed to (believe me: it's a lot). Another blog where I post regularly picked up on Amy's post, and while the discussion it sparked was short, it didn't lack for venom.

The specifically Mormon angle to this doesn't interest me much. Jonathan Green is correct to point out in one of his comments that "graduate and professional education doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical ways members of the [Mormon church] pair off and start families, and that the family ideal of the [church] doesn’t fit perfectly with the typical expectations graduate schools have for their students"--but the issue is broader than that, I think. There is often a tension in graduate school between scholarship students, "subsidy" students (whether government or parents or both), and those that are piling up debt and working two jobs to make their education possible. In our case, we took out loans, and worked, and accepted some scholarship money, and that's about it. The result, as Melissa puts it occasionally, is that my education "is the Mercedes-Benz we'll never own." I've no criticisms to make of graduate students who make use of legitimate government subsidies while advancing towards their educational and professional goals; indeed, I wish Melissa and I had been more on the ball in that regard. But it is worth noting, however, that part of the reason for the confusion and anger these practices give rise to is that we have certain expectations for graduate students--expectations which are grounded in class concerns, even though said concerns now bear little relationship to reality. (I'm going to limit my comments to people pursuing Ph.D.s and careers in academia, since that's what I know and that's where the contradictions in this matter are greatest; doctors and lawyers and dentists who play at being poor for the sake of saving some money before they leap into the high five-figure or even six-figure salary range have a different, and harder, ethical row to hoe.)

What it really comes down to is this: academia isn't labor insofar as it has been popularly understood. It is, if anything, filled with leisure. I'm a working academic, and I work hard--I prepare lectures, I teach classes, I work with students, I grade papers, I fulfill committee assignments, I pitch in around the department, I write, I study, I present my research: I do a lot. But what I'm doing I'm usually doing from my desk, according to my own schedule, I'm doing it in a field that I have chosen because it interests me, and so on. It's not just that it isn't (usually) physical labor: it's not a producing labor, not something which can really be reduced to an exchanges of services, an output, as it were. That's why educators talk about their work as a "vocation." Any academic who manages to avoid adjunctdom--and especially any academic who snags a tenure-track job--hasn't landed a position, but rather has been admitted to a "guild". Not a particularly well-paying guild, true, but one with enough perks (work load, vacations, travel, etc.) to definitely set it apart. Or, at least, that's the presumption, one shared (whether we wish to acknowledge it or not) by both those who pursue graduate education (particularly in the humanities and social sciences, but folks in the hard sciences and other areas of academia often feel the same way) and those who watch all of us going through it. (My father, a no-nonsense businessman and entrepreneur, humorously describes academics as "parasites" on society; a popular and, I think, not entirely inappropriate label.) The fact is that spending hours and days and weeks and months of one life specializing in arcane methodologies and arguments and texts is not the same sort of work that most other members of our undergraduate class looked forward to doing; we set out to do something that pertained to a different, less fungible, less strictly marketable, set of rules.

Of course, as the discussion which followed the old Invisible Adjunct post linked to above makes perfectly clear, academia today doesn't act like a guild, doesn't provide the protections or rewards or the opportunities of a guild, or at least not for the overwhelming majority of those who go into it. Rather, for the bulk of Ph.D.s, it provides nothing but the chance to sweat it out trying to find a niche in a competitive, difficult, generally underfunded and constantly shifting job market, in which we (as I once put it in a rather bluesy post) "find ourselves...aspiring to a frankly appalling ideal of detachment (an elite, cloistered way of life) while lacking either the resources or the institutional support or the social justification for doing so." In short, the socio-economic "space" which the labors of an academic inhabits is no longer all that different from that which situates most other kinds labor. But we still think, and everyone else thinks, that it ought to be. After all, we've been highly educated; socialized to frame problems and discuss ideas in rarefied ways; schooled to form expectations and think in terms of certain relationships and opportunities that are, frankly, the province of a leisurely, vocational, guild-protected elite. We're upper and upper-middle class, in other words. But we can't afford that life, and don't live it, for the most part; the economic state of the bulk of universities in the U.S. today simply doesn't allow for it. The result are conversations like the recent one I had with an old friend of mine, in which I (like a good elite political thinker) was busy talking about the Democratic party and cultural politics and the working class, only be interrupted by my friend: "Look at your salary. You're working class." And he's right, of course.

The point should be obvious: there's not much reason any longer to imagine that the costs which aspiring academics bear (whether they do so through family or government or frugality or some combination thereof) need to be treated as a price to paid to enter an exclusive club, or some kind of noble burden that elites are especially capable of taking on. Of course, perhaps it would be nice to think that: the popular assumption behind welfare is that government programs exist to help the poor start climbing up the class ladder (beginning with the lowest rung!), which makes the participation of (possible!) elites like ourselves in those programs seem rather dubious. But given that the academic class system doesn't work much any more, and given that most aspiring academics today recognize that, for better or worse (mostly the latter, I'm afraid), the future of higher education in America will very likely--except for those at the very top of the profession--turn exactly on the question of our outputs, our own inputs seem to have lost a certain mystique. Instead, they're just costly. So scrounge, beg, borrow, plead poverty: it's all accurate, and it's all true. The same thing goes for family dynamics: the special rules which one might have assumed governed, or ought to have governed, our attempts to combine family life and being an academic simply aren't there (and maybe never were, given that the expectations of academia were formed long before women--and men as caregivers!--entered the equation), with the result that the time-consuming and expensive quality of academic life (with its many years of training) is exposed as the real burden for mothers and fathers which it is.

None of this is to insist that I and all my colleagues are victims of an injustice. We love our jobs, which we are lucky to have. And the guildlike nature of the academia hasn't entirely disappeared, so losing that Mercedes-Benz, even besides all the ways in which we find (or hope to find) fulfillment through teaching, was still basically worth it. But it's not going to get any easier for academics to find a socio-economic place for themselves--much less figure out the best allegiances and practices for their families and communities--anytime soon. The traditional academic ship is, I fear, probably going to sink under the weight of the class crisis it (and America) are going through at the present time; those of us who have signed up and are sticking with our ship regardless are going to end up scrambling whichever way we can to keep our guildish expectations and hopes for our families above the water, dignity be damned.