Month: September 2009

Getting a position to get a position

I remember when I first took the job at the University of San Diego, one of things I heard a couple of times—from people I dearly love in academia—is that USD would be a good place to move from. This means that USD, a good school, would be a better launching pad than a rural, small humanities school. I tend to be change-averse (whatever my political positions), but I still wonder about saying that to someone who just got a job. Leave aside the people looking for jobs now gritting their teeth reading this, but I do wonder if people are really unhappy where they are and are generally looking to move. For me, I was lucky on the job market, got to see several places during the process, and in the end chose well. I’m in a pluralistic, analytic department, but have some good colleagues (none of them read this, so I can say that), all of whom I wouldn’t mind having dinner with. That’s saying a lot. So, I would love to avoid ever going on the job market again, and thus I don’t really get people who get positions to get other positions.

Of course, I’m in San Diego, which, having grown up in NYC and having lived in Chicago, took some time to adjust to. But it’s a beautiful, sunny place. There is no culture here, but then again, it’s not western Fill-in-your-Hated-State. Someone asked me again recently when I would go out on the market again. Which makes you worry if they heard something that I should know about. Everyone has complaints, but I guess being Continental in orientation, as well as doing Africana philosophy, I had low expectations for the market for me. I have a job where I can teach generally what I want, given departmental needs and gen ed courses. But since I don’t hate teaching, the gen ed courses aren’t bad. Yes, it’s frustrating to teach Homer to students who only know him from the Simpsons. I’m sure this is rambling, but in here was just trying to say something about the odd phil-circuit question about when you plan to move…

Ok, Now it’s getting Scary…

You know, I remember the weird conservative movements of the 90s, but something really is bubbling up. When you have an oft-cited wingnut web site having an article up calling for a military overthrow of Obama and the Facebook app asking if Obama should be assassinated… and all the other junk that’s out there, well, it is indeed worrisome.

That would make a good book title…Levinas and Heidegger

Harman’s on a tear today with his responses to me and Shaviro… He writes a bit up on Levinas’s biography and he’s right that this deserves more emphasis, though i did mention it:

Under these circumstances, I think it would have been understandable, perhaps even admirable, if Levinas had spent the rest of his life writing books with titles like: Heidegger Was an Evil Nazi, Not a Great Philosopher. Indeed, many people who weren’t even born yet at the time of WWII have written lots of things like that.

But Levinas never did that. He never wavered in his assertions that Heidegger was the greatest philosopher of the century and one of the greatest of all time. I find his attitude almost unnervingly serene.

Harman does mention the fact that Levinas was strangely treated under the Geneva conventions when taken prison by the Nazis at the beginning of World War II. Now, it just happens that I’ve been reading a book on Hitler’s eastern campaign and the author actually mentions Levinas as an example of the difference between the Nazi’s treatment of populations in the East and West. Basically, the author (I’m dropping the name) claims, persuasively, that the Nazis were overextended settling thousand year old racial animus in the East to afford to quell anything in the West, and thus were forced, more or less, to be somewhat better (which obviously is comparative) in the West. We often forget about the terrible toll that the Ukrainians and the Poles and Lithuanians suffered under the Nazi occupation (largely because local populations were handing over Jews to the SS, so that complicates the picture of victimhood), since they were oddly trying to make those territories into German lands, though only a bare few percentage of the people were of German origin (whatever that would mean).

Anyway, hat tip to Graham for the title of my next book. (Oh and check out his post on Shaviro and Levi’s latest…I almost spit out my cereal reading the last line…)

Polanski, or How to Make Yourself Look Like a Class Act

I guess as someone living in California, it’s part of my civic duty to write something about Polanski being arrested in Switzerland. My first reaction, having seen last year’s documentary, was a feeling that it ought to be let go. But my second reaction was that anyone writing to defend Polanski, who has been well remunerated in his career and had benefits few ever have, should spend their time worrying about those suffering far greater injustices than for being arrested for crimes that they plead guilty to. Like, Robert Harris, maybe you should write about those who are facing the death penalty, or those whose family miss them and they while their time away beyond the reach of habeas corpus. Polanski had his day in court. Plead guilty. Then fled. Now we get a lot of pathetic articles saying that it’s a long time ago, which admittedly is a human trait, but really, it’s a long time ago because Polanski fled. He would have served his time long ago and been out for many years by now. He decided to flee. Can we now get back to those who don’t even get trials in the US? Instead you get embarrassing tripe like this:

He thought he could settle the matter at last, and his subsequent, vigorous legal attempts to have the case against him closed — supported, remarkably, by his victim, Samantha Geimer, the one person who comes out of this affair with her dignity enhanced — clearly infuriated Mr. Cooley.

polanskiMr. Cooley is the LA district attorney. Let me pause right here: Isn’t this gracious? The young teenager (just a year and half older than my son) was raped and Harris pats her head for being the “one person who comes out of this affair with her dignity enhanced.” I guess he should know how hard that was, given that Polanski hired private investigators to dig up any sexual past she had and his lawyer spread innuendo all over the newspapers. But whose fault is it? Yup, the economy.

It sounds very much as though Mr. Polanski became overconfident, both in the rightness of his own cause and in the safety of Switzerland as a refuge — a country that after the credit crisis suddenly seems to be much more eager to cooperate with international authorities.

I make no apology for feeling desperately sorry for him. The almost pornographic relish with which his critics are retelling the lurid details of the assault (strange behavior, one might think, for those who profess concern for the victim) make it hard to consider the case rationally. Of course what happened cannot be excused, either legally or ethically.

I’ll leave it there, but there isn’t here, as far as I can see, an “almost pornographic relish.” I’m among the first to complain about the media’s own violations of victims of various crimes, but here people have been left to sputter about the crime because of non-arguments like this. They read stories like this and can’t help but want to scream, he raped a 13-year-old girl who repeatedly told him no. And I don’t get how this last sentence can make sense of this argument: yes, it “cannot be excused, …legally.” Um, so then what’s the problem, again?

Totality And Infinity…

Great, now I just had to open up Totality and Infinity (see posts below) and look through beneath the idiotic notes over the years to page 133 of the English version. This comes after Levinas’s description of the relation between elements and enjoyment:

Enjoyment—as the ultimate relation with the substantial plenitude of being, with its materiality—embraces all relations with things. The structure of Zeug as Zeug {Heidegger’s equipment} and the system of references in which it has its place do indeed manifest themselves, in concerned handling … but do not encompass the substantiality of objects.

Otherwise put, Levinas ultimately argues that Heidegger reduces beings to Zeug and, as such, commits the problem of the Gestell he identifies later (at least I can say I worked in what I was prepping to teach here). He concludes, “Dasein is never hungry,” since everythign is marked by usage but not “satisfaction” (134). This begins to make me wonder, since I come at Levinas from the political/ethical angle and G.H. comes at him from another, if there isn’t a fundamental tension in Levinas between one side and the other, one that presents the Other as a human Other over whom I am always violating, and the phenomenological side that has a thought of the “substantiality of objects” that is Other than its elements. But yeah, I’m going to copy this section and throw it on my syllabus, just because I want to read it again… (Thanks Graham–I actually mean that…) Not least because I’m looking at the section on sensibility…

Levinas, Entre Nous

I go skipping some rocks at the pond and in comes the ocean.

If you haven’t read G.H’s response to mine, go read it, since it’s good stuff in its own right. It’s late here, and I’ll respond tomorrow if I have the chance, though I’ll just briefly say that what I meant by the political Heidegger is really just an extension of his early reading from On Evasion. In other words, he often doesn’t engage Heidegger as a thinker, but rather through the gaze of 1933. Understandable. This was no small moment biographically for Levinas (I’m not stating the obvious about Germany, but rather about Heidegger’s particular role). And yes, I’ll do more than cut him some slack for that, not least because it’s Levinas’s writing that I think about when ever I hear some tedious paper on Heidegger’s ethics.

A large part of the disagreement between the two concerns Heidegger’s being-towards-death, since ultimately Levinas argues (for those who don’t know) that Heidegger’s work amounts to an epistemology: he can “know” or foresee death in a certain way (Graham seems to agree with this), even if he calls it the possibility of impossibility. And what’s more, for Levinas, Heidegger uses all the language of propriety (eigen, Eigentlichkeit, etc.) in arguing that only Dasein can die its own death. And this epistemology is ultimately a philosophy of the Same. Now, some homework for myself will be to reread Graham’s post on how one can be a thinker of the Other and a thinker of substance, given Levinas’s avowed return to the conatus of Spinoza (desire, not a return to some ousia). Or otherwise put, Levinas sides with Plato’s good beyond being, not with Aristotle.

And as for Janicaud, I think I noted him because for me Janicaud was good at bringing out (for good and bad) the problems of the later Heidegger, often by simply repeating them. (Yeah, mention one person and then you’re caught flat footed for a response as to why.) I always took Levinas to be doing a creative misreading (often not so creatively), but it’s true that the phenomenology of affect in Totality and Infinity is its least read and best written sections. Once Graham brings in Lingis, I’m more on board since I see more of what he means by his characterization of Levinas. (Not that Graham by himself is not convincing…) As for the reaction that Graham cites of an earlier generation of “he’s telling me what to do!” well, you can’t do much about that infantile response, not least because Levinas at best offers a proto-ethics. I was raised in the infernal Derrida-as-Levinas period (which I assume Graham takes to be a real insult to Levinas and I took to be the reverse!) and all that work about knowing anything is itself a violence, something that apparently still gets said by grad students working on Levinas. This also got said too much in post colonial theory. (This may get into how we can’t help but feel a certain way about figures given how the fashions were when we first read them; in my case, Levinas was too fashionable and those searing denunciations of the violence of everything still haunt me. Not least because this was reason enough why people wouldn’t look into other traditions, and why I was put on the defensive for doing work in Africana philosophy–any knowing of another tradition is violent, and thus can’t help but be informed by a racial gaze, etc. I wish I was making this up. In the end, of course, I understand the problems of engaging other traditions, but it was a way for people to be comfortable finding the Other in Dickens, as Said said once.)

Finally before heading off to read some Heidegger for tomorrow’s class (FYI, Graham, if you’re reading this: the bookstore apparently couldn’t get Heidegger Explained from Open Court), I’ll say that, yes, at some point phenomenology won’t be a word that just heads up chapter titles in Continental philosophy introductions. Maybe I’ll throw some Time and the Other on the syllabus now…


Wow, that’s is a groaner. Anyway, there must be some way to do a decent transition from the claims of Homo Sacer to the claims of the later work (Il regno e la gloria). If there’s a way, I haven’t found it yet in writing this chapter…


I guess I should defend my early articles, which for some strange reason were on Heidegger and Levinas: I should say I don’t see what Graham is on to by rating Levinas one of the best reader of Heidegger in France:

LevinasThis is an article on Totality and Infinity and on what I see as three separate criticisms of Heidegger found there. Levinas is far from used up, he’s simply been viewed so far in a caricatured sort of way. I’ve always seen him as the most innovative of Heidegger’s readers in France, and yes I’d certainly rate him above Derrida in that respect. It’s still a minority view, but one I’m willing to bank on.

That makes me want to see the article, though I strangely realize that my first articles on this were probably published around the time OOP wrote his, so it’s like having a discussion five years too late. But for me Levinas represents the overwrought political readings of Heidegger, and I’m not sure how OOP can side with a reading that, in essence, says “Heidegger was not transcendental enough.” Now, I guess logically, this might be a better reading of Heidegger, since he would be less transcendental than Levinas, but that’s not where I think OOP is going. I agree that Levinas’s reading of Heidegger is not simple rejection—this was the point of one of my articles—but on the other hand, I’m not sure I see how Levinas is a more subtle reader than Derrida or Janicaud or other figures in France. That said, the Levinas of the late 40s did excellent phenomenology. Great discussion of time and Bergson in the lectures of the mid-70s. But, I guess I would say it’s still hard for me to get past all the Levinasians “that’s totality, that’s totality!” “I’m not hearing you…” maneuvers that come from Totality and Infinity. People doing epistemology are not Hitlerites, and Levinas, at least, deserves fault for TI‘s preface and all manner of writings later that were dismissive of non-mystical philosophical work.

Xenophon and Philosophy’s Practical Calling

I just caught this piece on Xenophon. For those who didn’t cut their teeth on Plato and Socratic philosophy, Xenophon is the poor man’s Plato–good for records of Socrates’ life and for Athenian views of the Persians (especially Cyrus), but certainly not for philosophy. But he was a much larger figure for the Greeks and even more so for the very practical Romans.

Xenophon is the one on the right--he even looks like a philosopher

Xenophon is the one on the right--he even looks like a philosopher

Whatever he was writing, Xenophon always had a moral and educational agenda; ancient authors were right to classify him more commonly as a philosopher than as a historian, and modern authors should no longer ignore him as a source for fourth-century philosophical thinking. He is a quiet thinker; he doesn’t trumpet his views, but a great deal of careful thought underpins his work.

I wonder how many of us this would be fitting for: “doesn’t trumpet his views…” Anyway, this also should lead us to question the historicity of our treatment of certain figures. For example, I love reading Cicero, though I don’t have much sympathy for his pedantic asides and his natural law theories. Why? Because philosophy was well earned by him: he knew from what he spoke when talked about virtue. More importantly, he was eminently practical in his assessments. Just compare his Republic with Plato’s. But yet he’s not read anymore. Neither is Xenophon. In Continental philosophy, it’s the Romans’ fault for sending us through translations of Greek terms in our finals moves to the hells of onto-theology, so I guess that might be why you don’t read much on the Romans. But if I had the time, I’d write a work showing why if, as Agamben says, we’re to put philosophy back on its practical calling, it might be best not to ignore these figures. But before that, of course, there’s a few other articles and books to write…

British vs. American Recommendations

I remember last year talking with someone about British-style recommendations, which have tripped up more than a few Brits applying for jobs in the US. The upshot is that British recommendations are honest: this student is average, with good teaching but relatively mediocre writing. In the American version, this would be: this student is an exemplary teacher, whose focus on his/her pedagogy is not something that will show under research on a CV, but is something that should, given his/her ability to bring to bear her research to students going on in the discipline….

Apparently, Brits applying to US jobs will get passed up since the above review, which can actually mean you’re the best candidate at a given institution, sounds like you’re the worst to apply in a number of years. The way the Brits find out about this is when they hire one of those stupendous Americans—according to their recommendations—only to find out that they are good teachers with mediocre writing…

Which is something I’m thinking about today as I’m writing a recommendation, trying to find some new way to say that this is really a great and good student…