Friday, August 15, 2014

Why Does A Philosophy Professor Write About Trout?

My most recent book, Downstream, is about brook trout.  People sometimes wonder: why on earth would a professor of philosophy and classics write about such things?  Surely I should be writing about metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, right?

To this question I have three brief replies, which I'll say more about later.

The first is that this book really is about those things, even if it won't appear to be so at first blush.

The second is that in fact, I think more philosophers should turn our attention to the matter of lived experience, to our technology, to our tools, and to our ways of knowing the world.  It's not enough to know things about the world; we ought to ask just how we know the things we know, and how our tools and our very modes of life and habits affect that knowledge.  And everything that hangs on that knowledge.

And for my third brief reply, I turn to Edward Mooney, who, in his introduction to Henry Bugbee's beautiful book, The Inward Morning, recalls a question Martin Heidegger asked Bugbee in August of 1955: “What occasion prompts philosophical reflection?” 

Mooney writes that no doubt Heidegger “anticipated a flat American response. Yet he found his question returned in a Socratic reversal. Bugbee simply asked, echoing a Basho haiku, 'Could the sound of a fish leaping at a fly at dawn suffice?'

A rainbow trout in the tail of a pool in Wyoming's Shell Creek, July 2014.  The resolution is not great because I took this shot from about a hundred feet up, on a cliff looking down into the pool below.  This was one of three rainbows swimming in the slack water at the tail of a pool below a waterfall, hunting for food.  If you're curious: shot with a Nikon D3100 and a Tamron AF 18-270mm lens.  It was an evening shot, so ISO 2500, lens at its full 270mm reach, f/6.3, 1/125. 

(Quotations taken from Mooney’s introduction to Bugbee’s The Inward Morning, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1999) pp. xi-xii.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Tools That Hold Us

If you equip your police with military tools, it should not surprise you to find that the police begin to regard the problems they face as problems best solved with military tools.  This is because tools are not inert.  We think we hold the tools and wield them, but we should remember that they hold us, too.

In one of his notebooks the Puritan Jonathan Edwards observed that “If we hold a staff in our hand we seem to feel in the staff.” [1]  He was noticing that we are less aware of the wood in our hand than of the gravel on the path when it connects with the staff.

To put it differently, the things we hold become extensions of ourselves.  In a way, our tools make new knowledge possible.  We should remember, though, that every awareness comes at the price of other awarenesses.  When you peer through a telescope you can see what is distant at the expense of seeing what is near at hand.  Holding a staff means not having a free hand to touch the lamb's ear and feel its softness.

Michael Polanyi, in his book Personal Knowledge, says it like this:
“Our subsidiary awareness of tools and probes can be regarded now as the act of making them form a part of our own body. The way we use a hammer or a blind man uses his stick, shows in fact that in both cases we shift outwards the points at which we make contact with the things that we observe as objects outside ourselves. While we rely on a tool or a probe, these are not handled as external objects….We pour ourselves out into them and assimilate them as parts of our own existence. We accept them existentially by dwelling in them.”  [2]
They're not the only ones to notice this.  I recall a passage in Walker Percy, where Binx describes his fiancée, Kate, at the wheel of her car.  She practically dwells in her car, and it is as though the two have become one.
“When she drives, head ducked down, hands placed symmetrically on the wheel, the pale underflesh of her arms trembling slightly, her paraphernalia—straw seat, Kleenex dispenser, magnetic tray for cigarettes—all set in order about her, it is easy to believe that the light stiff little car has become gradually transformed by its owner until it is hers herself in its every nut and bolt.” [3]
Everyone who has a favorite tool knows this.  We learn to touch-type through repetition.  Practice may not make perfect, but it makes us so familiar that we find ourselves regarding our oldest tools as having personalities.  Perhaps this is because we have poured ourselves into them through constant use.  You don't have to be an animist to start to think of tools as having souls.

So with the police: when our tools are tools designed to give us mastery over others, we find ourselves becoming habituated to wielding that mastery, and regarding everyone who challenges that mastery as a natural slave.

In the face of this presumed mastery, the resentment of the mastered is not at all surprising.

Evan Selinger wrote insightfully about the way tools of mastery like guns affect us in an article in The Atlantic a few years ago. I was especially struck by a line he cited from Bruno Latour:
"You are different with a gun in your hand; the gun is different with you holding it. You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you."
We don't enter relationships without both parties being affected; both we and the gun are altered by this holding of the gun.  Guns are very strong tools; therefore it takes enormous strength of character to wield one without being deeply and powerfully affected by it.  The gun mediates the relationship between the one holding it and the one at whom it is pointed.  This is not something anyone can easily control. 

So if you give your police armor and military weapons, it should not surprise you if they begin to regard themselves as engaging in military activity.  And it similarly should not surprise the police when the unarmed, un-armored populace feels that the police is not acting "to serve and protect" but quite the opposite.

I don't mean to exonerate anyone by these words, but to try to explain why right now there appears to be a growing hostility between the police and civilians. Police have a very hard job to do.  Police officers I know have described long hours of dealing with people at their very worst, day after day.  I'm impressed by how many police manage to keep calm and help to defuse potentially explosive situations, and do so repeatedly, every day on the job.  And as more Americans own and carry handguns, it does not surprise me that many officers now wear bulletproof vests.  They never know who might fire a foolish and angry shot, and they want to return to their families at the end of the day, alive and intact.  That's not hard to understand.

But all of us face a hard choice. As I've argued before, we need good laws, and we need to maintain and enforce those laws.  However, enforcement should not primarily mean the use of force, but a well-working judicial system, supported by good schools and watched over by excellent journalism. And we need one thing more: we need to become better people, to enact and inhabit the virtues we most wish to see in others.  Intentional actions are like tools; as we dwell in them, they become the way we know the world, and, just as we hold on to them, they hold on to us.

This is what we should encourage in ourselves and in others.  Not more and stronger weapons but better lives, lived nakedly and as unprotected from others as we dare.  The armor we put on becomes the wall that divides us, and it becomes the lens through which we see some things, and because of which other things - like the humanity of our neighbors - becomes wholly invisible.

 [1] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards: Scientific and Philosophical Writings. Wallace E. Anderson, ed., (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980) p.225

[2] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge. 59.

[3] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1969) 232. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

More Books Worth Reading

One of the great pleasures of being a teacher is reading. To do my job well, I have to read.  If I don't read a lot, I won't keep up with my field and I'll be a poorer teacher. Fortunately, I like reading.

Even so, one of the great surprises of being a teacher is that, at the end of a long day of work reading, I like to unwind with a good book.  Go figure.

The last few months have brought me a surfeit of good books to unwind with. Here are some of the recent books I've enjoyed:
  • Richard Russo, Straight Man. This is one that has been recommended to me so many times by so many people I finally bought it and read it.  If you work in a small college humanities department, trust me: you'll feel at home in this book. 
  • J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello. This is another that was recommended to me.  It takes the form of a series of lectures delivered by a novelist, with very little framing around each lecture.  The lectures stand alone, but all together they give the picture of an artist at work trying to figure out what exactly she is doing, what she believes, and why. Coetzee is really a philosophical novelist, and he does a remarkable job of engaging directly with figures like Descartes and Kant and Peter Singer.
  • Dave Eggers, How We Are Hungry.  Eggers' short stories are like David Foster Wallace's, but less frenetic and wild and so a little easier to read.  I love the genre, and I'm always fascinated by people like Eggers and Wallace who explore its edges.  I don't love this book, but it has kept my attention as a kind of intellectual exercise, and it is like a garden filled with tiny blossoms that delight the eye when you slow down and look closely. 
  • Matthew Dickerson, The Rood And The Torc.  Dickerson is a friend of mine and my co-author, so there's my disclosure.  Now let me say this about Dickerson: there are good reasons why he's my friend and my co-author, and this book illustrates some of them.  He's a natural, easy storyteller who makes you glad you kept turning the pages.  His prose is light, disappearing from the eye, easily replaced with a mental image of the place and the characters.  This is one of several novels he has written about the peripheries of Beowulf, a beautiful story about poetry, songs, medieval Europe, and the cost of making the right choices. Reading this book was the first time I felt like I could see medieval life, not just read about it.  Homes and hearths come alive with smoke and roasting meat and moving songs; the Frisian landscape and the rolling sea and the smell of cowherds seem to lift off the pages and into my imagination as I read it.  John Wilson is right: this is "a splendid historical novel." Dickerson is brilliant, and so is his prose.
As I've mentioned before, I try to read as many old books as new books.  I usually find it rewarding to read classic and canonical texts.  They help me understand my culture better, and there's usually a good reason they've stood the test of time.  Here are some of my recent reads in that category:
  • Hunter S. Thompson, Screwjack.  This is the book Carlos Castaneda would have written if he'd admitted he was writing fiction.  You feel the intoxication, and you believe it.
  • Herman Melville, Moby Dick.  This is one of those books that everyone knows and nearly nobody reads.  It is long, and full of words.  Lots and lots of words.  But wow.  It is one of those rare books that gives me the sense that every sentence was the child of long and serious reflection. Reading this was like taking a really good class.  Naturally, I bought myself a "What Would Queequeg Do?" t-shirt to mark this milestone in my life.  You can get yours here.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses From An Old Manse. And this is like Melville.  You read it because at the end, you discover that what seemed to be a simple story about a simple thing makes you understand your world a lot better.
I want to mention two more books together, even though one belongs to the first list and the other belongs to the second list.  I read them back-to-back, and they both left me with surprising and enduring impressions:

  • John Steinbeck, The Moon Is Down. I love Steinbeck, so I bought this book not knowing a thing about it.  Turns out Steinbeck wrote it as a propaganda piece.  He wanted to give a picture of what it would look like to live in, say, Norway or Denmark under Nazi rule, and how that occupation could lead to resistance.  What I love about Steinbeck is, more than anything, his desire to portray people with sympathy.  The Nazis in his book are real people, believable, and even likeable.  I wish we had more people able to portray our contemporary enemies with such sympathy.  If we could do so, we could love them better, and I think we could better understand how to resist them.  As a bonus, towards the end of the novel there is a prolonged reflection on the meaning of Plato's Apology of Socrates.
  • Patrick Hicks, The Commandant of Lubizec.  (Another disclosure: Hicks is also my friend.) I was pretty sure I'd read all I needed to read about the Holocaust.  I grew up with survivors. I've read all the usual books, I teach several in my classes.  I didn't want to hear any more.  But Hicks has done something truly remarkable in this fictionalized account of Operation Reinhard. In fact, what he's done is similar to what Steinbeck does: he has written about people with real sympathy and insight.  It's a hard read because he spares us nothing, but that's precisely what makes it such a good read. Here's a short video about the book: