Trigger Warnings For Assigned Readings?

On Monday, I wrote a brief note here on Jose Saramago‘s Blindness, commenting on its very distinctive tragicomic style. Earlier in the day, my class had discussed–among others–parts XI and XII of the novel, two sections in which the violence and depravity in the abandoned mental hospital reaches new depths. Rape and a stabbing death are its most prominent features. Our discussion went well; I had asked students to bring in examples of passages they found satirical, and we talked about how these served to make Saramago’s broader ethical and political commentary more distinctive.

Later that evening I received the following email from a student:

I am writing to you regarding today’s class reading assignment.

We read a very detailed and graphic description of the events that took place in the asylum (of how the women were raped). I’m impelled to say that knowing that you have a multi-diverse classroom, with students who have lived and experienced different things in their lifetime, you should have approached the subject matter of today’s class a little bit differently. For example, giving us a warning of what we were going to come across in our reading. You do not know if maybe there are rape survivors in class, or if someone has perhaps experienced the same thing that those women experienced, or if this is a very sensitive topic to someone. The content of the book could have been extremely triggering to that person, to the point of inducing distress, or even a potential mental breakdown. I personally feel that you took an extremely insensitive approach in directing today’s class discussion. I understand that the books we read in class have something to do with complete collapse of social order/ chaos and morale (for it is implied in the course title) and that ties in with the objective of the class in developing theoretical class discussions, but some of these topics can make up someone else’s reality, it is not simply theoretical.  It came across to me that you were very indifferent to the trauma of the women in the book (mainly for connecting the rape of the women with basic human/ animal instincts). There need not be an apocalypse in order to experience rape.

I would really appreciate if you give us trigger warnings or at least some time to mentally prepare for future graphic events.

My intend is not to be rude, I just want to convey my personal opinion and reaction. It is possible that I could have misinterpreted things, therefore, if possible i would like to arrange an appointment with you to clarify matters.

I wrote back to the student, apologizing for any distress caused her, and asked her to come in to meet me during my office hours. She has not written back to me yet, but I expect we will meet soon enough.

Meanwhile, this morning, in class, I began by talking to my students about the email I had received–without naming the author, of course. I acknowledged that the reading might have been experienced quite differently by the many readers in my class, each bringing to it their unique personal backgrounds and experiences; I went on to note that in the first class meeting of the semester, I had pointed out that the subject material of the class–a concentration on post-apocalyptic literature–was likely to involve many difficult emotional and intellectual encounters and that our reading of Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach had already exposed us to some very painful and melancholic ruminations on death and dying. I noted that the readings which remained in the semester would often take us down similar paths (I made especial note of  Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road at this point.) I then wrapped up by reminding my students that they would often encounter reading material in college which would be distressful in many different dimensions, but again, this did not mean that no sensitivity could be shown to those who might find them traumatic.

We then returned to our final discussion of Blindness.

As I was taken unaware by my student’s email, I do not know if my responses are adequate or appropriate. All and any comments are welcome.

Coffee-Makers, Deprivations, Indulgence, Affordances

A few weeks I broke the quasi-bakelite handle of my stovetop coffee-maker. Rather, it broke by itself: as I poured the hot, steaming liquor into my mug the handle snapped and the coffee-maker crashed to the counter-top, spilling some coffee, but mercifully, not scalding or burning anyone. I have some affection for this venerable appliance; I could not bear to condemn it to the trash.  So I continued to use it, handling its burning hot metallic surface–now devoid of a handle–with a kitchen rag or a pair of oven gloves. Sometimes my handling is clumsy; sometimes it is expert. I fretted and worried about whether it was safe to continue to use the maker in such fashion. I took especial care to never pour coffee out while my little daughter was in the kitchen.

This coffee-maker is not the only one my family owns. As middle-class aspirants to the good life we own a second coffee-maker, this one with a smaller capacity. It is pressed into service when only one of us wants to make a coffee (like I just did a few minutes ago). This one still has its handle intact. When I first used it after breaking the larger one’s handle, I picked it up as I always did, with its safe, cool, bakelite grip.

As I did so, without relying on protective cloth or glove, without the acute care I need to exercise when using the handle-free counterpart, without the slight edge of anxiety that marks my efforts in that domain, with a sudden facility and ease I had not experienced in quite a while, I felt curiously exhilarated. A simple touch, a contact with, and employment of, an object made of plastic, a lowly handle, had served to remind me of several dimensions of my daily interaction with the physical world around me. It was also an acute reminder of the contextualized nature of deprivation and indulgence.

In a few short weeks, I had come to regard a previously unchallenging domain of physical exertion–pouring coffee–as one requiring just a little expertise, attention, and care. A task I could perform with little thought, with a conditioned dexterity, had become considerably less facile. The affordances of the coffee-maker had changed; it had changed my relationship to the space of the morning kitchen, my bodily awareness of myself in my only partially wakened state.

As I used the smaller coffee-maker, I was only using a previously utterly unremarkable object, one whose features had always been taken for granted.  But now it was distinctive; it provided a luxury the deprivation from which had made me more sensitive to its offerings. A coffee-maker with a functioning handle felt like a rare indulgence; I could simply approach the object, grip it with ease, and get to using it, not worrying in the least about cloth slipping, boiling hot coffee, scalding and burning me as it cascaded to the floor below.

A simple, short deprivation; an acute change in my embedding in my environment; an elevation of the ordinary to the sublime; new pleasures discovered; a quick lesson in the mediated relationship to the world through the physical objects that populate it.

All because a coffee-maker’s handle broke and I was too lazy to get a new one.

Jose Saramago’s Blindness, And Its Many Visions

Jose Saramago‘s Blindness is a very funny and a very sad book. It is a very sad book because it is about a cataclysmic event–an outbreak of blindness in an unspecified place and time–and the breakdown of social and moral order that follows; it is very funny because this apocalypse of sorts provides an opportunity for the novel’s author–an omnipresent narrator–to deliver an ironic, caustic, hilariously satirical black commentary on the people–unnamed ones, all of them–and the culture affected by this mysterious outbreak.

This co-existence of the tragic and the comic is what makes Blindness into a wildly entertaining and thought-provoking read.

Of course, any novel about catastrophic, apocalyptic blindness, written by a member of a species whose overpowering sensory modality is sight, which so casually dabbles in homilies like ‘seeing is believing’, whose metaphors for ignorance speak of darkness and for knowledge as illumination, and one of whose central philosophical allegories is that of the Prisoners in the Cave, was bound to be philosophically provocative. We, the readers, wonder about the symbolic and allegoric value of the novel’s characters being ‘blinded by the light’, the significance of their blindness leading to a world of overpowering milky white as opposed to coal-black, the relationship between moral, physical and spiritual blindness, about what may be ‘seen’ by those now blind, and what those who are not blind can no longer ‘see’, about what else, in a world no longer visible, becomes palpable and sensed and otherwise experienced. We wonder too, as readers, about our own blindness: what we might be blind to in the book and in our daily lives. (My first class meeting on Blindness  was almost entirely taken up with a discussion of these issues and how the vehicle of blindness played into the author’s larger political, ethical, and artistic vision; oops, can’t stop dealing in these metaphors.)

In Blindness, there is ample description of the breakdown of social order that results from the epidemic of blindness, ample opportunity to shake one’s head at the venality of man that becomes visible in desperate times–there is violence, filth, murder, sexual degradation. What makes these treatments of the aftermath of disaster distinctive is that Saramago’s treatment is both kind and harsh: we sense an observer of the human condition whose heart breaks for the misery he can see around him, who feels the most exalted of human emotions, love, for those who suffer, and who yet, in moments of exasperation, cannot resist a cackle or two at the stupidity, crassness, and greed of the human race. But if the author is a cynic, one bursting to the seams with irony and witticism, then he didn’t start out that way. This world and its peoples made him so. The disaster that has befallen them is not a punishment; it is not a judgment; it is merely an inexplicable event, like the ones this world specializes in, one that has produced this opportunity to carefully study, in some painful and revealing detail, the imperfect reactions of a kind of creature who is always, at the best of times, fumbling in the dark.

No Atheists In Foxholes? Plenty of Atheists In Cancer Wards

In writing about Brittany Maynard, the twenty-nine year old cancer patient who has scheduled herself for a physician-assisted suicide on November 1, Ross Douthat asks:

Why, in a society where individualism seems to be carrying the day, is the right that Maynard intends to exercise still confined to just a handful of states? Why has assisted suicide’s advance been slow, when on other social issues the landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction?

This question will predictably be answered by some variant of the usual Douthat analysis. To wit:

Because liberals misunderstand the American soul, if not the human condition, which is offered more soothing, palliative balm, more existential comfort, by the religiously infused conservative spirit, the true heart of America, and really, perhaps all of humanity. This Godless, cold, uncaring cosmos of the liberal imagination–where it ultimately fails is in being able to address La Condition Humaine

With that in mind, let us press on.

It does not take us too long to encounter Douthat’s current version of the answer I supplied. Here it is. ‘Liberalism’, in the context of the assisted suicide debate, is:

[A] worldview ill equipped to make sense of suffering that’s bound to lead to death, or that does not have a mountain-climbing, op-ed-writing recovery at the end of it.

Thus, unsurprisingly, in the Maynard case:

[W]hen it comes time to make an affirmative case for what she actually has to live for, they [liberals] often demur. To find that case, you often have to turn to explicitly religious writers — like Kara Tippetts, a mother of four currently dying of her own cancer, who wrote Maynard a passionate open letter urging her to embrace the possibility that their shared trial could actually have a purpose, that “beauty will meet us in that last breath.

But perhaps liberals demur because they don’t think they can articulate a rationale for continuing a life of pain and discomfort, with no possibility of relief, one that saps the soul of those left behind, without descending into dishonest turnings away from the suffering at hand. I’ve read Tippett’s letter. It reminds me of theological solutions to the problem of evil that I often discuss in my philosophy of religion classes: they don’t work; they only do on those already convinced of the theses the suffering find inexplicable.  Tippett has found her solution to her crisis; she should respect Maynard’s.

Douthat continues:

The future of the assisted suicide debate may depend, in part, on whether Tippetts’s case for the worth of what can seem like pointless suffering can be made either without her theological perspective, or by a liberalism more open to metaphysical arguments than the left is today.

I have news for Douthat. Assuming that what he means by ‘liberalism’ is just ‘atheism’ or ‘secularism’, as he so clearly seems to, he should realize it is a metaphysical platform: its ontology is bereft of a Supreme Being, of a non-human scale of value, of a purpose that  somehow transcends human strivings and value-construction.

Let me offer my answer to Douthat’s question: Because political debate in this country, one in which an atheist will never be elected president, is still, all too often, susceptible to, and hijacked by, the religiosity on display in Tippett’s letter, one which infects all too many of our political representatives. Where the ‘landscape has shifted dramatically in a libertarian direction,’ it has done so in those spaces where its progress is not so impeded. The legalization of marijuana is a good example; the abortion debate shows the limits of American ‘individualism’ in a domain where religion and sexism rule the roost. (Gay marriage is a notable exception.) Perhaps too, physician-assisted suicide is a complicated issue in a country where healthcare costs–especially end-of-life ones–are astronomical, where the terminally ill, besides not being mentally competent to make such decisions, might feel the pressure to end their lives to not be a financial burden on those left behind. It is in these issues that the real complexity lies. Here, the theological will have little to contribute, transfixed as it is by a vision of a purpose to human suffering invisible to all too many.

Beyonce And The Singularity

A couple of decades ago, I strolled through Washington Square Park on a warm summer night, idly observing the usual hustle and bustle of students, tourists, drunks, buskers,  hustlers, stand-up comedians, and sadly, folks selling oregano instead of good-to-honest weed. As I did so, I noticed a young man, holding up flyers and yelling, ‘Legalize Marijuana! Impeach George Bush! [Sr., not Jr., though either would have done just fine.].”  I walked over, and asked for a flyer. Was a new political party being floated with these worthy objectives as central platform  issues? Was there a political movement afoot, one worthy of my support? Was a meeting being called?

The flyers were for a punk rock band’s live performance the following night–at a club, a block or so away. Clickbait, you see, is as old as the hills.

Clickbait works. From the standard ‘You won’t believe what this twelve-year old did to get his divorced parents back together’ to ‘Ten signs your daughter is going to date a loser in high school’, to ‘Nine ways you are wasting money everyday’ – they all work. You are intrigued; you click; the hit-count goes up; little counters spin; perhaps some unpaid writer gets paid as a threshold is crossed; an advertiser forks out money to the site posting the link. Or something like that. It’s all about the hits; they keep the internet engine running; increasing their number justifies any means.

Many a writer finds out that the headlines for their posts changed to something deemed more likely to bring in readers. They often do not agree with these changes–especially when irate readers complain about their misleading nature. This becomes especially pernicious when trash talking about a piece of writing spreads–based not on its content, but on its headline, one not written by the author, but dreamed up by a website staffer instructed to do anything–anything!–to increase the day’s hit-count.

A notable personal instance of this phenomenon occurred with an essay I wrote for The Nation a little while ago. My original title for the essay was: was Programs, Not Just People, Can Violate Your Privacy. I argued that smart programs could violate privacy just like humans could, and that the standard defense used by their deployers–“Don’t worry, no humans are reading your email”–was deliberately and dangerously misleading. I then went to suggest granting a limited form of legal agency to these programs–so that their deployers could be understood as their legal principals and hence, attributed their knowledge and made liable for their actions. I acknowledged the grant of personhood as a legal move that would also solve this problem, but that was not the main thrust of my argument–the grant of legal agency to invoke agency law would be enough.

My essay went online as Programs Are People, Too. It was a catchy title, but it was clickbait. And it created predictable misunderstanding: many readers–and non-readers–simply assumed I was arguing for greater ‘legal rights’ for programs, and immediately put me down as some kind of technophilic anti-humanist. Ironically, someone arguing for the protection of user rights online was pegged as arguing against them. The title was enough to convince them of it. I had thought my original title was more accurate and certainly seemed catchy enough to me. Not so apparently for the folks who ran The Nation‘s site. C’est la vie.

As for Beyonce, I have no idea what she thinks about the singularity.

Paul Morel and Travis Bickle: The World-Dissolving Melancholic Gaze

In Sons and Lovers (1913), D. H. Lawrence directs many glances at the Derbyshire landscape, often through his characters’ distinctive visions. Here is one, this time through Paul Morel:

He was brooding now, staring out over the country from under sullen brows. The little, interesting diversity of shapes had vanished from the scene; all that remained was a vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy, the same in all the houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds; they were only shapen differently. And now that the forms seemed to have melted away, there remained the mass from which all the landscape was composed, a dark mass of struggle and pain. The factory, the girls, his mother, the large, uplifted church, the thicket of the town, merged into one atmosphere—dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit. [Bantam Classic, 1985, pp. 271]

In this vivid passage, Paul’s melancholia affords him a lens through which to interpret his surroundings, now infected with his own subjectivity. The world he ‘sees’ has the shapes and forms that it does because they are the ones he has imposed on it. So overpowering is his current sense of desolation that the boundaries between objects break down, principles of individuation fail to hold sway, and the substratum that is the foundation of the visible world is revealed. In this state of mind it can only be the ‘vast, dark matrix of sorrow and tragedy’, ‘a dark mass of struggle and pain.’ As a daily coping mechanism, this brooding assemblage is understood as, and interacted with, as physical objects, including animate and inanimate ones, like ‘houses and the river-flats and the people and the birds’ but at times like these–a characteristically intense interaction with a woman, in this case, Clara Dawes, his lover–this construction crumbles, and the artifice of it all is revealed. As is the grim underlying reality. (Paul’s interpretive scheme is not a linguistic one; it seems to be constructed from felt emotions and sensations.)

An interesting analogy with Lawrence’s technique here is that employed by Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver when showing us Travis Bickle‘s New York City. Scene after scene shows a grim tapestry of violence, sexual degradation, and corruption of all stripes–‘the filth’–which so corrodes Bickle’s sensibilities and generates an ultimately violent retaliation. So relentless is this depiction of ‘the open sewer’, so ubiquitous its presence outside Bickle’s car window, that viewers of Taxi Driver might wonder if Bickle was driving around the same city block again and again. But that, of course, is the point of it all: the diversity of the city has been dissolved and made shapeless and formless by Bickle’s gaze. What we see on the screen is Bickle’s subjectivity imposed on the landscape outside, now understood and contextualized by his distinctive perspective into ‘one vast matrix of of vice and dirt’, with its streets and corners and peoples and street lights all merged into one atmosphere–dark, brooding, and sorrowful, every bit.’

Paul Morel and Travis Bickle live in distinctive worlds of their own.

 

At The Allrounder: Being A Mets And Yankees Fan

This past April, in noting the online debut of a new sports journal, The Allrounder, I noted its self-description:

The Allrounder will be distinct from existing sports media sites in covering the whole world of sport. The site will feature writers from different countries, whose expertise ranges from basketball, cricket, and hockey to all codes of football. And The Allrounder will aim for the global fan—for the Indian who is up in the middle of the night watching the Champions League, the American who follows Six Nations rugby, the Brit who cheers for the Maple Leafs, the Brazilian with a LeBron jersey, and the Aussie who loves baseball novels.

The Allrounder will also offer a different take on sport. Most of our contributors are academic researchers at universities around the world. The site will bring their insights out of the seminar room and make them available to educated, curious fans—without getting overly theoretical or ponderous. We’ll be smart without being stuffy or snide.

I debuted yesterday on The Allrounder with Confessions Of A Mets And Yankees Fan. I’ve only touched lightly upon many of the issues noted in there: the tribalism of sports fans and the hankering for ‘home’ being two notable instances. More on that later. Perhaps here, or there.