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Month: February, 2012

Cosmopolitanism Now

We sat there waiting for the great man, the room a jumbled matrix of hair and skin, eyes and clothes of every color under the sun.  We were his cosmopolitan audience, he the spokesman for a new global community we hope to see realized.  Yes, we want to believe in this possibility.  We want to live in a world of “universality plus difference,” as he calls it, where care for the other and care for one’s own are merged in a single thought.  But how will we get there, one wonders?  How to embrace something called “human values” while remembering ethical intuitions closer to home?

Officially, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s talk was on “Islam and the West.”  But when he took the podium he told us he would proceed in his “characteristically peculiar” way.  Before we heard him speak, several things about Mr. Appiah suggested that he might be peculiar.  According to our event program, he “grew up between England and Ghana, in a multi-national family that now includes cousins, nephews, nieces and in-laws on every continent (except Antarctica).”  Now he’s the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy at Princeton.  Funny how that works.  “When he’s not on the road—traveling to discuss his ideas and keeping up with his widely-dispersed family—or busy with his teaching and research at Princeton, Professor Appiah likes to relax at his home in New Jersey, where he and his partner tend small flocks of sheep and ducks.”  A good cosmopolitan and a good shepherd.  Who could ask for more?

Appiah writes books with titles like The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, so we had every reason to expect a solemn lecture on the present dilemmas of Islam and the West—on the obvious incompatibility/incommensurability that everyone living in either culture in the early twenty-first century recognizes at the drop of a hat.  But this solemn lecture never came.  First we got a history lesson.  In his comfortable Cambridge diction, Appiah began recounting the intimate details of European/Muslim relations over the course of several centuries.  “History is philosophy by example,” he quoted Dionysus.  And about thirty minutes into his talk, a pattern began to emerge.  “East and West have always been intertwined, wherever you draw the line,” he intoned.  “By and large, we do not live in mono-cultural, mono-lingual societies, and by and large we never did…. Literature, sports, religion and philosophy are all much more transatlantic than we think.”

According to Appiah (and as he later mentioned, Benedict Anderson), there are no such things as “Islam” and “the West.”  These mental fictions illustrate the basic human tendency to associate essential qualities with small sets of data.  Because we evolved to draw consistent conclusions about the complex features of our natural environments, this trait is hard-wired in us.  During the Q and A, Appiah gave a good example about mosquitoes and West Nile Virus.  “Only about 1% of mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus,” he explained, “but if I tell you that mosquitoes carry West Nile Virus, you’ll likely be afraid of all mosquitoes.”

Thinking this way is an inextricable part of our nature; in Appiah’s words, it is “part of what makes us human.”  Yet it is also the germ of much of what ails us this far down the evolutionary continuum.  Thus Appiah’s dilemma: the challenge of living in the early twenty-first century boils down to the conflict between parochialism and cosmopolitanism.  Do we maintain the fiction that essential qualities bond us together as a “nation” and a “people”?  Or do we embrace the fact that “Franz Kafka probably had more in common with Miles Davis than he did with his fellow central European, Johann Strauss”?

In the foyer outside the lecture hall, the mood was ebullient after Appiah’s talk.  We the audience had been illuminated, even if the light we saw was not particularly new or original.  In places like the liberal universities of the northeastern United States, Appiah’s cosmopolitanism has become a kind of ethical intuition unto itself.  Few of us doubt his history or the validity of his critique of nationalism.  And we yearn for the political implications of this critique to become real and binding throughout the world.  “If only they could see…” we whispered to ourselves, forgetting that the “they” we imagine has ceased to exist.

This densely packed foyer was a microcosm of the cosmopolitan worldview for which Appiah stood.  Yet its limits begged the question of how far it can spread.

-Michael Fisher

Concepts of Control

My head was buried in the page-an omen. As my eyes scanned each line, laboring to understand, my body was laboring to stay afloat. “Maybe I’m hungry,” I thought. “Perhaps it’s the caffeine?” I could sense that my equilibrium was off, but I continued to ignore the signal, expecting, hoping that the feeling would subside. But it spread. I decided to stand, and immediately I knew something was wrong. The slow movement of physical malaise had enveloped me in a wash. The stability of my perception was evanescent, lapsing to a point of hot heat and frantic concern. “What’s wrong with me?” I began to shake violently. “This is bad.” Knowing that I was taking a chance, I left the library.

After taking a few steps outside, I knew immediately that I was in no condition to make the thirty minute trek home. I called a friend, fortuitously close by, and began walking in the direction of her apartment. The shaking was getting worse; all the violence of a fever delirium without the heat, only a sharp cold. “Is this it?” What a thought to have. But the intensity of my physical state suggested that this was not an entirely inappropriate question. I finally made it to the porch of my friend’s apartment. Waiting for her arrival was like waiting for no one and expecting someone.

After resting in her house for twenty minutes to no avail, we decided to go to the hospital’s “prompt care”-somewhere between a doctor’s office and an emergency room. We started driving; I was still shaking. And the thought beckoned again, “could this be it?” Then, approaching the hospital, I could feel my shaking begin to wane, somehow both suddenly and gradually. I was regaining control over my body. Energy seemed to leave through my legs and out my feet. I finally had control over myself again.

Aside from the shock, I had stopped shaking upon arrival at the pseudo emergency room. When I finally saw the doctor, he seemed baffled. He tested me, questioned me, and thought only to the point of impasse. He had no answers; apparently I was fine. But I needed answers, I thought. What had caused this violent rupture? What had inhabited my body? Where did it retreat to? The disconcerting desire to know ran nearly apace with my relief. But what did I want to know? Why did I need to know it?

Perhaps I was being dramatic (I’m writing this in what is presumably good health). But I had come to realize that in my relief I had only arrived back at a place of precarity, a place I now had a different appreciation for. The intensity with which I desired an answer from the doctor, an explanation for my “episode,” brought to my awareness the distance from my tremulous state of twenty minutes prior: I had returned to thinking, rationalizing, calculatingly obsessing, back from a place disconcertingly liberated from this conscious sense of control I now inhabited once again. In my relief was a strong awareness of my finitude, though not through the fitful thoughts of death amidst my uncontrollable shaking, the thought that this might be “it,” but in my assuredness that in fact “it” was not. Because I was now free again to use concepts, make claims, seek agreement and acknowledgment, all that we do to stay afloat, to stay in control.

In using concepts, making claims and coming to rational conclusions, in short, using language, we are reminded of the precarious nature of the self, the longing for acknowledgment it derives from, the responsibility to which it binds us. Finding the rational and emotional language(s) to make connections with others requires such responsibility and precarity; in our linguistic connections and misunderstandings, our lives are endowed with the greatest joys and the profoundest sorrows. Stanley Cavell describes this state of human beings as the lived truth of the skepticism of other minds, the tragedy of our epistemology. And Kierkegaard referred to this state as the foundation for a potentially ironic existence: maintaining skepticism of what it means to be a human self, while only being able to acknowledge such skepticism through the pretense of our claims on the world, our concepts and orderings.

Maintaining skepticism of what it means to be a human being, understanding the delicate nature of our communication with and acknowledgment of others, attunes us to our mortality, and in turn, to those around us. Such attunement should make us more humane-the self becomes an ongoing project. But this individual and collective project is being lost to the imperative of production and multiplication, the nexus of modern capitalism and hubris. The tragedy of our epistemology, itself the foundation of meaningful human interaction, is paradoxically being replaced by a skepticism of death, manifested in our obsession with constant communication, ease, and information. The truth of our skepticism can only be affirmed by the other, by communities and individuals. But we’ve resigned ourselves to more concepts, more control.

While the desire for control may be endemic to humans as language users, this desire has taken on an insidious guise in our proliferating, multiplying concepts and referents. Like the Protestant working to ward off damnation, we look to screens in our pockets to seek a world always removed from the present, seeking self-definition and control everywhere but the present.  But no longer are we stifled by our Protestant ethic or false consciousness. Instead, we do nothing but produce: more products, commensurate with more information, all signifiers to keep the truth of skepticism at bay. In so doing we produce, we exploit, we dominate in the name of a “better,” more enlightened self; in the name of “buy now;” in the name of the Facebook “like.” Our concepts, our desire for more exists in the perpetual search for online friends, the increasing means to which we go to secure the comforts of the middle class nuclear family, in the fragmentation of scholarship, the “lonely crowd” we treat as a historical anachronism.

The proliferation of these concepts at work, at school, in the digital world, has no doubt made us more tolerant, in many ways more humane. But despite our professed dedication to difference and multiplicity, to more nuanced understandings, we lose ourselves in such profession by reducing the human person to easily reified essences instead of fluid conversations. In our attempts to manage our lives through the concepts of digital communication, we all become human resource managers providing palliatives to ourselves, ignoring the truth of our skepticism. And as these palliatives for self-management multiply, their unchecked proliferation paradoxically expands the range of the self by reducing her essence to multiplying referents of identity, floating as do our digital selves while we grasp at them feverishly, like balloons inevitably flying away, attempting to control that which we cannot.

Thankfully, as it turns out, my “episode” was not “it.” But because it was not “it,” my attendant relief and return to form was a return to precarity, the skepticism of a self forced to use language. Such skepticism should be liberating: it affirms our desire for connection with others, our need for expression and attunement. For Kierkegaard, it could be a spur to human excellence.  But whatever human excellence means, it now appears increasingly unintelligible as we indulge the anxious side of skepticism more and more, longing for the dictates of concepts of control.

-Erik Hmiel

The Man in the Street, Unplugged

Newly arrived in Rome, Italy, my daughter and I came up to a corner to wait for the walk sign to turn green. It had been raining steadily, we had been walking for hours, and we were a bit lost, but our spirits were high. We were just as immersed in the bustling street of Rome at early evening rush hour as we were the rainwater. The shoulders of our winter coats and the legs of our jeans were soaked through and our hair was as wet as if we had just gotten out of the shower.

A man arrived at the street corner next to us, also waiting for a break in the traffic. Turning to look at us, he saw the rain streaming down our faces, returned our smiles, and said something lightening fast in Italian. When we hesitated, he asked, in halting English, whether we had forgotten our umbrella. “No, we don’t have one yet!” was our reply. In halting Italian, we explained that we had arrived four days earlier for a four month stay during which I am teaching at the University of Rome.

As the light turned green for pedestrians, we crossed together, each of us in the process silently transferring those subtle signals that suggested we would not be averse to continuing to talk a bit more as we walked. We enjoyed our conversation until he needed to turn right–“a destra”–and we needed to continue on, to Via Nomentana. With a few happy words, we were off.

A last glance over my shoulder revealed a man, from the back, slightly shorter than average (by American standards), wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He was one among many other men on the sidewalk with a similar appearance. I couldn’t even be sure it was him.

I have thought about this contemporary Roman since then, wondering what more I would have us say. I’d ask his name perhaps, and feel comfortable sharing mine. But there’s such a fine line in that first encounter between strangers, when just two of the faceless seven billion of us on earth suddenly come into focus for one another. Three people out of all the well-dressed young professional men returning from work as darkness descends and mothers arm in arm with their teenage daughters, happy to be alive and oblivious to the elements.

It’s a delicate moment anyway, and when you add in differences of age, sex, and culture and the presence of a third person, a child at that, and a certain shared sensibility of respect, reserve, and caution, it can become downright fragile. If this moment is the beginning of an ongoing relation of some kind, its nature and quality can be forever affected by what words and actions follow, however innocuous they might seem at first. Everything hangs in the balance.

Yet it is difficult to think I will not see this man again. No, dear reader, no romantic longing, at least in that sense of romantic. It’s purely that one can never have too great a store of sweetness. And I will remember his smile, sweetly curious eyes, and kindness at venturing an exchange–his sharing of a moment with us, in which our moment became joined with his.

In this heyday of technological communication, this moment might not have stayed with me. While that moment was full of buoyancy, there have been other long hours–especially between three and five a.m., undoubtedly worsened by jet lag–in which the loneliness of separation from my birds of a feather back home has been almost too much to bear. Just a taste, perhaps, of what true exile must be like. We are trying a for-the-most-part electronics-free period in which we exchange old-fashioned letters, forsaking the crutches of instant gratification, soundbite emotional exchange, and omnipresent distraction from the real, lived moment, with all it might have in store that could deepen our connection, leaving room for meditation and time for the full playing out of feeling.

What if a deepening of connection only comes with acquaintance with pain, suffering, separation, …loss? Who needs it, we might think in our dimmest hours. Or do we still crave it?

What does this have to do with the man on the street? Well, for starters, I don’t know if I would have given him a second thought if I could have plugged into instant communication with people I already know. With them, I have already successfully navigated that fragile opening moment of our lasting, even lifelong acquaintance–those whose names I do know; I have a new appreciation for the phrase contact information. If I were not momentarily unplugged, would I would have felt so deeply something for someone I will never see again–the piercing realization, with the fullness of lamentation, added to my already significant loneliness of being without friends in a strange new place, of not having the chance ever to soak in his particular one-in-seven-billion sparkling, warming glance? It would be easier, for sure, as this sorrow is as drenching as the freezing rainwater that day.

This little everyday parting, the relinquishing of my acquaintance to undifferentiated humanity, really feels like a momentous loss. But it makes my appreciation of those few, unique souls with whom I am privileged to have ongoing contact that much greater.

For their sakes, the man on the street deserves a second thought.

Or perhaps not. Maybe this is just a hard lesson to get real: it’s the modern metropole. Anonymity threatens and beckons. Be sure next time to get his number and email address and enter them in your cellphone’s list of contacts. And then maybe you can forget about him, in a certain way, now that you can be in contact with him anytime you want.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Tattoos and Intellectuals

I’d been there for some time when the three of them walked in.  I had come to get some work done, and it so happened that the best-lit table was the one right in front of the entrance that night.  It wasn’t exactly beneath the dim lamp hanging from the ceiling.  That would have been better.  But the streetlights outside the cafe lent an extra sliver of illumination if I angled my spiral notebook just right.  I felt secure sitting there, facing the street and whomever might come in.  And my iPod kept me tucked inside a cocoon of sonic intimacy, safely removed from the clatter of voices that existed outside my head.

Pretty quickly I settled into a nice groove.  I splayed my folders out on a tiny shelf that stood conveniently beside me and moved methodically between tasks, underlining this and annotating that.  I glanced up several times when a new set of people entered my purview, but none of them caught my attention until I saw that face.  At first it looked like bad acne or a serious burn.  Then he stepped closer to the light.  The blackness of his forehead was now rich with color.  A poorly illustrated serpent tail stretched below his temple toward the bridge of his nose.  Set beneath dark-rimmed glasses and close-cropped hair, his pudgy cheeks edged back and upward as he approached the bar.  He may have known one of the baristas, or perhaps he was just being friendly.  Either way my immediate thought was that he must be pleased with himself, smiling through his hip attire and accentuated face tattoo.

I turned back to my work but couldn’t stop glancing up at him.  I don’t have any tattoos, and I’d not seen many face tattoos that look like that.  So I was curious.  I studied the lurid details while he waited for his drink.  In total, the tattoo appeared to depict a pastiche of dragons and animal monsters that presumably formed some meaningful constellation across his neck, cheeks, and forehead.  I wondered how this scene continued underneath his clothing, and the grotesque thought of further constellations etched across his entire body made me feel faintly nauseous.  I looked away again, but the sight was too vivid, too irresistibly graphic to return to my work.  My eyes kept leering up at his face, and within a few moments my stomach steadied as my academic barometer began to kick in.

“What is he sublimating?” I thought, now allowing myself to gaze freely in furtive spurts.  “Surely this man is lost, thinking his face tattoo will satisfy whatever need he’s covered over in all those layers of ink.  Only a culture this debased would allow him the luxury of such manifest delusion…”

But there was more to it than that.  “This is a social document,” I told myself.  Yes!  I was witnessing a visceral snapshot of a time and place that will one day be written about in history books like the one I’d been reading until a few minutes earlier.  “Maybe I’ll lecture about it some day.  Maybe I’ll even tell this story to my classes like those professors who talk about life during the Sixties!”

By now the music in my head had grown pensive, multiplying the layers of intensity these thoughts and this scene generated.  I wrote down a little description of the man with the face tattoo and felt my muscles tighten as I gripped my pencil purposefully.  He was still smiling, laughing now as he reached for his wallet.  The absurdity of his inaudible gestures against my austere soundtrack heightened the significance of every detail.  The two girls with him decked in similar flannel shirts; the haughtiness of his laughter; the radical chic issuing its common cultural currency and spilling effortful disdain over everything.  This was the year 2012 at one of its proudest moments.

A hot note of envy shot up my spine as I tried to comment soberly in my notebook: “He looks adversarial, but is he really?  He’s chipper and polite to the barista; he pays with legal tender just like the rest of us…”

I wanted to be objective.  I wanted to get to the bottom of this.  But the basic emotional fact of my jealousy infected my analysis like ink spreading across the page.

Suddenly I realized what I was writing about: “This is what modernity does to us,” I underlined twice, my shoulders twisting as I leaned inward.  “It heightens options at the same time it heightens foreignness, making us all more alienated together…”

I was now lost to the scene in front of me, immersed in my own head.

“…My distance and social criticism, his raucous face tattoo: both are guilty of the same crime: neither strives to know the other 

“…We nestle ourselves inside little individual differences, all the while missing what we might have in common; neither of us understands the other; in fact we misunderstand each other…willfully?”

“…That’s the point

-Michael Fisher