Sunday, August 29, 2010

Random Thoughts About American Beauty

I recently watched "American Beauty" again.  I first saw the movie a little over ten years ago and it is one of the few films of the last decade that I have continued to think about from time to time.  When it came out in 1999, I had just turned 30 and I remember feeling decidedly under the gun, that the writing was on the wall, it was do or die, now or never, sink or swim, if you're going to get married and be incredibly happy like absolutely everyone else in America, you'd better get to work on getting a life that looks exactly like everyone else's.

In retrospect, I think it was pretty clear that I would never follow the suburban path because, when I saw the film, I remember thinking, "YES.  This is what happens.  If I get married, I'll end up a cross between Lester Burnham and his wife Carolyn" (all the while secretly hoping I'd be more like Lester, of course).

I don't know whether that's true or not, obviously, but I know that what I like about the film is the way that its depiction of suburban sedation is not the sum total of the story.  Although the characters have become "joyless" and lost, they continue to search for meaning.  Whether they find it or not, they do begin to realize that the things that consume their very American lives--their jobs, cars, houses, and neighbors--merely serve to mask a very real beauty that lies underneath all of the daily distractions. 

In a way, the film echoes Thoreau's assertion of his reason for choosing to live in solitude at Walden--he wanted to "live deliberately" and not "live what was not life, living is so dear" or "practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary."  Lester Burnham's growing realization that resignation is unnecessary strikes a comic and particularly American chord--so many people live what Thoreau described as "lives of quiet desperation," not recognizing until it is seemingly too late that even suburban American life offers more than mere mediocrity for those who are willing to, as the film exhorts, "look closer."  

In the end, both the 20th century American film and the 19th century American philosopher ultimately agree--it is never to late to get it back.  As Lester observes, "It's a great thing when you realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that you've forgotten about." 

What I continue to wonder is, why do we forget?  Why do we let others persuade us that we want what they (presumably) want (or wanted)?  Why is what is different so difficult for us to understand, much less to achieve?  In a sense, some degree of conformity is always necessary to a sense of community: in his 17th-century account Of Plymouth Plantation, William Bradford describes the antics of the free-spirited Thomas Morton with anger and outrage.  When the survival of the group is at stake, there is little room for the (admittedly self-serving) behavior of the renegades and individualists who want to get drunk and reap enormous profits by trading illicit items or substances.

But in the world of the Burnhams, survival is clearly not at stake--the only thing threatened by Lester's behavior or Ricky Fitts' rebellion is consumerism and group-conformity.  I think that some of the more haunting moments in the film involve Ricky's mother: unable to break out of the world in which she finds herself, she simply sits and stares at the emptiness around her or vaguely and distractedly responds to her son or her husband.  In a sense, her character counterpoints the self-obsessed materialism of Carolyn--like Herman Melville's protagonist in "Bartleby, the Scrivener," she seems to "prefer not to" engage with the world in which she has somehow found herself.

For me, this is the question I continue to consider: how does one end up in such a world?  How is it that we so often end up losing sight of all of the beauty and spirit that surrounds us on a daily basis?  Can we somehow avoid the kind of "sedation" or death-in-life that the film describes, so that we don't have to try to wake up and break out of it after the fact?

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seeing Red Or, The Error of My Ways

If J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I think it can safely be said that I am in danger of measuring out my life in red-ink pens.  Although I now do a lot of my writing directly on the computer, I still like to print things up when I'm finished and hack away at them by hand when I'm revising.   When I do, I typically use a red pen--mostly, I think, because I'm blinder than a bat, and red ink is easier to see.

A recent study in The European Journal of Social Psychology suggests that this practice is fraught with danger.  In "The pen is mightier than the word: Object priming of evaluative standards" (2010), Abraham M. Rutchick, Michael L. Slepian, and Bennett D. Ferris argue that "the very act of picking up a red pen can bias [teachers'] evaluations" of student work (704).  Since I grade papers electronically in Word and since I know that, all too often, my students simply scroll through the paper to see the grade I give them at the end, I'm not too too worried about permanently traumatizing anyone.

I find the concept of "object priming" that this article describes quite fascinating, though. According to Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris, studies suggest that "any object that is closely associated with a concept could potentially influence behavior by making that concept more accessible" (705).  Thus, they note that the very presence of guns inspires aggression and (my favorite) that "merely seeing a sports drink leads participants to perform with greater endurance" (704).

This is a somewhat sad comment on human nature, I think.  I remember reading Peter Brooks' Troubling Confessions: Speaking Guilt in Law and Literature  (2001) several years ago and being distinctly troubled by the fact that it is not really all that difficult to get people to confess to things that they didn't do--even if the things they are confessing to are particularly horrifying.  Put perhaps a bit too simply, it has been found that, if you give an already-slightly-stressed person a few cans of soda over a 5-6 hr. period and deprive them of ready access to a bathroom, there's a good chance they'll confess to carving their spouse, parent or sibling up with a butcher knife, even though they didn't actually do it at all.

Dostoevsky already knew all of this, of course.  In Crime and Punishment (1864), the protagonist Raskolnikov is startled to learn that a house-painter who was present at the scene of his own gruesome crime has voluntarily come forward and confessed to beating the pawnbroker and her pregnant sister to death with an ax.  According to the investigating officer, this kind of behavior is to be expected because there are always those among us who wish to be found guilty of something.

At the same time, though, I think Dostoevsky would be troubled by the idea that objects can commandeer human behavior simply through a process of concept-association.  We should be able to (or at least try to) transcend their influence through conscious thought and belief, I think.  Knowing that guns are instruments of violence doesn't mean that I'll grab one and start shooting, just because it happens to be handed to me.  (At the same time, I can't help but think of the scene in "American Beauty" when Annette Bening's character goes to the firing range...).

So where does this leave me with my red pen?  Over the years, people have asked, "Don't you get discouraged, seeing all those red marks?  Aren't you beating yourself up too much by pointing out all of your own mistakes like that?"  At this point, though, that isn't what the red marks mean me.  When I see all of the Bic-blood I've spilled on my own creations, I consider myself to be in the process of working through an idea--it isn't "wrong," it's simply unfinished.  Just because the world tells me what red ink usually "means," doesn't mean that it has to mean that to me.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Children and Turbulence

I spent the day reading Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle.  I picked up Walls' memoir after a friend sent me a copy of her novel, Half-Broke Horses.  I really enjoyed the latter, so I followed my usual policy of reading out and around--or, what Twyla Tharp has described as, "reading fat" or "reading archeologically"-- moving backward in time from a text, reading contemporary works, other works by the same author, biographies, etc.

Half-Broke Horses is the story of Jeannette Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.  Because her grandmother died when Walls was 8, she crafted her story from a combination of family anecdotes and research, writing a "true-life novel" told from the perspective of her feisty grandmother. 

Reading Walls' The Glass Castle is a very different kind of experience.  It is also the story of a young girl growing up in a world that she quickly realizes is often harsh and quite confusing, but the emotional counterpointing of Walls' memoir is quite different from the narrative spirit of Half-Broke Horses

Girls like Walls and, to a much lesser extent, myself, grew up in a world that is rapidly disappearing, if it hasn't already vanished.  For better or for worse, parents today almost never raise their children without any regard for the watchful eye of social institutions and the norms or opinions of their neighbors.  Suburban, middle-class life is cushioned by a buffer zone of theories about how best to raise a child with self-esteem and independence.  At the same time, this upbringing is supposed to occur in an environment that is by definition deprived of any experience of actual, physical hardship.

While I certainly never experienced anything as harsh or unstable as Walls' childhood, I worked with my dad from the time I was 5.  He had inherited the family business, selling dairy products to houses and restaurants.  We didn't have a farm; the milk was all pre-packaged, and we delivered it house-to-house and wholesale, six days a week.  

A case of 16 quarts of milk weighs 32 lbs.--by the time I was ten, it was understood that I needed be able to carry one case in each hand, because carrying them one at a time is too slow.  My dad told me that "boys are a little bit stronger, sometimes" but that if I tried, I could "catch up" and be "a lot better than any of the lazy-assed ones out there."  (I was also warned that there were a lot of lazy-assed ones out there, so I'd need to get good at spotting them and telling them to "get the hell lost.") 

I learned how to safely jump from a truck that is still moving: gauge when the driver lets up on the gas, look where you'll be landing, and make a decision, don't "screw around thinking about it."  Be sure to land on the balls of your feet, with your dominant foot forward, because if you land flat-footed, you'll go "ass over teakettle."  I learned that, if you slipped and fell carrying a glass bottle, you should try not to fall on the glass since "broken glass will rip the shit out of you." 

I learned that sometimes, if you hurt yourself, people laugh because you look "pretty damn funny" and sometimes, if you cry, they tell you to "grow up and stop being a big baby."  It doesn't mean that they don't care about you.

In 1978, when I was 10, I made $1. for each morning I went out on the truck.  That was my allowance, and I earned it by working from 6:00 a.m. until noon, regardless of the weather.  In summer, we had extra deliveries to camps, from noon until 2:00.  I always had to go along on those, without pay, whether or not I had gone out that morning on the truck for the regular delivery route.

I remember that, in the summer, I used to love to ride in the truck with the door open: when my dad hit the main road and the truck got going fifty or so, you'd get a great breeze and the whole world looked different, blurry and zipping by.  I understood that, if I fell out, I'd "probably die" and that my mom would be "pretty upset with everybody," so I'd better be careful not to fall out.  I learned that "it's all right to daydream, but you've got to pay attention too." 

So I think the sensibility that I share reading Walls' description of her childhood is that, raised in a physically challenging environment, you learn that life is usually kind of tough and not very fair, that people get hurt sometimes, and that you're always going to have to stay on your toes and be just a little bit tougher than your circumstances--that's just the way it is.  

In Walls' story, of course, lines get crossed that my parents would never have considered approaching.  As her father cautions, you have to make sure you don't get too close to the boundary between turbulence and order--the irony being, of course, that his family's lifestyle is one of obvious turbulence and downright danger.

So where, then, is the boundary?  If children experience nothing but order and safety, is that necessarily a good thing?  Reading Walls' experience upset me more often than not, because I frequently found myself wishing someone would rescue her and her siblings from what my dad would have described as "their no-good, crazy-assed parents."  But I wonder: is there ever really a safe way to learn about life's turbulence and its hazy boundaries?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Dostoevsky's House of the Dead

I've been spending the week reading the 19th-century Russian novelist Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead for a seminar that I'm teaching in the fall.  Better known as the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's "Notes from The House of the Dead" are generally thought to be a memoir of the time that he spent in a Siberian prison-camp.

One night in April 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested for attending secret meetings of a literary and intellectual group known as "the Petrashevsky Circle."  Although the group was interested in discussing and promoting utopian socialist ideas that obviously ran counter to the politics of the Czarist regime, by almost all accounts the most radical action that they undertook was an attempt to establish an underground printing press.  

No one really seems to have thought of the group as a serious threat to the government of Nicholas I; however, because of the revolutionary climate in Europe at the time, there was widespread concern that the insurrections occuring there would prove contagious and so Nicholas was eager to make an example of this secret society.  After months of imprisonment, on the morning of December 22nd, Dostoevsky and the other members of the group were led to Semenovsky Square in St. Petersburg, where they were condemned to death.

What Dostoevsky and the others didn't know, was that the entire execution scene was staged: the first three members of the group were blindfolded and tied to stakes, but just as the order was about to be given to the firing squad, a messenger galloped in on horseback, proclaiming the mercy of the Czar.  Dostoevsky spent the longest three minutes of his life, no doubt, grappling with the thought that he was about to die, only to be given a reprieve.  He would later describe his experience in a story told by the protagonist of his novel The Idiot, and the scene itself was depicted in a drawing by Pokrovsky:




Dostoevsky's sentence was commuted from death to hard labor in a Siberian prison-camp, to be followed by service in the Russian military in Siberia.  He did not know whether he would ever be allowed to return from exile, and there was no guarantee that he would ever be allowed to write and publish again.  

Usually, when I teach Dostoevsky, I'm most interested in his novels, and although that is still the case this time around, I find that I'm also more interested in The House of the Dead than I was previously.  What stands out to me is the extent to which Dostoevsky is continually fascinated by human nature and its impulses, for good and for evil.  He relishes analyzing the (usually trivial) events that send otherwise seemingly "normal" or "well-balanced" individuals over the edge, resulting in obviously life-altering consequences.  

In particular, Dostoevsky seems fascinated by the fact that, in most cases, murders are committed impulsively, rather than intentionally.  Or, paradoxically, that even when they seem intentional, they are still largely impulsive.  The House of the Dead is filled with stories of men who kill "just because"--in that particular moment, at that particular time, something propels them to commit an act that, under different circumstances, they might not otherwise have considered, much less attempted.  

For Dostoevsky, this becomes a source of psychological fascination and, oddly enough, hope.  While other 19th century writers and intellectuals are strenuously arguing that environment and predisposition "make" killers, he will insist that, at any given moment, an individual is always presented with an infinite array of options.  Intention is never absolutely determined or determinable, because no one of us can ever fully "know" our own intentions in the moment-- and even if we think we do, we may retrospectively realize that what we thought we "knew" about ourselves at that time was not in fact what we were feeling or acting upon.

We can be just as impulsive in our good deeds as we are in our acts of cruelty.  For Dostoevsky, because human nature is never absolutely predictable, there is always hope of redemption.


As Dostoevsky writes, "...my view of even the most terrible murderers was to change in many respects.  One man who had never killed anyone could be more terrifying than another who had been sentenced for six murders.  It was hard to form even the most elementary impression of some crimes, so strange were the circumstances in which they had been committed" (139-140).
  

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Some Unfinished Ideas About Happiness

In his national bestseller, Stumbling on Happiness (2006), Harvard University psychologist Daniel Gilbert offers "a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well the human brain can imagine its own future, and about how and how well it can predict which of those futures it will most enjoy" (xvii).

In much of his thinking about happiness and its possibilities, the French novelist Albert Camus overtly reconsiders and reconfigures one of the pessimistic conclusions of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, namely, that we are all fellow-prisoners in this penal colony called life.  At stake is the question of how we can--or should--imagine ourselves and our circumstances if we want to be happy.  Should we operate in a state of blissful ignorance and delusion, or should we strive for a clear-sighted confrontation of life's all-too-frequent pain and sorrow?

Our potential answers will ultimately determine the interrelationship of our past, present and future.  If we are pessimistic and refuse to hope, this is more often than not a testimony to our unwillingness to let go of the past: we prefer to learn from experience and to apply that knowledge to our present and future states.  The past thus shapes who we are and who we see ourselves becoming.  If we remain optimistic, we look to the future, unwilling to grant either the past or the present a decisive role in determining who we might one day become.    

In both cases, imagination plays a crucial role in determining what we do with--and to--the time of our lives.

But according to Gilbert, imagination is a flawed predictor of past, present and future realities, for three reasons.  In the first place, imagination tends "to fill in and leave out without telling us"--we consider some future possibilities, but neglect others (247).  The consequences of what we leave out when we imagine our future can be enormous.  While almost everyone has imagined what it would be like to win the lottery, very few of us spend time imagining what it would be like to have cancer--even though the likelihood of the latter (unfortunately) outweighs that of the former.


This leads to what Gilbert identifies as the "second shortcoming" of imagination: we tend "to project the present onto the future" and use current realities to fill in the missing details of our imagined tomorrows (248).

Lastly, imagination fails "to recognize that things will look different once they happen" and--perhaps most interestingly--that "bad things will look a whole lot better" than we might imagine because, when we imagine them, we fail to take into account the changes in circumstances and emotional adjustments that will necessarily accompany them (250).  Research shows that "inescapable circumstances trigger the psychological defenses that enable us to achieve positive views of those circumstances, but we do not anticipate that this will happen" (202). 

In Camus' novel, The Plague, Dr. Bernard Rieux notes that "When a war breaks out, people say, 'It won't last, it's too stupid.'  And without a doubt, war is certainly quite stupid, but that doesn't stop it from continuing.  Stupidity always persists: we would see that if we weren't always thinking of ourselves." 


Ultimately, Gilbert suggests that the solution to the problem of individual happiness lies in "surrogation": we must be willing to defer to the perceptions and experiences of others when we evaluate the possibilities for happiness in our own lives.  Not surprisingly, this solution flies in the face of our basic impulses.  We prefer to think of ourselves as incredibly unique individuals, and we know our own thoughts and feelings in a way that is vastly different from the ways in which we know or infer the thoughts and feelings of others.  As a result, Gilbert argues, "we tend to overestimate our uniqueness" because we "overestimate everyone's uniqueness"--thus, "we tend to think of people as more different from one another than they actually are" (254).  

Faced with a city quarantined with the plague, Rieux recognizes the "sad type of struggle between the happiness of the individual and the abstractions of the plague."  He is forced to abandon pity, because it is useless in the battle against a raging disease that is decimating the population.  He cannot make exceptions for individual circumstances: in effect, he realizes that "it sometimes happens that an abstraction shows itself to be stronger than happiness and that then, and only then, it had to be confronted."


To be continued, I hope...
 

Friday, August 13, 2010

Victories, Pyrrhic or Not


I'm living in Rhode Island right now and Monday, August 9th was a state holiday.  If you're thinking, "Wait... there's Memorial Day, then Independence Day, then Labor Day, and that's always it for the summer..." then you're forgetting what used to be called "VJ Day" or, as it was eventually renamed (in a somewhat bizarre attempt to be more politically correct, I suppose), "Victory Day." 

Victory Day marks the anniversary of the surrender of Japan after the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and August 9th, respectively; in Rhode Island, it is commemorated on the second Monday in August.  Rhode Island is the only state that continues to observe this day as such.


Not surprisingly, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding Rhode Island's decision to continue to mark the day.  I believe the two sides of the issue can be most compellingly summarized by two photos taken by the same photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt.  The first is quite famous and probably instantly recognizable to most Americans:



 


Taken in New York City's Times Square in August 1945, Eisenstaedt's image captures the spirit of those who would like to continue to see Victory Day celebrated.  They believe that it is a day designed to mark the joy and relief that accompanied the surrender of Japan and the end of a long, costly war waged in the Pacific.  It is a day set aside to remember the many American soldiers, sailors, pilots, doctors, nurses, WACS and WAVES who gave their lives for their country.  In essence, supporters argue, it is no different from Memorial Day, Veterans Day, D-Day, or even Independence Day, days of observance that memorialize the military events and services that shape any nation's history.


The second photo, also taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, is somewhat less omnipresent in American cultural iconography.  It summarizes the other side of the Victory Day debate:




Taken in 1946, it is a photo of a Japanese mother and child set against the recently bombed landscape of Hiroshima.  The image offers a compelling counterpoint to Eisenstaedt's famous Times Square photograph: it emphasizes the consequences of war on a civilian population and a defeated nation's landscape.


Although I will openly admit that I would like to see "Victory Day" in Rhode Island either removed from the state's calendar or renamed and completely re-conceptualized to emphasize the ideas of memory, service and sacrifice that are foregrounded in the observance of Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I am particularly interested in the oscillating dynamics of objectivity and emotion that shape our cultural imagining of this cataclysmic event in American and world history.


Eisenstaedt also photographed a very different, but similarly relevant scene in 1947:



In this image, Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer are comparing notes.  Although it is possible that the one is simply giving the other directions to a really good barber shop on Nassau Street, the implication of the image is that what we are witnessing here is the science of the atomic age in its very genesis.  These are great minds at work, changing the very structure and fabric of our world and its future.

First published on August 31, 1946 in The New Yorker, John Hersey's Hiroshima opens with the very precise identification of a seemingly much more mundane moment in time: "Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department at the East Asia Tin Works" has "just sat down at her place in the plant office" and is "turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk."  It is a gesture any one of us might make and have no doubt made, thoughtlessly, a thousand times a day, on any day of the week, any week of the year.  In this case, however, the turn of the young woman's head occurs "[a]t exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6th, 1945, Japanese time"--that is, "at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima."  

In case we fail to connect with the image of Toshiko Sasaki turning her head to talk to her neighbor at the next desk, Hersey's first paragraph offers us a series of similarly everyday gestures and moments: "Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read," "Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura... stood by the window of her kitchen watching a neighbour tearing down his house," "Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge ... reclined in his underwear on a cot," "Dr. Terufumi Sasaki ... walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen," and "the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tammoto ... paused at the door of a rich man's house in Koi."  

Sitting down to read the morning paper, standing at the window, reclining in one's underwear, walking down a hallway at work, stopping in a doorway: these are the moments into which the brain-child of Oppenheimer, Einstein and the various members of the Manhattan project is about to explode.

I juxtapose the image of Oppenheimer and Einstein's easy-going collaboration with the descriptions contained in Hersey's first paragraph because the one is quite obviously the ultimate outcome of the other, although we do not usually set them in sequence.  In fact, it is because we do not view them sequentially that we end with the kind of polarization that marks the observation of Victory Day in Rhode Island. We see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in terms of the "side" that we choose without recognizing the fact that, in such moments, human history is a continuum, not a divide.

As each of Hersey's protagonists move through the day of August 6, 1945, they are presented with a scene never before witnessed in the history of human military action.  As Mr. Tanimoto attempts to load survivors into a boat, he "realised that they were too weak to lift them- selves. He reached down and took a woman by the hands, but her skin slipped off in huge, glove-like pieces. He was so sickened by this that he had to sit down for a moment. ...Their backs and breasts were clammy, and he remembered uneasily what the great burns he had seen during the day had been like: yellow at first, then red and swollen, with the skin sloughed off, and finally, in the evening, suppurated and smelly. ... On the other side, at a higher spit, he lifted the slimy living bodies out and carried them up the slope away from the tide. He had to keep consciously repeating to himself, 'These are human beings.'" 

In all of Eisenstaedt's photos, no matter which side of the Victory Day debate they may envision, humans are still recognizable as such.  But if we fail to perceive that when a nuclear weapon is used against an opponent, there is only ever the possibility of an ultimately Pyrrhic victory, we will ultimately be faced with a humanity that has rendered itself horrifically unrecognizable.  In the end, perhaps Mr. Tanimoto has found the simplest formula for escaping such an apocalyptic future.  Instead of insisting on taking sides and celebrating victories, we must consciously keep reminding ourselves, "These are human beings."


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fish for Breakfast

Ah, Stanley Fish.  Who else but Stanley Fish could make a career out of being Stanley Fish?  I wrote one of my first undergraduate theory papers on his concept of interpretive communities in "Is There a Text In this Class?"  In this text (sorry, couldn't resist), Fish promotes the idea that interpretation is a result of shared conventions, so his answer is basically, no, there is no text in this class, or in any other.

Fish is an interesting and often controversial voice in literary and academic debates: at times, I think he simply likes to stir the pot to see what will surface.  At other times, though, I think he offers a useful take on things only to then retreat to a strange kind of intellectual Switzerland, insisting that what really matters is the fact that it (whatever topic he's chosen) doesn't really matter.  His recent post, "Plagiarism is Not a Big Moral Deal" is a case in point.  Briefly stated, Fish argues that "if plagiarism is an idea that makes sense only in the precincts of certain specialized practices and is not a normative philosophical notion, inquiries into its philosophical underpinnings  are of no practical interest or import."  Since there's really nothing new under the sun, Fish suggests, writers who commit plagiarism are "professionally culpable," but philosophically, plagiarism is, you guessed it, "not a big moral deal."  There is no philosophical or theoretical underpinning that renders plagiarism Wrong, on the scale of one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

But who ever said it was?  This is what I find most frustrating about Fish: his tendency to resort to straw man arguments to make his points-- in my opinion, the pull-out quote summarizes his rhetorical strategy.  What reasonable person has ever argued that plagiarism is the same as stealing someone's car?  But if we want to go there, one could argue that teenagers do sometimes take the car without asking, and parents do sometimes call the cops on them "to teach them a lesson"--namely, that you shouldn't take things that you know don't belong to you.

I served as an "Academic Integrity Officer" for several years at my college: it offered no badge and no perks, just a chance to test whether the interrogation strategies you see on Law & Order reruns really do work.  It was an interesting experience.  Generally, the only people who seemed to express a sense of moral outrage were the occasionally overworked and overwrought professors who viewed the student's action as a personal insult, on the lines of, "I can't believe that little piss-ant thinks I'm not smart enough to catch something like this.  I'll see him/her burn in hell!"  Usually, the plagiarism was pretty pathetic and generally quite obvious to anyone actually looking at the paper, so the scale of this kind of reaction was definitely disproportionate to the weight of the action itself.

Most people--including myself, the deans, and the students themselves--had a much more practical reaction: "wow, what a dumb thing to do, okay, now let's figure out the best way to make sure they know that their actions have consequences and that they'd better not do it again."  The problem cases, however, were the repeat offenders: students who plagiarized repeatedly, clearly trying to work the system and betting that they wouldn't get caught more than once.  These were treated differently because, in essence, they speak to a different problem.  In the words of my mother, "You knew it was wrong, but you did it anyway."  And similarly, "I'm not sure you're sorry you did it, I think you're just sorry you got caught."

This is where, in my opinion, philosophy can productively inform the politics and pragmatics of dealing with something like plagiarism.  In legal matters, we acknowledge a clear distinction between acts of negligence, carelessness or stupidity, and conscious and willful attempts to wrongfully profit at the expense of others.  We make that distinction precisely because of the "metaphysical rap" that we value as a culture--and yes, of course, different cultures construct different systems of value.

In the end, I think Fish simply dismisses theory to emphasize practice, but I'm not sure why.  When we try to figure out whether or not something is in fact a Big Moral Deal or just an infraction of the rules we like to live by, we look to many things--our notions of intentionality, our understanding of the contexts in which the action occurred, our shared conventions of practice and purpose, etc.--but we all agree that, in the end, actions do have consequences.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Feisty Federalist

Like pretty much everyone in the U.S., I'm frequently dismayed by the antics of the many pin-heads who act as agents of the public trust in our representative democracy.  If there's a bipartisan issue out there, this is probably it: a open-mouthed, collective horror at what's being done to us under the guise of what's being done for us.

But at the same time, it really fries my bacon when people throw the baby out with the admittedly dirty bath-water of American politics.  American republican democracy and the foundations of the American government are comprised of amazing ideas and ideals, and I often find myself wanting to admonish people to show a little respect.  The practice may be faulty and rather shabby, but the underlying principles are genuinely worth our time and consideration. 

I've taught The Federalist Papers in Early American Lit., and #10 is my favorite.  In the first place, I'm always amazed at the fact that this paper was actually that--a news-sheet designed to inform the general public about the impending ratification of the Constitution and advocate for its adoption.  It's funny that, as much as we hold up the Constitution as one of the hallmarks of American democracy and an obviously brilliant idea, it was by no means a done-deal: it took a lot of arguing and promotion to create the union that we now take for granted.  

When I think about the fact that this is what was "on," so to speak, in 1787, and I turn to see what I'm to be tuning into next week on "The Bachelorette," I want to cry... but I digress.

Written by James Madison, Federalist #10 addresses the problem of factions in a democracy: although the language is fancy, the issue is quite practical.  People like to quarrel, and if they can't find a good reason to argue, they'll make one up--we have an inherent "propensity" to "fall into mutual animosities" even over "the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions."  So what happens when you make people--as opposed to monarchs, say--the seat of governmental power?  All hell breaks loose: historically, popular democracies are prone to "instability, injustice, and confusion"-- they typically offer "spectacles of turbulence and contention," they are "incompatible with personal security or the rights of property," and they are consequently short-lived and frequently die a violent death.

The solution, Madison argues, is to either fight the causes of factions or to put a check on their potential effects.  There is one quick way to eliminate factions: limit personal freedoms.  "Liberty is to faction what air is to fire"--the more freedom we have, the more likely we are to unite with others who share our passions and collectively seek to impose our agenda on others.  Given the chance, we'll use our rights to trample on the rights of others--particularly over the issue of property.  Democracy gives us the chance to serve as both judge and jury, and in cases where our own interests are at stake, we are unlikely, if not unable, to weigh the issues without inherent bias.

In a republic organized along the lines of the U.S. Constitution, however, as Madison notes, "the great and aggregate interests [are] referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures."  This is precisely the conflict being played out in Arizona: a conflict between aggregate interests affecting the nation as a whole, and local and particular interests specific to the state of Arizona itself.  The presence of 400,000 illegal immigrants and a permeable border is bound to have an effect on the local citizens and their specific interests at the state level.  At the same time, the maintenance of an international border and a coherent immigration policy affects the nation's interest as a whole--it is a "great and aggregate interest" with the potential to affect everyone in the U.S.


So, if the federal government drops the ball, should the governor of Arizona be allowed to pick it up and just run with it?  Madison would argue, "No, absolutely not."  This impulse is precisely what the republican democracy of the United States is designed to protect against: the citizens of Arizona constitute a potential faction that cannot objectively consider the interests of the nation at large.  What might seem to be a good or necessary solution to an immediate, local problem may in fact constitute an infringement on the rights of others nationwide.


So this is the lens through which I view this problem: both sides are "right," because both sides represent viable, competing interests which must be addressed and mediated.  The fact that we're witnessing this conflict is not a sign of Armageddon, in my opinion: this comes with the territory of representative democracy.  If we respect the safeguards that Madison describes, we'll weather the storm.  
 

Toy Story Or, A Tiger Woods Action Figure for Christmas

Last winter, just in time for Christmas, I heard (or, more likely, read) that one result of the media fallout surrounding the Tiger Woods infidelity scandal was that Tiger Woods Action Figures were littering clearance bins all across America and could be had for half-price or less. 

This struck me as odd and a bit funny. What exactly is the connection between a toy action figure and virtue?  Obviously, the main concern probably isn't that little Johnny is going to drag out his Las Vegas Cocktail Waitress Action Figure and begin reenacting thirty-one months of suggestive text messages and slightly panicked voice mails. And at the same time, we all realize that, unless children have changed a lot in the years since I played with action figures (and I'll be the first to admit that they have), it is almost inevitable that there will eventually be some playfully and childishly naughty exchange between this toy-Tiger and a Barbie (or Ken) doll, and that it may or may not be preceded by an officially sanctioned play-marriage ceremony.  Let's face it: more likely than not, at some point in their little toy-lives, dolls are unceremoniously stripped, clinically scrutinized, and innocently shoved head-first into a sandbox in positions that no double-jointed adult film star could ever hope to replicate.  So what is it that we're trying to register culturally and collectively when we link the supposed virtues (or vices) of a flesh-and-blood human being to the market-value of a toy, and devalue the latter based on the actions of the former? 

So this got me thinking... Can morality and economics be linked?  Should they?  Are they?  In the bad old days of imperialism, they were, and shamelessly so: "Hi, we're white and you're not, and you're here but we're not, so we're going to fix this by exploiting you and then teaching you how to thank us for it.  If for some reason you don't feel appropriately grateful, we'll just chalk it up to the fact that you're not white and beat the shit out of you."

I'm working on Defoe's novel, Moll Flanders (1722).  With this novel, the title-page says it all: it's the story, of a lovely lady, who was born in Newgate Prison and "was Twelve Year a whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia," but who "at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent."  Needless to say, it's a fun read.


Moll learns early on that virtue is most useful when it can be bartered, bought and sold: seduced by the eldest son of the rich benefactress who takes her in, Moll retrospectively blames herself for her own vanity and stupidity--she should have learned the art of the deal and made a better bargain for herself.  When the man tells her he loves her and then pays her afterward, she (as she now realizes, foolishly) focuses on all of the sweet nothings that he says rather than insisting that he put his money where his mouth is (to put it rather bluntly) and offer to marry her.  


Moll operates within a mercantile economy, a zero-sum game in which my gain is always your loss.  If I get a bigger piece of the pie, you'll be getting a smaller one, and that's simply too bad for you.  This has interesting consequences for thinking about morality: in essence, the Calvinists argue that the fact that I'm getting a bigger piece of the pie may mean that God likes me better and hence that I'm a better person.  I can't ever know that for certain, though, so I need to keep accumulating pie (or whatever) and try not to gloat because God hates that and if he gets upset, he'll cut off my pie-supply entirely.


Defoe is so interesting to me, because he's a Puritan writing and living on the cusp of an economic shift from a mercantile system, in which gains and losses are very clearly registered, to a capitalist system of exchange in which the illusion of transparent financial operations covers some very complex and sometimes rather shady exchanges--as we Americans all learned in the fall of 2008, and as Defoe himself saw in the scandal of the South Sea Bubble, which occurred shortly before he wrote the novel.  In a capitalist system, profit and loss go beyond the columns and margins recorded on today's balance-sheet: we speculate on future profits by forecasting a positive outcome.  In essence, we tell ourselves-- or are told-- a story about how it will all end really, really well for us.  Under capitalism, I can be convinced to take a smaller piece of the pie today, to give away my piece, or to give away the whole pie, if I'm willing to believe that tomorrow, I will have two pies (and possibly some cake too).

Unless, of course, tomorrow comes and there's no pie after all.  Negative outcomes are a story no one wants to read, hear or tell.  In mercantilism, these outcomes are represented alongside of the positives--they are part of the system.  In capitalism, stories about future gains trump present-day, negative realities.  In short, with capitalism, fiction rules.


Which brings me back to the bargain-bin action figure.  In the eyes of his financial backers and the general public who "bought" the marketed image, the story of Tiger Woods' success didn't turn out as planned.  His money, talent, image, and persona--everything about "him"--was premised on a cultural assumption of moral virtue.  If we didn't value the assumption of monogamy, for example, Tiger and his action figure would not have lost market-value.  More interesting--and something Moll Flanders could have taught him--is the fact that a well-managed fall from virtue can generate profit in a capitalist economy in ways that it simply can't in a mercantile economy.  Tiger's loss could be Tiger's gain, if he only knew how to tell us all a good story.


What I'm still sorting out is the question of what exactly it is that we lose--or that we think that we lose--if the story of an individual's alleged virtue and cultural status changes from what we were led to expect.


The more I think about this, the more I think I need to go back and reread Karl Marx's Capital...