The Road And The Apocalyptic World of the Homeless

Last week, the students in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class and I, as part of our ongoing discussion about Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, watched John Hillcoat‘s cinematic adaptation of it. On Monday, we watched roughly half the movie in class, and then on Wednesday, we concentrated on three scenes: the encounter with Ely the ‘blind’ old man; the encounter with the thief; and the closing scenes, as the Boy meets his ‘new family.’

After we had finished viewing the encounter with Ely, I asked my students what they made of the differences between the novel and the movie’s treatment of that event. This spun into an interesting discussion about the imagery employed by McCarthy and Hillcoat, especially as many of my students felt that the movie could not quite conjure up the novel’s aura of apocalyptic destitution that swirls around Ely and his gnomic pronouncements on the state of the world.

Building on this, I asked my students what they made of the movie’s visual descriptions of the Man, the Boy, and Ely: their filthy dress, their dirty, unkempt, unwashed appearance, their patched up shoes, the cart containing their possessions that they push along. (The book also makes note of the Ely’s terrible smell.) What did this most remind them of? A few hands went up: these characters looked like New York City’s homeless, an often familiar sight.

As this identification was made, my students realized, I think, what I was getting at.

The central characters in The Road are homeless folk. They might seem unfamiliar to us at first, because the world described in the novel and the movie–devastated by an unspecified catastrophe–looks comfortably distant from our normal, everyday existence. But the homeless among us live in such a post-apocalyptic world now: an apocalypse has already occurred in their lives. They are without homes, dirty, hungry, on the edge of starvation, reduced to foraging for scraps, smothered in their own waste, stinking to high heaven, perennially in danger of being set on, assaulted, set on fire, or murdered (as news bulletins often remind us). Unlike the Man, the Boy, and Ely, they don’t have to fear cannibalism (not yet anyway) but perhaps they can sense there is little hope in their lives, little to drive them onwards except the brute desire to stay alive.

If we want to engage in an exercise of the imagination and think about how the Man and the Boy might feel we might want to think of those homeless folk we see in New York City’s subway stations and streets. If we wish to conjecture about how the man and the boy experience the cold in their world, which will eventually freeze their starving, impoverished selves to death, we need only think about how every winter, in subzero temperatures, the homeless desperately try to survive, using cardboard boxes, sleeping on top of subway gratings, seeking warm corners and nooks, hopefully safe from marauders at night, next to, and on top of, some of the world’s most expensive real estate.

So while we might sustain the illusion that the events described in The Road are fiction, the homeless remind us the apocalypse–conceived as fantasy in novel and movie–is already all around us.

Steven Salaita, Palestinians, And Autobiography

Last night, along with many Brooklyn College students, faculty (and some external visitors) I attended ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine. (My previous posts on this event can be found here and here.)

As Robin has noted over at his blog, there was a genuine conversation to be participated in: hard questions, hard answers, disputation. Most importantly, I think, there were moments of discomfort and bluntness.

I want to make note here, very quickly, of  a point of interest that stood out for me (among many, many others).

I was intrigued by Robin’s opening questions to Salaita, asking him to tell the audience a little bit about himself: his family background, his academic interests, his writings etc. At this stage, I was, as someone who had read–and sometimes written–a great deal about La Affaire Salaita, eager and impatient to move on to a discussion of the finer particulars of his case: what’s next in the legal battles, how strong is the First Amendment case etc. Surely, all this was just throat-clearing before the substantive discussion would begin.

But as Salaita began answering these queries, I realized something all over again: all too often, ‘the Palestinian’ is a shadowy figure: not fully filled out, a zone of unknowing into which all too many fears and anxieties are projected.  The state of exile of the Palestinian people, their refugee status, their diasporic existence has often meant that they seem like creatures that flit from place to place, not resting, not stopping to acquire detail, painted on by everyone but themselves. (‘All the Palestinian people, where do they all come from’?) They exist in a blur, our understandings of them underwritten by forces often beyond their control. In that context, the mere fact of hearing a Palestinian speak, telling us ‘where he is coming from’ – whether it is by informing us of the nationality of his father, a Jordanian, or his mother, a Palestinian, born and raised in Nicaragua, and where he was born – Appalachia, if I heard him right! – is enlightening. These simple autobiographical details humanize the too-frequently dehumanized. (The little intellectual autobiography that Salaita provided–for instance, detailing his realization of the notions of colonialism and dispossession tied together American Indian studies and the Palestinian question–did this too.)

For Americans, these particulars Steven Salaita fit into the fabric of American life, into its immigrant past, into cultures and histories and geographies in which they too have a stake. They might force a reckoning of the Palestinian as a ‘new kind of American,’ as heir to long-standing local traditions of political disputation, and enabled a viewing of his dissent in a different light. Without the context of Salaita’s embedding in his past, his family and the places he made his own, his intellectual journeys, those who encounter him will always find it easy to rely on, yet again, on the accounts of those who have an ideological interest in offering alternative narratives of his motivations and inclinations.

Standing By Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last week, I made note here of the philosophy department at Brooklyn College co-sponsoring ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th.

As you will notice, on the link for the event above, there is a disclaimer, in fine print, which reads:

Co-sponsorship does not imply agreement with, or support of, views expressed at a student-hosted event.

This disclaimer was deemed necessary–in this case, at least–because departments are made skittish by accusations of anti-semitism and anti-Israel stances.  But that is not all. The SJP’s use of the word ‘allies’–again, in the link above for the event–has not sat well with some of my colleagues in the philosophy department: it seems to imply the department is engaged in active endorsement of the ‘content’ of the event.  Perhaps the philosophy department shouldn’t be co-sponsoring any such events for fear of not being able to ‘control the message’?

In response to their expressions of concern, I sent the following email to my colleagues:

Some thoughts.

1. I think it would be an ambitious inference for someone to make that the ‘allies’ in question refer to the departments and organizations sponsoring the event (as opposed to say, those attending the event). Some folks will, no doubt, make precisely such an inference. But I wonder if that were even true, what would we be allies to? I still think it would be precisely those issues which are at stake: academic freedom, free speech, academic governance – and the chance to see them discussed in an open forum.  We should be able to articulate a defense for that even in the face of ill-motivated accusations. There should be no need to backpedal in the face of an accusation that “we are actively promoting a pro-Palestine/anti-Israel stance” when it is false. (Indeed, the event is titled ‘Silencing Dissent”.)

2. The word ‘sponsor’ has had, prior to the BDS event last year, a relatively unambiguous meaning on our campus; it has acquired this notoriety almost entirely due to hostility expressed to events organized by the SJP. Has there ever been such a fuss about the word when some other student organization is involved? Indeed, given that the student organization in question is named Students for Justice in Palestine, their events are *always* going to be characterized as being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. I mean, JUSTICE in PALESTINE? That’s a red rag if there ever was one. If departments get too skitty when it comes to the SJP, if they do not co-sponsor any events organized by SJP for fear of the furore it will provoke, then they will co-operate in a de-facto ostracization of a student group. “Every time you guys organize an event, we get shit from alumni and the press – no thanks, we can’t co-sponsor.” This doesn’t seem like a great move for us to make as a department of philosophy, ostensible lovers of wisdom. [link added]

I don’t want to broaden this discussion too much, but let us not kid ourselves about what is going on here. A tenured faculty member was fired, from a state university, for his public speech, because it was deemed to render him unfit to fulfill his academic duties. (Let us not forget the administration at UIUC rode roughshod over faculty decisions pertaining to hiring and tenure.) We are doing the right thing by sponsoring this event, by being part of the effort to have Salaita on campus, talking about the issues involved.

Personally, I see it as an honorable act by this department to ‘co-sponsor’ an event that highlights issues of utmost importance to the modern university. We are a philosophy department; we claim to teach analytic and argumentative skills, all the better to puncture hypocrisy, irrationality, and intellectual dishonesty. We should be able to mount an adequate defense of our actions here and in any other situation we think deserves our support. I do not think we should run for the hills because of a dishonest rhetorical tirade, because people insist on imputing motives and reasons for our actions that we do not actually hold.

Tillich On Symbols, Religion, And Myths

This week, I’ve been teaching and discussing excerpts from Paul Tillich‘s Dynamics of Faith in my philosophy of religion class. (In particular, we’ve tackled _The Meaning of Symbol_, _Religious Symbols_, and _Symbols and Myths_, all excerpted in From Religion To Tolstoy and Camus, Walter Kaufmann, ed.)  I suggested to my students before we started our conversation that hopefully, on its completion, they would find the rhetorical use of “just/only a symbol” or “merely symbolic” , or “just a myth” to be quite interestingly problematized. I’d like to think it was.

Tillich’s contributions to our understanding of religious language, knowledge, and practice–which show the influence of existential and psychoanalytic thought in channeling both Nietzsche and Freud–are manifold and important, and I cannot do justice to them here. But it is worth reminding ourselves of what they might be by pointing in their direction.

First, Tillich attempts to distinguish ‘symbol’ from ‘sign’ to indicate the abstraction, origins, and applications of the former. This characterization lends itself to a broader philosophical discussion about abstraction and meaning-making in general, and which allows an invocation of the use of symbols and signs in natural and formal languages. Most importantly, it invokes questions central to our reckoning of art and poetry: how do these create meaning, what kind of ‘access to reality’ do they afford us, how do the poet and the artist enable a species of experience unlike any other? Second, he tackles squarely the existential nature of the questions–the meaning and the purpose of life, the relations of our finite life to a potentially infinite existence–that lie at the heart of a certain species of religious engagement. This permits a reckoning of the nature of the human condition such that the kinds of questions that Tillich alludes to, matters of ‘ultimate concern’, that transcend the finite particulars of human life, can be understood as being forced upon us so that non-engagement with them is not an option; this also allows analogies to be drawn about how certain kinds of philosophical questions are, as it were, ‘posed for us’. Third, he redefines ‘God’ in a way that removes a certain species of sterile debate–that of disputing the general theistic conception of God–from the domain of religious thought and draws the atheist into the existential fold; fourth, his treatment of ‘myths’ and ‘mythologies’ offers us a new understanding of religious sentiment and attitudes and allows for a criticism of reductionist attitudes to knowledge; (The discussion here of ‘demythologizing’, the attempt to render myths meaningful in alternative orders of meaning, and the ‘broken myth’ is masterful.); finally, he argues that the defenses of religion’s mythologies by ‘literalism’ contribute to a devaluation of religious thought and sentiment.

Tillich’s treatment of religious symbols and language is historical and anthropological and cultural, one that affords a distinctive answer to one of philosophy of religion’s most central questions; religion is an outward, concrete manifestation of an existential, perennial, unconscious impulse, relying on symbols and stories to engage with questions fundamental to the human condition.

Sponsoring ‘Steven Salaita At Brooklyn College’

Last Tuesday, the philosophy department of Brooklyn College voted to co-sponsor ‘Silencing Dissent: A Conversation with Steven Salaita, Katherine Franke and Corey Robin‘, an event organized by the Students for Justice in Palestine and scheduled for Thursday, November 20th. (In so doing, we joined the ranks of the departments of political science and sociology, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project, Brooklyn for Peace, Jewish Voice for Peace – New York Chapter, and the International Socialist Organization.)

Because I had suggested–during the ‘new business’ section of our department meeting–that the department sponsor the event, and because the BDS controversy at Brooklyn College focused so much attention on the business of academic departments ‘sponsoring’ supposedly ‘political’ and ‘one-sided’ events, I offered some arguments about the desirability of the philosophy department signing on as a co-sponsor, even if our vote to do so would attract some of the same hostility the political science department at Brooklyn College had during the BDS event.

Those arguments can be summed up quite easily. Steven Salaita will soon be claiming, in a court of law, that: he lost his job because his constitutional right to free speech was infringed by a state actor; his speech was found offensive on political grounds; his academic freedom was violated; he lost his livelihood because he espoused his political opinions in a manner offensive to some. A debate about these issues, conducted with a law professor and moderated by a political theorist (who also teaches Constitutional Law), would offer to our students–even if they disagreed vehemently with Salaita’s political viewpoints–a chance to engage with many philosophical, political and legal problems, all of which they are exposed to, in theoretical form, in their many readings across our curriculum.

Most broadly, philosophy students would see philosophy in action: they would see arguments presented and analyzed and applied to an issue of contemporary political and moral significance. (One of my colleagues pointed out that our department offers a popular Philosophy and Law major, which ostensibly prepares them for law school admission and careers in the law; this demographic would be an ideal audience for the discussion.)

As might be imagined, given the furore generated by the BDS event last year, there was some trepidation over whether such a departmental vote, or the use of the language of ‘sponsorship’ was a good idea. In response, I analogized our sponsorship decision as akin to the inclusion  of a reading on a class syllabus (During the BDS controversy, I had made a similar argument in response to the claim that sponsoring an event entailed ‘endorsement’ of the speakers’ opinions.) When a philosophy professor does so, she says no more than that she thinks her students should read the reading and engage with it critically; it is worth reading, even if only to criticize it. (This semester, I had included Gobineau in my Social Philosophy reading list; I certainly did not intend to promulgate a theory of the Aryan master race by doing so.)

Lastly, I suggested issues of academic freedom are of utmost relevance and importance for all academic disciplines today. Every department on campus should be interested in a discussion centering on them.

We voted; the motion carried.

CP Snow On ‘The Rich And The Poor’

In 1959, while delivering his soon-to-be-infamous Rede Lectures on ‘The Two Cultures‘ at Cambridge University, C. P. Snow–in the third section, titled ‘The Rich and the Poor’–said,

[T]he people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day. On the world scale this is the gap between the rich and the poor….Life for the overwhelming majority of mankind has always been nasty, brutish and short. It is so in the poor countries still.

This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed. It has been noticed, most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor. Just because they have noticed it, it won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t. Once the trick of getting rich is known, as it now is, the world can’t survive half rich and half poor. It’s just not on. [C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Classics, pp. 42]

Well, well, what extraordinary, almost touching, optimism.

Sir Charles did not understand, or care to, perhaps, the extraordinary pertinacity of the rich, those in power, their capacity to manipulate political and economic systems, their almost total control of consciousness and imagination, their ability to promulgate the central principles of the ideology that drives the economic inequality of this world to ever higher levels. (Snow was certainly correct that the world would not remain ‘half rich and half poor’ – that fraction, an always inaccurate one, tilts more now in the direction of the one percent–ninety-nine percent formulation made famous by Occupy Wall Street.)

Snow was also, as many commentators pointed out at the time in critical responses to his lectures, in the grip of an untenable optimism about the ameliorating effects of the scientific and industrial revolutions on both the world of nature and man: as their effects would spread, bringing in their wake material prosperity and intellectual enlightenment, old social and political structures would give way. But science and technology can comfortably co-exist with reactionary politics; they can be easily deployed to prop up repressive regimes; they can be just as easily used to prop up economic and political injustice as not. There is ample evidence for these propositions in the behavior of modern governments, who for instance, deploy the most sophisticated tools of electronic surveillance to keep their citizens under watch, acquiescent and obedient. And automation, that great savior of human labor, which was supposed to make our lives less ‘nasty and brutish’ might instead, when it takes root in such unequal societies, put all workers out to pasture.

But let us allow ourselves to be captured by the hope shown in Snow’s lectures that such radical inequality as was on display in 1959 and thereafter, cannot be a stable state of affairs. Then we might still anticipate that at some point in the future, armed with–among other tools–the right scientific and technical spanners to throw into the wheels of the political and economic juggernaut that runs over them, the poor will finally rise up.

Snowpiercer: The Train As Capitalist Society And The Universe

Post-apocalyptic art–whether literature or movies–is provided, sometimes all too easily, ample opportunity for flirting with the grand, for making sweeping statements about human nature and the meaning and purpose of life. After all, it’s the (often violent) end of the world. Time to speculate about the new, phoenix-like world that may rise from the ashes of the old, or to mourn the loss of not-easily replaced intangible moral goods of a world gone missing.  So it is unsurprising that SnowpiercerBong Joon-ho‘s English-language debut, swings for the fences.  It is initially grounded in a facile morality play about global warming, man’s persistently failed and hubristic attempts to play God, and the evils of science. There is more to it though. The ark-like train which is the movie’s stage and centerpiece, which circles the world carrying the survivors of a world frozen over, functions as an extended allegory for capitalist society, its economic inequality, its class structures and exploitation of the weak, its decadence and immorality, and its inevitable revolt of the oppressed, and their rise to the top (or the front).

But Snowpiercer is more intellectually ambitious than that. It also to aims to be an allegory that flirts with God, the Universe, Free Will, Evil, Freedom and Existential Choice. It offers us commentary on ideology and false consciousness and propaganda; it shows us how man may be tempted by evil and can choose moral redemption instead. The structure of the train and the progressively enlightening journey of the rear passengers through its various compartments suggest too that Dante’s Inferno and the Pilgrim’s Progress could be invoked here with some ease. (Ironically, for an allegory, Snowpiercer is sometimes a little too literal and heavy-handed. Yes, man, with all his cunning and scheming, can play the part of a devious God, and God may just be our notion of human powers and goodness and judgment extrapolated to an unimaginable extreme, but these theses can be advanced with a little more subtlety than Snowpiercer allows.)

Snowpiercer‘s grand ambitions are sometimes realized and sometimes not.  Mostly they are not realized because Snowpiercer spends a little too much time trying to be an action movie. Its showings off of technical virtuosity, its nods to the video game and martial arts genres with their extended bloodiness, their glorying in gore, their stylized slow-motion combat, are distractions and deceits. (This action initially provides a possibly invigorating jolt to the movie’s plot, but all too soon it becomes tedious, deadening, and in the movie’s closing stages it is a distraction.) There is much in the movie that is visually interesting and provocative, much that should have been allowed to come to rest in the viewer for to facilitate reflection and introspection.  But this does not happen, largely because the movie believes that some rather archaic cinematic tropes–physical conflict rages elsewhere while two protagonists engage in philosophical debate!–must be relied on to in order to build and generate tension.

All too often, I find myself describing science-fiction movies as missed opportunities. This is one such.