Monday, December 14, 2009

An open letter to patrons of the college library

Dear patrons of the college library,

We need to talk. It's about the distinction between the public and the private. I understand that not all of you are interested in thinking about political theory, and that's fine. If you were, your library would not be half so cushy as it is. So, let me preface this by commending you all on your future promotions at Goldman Sachs and subsequent donation of truckloads of money to fund the luxurious armchairs with matching throw pillows and ottomans, and individual lamps and outlets of your alma mater's library. Very good, my prestigious little sheeple, John Harvard thinks every day from his perch in the Yard.

Nonetheless, please allow me to draw your attention to some problems we are encountering. Namely, some of you seem to be uncertain about the difference between the library and your bedrooms. Such confusion is perhaps natural given both the restricted access to the library and the permissibility of sleeping in it, both of which are characteristic of a bedroom--I agree. But here, patrons of the college library, is where the similarities end. In every other respect, the library is basically like a plush park bench and you should behave accordingly.

In an effort to make our relations in the coming months (and, oh God, years) more agreeable, allow me to set down some basic conduct guidelines for your more appropriate use of the library:

1. I realize that I would be fighting a rearguard action by trying to prevent you from removing your shoes, but please at least consider retaining your socks.
1a. A subset of sock removal is partial sock removal, in which the sock is left dangling from your foot as you sleep for--what? enhanced foot aeration? That is even less attractive than total sock removal.
1b. Have you also considered that cracking your toes is totally disgusting? It is, and it should cease immediately.

2. Not all doors are soundproof. Just because you're behind one does not mean that the entire reading room can't hear every word of your heated argument with your parents over your allowance. Please take note.
2a. In the same vein, headphones can only accomplish so much when you maximize the volume on your Korean Celine Dion ballads, so don't.

3. Plato and Aristotle define the tyrant as a person who relentlessly pursues his drive for pleasure and acquisition. Might you not fall into the same category of persons when your desire for luxury so rules your actions that you steal a pillow, armchair, and an ottoman for use at your desk and replace them in the middle of the reading room with the wooden chair that was intended to complement your study space? Can your feet not be suffered to rest on the ground while you sit at a desk? Who will want to sit in a lone wooden desk chair in the middle of the room?
3a. Similarly, does any one person require two ottomans for study? I see how you're trying to construct a bed out of ottomans there, and that's very creative. However, you have a bed in your room--pre-made! And you can use it without stealing footrests from other people.
3b. Excuse me, but are you people trying to construct a fort out of library furniture? Are you eight years old?

4. On the subject of growing up, do you know what is not hilarious? Standing up and yelling, "Penis!" to the entire reading room three times in one hour. Also, spending that entire hour orchestrating this brilliant plan. You will think you're funny, but do you hear that pervasive silence in response? That is the silence that says, "Plz grow up."

5. What is with wearing slippers to the library? There is no underground tunnel between Lamont and your dorms. You'll still have to walk in the snow in those, and they will not be so comfortable when wet.
5a. Ditto for your pajamas.
5b. Alternately, why are you wearing a cocktail dress to study? Do you have no better occasion to show off your party wardrobe?

That is all I can think of for now, but I am confident that you will find new and exciting ways to offend me soon enough, and I will let you know when you have.

No love,
Miss Self-Important

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Breaking news (literally)!

Every weekday morning since I've moved in, I've woken up to my building shaking and all the stuff on my dresser falling to the ground. Such is the nature of the apparently perpetual construction on our block. However, tonight is the first time that the building actually heaved, and at 2:00 AM. Even the cat freaked out.

So my roommate went to take a look, and it turned out that some guy had driven his SUV into our building (yes, past the sidewalk, over the lawn, and right into the front door). In an ironic but fortunate reversal, man and car were unscathed, but the front of our building was totaled. We called the police, and then the 24-hr maintenance guy who works for our landlord and informed him that a man had just driven his car into our building, and he was utterly unperturbed by this news, informing me that he would send someone over when he got the chance.


UPDATE: New temporary railing up this morning:

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Who is John Rawls?

The fall semester is over. It has not been great, so its end would be pretty welcome if it were not also inaugurating the beginning of two months of non-stop paper writing. In any case, I would like to share what I have learned, which is primarily this:

There was recently on this earth a man named John Rawls, who wrote a book called A Theory of Justice, which enflamed the subdued, analytical passions of tens of political theorists, many of whom are now in the Gov department at Harvard. What they do is called "contemporary democratic theory," and because it has the word "contemporary" in its name, it is the sine qua non of "relevance" in the discipline. As a result, those of us not studying Rawls in political theory must frame our research in terms of its contribution to Rawlsian problems in order to appear "relevant."

Research directly on Rawlsian problems tends adhere to the following general framework: A paper is written about some contemporary democratic problem--rights, exclusion, justice (justice is big), etc.--indirectly or insufficiently addressed by the great Rawls himself. These papers must include 1) bullet points, 2) absurd hypothetical scenarios*, and 3) discussion and dismissal of "competing views" on the question at hand, which always consist of The Libertarian View of Robert Nozick and The Socialist View of GA Cohen. Arguments falling outside these competing view camps are like the unexplored areas on faux medieval maps of the world one sees in novelty stores--"Here be dragons." (Oddly, more than half of our particular democracy apparently lives in the dragon regions, but this appears to be an insubstantial objection.) Finally, the hypothetical flaw in the hypothetical Rawlsian society is hypothetically corrected by the hypothetical solution proposed in the paper, and we are hypothetically that much closer to justice! Alternately, the paper is about deliberative democracy, and the central point is that we need to refine the hypothetical conditions of hypothetical deliberation so that we can come hypothetically closer to democracy! Followed by coffee and cookies.

Now, as you may have inferred from this sketch, Miss Self-Important has never read Rawls (or Nozick or Cohen). She had never even heard of them before grad school. She is perfectly willing to admit ignorance buttressed by a handful of lectures and papers. What she does find somewhat strange though is that Helen Rittelmeyer should be so excited by the new bioethics commission, which is to be headed up by Amy Gutmann, deliberative democrat of note. Helen, as some of you may recall, has written quite excellently on the value of suffering, and would not seem to be a likely candidate for embracing the view that talking really hard and "considering everyone's claims" is a really promising approach to bioethics, for the very reason that no one is against talking or considering claims, and any cursory reading of the PCBE's reports will demonstrate that they talked and considered claims too. The problem is not deliberating, it's concluding. And what will a Rawlsian bioethics committee conclude? I don't know for sure (see, again, not having read Rawls), but it seems to me like we're going to run aground on value-neutral fair distribution island, where the main concern about biotech enhancement will be whether the poor will have access, and the answer to all skeptics will be, "If you don't like it, don't get it, but don't get in my way." But hey, what do I know? They're charged with making recommendations, so we'll see soon enough.

*My favorite instance of this was one in which Person A is a farmer whose crops fail and wants to go to the city to find work. So he walks along the road to the city until Person B jumps out of the bushes and assaults him, thereby preventing him from entering the city for work. You might think this is a paper exploring the ongoing problem of highwaymen, but actually no, the point of this scenario was to demonstrate that immigration restrictions are unjust.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Why Google Books should maybe not be entrusted with all human knowledge

In the spirit of Alpheus' Google Books search effort, I would like to offer my contribution to the archive of erroneous Google book reproductions. Mine is not as excellent a combination as Alpheus', but the extent of the damage is much worse.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The anxiety of insanity

In the process of researching this endless paper on Locke, I thought there could be something to say about the parallel between Foucault's understanding of liberal "discipline" and Locke's connection between self-restraint and reputation. Then I came across Uday Mehta's The Anxiety of Liberalism, which does something like that, and decided this was probably not a promising direction:
For Locke as for the madperson [gender-neutral insanity?] it is the imagination and the status accorded to it that ultimately determines the political destiny of what it means to be different. The fact that the madperson and the imagination can serve as a mirror on the larger questions of individuality and political order is testimony to the simple point that it is through the imagination that we (not just the madperson) fantasize, and it is our fantasies that effect our values, our interests, our commitments, and hence the particular content of our freedom. All this Locke understood long before it was commonplace. But in his response to this recognition is evident a pusillanimity of vision and a weakness of nerve in what different imaginings and fantasies may bring forth.
Is it self-evident that valuable human difference is contained in insanity, whereas adherence to reason is mere conformity? All the insane people I've known have been insane in exactly the same boring ways. As have most of the sane people--recall the Second Life aesthetic of "what I look like inside" happening to coincide uncannily and universally with what Pamela Anderson and Brad Pitt look like on the outside. The only serious, impressive instances of human difference I've ever seen have been connected to, at most, eccentricity that would never make it into the DSM, and would hardly be condemned in a Lockean society.

Perhaps it's our fantasies that shape our values, interests, etc. (But it might be a stretch to call it the content of freedom--is spending 10 hours a day in World of Warcraft the content of freedom?) But even the most mundane of these fantasies are not simply enacted in raw form, but filtered through our reason, our planning, the constraints of social life, and the limits of the feasible. The existence of barriers to enacting in some pure, Bacchic frenzy-like form the content of fantasy is what makes people interesting and different, and this includes the frustrating efforts of intermittently crazy people to stay relatively sane. What is not interesting is pure fantasy itself, which is what--lust after women, a fantasy whose contours are nearly identical in about 40 percent of the human population, or the desire for success and acclaim, which occurs in 99 percent? If the argument is for acceptance for bizarre and repulsive fantasies as marks of human difference, then I still wonder, why? Will welcoming pedophiles or furries into the community of "normal" improve anything? (Also, notice again--even weird and repulsive fantasies turn out not to be so unique.)

Even pre-liberal Athens only allowed a couple of highly controlled Bacchic frenzies a year because this kind of thing is dangerous and tends to violate rather than promote freedom. Digging deep inside one's heart to unearth a true, "authentic" self is always a bad idea. Insanity is way overrated, people. I, for one, welcome our conformist liberal overlords.

(This always happens to me. Even when I start out wanting to criticize some writer, once I spend a million weeks reading and thinking about him, I always come around to some charitable reading. Locke did not mean to create a hugely problematic political theory--he was just trying his darnedest to solve some really big contradictions, and did as well as he could. He was a good person! He had a hard life! And so on. [Obvi, the same charity has not been extended to Mehta.])

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The basic problem with my love relationships with women

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”
--From Scott McLemee's review of Cornel West's new book, via Athens and Jerusalem

UPDATE: A further excerpt of PURE (AND FUNKY) AWESOMENESS can be found here.