Identifying the Alien in our Humanity

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Look around you. At any given moment, “beings” encircle us from all sides. I’m using a computer on a table, while sitting on chair. Nearby, some window blinds murmur a restless patter and s kettle hisses and whines. Outside, the stirring, purring, scratching, sniffing scuttle of nature persists indefinitely. Indeed, we are not alone.

On the one hand, this is pretty obvious. Humans have always had “tools” or “technology,” and we’ve always been in the environment. But at a deeper level, this intimacy with other beings implies a kinship. Particularly in contemporary culture, people constantly interact with and through technology, like cell phones, buses, radios, computers, or televisions. Doing so, we express our humanity in and through technology, and this technology has an important role in how that occurs.

In other words, humans do not express what we often call “humanity” in a vacuum. To compose the great texts of history, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Sappho, and Sun Tzu needed technology. They needed ink or stylus, paper or tablet. And these texts always grew out of a place. The tablets of Mesopotamia needed the clay of the Fertile Crescent. The cave sketches of Lascaux needed the water and pigment–along with the cave wall.

This is what the scholar Thomas Rickert is getting at, to some extent, with the notion of “ambiance”: we grow out of stuff, express with stuff, “are” through stuff and space. As Carl Sagan said, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Humans may like to center the world around our own being, but we are intimately part of the nonhuman, “spoken” in a sense by our environment and the objects and nonhuman beings that compose it.

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Empathy and Videogames

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Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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Back to the Backyard

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Hey all, it’s been a while. I have finally decided that I am far enough on work and settled enough in my life to find my blogging rhythm again, and after a long departure–Oct. of last year–I am back to posting regularly.

I don’t have a particular theme for today. Mostly, I just wanted to check in, since a few changes have taken place since October.

First of all, my thesis is “done,” and by done I mean that I have given a copy to my readers for my defense next week. By “done” I also mean that I can’t stand looking at it for some time. Though I guess I should glance it over before the defense. *cringe*

It ended up being about ecological theory and fanfiction. So a brief explanation about both of those things.

Ecological theory, as its name suggests, has environment roots, but has more recently been used to complicate our expand our view of writing. While many people still look at writing as a solitary process–i.e., the lone writer at a desk “inventing” or “discovering” some text–ecological theory takes the opposite view.

In a “writing ecology,” the writer is just one participant in the writing process, which can also include other people, historical and cultural influences, and nonhuman elements, like the environment or technology.

For example, right now, I’m using my old MacBook, sipping water, listening to Hello Saferide, and sitting alone in a (somewhat) cold kitchen near a broad window. Moreover, I’m writing through an interface called WordPress, designed by a bunch of programers. This interface has certain ideologies and capabilities, like the ability to just grab something from online to make a point, like this:

 A different writing environment–a different ecology–would affect my writing, and that’s not even considering you, the reader, and your own access and influence.

So that’s ecology. Fanfiction, at its most basic level, is fiction written by “fans” of a particular source text. It is typically about popular culture texts and is typically done by amateur writers without compensation. Moreover, it is often a social endeavor.

Fanfiction has historical roots, like Gulliver’s Travels fanfiction in the 18th century, but has surged in prominence in recent decades through digital technology. These technologies have also changed how we look at fanfiction, affecting the ecology that gives rise to fanfiction texts.

Essentially, my thesis tries to explore fanfiction ecologies, showing how looking at fanfiction like this changes what fanfiction “resistance” and “literacy” means.

In other news, I’ve also been accepted into some great PhD programs for rhetoric and composition, with full funding, so that’s worth celebrating. Overall, it is a bit nerve-wracking, but ultimately affirmative and exciting, especially after the alienating application process of the past few months. I made it through the first few gates. Now I get some difficult choices for my next one.

With these changes in mind, I imagine my usual posts will also change. While I can’t foresee what that means, I predict that posts may center more on my current research, allowing me to think through things–and share these thoughts–in a less stifling setting. But I still hope to retain some of the feel from past posts, like their connection to daily questions. I can’t say this will always be the case, but it is my temperament, and something that I enjoyed doing.

With that in mind, I’ll end this here. I’ll be sure to keep up writing and apologize for the long (but deeply necessary) hiatus. I hope all is well.

Cheers.

The need for philosophy

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I know I said I was taking a hiatus, but if you haven’t noticed, a few posts have been creeping up on the blog. I guess I’ve been looking for an outlet lately, and blogging provides an easy one. So while my clothes are in the wash, and I take a break from grading, I might as well post what’s on my mind.

I haven’t given much thought to the role of philosophy on this blog. I think my most extensive treatment was in this post, where I consider the paradox of “diseases of civilization” or here, where I reblog a cartoon about questions. But last week’s video from Oly at Philosophy Tube gave me pause.

Here’s the video:

I agree with Oly. If one wants to define philosophy as a critical enterprise, composed of rigorous thought, engaged discourse, and reasonable (generally logical) standards of judgement, philosophy has relevence. So does the philosophy of Seneca, Epicurus, and others that challenges assumptions and habits to live a happier, more meaningful life.

The only “philosophies” that may require skepticism are the “new age” assertions that often creep into philosophy sections at bookstores and the glib retorts that people may palaver while sipping a beer or answering a question on television.

I say these deserve skepticism because they generally do not police themselves. As Kant said, “I have set the bounds for reason to make room for faith.” Just so: we should see where reason ends and where faith begins. Faith, too, can be meaningful, but it is different from most “philosophy,” even the Eastern type, which has standards, self-criticism, and limitations.

I have little to add to Oly’s own thoughts–and little time to add anything–but I think two things are particularly important regarding even the most mundane and rudimentary philosophical thinking.

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“Ain’t no reason things are this way”

I remember I heard the song “Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” in the documentary I Am. The documentary discusses how our negative view of human nature–that it is selfish, competitive, and violent–is too simplistic. Scientifically, argues the documentary, we have plenty of empathetic potential. For example, “mirror neurons” in our brain mimic the mental states of other people when we watch them, filling our own psyche with their feelings. That’s why we often tense up or clutch a limb when we see a video of someone else getting hurt.

With my students, we went over an article on Wednesday about Marxist critique. “I’m not a communist,” I joked with them. But, I stressed, the helpful thing with Marxist critique–and most critique in general–is that it challenges things that seem “normal.” Marxism challenges the view that consumption is good, for example. Critique forces us to question the “normative hubris” that habits bring: that our way of doing something must be the only way. Or maybe it’s the best way. Or maybe the least bad.

But that’s not always true. As Dennen’s song points out, “There Ain’t No Reason Things Are this Way” sometimes. Sometimes the force of habit and tradition keep us going–even when those habits and traditions lose validity or meaning, like a stalled car still rolling forward.

I’m not saying we should all study critical theory, like Marxism and feminism, but I think that–as Martin Heidegger often pointed out–asking questions can often be the hardest part of thinking. Sometimes the problem loses itself in the folds of the situation, so we don’t even see the problem. It just feels “normal.” That, argues Heidegger, is one role of philosophy: keeping our ideas from calcifying into unquestioned assumptions.

So I often listen to Dennen’s song, and consider how it comforts me in a mournful way. Perhaps it’s the mutual feelings. Perhaps it’s the hope of “love” setting us free. Perhaps its the slow arpeggios and strums carrying his voice. What ever the reason, I wanted to share it:

“There is misfortune in not loving”

I ran into this Camus quote today:

There is merely bad luck in not being loved; there is misfortune in not loving. All of us, today, are dying of this misfortune. For violence and hatred dry up the heart itself; the long fight for justice exhausts the love that nevertheless gave birth to it.

It’s from his essay Return to Tipasa” (1954). I’ve seen it countless times, but for some reason today, it hit hard. Many don’t want to acknowledge that “good” fights often veer “wrong” or that a particular perspective, despite its nobility or truth, obscures another, but Camus did. He regularly critiqued both sides in a struggle, even the “good” side, fighting for “clarity,” which he considered central to his moral code. For Camus, one must be honest with their intentions and not mask them behind noble words. Often, every option has flaws.

I suppose it resonates with my jaded perspective on the activism I see happening sometimes. Often, the fight for fairness or equality, which I fully support, becomes muddied by the hatred that the struggle itself engenders. People start hating the things they fight. This is good when the hatred is justified and tempered by compassion, but when that hatred starts to turn the fight into a struggle of revenge, it is no longer a struggle for justice or for a better world. Simply: it is a struggle for revenge.

Some justifiably feel the need for revenge. I can’t speak for them or pretend that I understand that need, nor can I take a higher moral ground. My situation is not their situation. But when a struggle for justice or fairness or equality becomes a struggle for revenge, it is no longer the same thing it was when it started. We must be honest.

Hiatus

Hey all, in the coming weeks I don’t think I’ll have time to post much as I gear up for PhD applications, thesis writing, and the day-to-day challenges of grading, teaching, and my own classes. Now and then, I may post something or reblog something, but I want to make sure I’m officially focused on academics until break in winter. I hope that you have a beautiful autumn/fall, and in the meantime, here are two links.

First, here’s a link to one of my favorite essays, which I read every fall: Thoreau’s “Autumnal Tints,” one of the last essays he wrote. And while your at it, you might as well check out his piece “On Walking,” which inspired me to read everything I could by him.

Second, here’s a link to an op-ed I wrote about climate change for my school’s paper. And if you’re a Daily Show fan, this clip dovetails nicely from this.

Now, I am off to research Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and grade papers as I prep for student conferences this week. I just hope Thomas Carlyle was right about the redemptive quality of work.

Rain Check

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So, I’ve been grading a lot this weekend and a bit last weekend, so I haven’t been able to post. I apologize. Since I am a bit brain drained at the moment, I don’t trust my writing. But I do trust my usual millennial acumen to share something from the internet,an interesting PBS documentary about the Buddha:

Enjoy!

Morning Advice

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For those of us struggling to get up this Monday, Marcus Aurelius has some good advice:

In he morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present- I am rising to the work of a human being. Why then am I dissatisfied if I am going to do the things for which I exist and for which I was brought into the world? Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed-clothes and keep myself warm?- But this is more pleasant.- Dost thou exist then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being, and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?- But it is necessary to take rest also.- It is necessary: however nature has fixed bounds to this too: she has fixed bounds both to eating and drinking, and yet thou goest beyond these bounds, beyond what is sufficient; yet in thy acts it is not so, but thou stoppest short of what thou canst do. So thou lovest not thyself, for if thou didst, thou wouldst love thy nature and her will. But those who love their several arts exhaust themselves in working at them unwashed and without food; but thou valuest thy own own nature less than the turner values the turning art, or the dancer the dancing art, or the lover of money values his money, or the vainglorious man his little glory. And such men, when they have a violent affection to a thing, choose neither to eat nor to sleep rather than to perfect the things which they care for. But are the acts which concern society more vile in thy eyes and less worthy of thy labour?

–Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 5, paragraph 1 [Trans. from Internet Classics Archive]

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