On A Minor Fast

I went on a little fast today. It lasted seven hours. But before you snicker at my pompous announcement of insignificant renunciation, do consider that I did not give up food or drink for that length of time. (Indeed, I made myself a four-egg omelette in that period and ate it with gusto.) Rather, I gave up the Internet for that duration; I did not check email; I did not look at Facebook or Twitter. And I did not do this while being confined to a Zone of No Wi-Fi. Rather, I did it at home, with a broadband internet connection in working order.

Ready to dispense accolades now?

In the spring of 2009, as I sought to make a book deadline, I first tried to impose internet fasts on myself; I was only intermittently successful. I pulled off a few eight-hour abstentions, starting at 10AM and going till 6PM. I found them tremendously productive: I got long stretches of writing accomplished, and on my breaks, for diversion, read through a stack of unread periodicals. But I found it too hard; and soon, my resolve faltered, and I returned to the bad old days.

Since then, I have never managed to internet fast voluntarily. When I have, it’s been because I did not have a working connection–perhaps I was flying across, or to, continents, perhaps I was in a national park. When I got connectivity, I checked back in. In 2012, I bought a smartphone, and put myself further along the road to perdition. For on the  phone, I installed Facebook and Twitter apps–and the GMail client. Now, there was no getting away from the constant check-in: waiting for a bus, a doctor’s appointment, on a subway above ground. I had willingly, deliberately brought home, much closer to me, that which I had already sensed often made me come undone.

These complaints about digital distraction are not new; many, like me, write similar plaintive notes. But we cannot seem to do without it all: the email, the constant monitoring of a timeline or a newsfeed. I certainly rely upon Facebook and Twitter to post links to my blog posts, and remain infected by an unshakable anxiety about utter and total anonymity were I to stop doing so.

This past spring and summer, in an effort to inject some discipline into my writing habits, I began working in forty-five minute blocks; I would set a timer on my phone and resolve to work for that period without interruption. For a few weeks, this method worked astonishingly well. And then, again, my resolve decayed, and I slowly began to drift back to the constantly interrupted writing session, a nightmare of multiple tabs open at once, each monitored for update and interruption.

My sabbatical is over; a full-time teaching load is upon me again; my daughter wants, and deserves, more attention; time for writing is ever more precious.

What did I get done today? Some writing; some reading. Nothing more could be asked for.

Now, to do it again.

Knowing The Time And Manner Of Our Death

The characters in Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach know that barring natural disasters, and other unforeseen circumstances, they will die in a few months time–in September 1963–of radiation sickness, brought on by the thirty-seven day thermonuclear war that has already wiped out life in the northern hemisphere. They know its painful and uncomfortable symptoms–diarrhea and vomiting–will resemble those of cholera; they have the option to commit suicide by using a pill–supplied by the government and made available at local chemists. All humans know they will die; these ones know when and how. (As John Osborne notes, “”You’ve always known that you were going to die sometime. Well, now you know when.”)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, last week, during a classroom discussion centered on Shute’s novel, the following question slowly hoved into view: Would you want to know the time and manner of your death? We live our lives with the knowledge of our certain death; would we want to further refine it in this fashion? Why or why not?  (We could also induce another twist by asking whether, if possessed of this knowledge with regards to someone else, we should tell them about it, without withholding any details. A variant of this situation occurs quite often, I think, in some medical contexts involving terminally ill patients and their doctors. Other twists include the knowledge of the details of, not our deaths, but those of loved ones.)

The answers to this cluster of questions are likely to be quite revealing. Knowledge of the time and manner of death may permit a settling of affairs, a more directed planning of one’s activities, a more systematic prioritization of one’s objectives; it may induce an urgency into our lives that some may find currently lacking. It may have a calming effect on some, But it may also induce paralyzing anxiety for some; the fear of the manner of death–perhaps gruesome dismemberment for some, or brutal murder for others–may have such an effect.

Why is the raising and answering of this question a philosophical exercise? Perhaps because these answers reveal valuations crucial to the chosen path of conduct in our lives–and what could be more fundamental a philosophical question than ‘What is the good life?’ Perhaps because in answering a question about whether some item of knowledge is desirable or not, we may possibly articulate limits on what should be known by us–a puzzle that, in the past, often confronted those who worked on thermonuclear weapons, or as in these days, those who work on cloning technologies. Answering this question could be an introspective and retrospective exercise, forcing not just a look inwards at our beliefs and desires, but also a look backwards at the lives we have lived thus far, an act likely to be imbued with an ethical and moral assessment. Such an examination of our beliefs and our plans for our lives, and the manner in which we would choose to live them, seems a fairly fundamental philosophical activity, perhaps even of the kind that Socrates was always urging on us.


The Central Park Five: Justice Gone Wrong

One night, late in April 1989, I sat in an apartment in Jersey City, discussing the Central Park jogger rape case with two friends. One of them, a black Haitian-American, expressed unease over the press and television coverage of the case, the use of the language of ‘wolf packs,’ ‘savages,’ ‘wilding,’ and all of the rest; it all seemed a little too similar to calls for lynching in the past. The other, a white Cuban-American, dismissed such concerns, saying that the five boys arrested for the rape were indeed savages for the brutal rape and beating they had committed, and deserved to be described and treated thus–perhaps even strung up. My Haitian friend shook his head; he was concerned this language was reserved only for black Americans, that it would serve to demonize the black community; he wondered if the press would have reacted the same way if a black woman had been raped, if the perpetrators had been white instead.

I mostly listened. I had only been in the US for two years then; I was still coming to terms with the racial politics of a country which I had thought I understood well from afar, but which had turned out to be bewilderingly different. I was ambivalent. Even though I felt some of the same unease that my Haitian friend did, I was also stunned by the ferocity and viciousness of the attack on the Central Park jogger; I had spent two years experiencing the inner-city blight of Newark, and had become susceptible to the claims that all of its pathologies could be blamed on hyper-aggressive, criminal, young black men.

Our argument finally ran out of steam; we returned to drinking forties of malt liquor, smoking cigarettes, and watching with some amusement, the the drug dealers plying their trade on the street below.

The prosecution of the five boys arrested for the rape did not so spend itself; it went all the way and sent innocent juveniles to jail; one of them spent a dozen years behind bars. That horrifying story of a miscarriage of justice–one only redeemed by a jailhouse confession made by the actual culprit–is captured well in Ken BurnsThe Central Park Five;  so painful is the record of police and prosecutorial misconduct, forced confessions, willful blindness to the lack of evidence, and the damage done to families and lives, that my wife walked out of our living room in tears, unable to watch any more. She returned a little later after composing herself, and we resumed watched this searing record of truth thrown under the bus wind down to its sorry conclusion, right down to the postscript that notes the civil lawsuit filed by the five against New York City. (That case was finally settled on 5 September, with a $41 million payout.)

The Central Park Five should enrage you; it should especially do so because many, if not all the ills noted in it–especially the racist criminal justice system, so brutally indicted in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow–are still depressingly resilient features of the American landscape.

You know that line, ‘If you see something, say something’? Well, go see The Central Park Five, and then do something. Get angry. Volunteer at The Innocence Project for instance. (A full quarter of the cases it has successfully resolved false confessions–just like those in the case of the Central Park Five.)

Fiction On Philosophy Reading Lists

Last week, over at the NewAPPS (Arts, Politics, Philosophy, Science) blog, where I’ve started blogging as part of a group of academic philosophers, I posted the following:

In my post yesterday, I had written of how discussion centering on a classic philosophical debate could be sparked by a reading of fiction. (The upper-tier core class I’m teaching, Philosophical Issues in Literature, is of course, all about that!) But fiction features in another reading list of mine–via Walter Kaufman‘s eclectic anthology, Religion from Tolstoy to Camus–which I am using in this semester’s philosophy of religion class. We talked about The Death of Ivan Ilyich yesterday in class and it induced a fascinating, wide-ranging discussion covering religious feeling, existential crises, metaphysical rebellion, philosophy’s relationship to death, Tolstoy’s critique of organized religion and so on. I have too, in the past, used fiction in my philosophy of feminism class (Ursula Le Guin‘s The Left Hand of Darkness). I wrote about that experience over on my personal blog; it was a wholly positive one.

I would be interested in hearing from other folks on their use of fiction in their class reading lists. Where and how did you do so? What was your experience like? Links to sample syllabi would be awesome.

My post triggered a series of very interesting responses, which should be of value to academic philosophers and to anyone interested in the relationship between philosophy and literature. Please do check out the comments thread; you will find many recommendations for reading, pointers to how they may be used in the classroom, as well as an indication of their philosophical significance.

The Underestimation Of Our Capacity To Love

In response to my post yesterday on biological and adoptive parents, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

Another way to think about this is that the tragedy is that people routinely underestimate their capacity to love. Maybe that is terrifying in all its implications.

My older doubts about adoption, which I expressed at the beginning of yesterday’s post, can well be viewed as precisely this underestimation of one’s capacity to love. Maureen is right that this variety of abnegation has “terrifying” dimensions to it.

An underestimation of the capacity to love is the converse, of course, of the inability to accept love. That inability, that lowered view of oneself, the judgment that one is unworthy of the love, caring and commitment that is sent our way by our lovers, parents, children, and friends, leads many to reject the intimacy and caring of long-term relationships, the kind that require sacrifice and commitment. It causes the pushing away of partners, the cringing from their touch, the turning away. Those who do so suffer from impostor syndrome: If only the truth about me were to be known, no one would love me, least of all the ones professing their undying love for me.

And sometimes those who turn away, who cringe, do so because they do not consider that they can reciprocate adequately. Judging oneself incapable of loving, or of not being able to love enough, unless some impossibly personal or circumstantial onerous conditions are met, ensures an inability to succeed in, or even desire, the relationships which  provide caring and intimacy and comfort, but which require commitment and reciprocation in turn. Those who suffer thus–and I use that term advisedly–stand at the outskirts of town, unable and unwilling to enter, afraid of failures of performance.

But, why is this terrifying?

I think it is so because a world populated by those who feel they cannot love, and who thus do not allow themselves to be loved, seems rather bleak. (Our world gives adequate evidence of the presence of these.) Love is not the only impulse propelling us to nobility of thought and action and sentiment, but it is certainly a powerful and significant force. To deny that to ourselves is to deny ourselves its powers and capacities; it is to shackle ourselves in thought and action.

But this shackling, this self-weakening, this self-neglect, would be considerably more benign if  those that did not love, or let themselves be loved, or think they cannot love, restricted their attentions and actions to themselves. But they do not, and indeed, they cannot. We are inextricably enmeshed in the lives and plans of others; our doings affect the trajectories of other lives; our plans may interfere with those of others. And all too often, those who do not love, or think they cannot love, hurt instead. Having rejected the outstretched arm and the bosom, they seek instead the cudgel and the club; having disdained the soft touch and word, they seek instead the harsh.

The underestimation of the capacity to love creates a vacuum, into which, all too easily, rushes the incapacity to empathize.  That seems a terrible burden for this world to bear.


Biological And Adoptive Parents

There was a time when I did not understand how adoption worked. Didn’t you have to have a biological tie with your offspring to be truly, deeply, emotionally bound to it? Over the years, I came to think not–at an intellectual level. But like many other theses, I became convinced of its truth only after a visceral personal experience, that of becoming a biological father: relationships between parents and offspring did not seem to have a magical biological basis to them.

My relationship with my daughter–now twenty months old–has evolved. When my daughter was born my strongest relationship was still with her mother; a great deal of the affection and protection I sent my daughter’s way was because I loved her mother so much. I did not feel instantaneous bonds forming with her; I did not get a free pass in her affections toward me either; the biological bond between us did not neatly translate into an automatic love on her part. I felt protective about her, fiercely determined to guard her from all harm. But I think I would have done the same for any helpless one placed in my care the way she had been.

As she has grown, more dimensions have emerged in our relationship. She responds to me verbally and physically; she calls me ‘Papa'; she looks for me; she calls out to me. It is these responses and interactions with me that seem determinative of the quality of our relationship, not necessarily our genetic commonality. You could say it is that which brings about her responses to me, but I doubt it; at times, she is even more attached to one of her daycare providers, an affectionate, caring, young woman, with whom she has developed a bond strong enough to occasionally make my wife jealous too.

My wife’s relationship to our daughter has a stronger biological basis; she bore her pregnancy for nine months and developed a special intimacy on a daily basis thanks to her breast-feeding (which continues to this day.) I had no such physical contact with my daughter; I had to rely on hugs and close holding–some of which, she now, in her toddler phase, occasionally rejects–and naps together.

Sometimes when I look at her, I can see, in her facial features, hints and glimmers of my family: sometimes my father’s features, sometime my brother’s, sometime my nephew’s. Those are uncanny reminders of a connection grounded in biological markers and I enjoy the connection they enable with those who came before me. But, ultimately, what brings the two of us closer to each other, I think,  is that we live together, we spend time together, that I care and nurture for her (in many inadequate ways, compared to the time and effort my wife puts in). What motivates these actions of mine is a sense of loyalty to my partner, my commitment to this shared enterprise, my desire to make my family grow, my growing sense of a bond developing between her and me.  I think I would do the same even if the As, Ts, and Gs didn’t match up exactly.

Nevil Shute’s _On The Beach_ And Normative Epistemology

The first reading in my Philosophical Issues in Literature class this semester–which focuses on the post-apocalyptic novel–is Nevil Shute‘s On The Beach. I expected, more often than not, moral, ethical, and political issues to be picked up on in classroom discussions; I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the very first class meeting–on Monday–honed in on an epistemic issue, more specifically, one of normative epistemology: What should we believe? Are beliefs that comfort us–but that are otherwise without adequate evidentiary foundation–good ones? Can they ever be? Under what circumstances?

Dwight Towers, the American Navy submarine captain, is one of those unfortunates who have, thanks to nuclear war, lost their all–their homes, their families–in the northern hemisphere. In Towers’ case, this means his home in Connecticut, and his wife and child. Indeed, this loss provokes his host in Australia, Peter Holmes, to take the precaution of arranging extra companionship–as distraction–for him when Holmes invites Towers to his home for dinner. But Towers does not seem to regard his family as lost. As he attends a church service, Shute grants us access to his thoughts about home:

He would be going back to them in September, home from his travels. He would see them all again in less than nine months time. They must not feel, when he rejoined them, that he was out of touch, or that he had forgotten things that were important in their lives. Junior must have grown quite a bit; kids did at that age.

Later, Shute does the same with Moira Davidson, his new-found female friend in Melbourne, who has seen the photographs of his family in his cabin:

She had known for some time that his wife and family were very real to him, more real by far than the half-life in a far corner of the world that had been forced upon him since the war.  The devastation of the northern hemisphere was not real to him, as it was not real to her. He had seen nothing of the destruction of the war, as she had not; in thinking of his wife and his home it was impossible for him to visualise them in any other circumstances than those in which he had left them. He had little imagination, and that formed a solid core for his contentment in Australia.

Towers makes this explicit:

“I suppose you think I’m nuts,” he said heavily. “But that’s the way I see it, and I can’t seem to think about it any other way.”

These reflections bring us, as should be evident, to the Clifford-James debate. I have taught that debate before–in introductory philosophy classes and in philosophy of religion. The discussions–and judgments–it provokes are often quite illuminating; Monday’s was no exception. The novelistic embedding available here, of course, also enabled a segue into the broader ethics of ‘coping strategies’ and escapism like, for instance, Moira Davidson’s palliative heavy drinking.

I  expect this issue to recur during this semester’s discussions; I look forward to seeing how my students respond to the varied treatments of it that my reading list will afford them.