Judging by the Seminar: On Buses and Fascism by Andrew Woods

Most people do not place much faith in bus schedules. Congestion and traffic lights always conspire to delay buses by five minutes or more. When I moved to London, Ontario, I learnt quite swiftly that the arrival and departure of buses in this city do not follow any logical system. At least their randomness allows me to practice the art of waiting and thus cultivate the virtue of patience.

I do not have a car or a driver’s license, so the bus is the only mode of transportation that can take me from my neighborhood to the university campus. I expect that I will regret my decision not to take a driving test when I am shivering at a bus stop in the middle of the harsh Ontario winter. Then again, I am a dangerously incompetent driver. On my very last driving lesson, my instructor advised me never to get behind the wheel of a car ever again. He assured me that lives were at stake. Driving, like filing your taxes or installing your Wi-Fi router, is one of those things that needs to be done right or not at all. I suppose that waiting at a bus stop is the price one must pay for not committing any acts of manslaughter through clumsy driving.

While I look down the road in the hope of spotting the approaching bus, I think idly about the set text for today’s seminar: Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. The book’s editor, Ronald Beiner, compiled Arendt’s lecture notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgement to supply a surrogate for the book that Arendt never finished. According to Arendtian lore, a sheet of paper was found in her typewriter after her death that bore two epigraphs and the title Judging. It was the first page of the final part of her trilogy The Life of the Mind. So, what is judging?

Judgment has a bad reputation nowadays. Being judgmental is perceived as a vice and conjures up the image of an entitled prig who believes that his opinions are unquestionably superior and meritorious. Moreover, judgment is too closely related to prejudice (Latin. praeiudicium—“prior justice”) for anyone to think that there is anything redeemable about it.

Nevertheless, I believe that we can rescue the exercise of judgment from accusations of judgmental-ness and prejudice. After all, stubbornness of mind is not an inherent quality of judgment. In fact, Arendt quotes a letter that Kant wrote to his friend and pupil Marcus Herz in 1770: “You know that I do not approach reasonable objections with the intention of merely refuting them but that in thinking them over I always weave them into my judgments and afford them the opportunity of overturning all my cherished beliefs.” Judgment cannot take place without an open mind. Since we share the world with others, no one can make a claim or present an argument without encountering someone else’s opinions and objections. Furthermore, Arendt argues that this acknowledgment of the existence and intelligence of other people is already weaved into a judgment. She explains that imagination—the capacity to make present what is absent—enables us to anticipate the responses of others and imagine why they might agree or object to our opinions. In a sense, imagination enables us to host a roundtable discussion in our own minds.

It is apt that I am thinking about judgment on my way to a seminar. Whereas lectures present authoritative answers, seminars provoke curious discussions. Incidentally, the word seminar originates from the Latin seminarium— “breeding ground, plant nursery”— which, in turn, derives from seminarius— “of seed.” No one is expected to present a fully-grown tree of an idea in a roundtable discussion (Truthfully speaking, few scholars seek definitive answers unless they are consulting the O.E.D.). Every remark or question is a scattering of conceptual seeds that might grow into an offshoot that takes the conversation into an unforeseen direction. There is something playful and rewarding about seminars. Debates remind me of games of chess, in which two combatants must compete until one of them emerges as the victor. Seminars, on the other hand, evoke the image of several friends jogging together in the park on a Sunday afternoon. No one needs to win; there is no score. Just as jogs exercise body, seminars broaden and sharpen the mind.

Although scholars are usually caricatured as solitary and unsociable types, we crave and cherish the company of our peers. Even when we appear to spend too much time in silence and solitude, we are never completely alone. Whenever we quote a statistic or reshape an old idea, we enter a genuine relation with our predecessors, contemporaries, and descendants. Yet, I fear that this joyful and spirited play between history and the future is under threat.

Like many others, I have puzzled over the meaning and purpose of a scholarly life in the age of revitalized fascism. Times of crisis can inspire feelings of futility and fatalism. I worry that someone who is prepared to plow through a crowd of innocent people in a sports car may not be bothered about the fact that graduate students attend and participate in seminars. Nonetheless, something as simple as sitting in a room with others and discussing a topic respectfully is antithetical to fascism.

Fascism offers a simple explanation of the world for those who cannot confront the unpredictability and complexity of modern life. Different groups are cast in the roles of the good guys and the bad guys. Nothing is safe or sacred whenever fascists plait their ideology into the texture of life. Anyone who publishes an inconvenient fact is accused of spreading fake news; anyone who stands up for the rights of others is ridiculed as an “SJW.”

Fascism overpowers imagination with delusion. Whereas imagination requires the humility to admit that someone could rightfully disagree with you, delusion requires the staunch belief that anyone and anything that contradicts your worldview is objectively wrong. Everyone knows that it is easier to delude oneself than imagine the perspective of someone else. Novelists struggle for years to grasp the essence of what it means to live and act as a human being before they can craft fictional characters that “ring true.” In this light, one can understand the appeal of Ayn Rand’s novels to right-wing libertarians. Her characters are nothing more than mediums for competing ideologies. No depth, ambiguity, or mystery is permitted in the system of Rand’s objectivism. Think about the rape scene in The Fountainhead. Under fascism, intimacy and tenderness can play no part in sexual intercourse; there is only abuse, aggression, and domination. That’s why contemporary fascism is so keen to defend our pernicious and pervasive rape culture. Fascism refuses to accept that people deserve dignity even when they are inconvenient. Women deserve respect even when they withhold consent. Protestors are not terrorists just because they disagree with you.

Riding on a bus teaches me a lot about living with others. As much as I would like everyone on this bus to be quiet enough for me to read Simone Weil in peace, I do not suffer from the requisite megalomania to think that I should force them into silence and submission. People cannot be manipulated like pixels on Photoshop.

Noise is just a part of public space.

I think about a counter-protest that I attended recently in opposition to the gathering of an anti-Islamic group that claimed to promote the right to free speech. While they yelled their hateful speeches into a megaphone, we banged on drums and blew on whistles to drown them out. Later, a member of that group approached me and asked why I wanted to deny his right to speak freely. I told him that our confrontation had nothing to do with free speech. Given the authority, their group would have ordered the police to arrest every single participant in the counter-protest. They did not want us to listen. They wanted us to be silent.

Fascism cannot tolerate the existence of seminars, because they prove that the alt-right’s conception of the right to free speech is just a pale facsimile of the real thing. Seminars reveal that coming closer to the truth requires conversation and collaboration. Broadening one’s mind means opening oneself up to the sacred inconsistency of the world. In a more mundane sense, it means waiting for a bus even when it is a few minutes late.

I am sitting in the seminar room now. People nod in recognition whenever someone new enters the room. There is casual chatter about the reading for the week. Someone scribbles a few prompts into their notebook to remind them of significant points to raise as soon as the discussion gets underway. Someone starts the seminar with a question and someone else offers a tentative answer, then someone refines the answer with stipulation, which, in turn, prompts someone else to pose another question. As I listen, I think: “Fascism has no home here.”

 

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The University Industrial Complex by Anwar Uhuru

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Image by Eloise Renouf

 

Currently, I am a PhD Candidate in the Humanities, which sounds more glamorous than it really is for those who inhabit these liminal places.

The Humanities has always been considered the alternative intellectual arena for those who do not deal with the natural sciences. The sciences are labeled as “dealing with the world as it is,” and the Humanities as a “safe space” for those who don’t do too much thinking: socially viewed as a place for people who love books. Unfortunately, the Humanities does not “rake in” the money the way that STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) Nursing, Sports or Business does for universities. Therefore, Humanities programs do not receive the same amount of funding for undergraduate and graduate programs.

Far too often, students who are admitted into PhD programs in the Liberal Arts and Social Sciences are partially or not funded at all. If they do receive funding it is usually to cover coursework, they may be responsible for fees, and are (most always) responsible for finding ways to support themselves during the summer months. Consequently, when the PhD student reaches their candidacy and are only left to write and defend their dissertation that is “original research” they are forced to work as adjuncts or find other means of support. These stipulations force the PhD candidate to make harsh decisions, often related to not being able to devote the required amount of time to write a decent dissertation.

The politics of survival and thriving are not taken into consideration when universities want the prestige of being a doctoral degree granting institution, completely ignoring the timeline to complete Humanities PhD Dissertations– which are supposed to contain original research conducted by the candidate.

Original dissertations require extensive research, and, in some disciplines, data collection must be funded in order to conduct. That means it will take time and money.

Institutions do not consider the amount of physical and psychological toll that PhD programs require of candidates. Instead, the institution only wants the numbers and the recognition, but they do not provide adequate support for their students. A PhD student will not fill the seats of a sports arena, secure funding from a fortune 500 company, gain employment before graduation at the rate of a Nursing, Business, or STEM candidate. Yet, they are expected to dedicate 5-7 years of their life conducting research and teach undergraduate classes that are far too often overcrowded and under-resourced. Courses which are essential building blocks of undergraduate development and success in all fields.

Many institutions in the United States only focus on what brings in money, not what sustains and strengthens the institution.

Humanities students are asked to be interdisciplinary, strengthen deficiencies in the students they teach, publish peer-reviewed articles before graduation, secure external funding, and land a Research 1 job while working 60+ hours a week. It is no wonder that many students that pursue a PhD in the Humanities:

A) don’t graduate

B) don’t pursue jobs in Academe if they do graduate

C) take more than 5 years to graduate

D) suffer multiple health issues

E) Don’t seek medical or mental health services

F) suffer trauma correlated with their programs.

The home department of the candidate and the institution would rather place blame on the current political administration in Washington, D.C. or the local and state government instead of looking at the unjust and inhumane labor practices of the institution. Despite New York State recently granting free tuition to residents to four year institutions, it is only for those that will attend the SUNY (State University of New York School) system. Meaning: only those that will attend SUNY institutions will be supported post graduation, which will only work to serve those who are fiscally, politically and culturally “superior.” There is a 2 and in some cases 4 year, state residency requirement and you must find employment with in 12 months of graduation. It does not grant the same protection and benefits to those who are in graduate programs. Nor does it grant fiscal protection for the adjunct laborer, the backbone to 90% of these institutions. It is the equivalent of placing a Band Aid on a gunshot wound.

It is no wonder that many of those who are in graduate programs, in New York and elsewhere, are considering the dilemma: “why am I doing this?” Many students in doctoral programs are finding alternative careers and ways to market themselves as not being too educated. Candidates in Humanities PhD programs are finding it more lucrative to omit that they have graduate degrees on resumes and CVs and are landing jobs that will help them with their debt and gain a consistent income.

The CEO/PhD is the state of the academy, and the corporatization of intellectual capital that forces those who want to stay within disciplinary strictures of “first comes degree then comes tenure track” left out in the cold. Now, candidates are finding it much more viable to blog and then apply to programs because they get better funding packages. Those who begin while in a program are doing workshops to learn how to become content writers, playwrights, or seeking jobs in corporate because the poverty narrative is too high. The amount of debt that was accrued while on the road to the PhD can be outrageous.

This is not to deter people from entering PhD programs completely. It is to say the system is designed to create an illusion of a surge of PhD degree holders versus the number of jobs available for the number of PhD degrees that are annually produced.

For example, an institution that has an annual endowment of 600 million dollars per year spends it on AstroTurf for the athletic fields and the iconography of the institution. Yet, the library is only two floors. In addition to that, most institutions admit too many students per year which leaves the students that are admitted highly underfunded. Ironically, these students defeat the odds and finish their degree and are now faced with having to enter a market where jobs are often absorbed by administrative cuts and their jobs being done by two faculty members or the real laborers: the adjuncts.

Why? Because it is cheaper to have temporary labor. Administration will not release their annual or semi-annual bonus to support the temporary labor of the student or adjunct. Instead, Freire and other critical pedagogues have highlighted the far too real reality of the University Industrial Complex.

The problem isn’t the student that wants a degree, or in this case an advanced degree, it is the institutions that allow this form of abuse and exploitation to persist.

 

 

Resources for further reading:

https://versatilephd.com/
https://academia.stackexchange.com/questions/83693/academic-alternatives-to-a-ph-d
https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/what-can-you-do-with-a-humanities-phd-anyway/359927/
https://www.findaphd.com/advice/doing/phd-non-academic-careers.aspx
https://qz.com/174811/enroll-in-a-phd-program-but-leave-academia-as-soon-as-you-graduate/
https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/01/adjunct-professors-and-grad-students-are-the-worki.html
https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/why-do-so-many-graduate-students-quit/490094/

 

 

No History To Speak Of, No Place To Speak From by Wes Bishop

I often come across many authors and thinkers in my reading who argue writing their own history is an emancipatory practice. In other words, they believe that taking control of the narrative of their past is the first step in creating their own distinct identity, which allows for the development of a particular social and political philosophy.

I understand this argument. The violence of empires leaves us no other choice but to rip the pen from the hand of imperial historians and give it to the people who have been brutalized. Lions writing histories while telling the hunters to take a hike, and all that jazz. But for me, personally, I’ve never felt that way about my own personal history. In many ways, it terrifies me.

Why? Because, I suppose, I see writing down my own history as freezing the fluidity of who I am. Histories have a troubling tendency to become established tributaries to the present moment. Small streams to artificial lakes.

Who are we? We are the rapids in one time period coming to a rest. We are the foam of a particular waterfall easing back into the water. We are waves from someone else’s stone being skipped across the surface. We are change over time.

So, by hiding who our past selves are, by grounding ourselves in the present and in our future hopes, we don’t become the descendants of someone else, the sum at the end of a mysterious mathematician’s equation. We become the birthplace for a new era.

I am fully aware that this is a contradiction.

I’m a historian who feels more comfortable racing to the future than walking in the past. Is this just “white guilt”? Possibly. A good portion of my own collective history is one of being a direct descendant of colonists. Europeans, (some willing, many reluctant), were removed from one continent to work on another. I remember first reading about this history in graduate school. Historians like Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker challenged the older narratives I had been told. Many of my white ancestors had not come for “opportunity.” Instead, it was a longer history of forcing people out into the Atlantic World to create new profit for the newly emerging global capitalist system.

But, despite that, we were still colonists. We were the people who moved into areas, violently pushing others out of their homes and land.

+++

Growing up everyone, and I mean literally everyone, told people in my generation to get an education so we could transcend our socio-economic status.

We should be doctors, lawyers, educated elite people who didn’t have to work in the service industry, one of the last reliable ways of life in mountain towns and cornfield villages.

And some of us did just that. But the further we went with our education and the more we learned, the more we became alien to the very culture that produced us. Didn’t matter that Appalachia had produced its fair share of artists, thinkers, writers, teachers, and scientists (not to mention politically radical movements).

Ohio rural culture had swallowed the Kool-Aid. We were “hillbilly proud”! Our collective poverty not a social problem, but a feature that made us “more honest.” Apparently being on welfare, with poor health care, while white and with cows around you, made you some kind of “noble frontiersman.” Funny, since the same people who argued this thought being in the inner city, with darker skin, and the same socio-economic status, somehow made you a “social degenerate.” This was an attitude shared by both rural whites and many cultural elites. Better to be a “Son of the Earth.” It made you somehow more “honest and hardworking,” I guess.

Is it any wonder then that so many people from rural white communities end up feeling alienated from the very culture that produced them? When your entire education is predicated on the hope that you will “escape,” education and thoughtful expression cease to be the natural elements of that society, and instead become a rocket ship that is constantly struggling to break the gravitational pull of the past.

We create a situation that views a connection with the past as a failure, because conscious, educated understanding is supposed to leave that society once attained. It is the very foundation of the philosophy “get an education, and get out.”

Appalachians and small town Midwest denizens internalize this feeling, creating a popular cultural expression enslaved to the past, conservative in all respects.

 

+++

“Do you refer to Christian thought and belief as mythology in your classrooms?” I asked my friend Podge over coffee one day.

We had been having a conversation about one of the textbooks used in one of the introduction classes at Purdue. He was angry because the text had referred to Christian belief as “Christian mythology.” It was a swipe at the validity of religion, in his opinion.

I disagreed, but understood where he was coming from. It is hard to climb in the head of textbook authors, but anyone who knows anything about the scholarship around textbooks knows that they are as much historical documents as the documents we use to inform the textbooks in the first place.

Referring to Christian belief as “mythology” could be, and probably should be, read within the broader historical context of the so-called “Culture Wars” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, where cultural conservatives and social liberals duked it out for dominance in educational materials. In that context there was “scientific fact” and “cultural belief.” Science equaled “truth,” while cultural belief, that is mythology, was synonymous with “fantasy.”

Podge told me as much. “Wes, science with its belief in unending, continuous progress is as much a myth as any system of religious beliefs.”

I didn’t disagree, but I told him, I thought the real issue was with the scientific materialists corrupting the word “mythology.”

“Myths shouldn’t be synonymous with ‘fake,’” I said. “Myths are just cultural stories we, as societies, tell ourselves to organize our universe. It gives us meaning because it claims to know where we came from, and where we are going.”

It is why I personally do refer to Christian belief as “Christian mythology” in classrooms. But I do so while trying to make my students understand that mythology is not interchangeable with “lies.”

It is not an easy thing to accomplish. In order for people to fully understand that Christianity is as much a system of mythology as Greek religious thought, or Norse belief, they have to first understand that everything we think as humans is historically constituted. There is no system of thought that is either permanent or forever-true.

Sorry, Plato. There are no absolute forms. Just historically constructed variations of ideas dependent on a time period. What is true in one era is false in another. What is basic common sense in one era is utter gibberish in another.

But, this is hard to understand. Why? Because the system of thought we currently live under is a powerful ideology. That’s a byproduct of the hegemonic power of modernity.

“Science” is one way of understanding our place in the cosmos. It orders the world, is open to change, and spins off both beautiful and often terrifying human creations. But science is not the only way of understanding human existence. Furthermore, it only exists if a culture believes in conceptions of historic progress, materialist reality, and human ability to accurately measure and observe said reality. That supposed “truth” is actually a house of clouds shifting through time. It will not always be with us. It will eventually change to the point that the new system of thought that comes from it no longer resembles the previous. Science, as a system of belief, actually is fully capable of understanding this feature of its existence. Evolution, one of the major achievements in thought for science, demonstrates this aspect of our shared reality.

We continually change until we are no longer that thing we used to be.

“Mythology” (categorized as a previous society’s way of understanding) is another way we do this. Myths are the cultural stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our ancestors, and our future generations. It gives us meaning because it connects us with a collective past and common future.

Hercules slays the Hydra. Pandora opens a box. Nudists eat forbidden fruit. Prophets speak to gods. Gods visit wrath on people.

All of these communicate, a universe where humans are just a part of the cosmos. Often, they are not the most powerful in the story. They have choices, to be sure, but that choice is not radically free. Choices lead to new situations, which creates new conditions, which influences future states.

This is the basic principle of historic social change. We are the products of people and forces before us, not just our ancestors, but also large cosmological forces. We don’t pick our past, and we are only able to select a limited set of options for the future. Furthermore, simply because we choose and push for a certain social ordering, does not mean we will actually achieve it.

So, we walk about this world as modern actors with ancient understandings. We are a collage of various time periods.

Lincoln sits in a temple modeled off of Zeus.

Washington is remembered with an obelisk.

The so-called “canon wars” continue to rage in vital ways. Who we collectively deem as our legitimate authors for our civilization determines not only how we talk about ourselves, but it informs how we literally build the intellectual stage for our possible future actions.

It is why that argument of people writing their own histories is so important. Who we deem ourselves to be, and who argues that self-identity is the future’s beliefs, an eventual present’s truth, a probable past’s mythology.

Myths are powerful and they are important. Those stories matter.

But even as I understand this, I find it difficult to write about the past, present, and future of the culture that produced me. Much of what I’ve been told in my life says that in order to produce something worthwhile I should not focus on the factors that created me. Instead, I should look to another’s ideals. Not an archaeologist’s pick and shovel, but an astronaut’s star charts and rocket fuel.

Get out, don’t come back, escape and make a better life for yourself.

This is only complicated by the twin irrational argument that to do the very thing my education was supposed to do is to become arrogant, a know-it-all, an alien in one’s own home world.

What is my collective mythology, then? What orders the subset of the culture I come from?

+++

A few weekends ago my partner and I went home for a weekend visit. As we pulled off the highway I looked out the window at the valley farms, and changing landscape. Buildings I had known as a young person were beginning to decay and fall in on themselves. They were like collapsing black holes dotting the Ohio valley’s landscape, yet instead of gravity, history pulled them toward their destructive centers. Lack of funds and ability to keep up these 19th century homes and barns determined their fate. It was a perfect symbol for what I had been thinking about. History served as a point of destruction, violently pulling the past together until it was destroyed by its own weight. History did not radiate outward.

We drove past several older buildings and before pulling into my partner’s parent’s home, we saw a new barn being built by an Amish family. It was a sign that human civilization in this area would continue, but that it would look different from what we had known.

Perhaps that is just a common state of affairs for all people. But as we crossed the final stream to pull into our destination I thought about how that stream eventually led to the largest artificial lake in the area.

Back in 1937 the federal government had entered the area and drastically changed the landscape. Taking the various swamps and floodplains of the Ohio valley region, the New Deal organizations had flooded close to 3,000 acres of land creating “Seneca Lake.” It was one of the permanent features of my childhood. Every day to get to school involved a half an hour drive around that lake on a school bus.  

The New Deal, one of this nation’s most celebrated ventures into social democracy, had radically altered the landscape of our homes. If you ask most people, especially the tourists who come during the summers, the lake is one of the most beautiful features of the landscape. But we ignore this history, just like we ignore the radical coal miners who fought wars against corporate capital. We ignore this history and instead opt to believe that our area is essentially conservative. Bodies for the masses needed by reactionary movements. Such collective aspirations make people like me unreadable to their home culture. We are placed on starships and told to fly as fast as we can, and then are slightly scorned for doing so.

We drive around the floodplains of social democracy and grasp at what mythological figures we are. What mythological figures we could be. I suppose it will be determined by those who have the wherewithal to write about it.