Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, April 16, 2007

More Precarity

Stumbled on a great dKos diary on Precarity (a topic about which I've recently written here myself). Check it out.

Amor Mundi

When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action. -- Hannah Arendt

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Close to You; Or, Truth-Talk Among the Philosophers

I don't usually think of truth as something that gets us "closer to" the world or that can somehow drive or derange us into "distance from" the world. Even though this is a commonplace formulation from philosophical truth-talk, I find it less and less intelligible the longer I look at it.

Definitely I don't think of old beliefs I used to hold but have now discarded for better ones as beliefs that were "out of touch" with the world somehow.

As descriptions I held and used, they arose in the world and have exactly the same "proximity" to the environment as the better beliefs I went on to replace them with (that is to say, they're soaking in it).

It's just that they came to seem less felicitous to me than some alternative on offer in light of ends that mattered to me: prediction and control of the vicissitudes of my environment, maintaining membership in communities of interpretation or affinity crucial to my identity, assimilating unexpected existential materials in my ongoing project of narrative self-creation, soliciting universal legibility as a judging subject and citizen, reconciling diverse aspirations among peers in as fair and nonviolent a way as possible, and so on.

I guess I'm still a good enough red-white-and-blue pragmatist that I still think of a truth as something that is good in the way of belief, as William James put the point.

From an instrumental- scientific- prudential point of view, descriptions that are good in the way of belief will be those on offer which we come to accept for now (through the application of shared but contingent standards and practices) as providing the greatest powers of prediction and control. Meanwhile, the social protocols yielding the goods in the way of belief will differ quite a bit when the good is more a matter of, say, facilitating moral identification/ disidentification, or a matter of facilitating the ongoing political reconciliation of diverse human aspirations among a plurality of peers who share a world, and so on.

Now, I think that when we are casting about for a metaphor that would capture what it is about some descriptions that makes them better or more warranted as candidates for belief in these various modes, usually it is far more trouble than it is worth to speak of proximity, closeness, likeness, and so on. These metaphors of "faithfulness" tend to mobilize and empower unappealing authoritarian models of belief-ascription, where it looks to me like what is wanted, rather, are more experimentalist and democratic ones. And so, I tend to turn to metaphors that stress conversation, improvisation, and performance instead of mirrors, approaches, finalities.

In common or garden variety parlance, there are plenty of times when the most urgent quandary is to determine whether or not somebody on whom you depend is telling the truth or lying to you. There, I recommend a focus on what conduct tells you over what words do. But this isn't really what philosophers are worried about when they turn to truth-talk.

For me, it should only be when some actual instrumental, moral, esthetic, ethical, or political problem confronts us that we should struggle to solve or resolve or dissolve it, to "break the crust of convention" or weave some new convention to ease, overcome, or circumvent our difficulty. There is nothing inherently more desirable about the demolition or maintenance of conventions as such, only their facilitation or inhibition of our ends.

That is to say, when philosophers in particular turn to truth-talk, well, I think then we are all better off when we make every effort to ensure that their and our focus remains on actually solving problems and never on some abstract "devotion" to Truth, however irresistible the temptation to transcendental over pragmatic considerations may seem.

The latter focus feeds and releases, it seems to me, the murderous Priests in our hearts and in the world. Every time.

The Priests believe that the world has preferences in the matter of the way it is described, and they tend to believe that they speak the language in which these preferences are expressed (or at any rate they fancy they are "closer" to or less "biased" from that Holy language).

But I would like to think that we can put away such childish and bloody-minded things.

We need not crave, after all, the Priestly assurances that our variously warranted beliefs are not just good in the way of belief in light of our various ends, but also put us "in touch" with the voices in a Priestly head that he ascribes to the world, or the world's God.

Even when I am wrong I am already as "in touch" with the world as I will ever be. Indeed, I cannot make much sense of that notion so beloved of the Radical Skeptic (the Priest's kissing cousin) that there could be such a thing as a practice of description or belief-ascription that could "separate" me from my environment somehow.

Sure, there are foolish beliefs I can ascribe to that will trip me up, threaten my social standing, confound my sense of self, render me unfit for the scene of consent, muck up negotiations, and so on. But the problem with these bad beliefs isn't that they fail to reproduce the sound and shape of the words with which the world would speak itself, and have us speak it, as the Priests would have it. My bad beliefs are quite as worldly as my better beliefs are.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.

Upcoming Courses:

Next fall, I'll be teaching a course on rhetoric and environmentalism, both at Berkeley and at the Art Institute. At SFAI the course is a Critical Theory (B) course, called "Nature and Theory," and at Berkeley the course is Rhetoric 181, "Green Rhetoric." Although the course is sure to change a bit in the next few months here's the description at present:
What does it mean to See Green? What does it mean to Be Green? What does it mean to Act Green? What are the differences between "environmentalisms" as sites of identification and disidentification, as subcultures, as movements, as political programs, as research programs, as critical and rhetorical perspectives? How have these Green worldly readings changed over time, how is the Green changing now, and in what ways does Greenness abide?

In this course we will read a number of canonical "environmentalist" texts, seeking to understand better what it means to read the world Greenly. Tracking through these texts each of us will struggle to weave together and testify to our own sense of the Green as an interpretive register, as a readerly skill-set, as a site of imaginative investment, and as a provocation to action.

This is a Keyword course, engaging environmentalist discourses historically, theoretically, and practically through an exploration of a number of key terms, among them: "Biodiversity," "Biomimicry," "Biopiracy," "Biosphere," "Climate Change," "Commons," "Consensus Science," "Cradle-to-Cradle," "Deep Ecology," "Democracy," "Denial," "Ecology," "Ecofeminism," "Ecosocialism," "Endangered Species," "Externality," "Footprint," "Leapfrogging," "Limit," "Monoculture," "Nature," "Recycling/Downcycling," "Permaculture," "Polyculture," "Post-Scarcity," "Precautionary Principle," "Sustainability," "Toxicity/Abrasion," "Triple Bottom Line," "Viridian," "Wilderness," and so on.

Fair warning: The course will be quite reading intensive. Each student will be delivering an in-class presentation drawn from personal research, as well as co-facilitating discussion of one of our assigned texts. The final exam will provide an occasion to come to terms with certain Key Words that will preoccupy our attention throughout our conversation.

Required Text:

Edward Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang [ISBN: 0061129763]

A Required Reader, Including:

Carol Adams, from Ecofeminism and the Sacred
Tom Athanasiou, from Divided Planet
Janine Benyus, from Biomimicry
Murray Bookchin, from Post-Scarcity Anarchism
James Boyle, Enclosing the Genome
Rachel Carson, from Silent Spring
Annie Dillard, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth (screening)
Donna Haraway, The Actors are Cyborg, Nature is Coyote, and the Geography is Elsewhere
Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins, from Natural Capitalism
Stephen Kellert, from The Value of Life
Aldo Leopold, from Sand County Almanac
William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Cradle to Cradle
Carolyn Merchant, from Radical Ecology
John Stuart Mill, On Nature
William Morris, News from Nowhere
John Muir, from his collected Essays
Vendana Shiva, from Water Wars, and from Earth Democracy
Henry David Thoreau, from Walden

Texts Available Online:

Jamais Cascio, Leapfrog 101, etc.
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, The Death of Environmentalism
Extensive Background and Discussion of the essay "The Death of Environmentalism," via Grist
Bruce Sterling, Viridian Principles and Manifesto
Bright Green Blogs: Alliance for Green Socialism, The Gristmill, RealClimate, Treehugger, Worldchanging, etc.

Recommended Text:
Worldchanging: A User's Guide to the 21st Century, Alex Steffen, Al Gore, Bruce Sterling

This summer, I'll be teaching a short, intensive version of the Rhetoric Department's foundational argumentation course, Rhetoric 10. The six week version should feel a bit like bootcamp for the brain. I'm re-teaching the course next spring at a more normal pace, but with precisely the same texts and topic. Here's a description:
Rhetoric 10 is an introductory course in practical argumentation, textual interpretation, critical thinking, and discourse analysis. The works we will be reading together are exemplary argumentative texts in many different modes: philosophical dialogues and formal theses, polemics, literary readings, a novel, a play, a graphic novel, a film.

The word "argument" comes from the Latin arguere, to clarify. And contrary to its cantankerous reputation, the process of argumentation can be one that seeks after clarity rather than one that seeks always to prevail over difference. We argue, surely, to change minds and alter conduct, but we argue as well to inquire what are the best beliefs when we are ignorant or unsure of ourselves, we argue to interrogate our own assumptions, we argue to clarify the stakes at issue in a debate, we argue to gain a serious hearing for our unique perspective, we argue to reconcile deep differences, we argue to find the best course of action in the circumstances that beset us.

Over the course of the term, we will concentrate our attention on the idea of persuasion as a practice that would repudiate violence. We will discover persuasion is a practice haunted by violence, a practice complicit in violence, a practice responsive to violence, a practice responsible for violence, a practice through which violence is uniquely understood and resisted.

At the same time, we will survey many of the basic argumentative tools that have accumulated over centuries of rhetorical theory and practice: We will ponder the trivium; we will learn about the three Aristotelian appeals, logos, pathos, ethos; we will survey the common topoi; we will discover the difference between a scheme and a trope, a formal versus an informal fallacy; we will play around with enthymemes and learn the rules of engagement governing the various modes of syllogism; we will meditate on the differences between deliberative, judicial, and ceremonial discourse; we will astound loved ones as we analyze their pet arguments according to models like the Toulmin Schema or Rogerian Synthesis; and we will be enthralled to discover that contemporary enthusiasms for newfangled things like "memes" and "framing" happen to have been anticipated by millenia of rhetors writing on rhetoric, stylists writing on style, and wits writing on wit.


Art Spiegelman, Maus
Octavia Butler, Kindred

Selections Available in a Course Reader:

Euripides, Hecuba
Thucydides, Melian Dialogue from History of the Peloponnesian War
Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from the Birmingham Jail
Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan
Immanuel Kant, Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose
Carol Adams, Beastliness and a Politics of Solidarity
Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Genealogy of Morals
Michel Foucault, from Discipline and Punish
Hannah Arendt, from On Violence
David Cronengerg, dir. A History of Violence
Frantz Fanon, from The Wretched of the Earth
Mike Davis, from Planet of Slums
Judith Butler, from Precarious Life

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The MoveOn Town Hall (Updated)

MoveOn just sponsored an interesting Town Hall discussion of Iraq by the current crop of Presidential candidates (Republicans prefer the safety of their Pravda, Fox, and were, of course, nowheresville -- as they will likewise be come Election Day), and in the aftermath MoveOn asked members which candidate they were most pleased with in a poll.

I am still supporting John Edwards for the Presidency, but Bill Richardson's repudiation of residual forces in Iraq seemed to me the most honest and credible anti-war stance and so he got my vote on this particular poll.

To endorse an abiding troop presence in Iraq or, worse, bases (and even "temporary" bases amount to permanent ones if we don't leave them) while claiming to intend to end the war is, frankly, dishonest, incoherent, and out of touch.

It is our job to pressure our current favorite candidates (mine, again, is still John Edwards for now) to a more consistent and honest stance like Richardson's on this key question. That pressure is one of the forms our support should take in a democracy. We should not just reward our candidates with kudos and cash when they do good things (as I have rewarded Edwards for his forthright refusals to legitimize the Fox's corporate-militarist-theocratic noise machine as if it were a news outlet, and for his righteous support of lesbian and gay citizens like me, and for his ongoing support of unions and denunciations of the violence of poverty in America) but talk back and remind them who the employer at the end of this long job interview is going to be whenever they haven't found their way as yet to the proper positions (as I let my candidate Edwards know that I am unhappy about the way some of his "tough talk" on Iran plays into the hands of the disgusting militarist exceptionalist unilateralist drum beat for catastrophic war spewing forth from the Killer Clown Administration at the moment).

Update: The Edwards Campaign has already clarified their position in letters sent to dKos, MyDD and similar places, very much for the better.
When we say complete withdrawal we mean it. No more war. No combat troops in the country. Period. But we're also being honest. If John Edwards is president, we're not going to leave the American Embassy in Iraq as the only undefended embassy in the world, for example. There will be Marine guards there, just like there are at our embassies in London, Riyadh, and Tokyo . And just the same, if American civilians are providing humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people, we're going to protect them. How in good conscience could we refuse to protect them and then allow humanitarian workers to be at risk for their lives or the work not to happen at all? Finally, it's also Senator Edwards' position that we will have troops in the region to prevent the sectarian violence in Iraq from spilling over into other countries, for counter-terrorism, or to prevent a genocide. But in the region means in the region - for example, existing bases like Kuwait, naval presence in the Persian Gulf , and so forth. I hope this helps explain Senator Edwards' position. Thanks for standing up for what we all believe in.

I like the first part better than the second part, and have quibbles certainly (I'm an anti-war socialist-feminist queer vegetarian radical democrat theoryhead, for heaven's sake -- of course I'm gonna have quibbles), but this is rather more like it.

Idle and Idol

I've reached that point in the term when grading and preparations for lecture accumulate rather maddeningly and, hence, among other thing, blogging is taking a bit of a backseat for now. Sorry about that. A quick comment from left field about American Idol is obviously in order. I have a real weakness for Reality TV shows, but this weakness is exacerbated to near epic proportions at times like this when my work becomes especially burdensome. Work Out and Ninja Warrior and Ultimate Fighter and Idol become something like the soundtrack in the background while I grade exams and endlessly assemble lecture notes and so on.

Anyway, for those of you watching Idol -- am I the only one who had the uncanny sense that a Transporter malfunction has brought us a Sanjaya from the Mirror Universe to perform last night? The goatee, the manic gleam in his eye? I'm just saying. And speaking of Sanjaya: I disapprove of both the Sanjaya haters as well as those whose "love" of Sanjaya is packaged as an expression of aristocratic kitsch (just stop lying) or a stealthy repudiation of the whole Idol franchise (just stop watching).

Certainly I agree that Sanjaya is a laughably weak singer and rather underconfident performer, but it seems to me a straightforward lie to pretend any of the other guys in the competition this season are any better than he is (there is no Elliott Yamin in this pack of dull doughy mediocrities). The desperation with which the judges lather on about the talent and sex appeal of every boy but Sanjaya reflects how curiously out of touch they are with America as it actually is, or at any rate is quickly coming to be. Sanjaya is the "cutest" guy on the show, as these things seem to be reckoned, and he looks like America actually looks. Given his relative talentlessness on top of everything else I would venture to say Sanjaya manages to reflect America back at itself rather richly, as it happens, and in more ways than one, much of its charm as well as some of its awfulness.

Judges and punditocrats can laugh at his soft-spokeness and deride him as a girly-man and pretend his anemic little jabs at sartorial eccentricity are unfathomably crazy and all the rest but the truth is America simply isn't as homophobic or racist or cheerfully imperialist as the producers of American Idol seem to be deep down in their icy hearts and until they grasp this they will fail to grasp the success of Sanjaya. (Of course this Sanjaya saga could all be a faux controversy to whomp up ratings for a tired franchise, akin to Simon and Paula going interminably through the motions of flirtation and lovers spatting, or Simon and Ryan going through precisely the same motions just as uninterestingly.)

All that said, the women on the show are incomparably better than the guys, and Melinda Doolittle is obviously the one who deserves to win (even if the deer caught in the headlights schtick with which she inevitably faces down applause and praise is really getting tired).