Wednesday, June 24, 2020

COVID Topologies: Compelled to Be Present

At the suggestion of a colleague, I recently read J.G. Ballard's "The Enormous Space." The short story, about a man who decides that he's never going to leave his house again, has a "Bartleby The Scribner" meets Don DeLillo vibe to it, where -- as his self-imposed isolation sets in -- he starts to explore the space of his home more intimately, with predictably hallucinogenic results. But his initial explorations resonate with work in New Materialism and Object-Oriented Ontology: particularly as he explores his own relationship with his physical environment. 

I believe the story has gotten more attention in the shadow of COVID and its resultant quarantines (which, as of today, June 24th, 2020), people in the United States have seemingly become bored with and "prefer not to" follow. But the ongoing, slow collapse of the United States is something for another entry. I also believe that strict quarantines will be in effect again in some states after death tolls reach a level that registers on even the most fervent pro-life, evangelical conservatives' radar: that is to say, when enough of the right people die for the "all lives matter" crowd to actually notice; and/or when "bathing in the blood of Jesus" is no longer the necessary tonic to mitigate the long, slow, isolated, and painful COVID-deaths of loved ones. I have no doubt those deaths will be inevitably and preposterously blamed on Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and somehow Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

On some level, however, I think that broader politically- and religiously-based science denial is linked to the same emotions that people felt when they were compelled to stay home: an abject fear of seeing things as they are. Now that's a philosophically loaded statement, I know: can we ever see things "as they are"? Let's not get mired in the intricacies of phenomenology here, though. Those who were in quarantine for any length of time were suddenly faced with the reality of their living spaces. Those home environments were no longer just spaces in which we "crashed" after work, or the spaces which we  meticulously crafted based on home decor magazines. Whether living in a "forever home," a "tiny house," or the only space a budget would allow, people were faced with the "reality" of those spaces -- spaces which became the material manifestation of choices and circumstances. Those spaces no longer were just the places we "had" or "owned" or "rented," they became the places where people actually lived. We were thrust into an uninvited meditation on the difference between occupying a space and living in one.

Much like Geoffrey Ballantyne in "The Enormous Room," we found ourselves subject to the spaces which previously remained "simply there." Some, I know, went on J.A.K. Gladney-like purges as they suddenly realized just how useless -- and heavy -- much of the objects around us were, and instead of finding ourselves surrounded by the fruits of our labor, we were instead trapped by the artifacts of the past. How many people during quarantine fumbled through their possessions, timidly fondling knicknacks, looking for some kind of Kondo-joy. Others, I'm sure, went the opposite route and ordered MORE things from the internet to serve as an even more claustrophobic cocoon of stuff to block out all the other stuff which we couldn't bring ourselves to face -- let alone touch and purge. While still others continued to fail to notice their surroundings at all, yet found themselves suffering random anxiety and panic attacks -- blaming the fear of COVID rather than the fact that their surrounding spaces were becoming increasingly smaller as the detritus of daily life "at home" collected around them. 

Those spaces ... the spaces in which we "live" ... which were once relegated to the role of a background to the present, were suddenly thrust into the foreground, reclaiming us and our subjectivity. They didn't just become present, they became the present -- a present in which we were implicated; a present with which we may have grown unfamiliar. And, given the circumstances, can you blame anyone for not being too keen on the present? Whether its seeing more unrest on the news or on social media, or being compelled to haplessly homeschool your own children? The present isn't always that much fun. 

I think, though, that there is at least one positive thing that we can learn from Geoffrey Ballantyne: that it is possible for us to more consciously occupy the present moment instead of trying to avoid it. While I don't advocate the extremes to which Geoffrey goes (no spoilers here, but you may never look at your freezer the same way again); I do think that there is something to be said for noticing and engaging the spaces in which we are implicated. The spaces in which we "live" should be the ones which with we engage rather than just treat as some kind of visual or ontological backdrop. Engaging with our spaces is a way of seeing things as they are. It's a way of being aware.


Thursday, June 18, 2020

Choice is a Privilege

Yes, I'm back. I'm not going to give excuses other than:

  1. I'm writing a book -- which tends to sap your ability to write anything NOT the manuscript. 
  2. COVID-19. I thankfully didn't have it, but of course the disruption to the semester was intense. 
  3. The death of George Floyd and the political implications to higher education's stance and statements on race. As the faculty trustee at my institution, it's been mine (and our Board's) focus at the moment. 
COVID-19 became a nightmare for educators at every level, and will continue to disrupt in varying degrees for semesters to come. I'm not surprised that masks have become politicized. I'm not surprised that universities are coming to realize the importance of face-to-face instruction for students as students consider gap-years rather than deal with an entire course load online. Concurrently, faculty such as myself are coming to realize the importance of having online components to our classes. Luddism here was a privilege to which none of us can adhere any longer. While technology broadly construed is my specialty, I was not a fan nor adopter of online or blended models of teaching. The technology wasn't (and still isn't) seamless enough for me to dynamically present material or facilitate discussion. That is my opinion, and it still is. I envy my colleagues who have managed this balance and who create rich and dynamic online learning experiences for students. I have been -- and will continue to -- look to them to guide me. 

The death of George Floyd and the spotlight on race and police brutality have put universities into (rightfully) awkward positions.  I'm sure many administrators and faculty alike have been blindsided by the activism of colleagues; or, conversely, lacks of activism. I won't go into the details of my own university's response, but I will say that what is abundantly clear is that for some, like myself, the death of George Floyd was a gut-check of my personal privilege, and a reassessing of the privilege and power that comes with it. Personally -- let me emphasize this -- personally, I found that I was not doing enough. My selective activism was a privilege in and of itself. As what will probably be one of the last generations of faculty to have tenure, I have an invaluable asset by and through which I can actively affect change. The challenge is for me to do so responsibly: not in the context of keeping anyone "comfortable," but in the context of not doing harm to those already being pulled in different directions by the intersectional forces of race, gender, poverty, and a myriad other vectors of power. 

I think that many of us in academia -- particularly in the humanities and social sciences --  have been talking about these things for so long that we forget that we have internalized and naturalized the discourse of race and gender studies. We simply can't believe that anyone but a college freshman could say "all lives matter" without malicious intent. Yet, when it does happen, we have a moral obligation to educate in the most effective manner possible. As a philosophy professor, I am spoiled in the fact that I face resistance on a daily basis to the things I teach in my classes: not necessarily because they are politically volatile, but because they are just ... well ... ridiculous. YOU try explaining to a student who never read ANY philosophy in their lives Plato's theory of Forms. Or try to thread the needle with Nietzsche and Sartre so that students realize that neither was a nihilist (in fact, both are as anti-nihilist as one can be). 

So when a community member, or relative, or administrator proudly -- and without malice -- says "all lives matter"* or declare themselves "colorblind"** in the context of wanting to be an ally or at least do no further harm, my duty is to be the educator that I am. Notice the context, however. There are plenty of people who have declared "all lives matter" or that they're "colorblind" with the same political fervor and intention as am internet comment section troll who has just learned the term "virtue signalling." 

Indeed, I've had some relatively important people declare that they'd love to sit down and have coffee with me because they'd find "real debate" with me to be "entertaining." I can't help but think of showing up in a toga yelling "ARE YOU NOT AMUSED?!" Instead, I politely decline, saying that while I'd love to talk about philosophy any day, I'd rather not take part in what will inevitably be the rhetorical equivalent of professional wrestling. They want me to follow the script of the liberal academic while they follow their own script of whatever they think the opposite of a liberal academic is.  

Yet, that's the real issue here, though, isn't it? I had the privilege of saying "no." I had the privilege of walking away from a so-called "debate" and get on with my life. Just as I could easily take another Facebook hiatus or "sit out" diversity discussions on campus simply because I was tired or just didn't feel like it. 

There are those who simply cannot walk away from these issues. They cannot sign out of Facebook and not have to deal with systemic racism. Every act of theirs becomes a political act simply by the color of their skin and/or their gender identity. Between this and COVID, I was given a double-dose of privilege-checking. Just like the moment when I sat down to write this entry and told myself that I was specifically NOT going to discuss any of the above because I wanted to focus on something else. Yes, I will focus on other things in future entries, but this entry needed to be written. And I had a responsibility to write it. 

Black lives matter.

* saying "all lives matter" as an answer to "Black lives matter" is akin to saying to the owner of a burning house that "all houses matter" as their house burns down; or saying to someone who lost a child that "all children matter." 

** When one is "blind" to race, it also infers that one is blind to the experiences unique to that race -- both the challenges that race has faced as well as the pride and accomplishments therein.