Theater As Instruction Manual For Domestic Strife

In Benjamin Kunkel‘s new play Buzz, a central character, Tom, holds forth on theater–he says “something interesting”:

TOM: The theater has a very ironic relationship to domestic life, don’t you think? Because what’s been the main preoccupation, for more than a hundred years? I’m thinking Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Pinter…About the biggest theme is the horror of conventional domestic arrangements. Even Hamm and Clov, Didi and Gogo, what are those guys if not married?….And all these spousal or couply relationships are revealed, in the theater, to consist of sterile dependency, mutual entrapment…Maybe some ritualized tragicomic bickering. Total horror show. And yet, what is the social role of theater? It’s a date, a romantic evening. For you and your partner or spouse. Couples come to the theater where they kind of peek, through the keyhole, into the butcher shop of their domestic lives, and then stand up and clap! Then they leave none the wiser and go have a late dinner with an overpriced bottle of wine. If there’s one thing the theater has consistently criticized, its conventional domestic arrangements, and if there’s one thing that as a social ritual it’s continually reinforced–conventional domestic arrangements. The whole things’s like a parable not just of the uselessness but the counterproductiveness of culture. [italics in original]

The counterproductiveness here is that theater reinforces precisely those social realities that it, by dint of theatrical artifice, aims to critique. There is another aspect to this irony: theater does not merely ‘capture’ the social reality of the couple engaged in cohabitation, in conventional domesticity, it also provides models for how that domestic conflict may be conducted.

Those that quarrel on stage, sometimes with fiery declamation, sometimes with resentful mutterings, sometimes merely with the passive-aggressive gesture or presence or silence, they instruct us in the art of the domestic dispute. Our living-room, the bedroom, the kitchen, becomes our stage; we perform on it, our performances informed by a self-consciousness about the histrionics we employ. Those mannerisms, our vocal delivery, our body language, we may have received explicit and implicit instruction on them in the theater; we evaluate our effectiveness, our deployment of rhetoric, with an eye trained keenly by the performance of actors we have seen in action, in close-up and from a distance. The theater as carefully arranged and furnished stage for the depiction of domestic strife, as space for critical commentary on the human condition when suffered in close proximity to another human, does not merely reflect social reality; it constructs it as well.

When a domestic partner accuses another one of being ‘theatrical’ they speak a greater truth than they might imagine.

Note: The counterproductiveness that Tom speaks of here is related to, but not identical with, the skepticism about culture’s civilizing effects that George Steiner expressed–in the preface to Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966:

We come after. We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct?

Once More: ‘Intellectual Property’ Breeds Confusion; Drop it

Rarely, if ever, does the term ‘intellectual property’ add clarity to any debate of substance–very often, this is because it includes the term ‘property’ and thus offers an invitation to some dubious theorizing. This post by Alex Rosenberg at Daily Nous is a good example of this claim:

Locke famously offered an account of the justification of private property, one that Nozick brought to our attention in Anarchy, State and Utopia. The account worked like this: morally permissible private property begins with original acquisition, and that happens when you mix your labor with nature, and leave as good and as much for others. Alas, this “Lockean” proviso is impossible to satisfy. Or at least it is in every original acquisition other than the case of intellectual property. Here one mixes one mental labor with nature—empirical facts about reality, including social reality. Since there are an infinite number of good ideas, the creator of intellectual property leaves as much and as good for others, and therefore has an unqualified right to what he has created.

Brian Leiter’s ownership of the PGR satisfies the most stringent test of private property I know. It’s his creation and he excluded no one else from mixing his or her labor with nature to produce a substitute for or for that matter a complement to his creation.

In light of this fact, the effort to separate him from his intellectual property owing to disapproval of his emails and posts seems rather preposterous.

It has often been proposed–most notably by Richard Stallman, free software‘s most fiery proponent-that the term ‘intellectual property’ be junked in favor of more precise usage. That is, when you are tempted to use the term ‘intellectual property’ use ‘copyright,’ ‘patents,’ ‘trademarks,’ or ‘trade secrets’ instead. Doing this would enable immediate grappling with the precise nature of the issue at hand–in each named domain there are separable legal and policy issues at play.

For instance, the granting of copyright is not the recognition of an abstract property right. It is a utilitarian policy decision–to allow the collection of monopoly rent for a limited period of time–with a very specific objective in mind: the creation of more artistic works. If someone’s copyright rights have allegedly been violated, we may begin by trying to identify the concrete expression that was supposedly copyrightable, the identification of the nature of the infringement–unauthorized reproduction or the production of derivative works–and so on. Incidentally, matters become a tad confusing because Rosenberg talks about ‘mixing mental labor with nature.’ Locke did not have ‘nature’ in mind, rather he had in mind fallow land. Which is precisely not the nature of artistic creation, where the creator does not interact with ‘fallow land’ but mixes his ideas with the ideas of others to create a new work.

In the case of the Philosophical Gourmet Report, it relies for its content on the availability of a great deal of openly available material; collation, processing, and analysis turns this into a new work–the PGR, the new concrete expression. There is indeed a copyright in the particular concrete expression of the PGR–the individual blog pages and the material in them–its author’s commentaries, analysis, and summaries. The unauthorized copying of the content of these is indeed prohibited, as is the production of derivative works–for instance, an unauthorized abridgment of his explanation of the rankings. But the current proposals aimed at changing the ‘management’ of the PGR aim to do nothing of this sort. Prof. Leiter’s concrete expressions–the current content of the PGR–remain his; he could continue to produce them, retain his copyright, and proceed as before. And indeed, an entirely new set of rankings may be produced, using the same ‘raw material’ available to the current authors of the PGR, subjected to new analysis and commentary, and thus resulting in a new concrete expression, a new set of rankings. Also copyrightable.

Analytic philosophers–who are so proud of their claims to provide conceptual clarity–shouldn’t continue to traffic in a term as obfuscatory as ‘intellectual property.’

Robespierre On The Iraq War(s)

Robespierre, in a speech to the Jacobin Club, which began on 2 January 1792, and concluded on 11 January, responding to the Girondins call for war:

[T]he most extravagant idea that can arise in the mind of a politician is the belief that a people need only make an armed incursion into the territory of a foreign people, to make it adopt its laws and its constitution. No one likes armed missionaries; and the first counsel given by nature and prudence is to repel them as enemies….start by turning your gaze to your internal position; restore order at home before carrying liberty abroad….reviving through beneficent laws, through a character sustained by energy, dignity, and wisdom, the public mind and the horror of tyranny, the only things that can make us invincible against our enemies…war, war, as soon as the court asks for it; that tendency dispenses with all other concerns, you are even with the people the moment you give it war;….Why distract public attention from our most formidable enemies, to fix it on other objects, to lead us into the trap where they are waiting for us?

During a foreign war, the people…distracted by military events from political deliberations affecting the essential foundations of its liberty, is less inclined to take seriously the underhand manoeuvres of plotters who are undermining it and the executive government which is knocking it about, and pay less attention to the weakness or corruption of the representatives who are failing to defend it….When the people demanded its rights against the usurpations of the Senate and patricians, the Senate would declare war, and the people forgetting its rights and resentments, would concentrate on nothing but the war, leaving the Senate its authority and preparing new triumphs for the patricians. War is good for military officers, for the ambitious, for the gamblers who speculate on these sorts of events; it is good for ministers, whose operations it covers in an impenetrable, almost sacrosanct veil….it is good for the executive power, whose authority, whose popularity and ascendancy it augments….The sort of man who would look with horror on the betrayal of the homeland can still be led by adroit officers to run its best citizens through with steel.

The remarks on war are, of course, more generally applicable.

My posting the passage above is of a piece with a time-honored tradition of showing us that when it comes to the relationship between war, patriotism, militarism, the corruption and mendacity of the ruling class, and the state in any shape or form, it is always the ‘same as it ever was.’

Source: Slavoj Žižek presents Robespierre: Virtue and Terror, Verso, 2007, pp 31-32. The introduction to the Extracts from ‘On the War’ notes that:

Brissot, the leader of the ‘Brissotins’ (Girondins), intervened in the Legislative Assembly in favour of war. On 29 December, he maintained that ‘the war is necessary to France for her honour….The war is a national benefit.’ On 30 December he spoke of a ‘crusade of universal liberty.’

Why Do Yankees Fans Venerate Derek Jeter?

In an interview with The Allrounder, my friend Amy Bass (a Red Sox fan!) takes on the following question:

The Yankees’ longtime captain, Derek Jeter, is retiring this season and has been the object of widespread veneration throughout the league. Do Red Sox fans share in this respect of Jeter?

and answers, in part, thus:

Let’s start with the fact that the season-long farewell party to Jeter is simply ridiculous, and what are we really hailing? A player who seems to be a good sport, doesn’t seem to do drugs, and apparently has never hit a woman? Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm. It all comes across, whether ovations in the stadiums or Nike commercials – as highly manufactured….Likely the key about Jeter is that he never left, a rarity in the era of players moving constantly in search of bigger paychecks.

As I noted in a blog post over at The Cordon at ESPN-Cricinfo, Bass is certainly right about the semester-long farewell to Jeter: it has been tedious and over-wrought, a ghastly marketing stunt. But I think there is more to be said for the adulation for Jeter, to acknowledge some important dimensions of his appeal for New York Yankees fans, and perhaps elsewhere.

First, what Yankees fans–and some members of the sports media are ‘hailing’–are, quite straightforwardly, some impressive batting and fielding statistics.:

He is the Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits (3,464), games played (2,746), stolen bases (358), and at bats (11,193). His accolades include 14 All-Star selections, five Gold Glove Awards, five Silver Slugger Awards, two Hank Aaron Awards, and a Roberto Clemente Award. Jeter is the all-time MLB leader in hits by a shortstop, and the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits.

Jeter was certainly never baseball’s best short-stop, and perhaps not even the American League’s, but he did feature on a few World Series-winning teams (with a a .351 batting average in the World Series), in a time when the Yankees were not building their teams with just big-money purchases, and while he was no Cal Ripken in the longevity stakes, he did play major league baseball for twenty years.

Second, Bass writes “Let’s not make that special – instead, let’s strive to make that the norm.” But one way to make Jeter’s behavior the norm is precisely to reward it, and not its converse, to aid in the driving home of the message that nice guys do not finish last. We should stop adoring admiring those who take performance-enhancing drugs, and beat their wives and girlfriends, yes; but we should also make clear our admiration is most perspicuously directed at those who do not behave thus.

Second, “the key about Jeter is that he never left” taps into a deeper truth about professional sports and its constituent unit, the franchise. These entities draw upon tribalism and nativism as a marketing strategy; they tap into a deep desire for ‘home’ in a world made up of transient, shifting identities. This produces some truly ludicrous claims about how  professional sports teams reflect a ‘local character’ but it does show that fans, even as they are aware that they are cheering for the sporting equivalent of Ford vs. Chrysler still hanker for a deeper form of identification. Jeter is not a New York local; he is from Michigan. But by staying with the New York Yankees for his playing career, he tapped into a fundamental New York archetype. Most New Yorkers aren’t from ‘here’ they are from ‘elsewhere’; what makes them New Yorkers is that they stay on; they don’t leave this maddening, overpriced, deeply-divided city and head elsewhere. Jeter might have stayed because his early years here ensured he would always get the best contracts and following here; perhaps, shrewdly, he looked ahead at his place in posterity and reckoned he would be best served by continuing his allegiance to the Yankees. Whatever the reasons, he stayed on, he became a ‘true’ New Yorker. Not just a transplant who used this as a jumping-off pad for the ‘burbs.’ That, in New York, was always going to inspire affection.

All celebrity in professional sport is manufactured; Jeter supplied some authentic raw material.

Then, The Eagerly Awaited Letter; Now, The Notification

Every weekday of my two years in boarding school bore witness to the implacable ritual of the mail from home: run to the teacher’s staff-room, ask for the day’s letters and postcards–sorted into piles corresponding to your ‘house‘–and then, surrounded by eager supplicants, call out the names of the lucky ones. At the end of it all, some schoolboys would walk away beaming, a letter from home eagerly to be torn open and read; yet others walked away crestfallen, left to look on longingly on those who had been lucky enough to have been the recipients of those postal missives. Perhaps our family had forgotten about us; perhaps we were ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ Perhaps we did not matter; we were not important enough to be written to.

After I left boarding school, I continued to correspond with some friends by mail; I waited for their letters too, with some of that old eagerness. I would run down, time and again, to our building’s post-box, looking to see if the postman had brought goodies. This search was suffused with an irrational longing; I would check even the day after I had received a letter from my most frequent correspondent, somehow hoping he might have written two letters in a row. Sometimes I would check multiple times in a day when the the post-box remained empty; perhaps the postman had been late on his rounds, perhaps there would be two deliveries that day.

When I moved to the US, my mother wrote me letters regularly. The nightly check in the post-box, or, if my roommates had returned home before I did, on the table in the kitchen, quickly became another persistent ritual. I wanted to read her words, see her handwriting, establish contact with someone I had left behind, who I knew longed for me, and who I longed for in turn.

I never quite got over that craving for that touch, that contact, that reminder that someone had reached out.

The years rolled by. I discovered email. And the checking, the search for confirmation, grew and grew. Now, I check email–on all four of my accounts–constantly. There is a work account, a personal account, a blogging/social media/Twitter account, and lastly, an old work account, that for some inexplicable reason, I have not shut down. And there are Facebook notifications, Likes, comments, link shares, mentions, replies; there are Twitter mentions, retweets, favorites, replies. I check and check and check. On and on and on. It’s the first thing I do in the morning; it’s the last thing I do before I turn in to sleep; it’s what I do in the middle of the night if I cannot fall back to sleep after being disturbed–perhaps because of a bathroom break or my wailing toddler. (Like last night.)

I look at my inbox and see the count is at zero; my heart sinks. I see there are only spam or administrative emails; I am enraged. I post a link to a blog post and see no ‘likes’, a minuscule number of views; I am crestfallen.  I see no replies to my tweets, no mentions; I feel anonymous and ignored.

But when people do reply, and I reply, and they reply, and on it goes, I’m exhausted and seek to withdraw. Words spring to my lips but I feel too weary to transmit them through my keyboard back ‘out there.’ I crave attention and then shrink from it when it arrives. I want to ride this train, but I want to get off too.

I’m neurotic.

Letting The Feminists Know What Time It Is

A couple of years ago, in a post commenting on Virginia Held‘s Sprague and Taylor Lecture at Brooklyn College, I wrote:

My association with her goes back some twenty years, when I first began my graduate studies in philosophy as a non-matriculate student at the CUNY Graduate Center [in the fall of 1992]. My first class was ‘Social and Political Philosophy,’ taught by Professor Held. [During our first class meeting] on her reading list, I saw four unfamiliar names: Carole Pateman, Susan Okin, Catherine MacKinnon and Patricia Smith. Who were these, I wondered, and what did they have to do with the ‘public-private distinction’ (the subtitle Virginia had added to ‘Social and Political Philosophy’)? As we were introduced to the syllabus, Professor Held skillfully handled some questions: Why were these readings on the list? Why not the usual suspects? I was impressed, of course, by her deft location of feminist philosophy in our canon and its importance in exploring the public-private distinction, but I was even more impressed by the grace and firmness that she displayed in dealing with contentious student interlocutors.

I want to add a little more detail to this story–as well as a little follow-up; your mileage may vary with regards to your assessment of the topicality or relevance of these embellishments.

That evening, during our first class meeting, there were some twenty students in class. Most were men, a few were women. One male professor from Israel was sitting in on the class. After Virginia handed out the syllabus, the questioning began. It was unrelentingly querulous and hostile, outraged by the outlier syllabus we had just been handed. No Hobbes? The horror! So many feminists? Why? I was taken aback by the edgy conversation, the in-your-face style the male graduate students adopted in confrontation with Virginia. The visiting academic, for his part, did his bit, by adding his two skeptical, teetering-on-the-edge-of-sneering cents: Surely, this material was more suited for a feminist philosophy class?

As I noted above, Virginia handled these responses with grace and tact and intellectual aplomb. (For instance, she had paired John Locke and Carole Pateman for good reason.) My respect for her grew. And I, so used to being marginalized in conversational spaces, someone who had read Native Son only a year before, when I read Marx and feminism a little later in the semester, came to realize where I could find solidarity.

But I digress.

News of this new ‘radical’ syllabus was not slow in spreading; I heard many graduate students express the verbal equivalent of the modern SMH: fucking feminists, they’re really out of control; imagine, putting all these out-there readings on the reading list of a ‘Core’ class!

A semester later, Virginia was teaching a class that I had not registered for, but in which some of my friends were enrolled.  All too soon, news of a delightful incident spread. A male graduate student–a good friend of mine, indeed, perhaps, my best friend in graduate school–had given Virginia her comeuppance. Apparently, she had assigned one of her papers as reading. During class discussion, while discussing its claims about the displacement of emotion or empathy in moral reasoning, my friend–without having done the reading and not knowing who the author was–had jumped into the fray and described her paper as ‘an ignorant parody of Western philosophy.’ Snickering in class; backslapping and applause later.

A few days later, while drinking beers with my friend in his apartment, I asked him if he knew he had become such an anti-feminist icon, the brave defender of the right of all to study philosophy in peace, without the ignorant provocations of feminist philosophers constantly badgering them.  To his eternal credit, my friend was in turns alarmed and then shame-faced; he did not desire such a status; he had fancied himself an enlightened progressive. (He was, and is.) But that verbal style, that cut-and-thrust, that parry, that jab and hook, perhaps they were all just a little too deeply ingrained. We talked a bit more, a little deeper into the night, before turning in. A semester or so later, when female graduate students in our department began to revitalize student government, bringing some of their concerns to the fore, he was deeply involved with their work.

That story had a ‘happy’ ending.  But elsewhere, I don’t think so.

In Praise of Alan Watts And ‘Popularizers’

I have a confession to make: I enjoy reading Alan Watts‘ books. This simple statement of one of my reading pleasures, this revelation of one of my tastes in books and intellectual pursuits, shouldn’t need to be a confession, a term that conjures up visions of sin and repentance and shame. But it is, a veritable coming out of the philosophical closet.

You see, I’m a ‘professional philosopher.’ I teach philosophy for a living; I write books on philosophy. Sometimes people refer to me as a ‘philosophy professor’, sometimes they even call me–blush!–a ‘philosopher.’  I’m supposed to be ‘doing’ serious philosophy,’ reading and writing rigorous philosophy; the works of someone most commonly described as a ‘popularizer’ do not appear to make the cut. Even worse, not only was Watts thus a panderer to the masses, but he wrote about supposedly dreamy, insubstantial, woolly headed, mystical philosophies. An analytical philosopher would be an idiot to read him. Keep it under wraps, son.

To be sure, I have read some original works in the areas that Watts is most known for popularizing: Zen Buddhism, Daoism, and Indian philosophy–especially that of the non-dualist Vedanta. I have even taught an upper-tier core class on Philosophies of India and China–my class covered the Vedas, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism. My philosophical training enables me to grapple with the substantial metaphysical, epistemological, ethical, and political issues these writings so richly engage with. But I’m not a specialized scholar in these domains, and hardly ever read modern academic writing that tackles their areas of ongoing disputation and analysis. My current areas of interest–legal theory, pragmatism, Nietzsche–and my current distractions and diversions–mainly the politics of cricket–take up most of my time and intellectual energy.

So I enjoy reading Watts when I can. I always have. He was erudite, he wrote clearly and passionately, and if you’ll indulge me just for a second, I would even describe him as ‘wise.’ He tackles issues that are at the core of philosophical questioning and inquiry and attitudes; he often offers quite lucid insights into matters that emotionally resonate with me. Perhaps I do not have the background necessary with which to evaluate his claims about Zen Buddhism and the Vedanta; those more specialized in those domains have often contested his readings and explications. (Merely being of Indian origin does not, unfortunately, make me an expert on Indian philosophy.) But from my limited perspective, and with an acknowledgment of some expressions of only partial comprehension, and sometimes even disagreement, with his writings, I would venture that I did not find him guilty of too many philosophical sins. (For instance, his ‘The Language of Metaphysical Experience’ is a very clear piece of writing; this was first published in 1953 in The Journal of Religious Thought and later reprinted in Become What You Are (Shambhala Classics.)) 

I do not know if Watts ever featured on philosophy reading lists at universities; my guess is not. He certainly is unlikely to in the future; he is dated now, I think. Perhaps only ageing hippies–dunno if I qualify as one–continue to read him. But I think it would be a shame if our fastidiousness about a certain kind of professional philosophical hygiene were to prevent us from approaching writings like his–that is, those who set themselves to expounding for the plebes–with less than an open mind.