The Dog Stars: The Apocalypse As Outdoorsman Fantasy

Peter Heller‘s The Dog Stars is one of those post-apocalyptic novels in which authorial fantasies are overwhelmingly transparent.

The world is coming to an end; flu has stalked the land; millions have died. Violence is the currency of most human interaction; food is scarce; government is invisible. And so on. You’ve seen most of this before. But there is a twist.

The novel’s central protagonist, Hig, is a bush pilot of sorts. He lives on a now abandoned airfield with another man, Bagley, who is a stone-cold killer, the kind of man who has a lifetime subscription to Soldier of Fortune, and wonders why he is never invited to contribute articles for it. Our hero, the aviator, has some fuel for his aircraft, a Cessna, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Beast,’  and a faithful dog, who accompanies him everywhere. He has guns. (Indeed, Bagley and Hig have a small arsenal, which also includes grenades and mortars.) They have plenty of ammunition, often dispensed at those who dare breach the boundaries of their solitary outpost. Every once in a while, Hig goes flying. He finds food, he carries out reconnaissance, he patrols the perimeters, he drops off food and supplies to another band of survivors (an act of kindness Bagley finds gratuitous).  He looks for signs of life. He hears radio signals, and he follows them. He finds surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. He returns. Along the way, he loses one companion, and finds another one.

So: men have guns in the Wild West, they go hunting, fishing, tracking with faithful dogs, they kill anyone who moves. They fly, the splendid sprawling wilderness of the American West beneath them. Fuel and food and bullets are scarce, but not really. Nine years on, real scarcity still hasn’t kicked in. When the desire for human companionship gets really strong, our hero finds a beautiful woman. They bond; they have both experienced loss in the past. She soon gives herself up to him, coming to his bed at night. She asks for, and receives, ‘oral pleasure.’

This fantasy of an American West unspoiled by tourists, full of wild game, journeyed over by a light aircraft, with a never-ending supply of aviation fuel and ammunition, and just enough women, is written quite beautifully. Heller has many lyrical descriptions of man and nature, man in nature, and just plain nature. Reading The Dog Stars made me want to return to Colorado–or New Mexico, Montana, or Idaho, for that matter–to go hiking again through its valleys and over its alpine passes, to look down on its glittering cobalt lakes, to gaze up at its snow-capped peaks. I wouldn’t carry canned food. I’d hunt and fish and cook my meals by myself. Perhaps I’d get laid too. At night, in a tent, the sounds of my virtuosic love-making muffled by the gurgling brook nearby.

And if a broken-toothed, malodorous, tobacco-chewing, potentially-rapist redneck ever got in my way, whether on a highway or a trail or campsite, I’d blow his fucking brains out with one of my many guns. After warning him to back the fuck up, of course.

Dickipedia Was Invented For Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney‘s continued existence, his persistent and unconscionable consumption of space, oxygen, and sundry precious natural resources, has long been an airtight argument against the existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God. To wit, does such a God know of his existence? If not, then he is not all-knowing. If God does know of his existence, his foul, malevolent presence, his blighting of our lives, why does he not bring it to an end? If he chooses to not do so, then is not all-good. If he wants to, but cannot, then he is not omnipotent. QED.

As Ivan might have said in The Brothers Karamazov, if the price of admission to your heaven, your promised abode of well-being, your supposed land of milk and honey, O Lord, is to tolerate this Dick, then I’d rather be intolerant; if the fraternity of man includes this Dick, then I don’t wish to put up with this hazing.  Mighty theologians tremble in the face of the Cheney phenomenon; they prepare to change professions; they acknowledge defeat; they know well their usual sophisticated maneuvers, their slippery, sophistical evasions, will find no traction here. No invocation of the free will of man, no suggestions that the suffering of Man is the suffering of God, no suggestion that this benighted presence prepares us for greater bliss,  will do justice to this ineluctable fact, this producer of dread. We are, yet again, confronted with an awful truth: there is no God. There is, instead, this Dick.

Not only does Dick Cheney survive heart attacks–again and again, and I think, again, shoot friends, and wage illegal wars that cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, he shows up on national media, grinning and leering, reminding us that cartoon villains have a long way to go in catching up to him in the evil stakes. Defending the torture of innocents for the sake of a patently useless, ineffective and counterproductive tactic establishes that fact pretty clearly. Those not inclined to be force-fed this latest serving of Dick Soup will change channels or cancel subscriptions; the rest of us will defriend those who share video links showing his foul visage.

As mass-murdering war criminals go, this Dick hasn’t done too badly. He will never face trial, be cross-questioned, or spend time in jail, thanks to an administration that resolutely turns its face away–perhaps it holds its nose instead; he has many cheerleaders, who admire his forthright disavowal of humanity and decency, having long forsworn their own. Indeed, thanks to Halliburton and the determined dispensation of favors to cronies, he will continue acquire considerable fortunes, thumbing through gigantic stacks of greenbacks, now rapidly acquiring a distinctive shade of crimson thanks to the unwashable blood on his war-profiteering hands.

This Dick will live a long life, and die an old man, surrounded by those who, mysteriously, persist in their love for him. If the arc of his life thus far is any indication, he will feel no pain, no misery, no fear. In death, even as he is lowered into his grave, he will grin back at us, a rictus of triumph reminding us that he outwitted us all.

The only hope, if any, for this world, is that his grave will not be left unmarked. Perhaps sometime in the future, a well-placed and firmly hammered stake–or two, just to make sure–will bring deliverance and closure.

A Teaching Self-Evaluation

Today is the last day of classes for the fall semester of 2014. Today is the day for reviews, discussing paper plans (and in one class, surprisingly enough, answering questions from students who wanted to know a bit more about my personal background.) A week from today, I will administer finals in two classes and collect final papers for the third. Then, a brief and frenetic phase of grading before I submit grades. And another semester–my twenty-second at Brooklyn College–will be in the bag. I will see some students from this semester again–in other classes, on campus. (As of now, I know that at least three students from this semester’s classes have registered for my classes next semester.) Some students I will never see again–they’ve entered my life briefly (and I theirs), and then moved on.

As always, I wonder about how good a job I did.

I did some things right. I picked interesting readings and assigned a fair amount every week. I never got the feeling, as the semester wore on, that I had assigned too much or too little. (In my Social Philosophy class, I realized very early on, that I had assigned too much reading and tackled that problem by simply slowing down and letting readings fall off the end of the syllabus.) The novels I selected for my Philosophical Issues in Literature class were uniformly interesting and thought-provoking; the anthologies I picked for my Philosophy of Religion and Social Philosophy classes brought my students into contact with diverse styles of philosophical engagement. (And the books I picked were not a financial burden for my students.) I managed to provoke good discussions in many of the class meetings, and often did a good job of carrying out close, detailed analysis and exegesis of the texts. I asked many questions of students, and was able to provoke many interesting and thoughtful responses from them. I was able to place many issues discussed in class into broader philosophical contexts.

I continued to struggle with some old problems. I frequently found it hard to get students to do the readings and come to class prepared to discuss them; this remains a frustrating and vexing business, and I feel stuck in a rut of sorts. I showed little imagination in devising writing or reading exercises beyond the standard paper assignment and group discussion exercise. I was not able to provide more than brief comments on student papers. (I did, however, provide good feedback to those students who came and saw me after they had received their graded papers.) My style of teaching continues to rely a great deal on students being independently motivated, which often does not take care of those who struggle with motivation and inspiration.

Teaching remains a challenging business: it is exhilarating, exhausting and perplexing. At its best, it is creative and edifying; at its worst, it is infuriating and demoralizing. At the end of the semester, as always, I’m struck by what an acute blend of science and art it is. That, I suppose, has a great deal to do with its charms and lures and pains.

It’s Not Like The Good Ol’ Days Here

Writing on this blog has become increasingly onerous. For the first year of this blog (which I put online in November 2011), I was in between book projects, and was able to blog almost every day (I was also keen to establish a writing habit and stuck quite rigorously to a schedule); then, my daughter was born, but I was on paternity leave, and then later, on academic sabbatical, and so, was able to find the time to write a post quite frequently. But in the past few months, I have returned to teaching full-time, and have balanced that with both a book deadline–due at Temple University Press by January-end–and parental responsibilities. (The ongoing variability in my daughter’s sleep patterns has meant that I’m exhausted and sleepless more often, and simply lack the inspiration and energy to write. Needless to say, this has affected my reading capacities as well; many library sessions of ‘study’ have seen me helplessly nodding away, unable to keep my heavy-lidded eyes open.)  Working on a book has meant that quite often when blogging, I’m distracted by the thought that valuable writing time, energy, and imagination is being ‘used up’ here when it could be used to polish a still-rough manuscript (one which has already missed the first deadline at summer’s end). And of course, teaching full-time–three classes, all new preparations–means less time for writing blog posts, or even thinking about them. Very often, a full day of teaching leaves me exhausted the next day as well. (I realized quite early in my teaching career that even a seventy-five minute ‘performance’ is physically draining in ways not quite understood by those who don’t teach.) I had hoped that I would be able to blog about my teaching–the actual material discussed in class, analyses of discussions with students, responses to questions raised, and so on–but that hasn’t been quite how it worked out.

The sum result of all of which has been that gaps in my blogging have grown, and quite often, when I have been able to put up something here, it has had a ‘dialed-in’ feel to it–something rushed and under-cooked. The gaps in blogging continue to grow; I’m appalled at the number of ‘absences’ I have logged in the past  few months. (Sometimes I have fallen off the blogging wagon for as long as a week–and that has been without going on vacation.) This failure to blog, to keep up the schedules and standards I was used to, or demanded of myself, has at times introduced a deep despondency. At times, I have wondered whether this blog is viable at all. But the thought of shutting it down is deeply depressing too. It would feel like an abandonment when the going got tough.

For now, I plan to continue. My blogging frequency will not be what it once was–as it will have to be if I continue teaching a full-load and working on my book projects. An academic book project has been languishing for two years now and needs to be picked up again if it is ever to be completed.

Perhaps the only consolation is that at least I will still be writing; if not here, then elsewhere.

Polygamy And Joseph Smith’s Convenient Revelations

In Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, Jon Krakauer cites Fawn Brodie‘s No Man Knows My History, her classic biography of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism:

Monogamy seemed to him–as it has seemed to many men who have not ceased to love their wives, but who have grown weary of connubial exclusiveness–an intolerably circumscribed way of life. “Whenever I see a pretty woman,” he once said to a friend, “I have to pay for grace.” But Joseph was no careless libertine who could be content with clandestine mistresses. There was too much of the Puritan in him, and he could not rest until he had redefined the nature of sin and erected a stupendous theological edifice to support his new theories on marriage.

That ‘stupendous theological edifice’, of course, was constructed by conveying some rather conveniently timed and worded ‘revelations’ that Smith would subsequently receive from God himself.

Indeed, as Krakauer goes on to note, so precisely specified were these revelations that they even took care of any resistance that Smith’s wife, Emma, might have had to her husband’s rather transparent philandering. As Verse 54 of Section 132–the one that sanctions so-called ‘plural marriage’– of the Mormon’s Doctrines and Covenants states:

And I command mine handmaid, Emma Smith, to abide and cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else. But if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord; for I am the Lord thy God, and will destroy her if she abide not in my law.

Other passages make it plain that casting one’s eyes about is quite all-right:

61 [I]f any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another…then is he justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him; for he cannot commit adultery with that that belongeth unto him and to no one else.

62 And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore is he justified.

63 But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to my commandment.

It all works out rather nicely. Take as many as you need; and woe betide any of your ‘brides’ if they seek similar sexual freedom for themselves. Indeed, threaten them with damnation and destruction in response.

The misogyny, mendaciousness,  and self-serving deceit on display is quite breathtaking. But it is not novel–as the histories of fundamentalist strains of the world’s major religions so depressingly reveal.

The new atheists–Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al.–are rightly pilloried for their intemperate and unsophisticated attacks on religion. Still, it is worth recalling, when one reads of the foundations of one of the world’s fastest growing faiths, that the reason they find such a sympathetic following is, all too often, because they have such glaring and easy targets to aim at.

An Old Flame (No, Not That Kind)

Writing about the adversarial disputation styles present in academic philosophy reminded me of the time I lost my temper at someone who worked in the same department as me. (I don’t use the term ‘colleague’ advisedly. This dude was anything but.) Then, I was in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and had for a long time been the subject of a series of personal attacks by a senior professor in the department. He made insulting remarks at department meetings about my research, my work on the curriculum committee, attacked me during my promotion interview, and of course, made many, many snide, offensive remarks over the departmental mailing list. (I was not alone in being his target; many other members of my department had been attacked by him as well.)

Finally, after he had yet another crude comment on the mailing list about my work, matters came to a head. I lost my temper and wrote back:

Ok, its been mildly diverting for a while. But I’ve tired of dealing with your sub-literate philistine self.

First, I don’t care what your middle name is. I made one up; you want me to be careful in how I address you? When all I am subjected to is more of the stinking piles of meshugna hodgepodge that is periodically deposited in my inbox?

Secondly, you bore me. You are excessively pompous, and your actions and pronouncements reek of a disturbing misanthropy. You are a legend in your own mind, and nowhere else. You pontificate excessively, lack basic reading skills and are constitutionally incapable of constructing an argument. You suffer under the delusion that your laughable savant-like talents actually have something to do with intelligence. You strut around, convinced that you make sense, while what you really should do is pay less attention to those voices in your head.

Thirdly, while I could take some time to construct a rebuttal of your useless ramblings, I’d rather spend some time insulting you in public. That’s what you like to do, so why don’t I just play along for a bit? But only as long as you don’t bore me excessively. When it gets to that point, I’ll have my SPAM filter mark your emails as SPAM and toss them in the trash where they belong. I like a little light amusement once in a while, and you occasionally provide it. Its cheap, low-brow entertainment. I think [senior professors] should be good for more than cheap entertainment but you have set your sights very low, so I should humor you for a bit before I go back to work. Its the least I can do for a ‘colleague’.

I used to flame self-deluded folks like you for fun back in the good ol’ Usenet days; if you want to join in and stick a bulls-eye on your forehead, be my guest. I miss the days of flaming Penn State undergrads who ran to post ramblings like yours five minutes after they had received their first BITNET accounts. But those guys could read at least, so flaming them was fun. With you, I’m not sure. Maybe you should go write a grant, schmooze with a grants program officer, or take a journal editor out for lunch. Or perhaps take a history lesson in computer science. One thing you do need is an education. In manners, first and foremost, but once you are done with that, I’ll send you a list of other subjects you need to catch up on. There’s a whole world out there. Try it sometime.

When you can construct a flame, get back to me, bring an asbestos suit, and I’ll get to work. But please, try to entertain me. If I am to be subjected to foolishness, I want to be entertained as well.  You’re a bit like Borat without the satire or irony. Or humor. Or entertainment value. In short, (stop me if you’ve heard this before), mostly, you just bore me.

Now, I command you: entertain me. Write an email that makes sense. Otherwise, run along. I’ve got serious research to do.

This might seem like fun. But it wasn’t. It was draining and dispiriting. I had been provoked, and I had fallen for it.

Won’t get fooled again.

The Dickhead Theory Of Academic Philosophy, Revisited

A little while ago on this blog, I posited something I jocularly termed The Dickhead Theoryas a possible explanation for the lack of women in academic philosophy (“there are too many dickheads in philosophy”). In response, one male reader commented:

At the risk of unjustly downplaying its particular effect on women, I’ll note that the dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too. It’s one of the reasons I left the field. To succeed in some philosophical fora seemed to require not only the *willingness* to wave one’s dick in the way you describe, but an outright love of doing so. I don’t find oneupsmanship to be a very appealing motivator, which put me at a disadvantage.

And then, just a couple of days ago, I received an email–from a male graduate student–which read:

I have to admit, I was happy to see someone suggest this.  At my undergrad, I seldom if ever came across this sort of behavior in philosophy classes or seminars – something I now recognize as a blessing.  Coming to [XXX] on the other hand, I was admittedly rather shocked at the prevalence of this sort of behavior among the students.  You mention that this behavior is possibly a deterrent to would-be women philosophers.  I think this is probably right.  But I must admit that I too – a male – also found this sort of behavior discouraging, and I’ve heard other male colleagues express the same sentiment.  Also, I’ve even seen this behavior exhibited by female colleagues.  I suppose that what I’m trying to say is that I see this as a problem not just for women interested in philosophy – though as I said, I think this probably is a problem in this respect – but also for the profession in general. [name of institution, er, redacted]

Both my interlocutors are correct: the “dickheadishness of professional philosophy affects men too.” Male philosophers are not a monolithic bloc, and indeed, neither are women philosophers, some of whom, indeed, do display the same obnoxious behavior I complained about in my original post. Many of the former demographic do not find the atmosphere of ‘philosophical debate’ to their liking, conducted as it often is, in a manner that seems deeply counterproductive to the idealized notion of philosophical inquiry. Love of wisdom seems a very distant notion in these abrasive exchanges.

My second interlocutor then goes on to ask:

Given that you mentioned this problem publicly, I wonder whether you have any opinions on how to change this aspect of the culture of our profession?  Also, do you think it is a problem many other philosophers take seriously?

Second question first. I do know many academic philosophers take this problem seriously. Certainly, the philosophers I cited in my original piece do, and some others have even taken public vows to treat their colleagues with more respect in academic settings. (See for instance Carrie Jenkins’ Day One post; but see too, the reaction it provoked). But we should also acknowledge that being a dickhead is not likely to get you much professional blowback–especially if you have a few OUP or CUP books. The incentive schemes of academic philosophy are not set up to recognize or reward non-dickheadish behavior.

There is another problem, perhaps more fundamental, one which I’m not sure can be addressed. Philosophical activity is often, fundamentally, understood as the presentation and refutation of arguments. It is presented as an essentially adversarial activity: we critique, we analyze, we take apart, we seek weaknesses, we probe for openings in arguments. If an argument can be refuted or made to seem untenable then so much the better for it. (Indeed, the intensity of the inquisition is valorized.) As such an entire vocabulary of trial and examination, of survival and fortitude, is imported. I think this has a great deal to do with the some of the behavioral patterns on display. There might be alternative conceptions of philosophical activity but they do not have much play in academic philosophy–at least, as far as I can see.

Social norms in a community can be changed; we can indicate, with varying degrees of disapproval, whether some species of behavior is praiseworthy and worthy of encouragement. Much normative weight can be attached to such praise or condemnation. But if our very activity is understood within a framework that is fundamentally about conflict, then we might be fighting a losing battle. (No pun intended.)

Addendum: My Brooklyn College colleague Serene Khader comments:

Feminist philosophy is a place where alternative norms are very much alive. The paradigm supposes that we are involved in a collective enterprise and trying to figure out the truth together. We scrutinize arguments by saying things like “can you help me see how to get from x to y” and “maybe it would be helpful to you to consider this objection.”