Report from the Workshop – 11/22/21

Currently reading:

  • All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
  • Politics of Deconstruction by Susanne Lüdemann
  • God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert

Currently writing:

  • Sketches for essays after finals
  • Notes on final papers
  • to-do list entries that say “work on papers”

Currently thinking about:

  • The anthropology and psychology of shame (for my Nietzsche course)
  • Writing and what it discloses as a practice for Heidegger (for my Heidegger course)
  • The question of things “mattering” (or not) in the contemporary world – Heidegger’s thinking of nihilism
  • The insufficiency of Heidegger’s thinking of Technology (capitalized to show its ontological status)

[A quick gripe before getting into it: Google Keep is really useful and I’ve recently returned to using it on my phone and tablet, but Google now makes you use Keep as a Chrome app instead of being able to use the app on its own in aOSX. This annoys me because I don’t use Chrome as my regular web browser and to use Keep on my laptop I have to open both applications. Annoying.]

Two things have kept me preoccupied this week:

The first is the critique of Heidegger’s thinking of technology from the postphenomenological position espoused by Don Ihde. I’ve been reading his Heidegger’s Technologies for my final paper and have found his position, at a crossroads between phenomenology and American pragmatism, much more congenial to my own thinking than Heidegger’s. But despite his critiques in the book, Ihde doesn’t break completely with Heidegger. For one thing, Ihde finds Heidegger’s thinking of Technology as Gestell, enframing, perfectly appropriate to large-scale industrial technologies like the ones Heidegger would have been familiar with during his life. Steel mills, battery farming, and other “big” industries do make sense within Heidegger’s framework, even if his claim that there is no difference between mechanized agribusiness and the gas chambers of the Holocaust raises a skeptical eyebrow (at least). I’m still working through the book but have found it worthwhile reading so far. I’ll probably write something in more depth about Ihde’s position after finals. (There’s another commitment The Editor will have to make sure I follow through on.)

My second preoccupation this week has been the question of “meaning,” or its lack, in the contemporary world. I’m working on a longish essay on this question that sprouted from something my Heidegger professor said in class this week. (Before going on I should say that I like this prof and he’s a good instructor. He’s something of a Big Deal, if heterodox, scholar of Heidegger. I don’t intend the essay as a take-down; this isn’t YouTube, I’m not “destroying” anybody. Rather, I have in mind Nietzsche’s line from Zarathustra that “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”)

The question of “meaning” strikes me as important because the position I’ve heard before is that the modern world doesn’t have “meaning” built into it like the ancient or Medieval (European) world did. While I’m sympathetic to Heidegger’s critique of the Nietzschean/Sartrean position that humans are the ones to assign value to things outside of them (Descartes once again rearing his ugly head), it nonetheless strikes me that the idea of having to think about one’s “meaning” is a good thing on balance. I’ll readily concede that anxiety and malaise could result from this “loss” of “meaning,” but it still strikes me that anxiety is an improvement over calcification, and it’s only from the perspective of the possibility of anxiety that a more “unified” or “non-split” subjectivity is perceptible at all, much less appealing. I’m not saying that anything could be “meaningful.” There’s probably a relatively small set of things that tend to be determined to be “meaningful” after the fact of actions that diverge from strictly “efficient,” “normal,” or “optimized” behavior. Probably, but I don’t know what they are.

[Sorry for the overuse of scare quotes above. It’s a bad habit I’ve picked up since reading Derrida, but I think it’s actually appropriate here since I’m not sure what we call “meaning,” or its lack, is a good way to think about the world.]


Otherwise, this week has seen me beginning to sail out of the luffing doldrums of worrying about my final papers. It seems like every semester I go through an initial stage of feeling confident about a topic, then some aimless pacing about getting started on it, before finally something happens and I start working in earnest. Oh well, guess I’d better just unfurl the sail (or whatever the correct sailing term is.)

On a final note, I found my nearly-forgotten CD ripping skills put to good use this week while at work in the archives. Who knew that clumsy, janky-ass music pirating knowledge would someday be a valuable skill! Turns out being a child of the 1990s has its advantages.

Report from the Workshop: 11/14/21

Currently reading:

  • All Things Shining, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
  • Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert

Currently writing:

  • Mostly sketches for medium- and long-term projects
  • Gathering pieces to submit to the UNM literary journal
  • to-do list entries that say “work on papers”

Currently thinking about:

  • The anthropology and psychology of shame (for my Nietzsche course)
  • Writing and what it discloses as a practice for Heidegger (for my Heidegger course)
  • Why “being a writer” irritates me
  • A sculptural practice consisting of pieces made entirely of 1) office waste paper and other paper product leavings, 2) office supplies you can get at a drugstore or hardware store, and 3) packaging detritus

This week was long. After last weekend’s staycation, I had to come home early on Friday to lie in bed all afternoon. I was exhausted.

Despite my exhaustion, I’ve been reading Dreyfus and Kelly’s All Things Shining, a kind of pop-philosophy “self-help” (?) book that’s been on my list for a while. I’m planning one or more essays on this book, so for now I’ll give my initial thoughts. But first, some context.

For a while now I’ve been wondering whether the hallowed halls of academe are actually a good place to do philosophy if, by “philosophy,” we mean something like “the love of wisdom.” Contemporary philosophy is often thought of as a purely speculative discipline, but this would seem to betray its earliest exponents – every one of the classical schools of Greek and Roman philosophy promised that its version of the “love of wisdom” did something. One gained happiness, or freedom from perturbation, or an accurate understanding of nature and how to live in it by practicing a particular school’s philosophy.

This isn’t to say that contemporary academic philosophy doesn’t “work,” or that it doesn’t seep out from the poorly sealed foundation of the Ivory Tower into the culture at large. It does, but often badly. A good example of this warped seepage is the idea of the performativity of gender pioneered by Judith Butler in Gender Trouble. The popular conception of this idea runs like this: gender is conventionally defined. As such, one isn’t a man, woman, etc. Rather, one performs these roles. That is, I “play the role” of a man. This understanding suggests that, since I can be aware of my masculinity as a role I play, like on a film set, I can choose not to play the role I’ve been assigned, or play it in ways diverging from the “straightforward” portrayal others expect.

Sounds good, right? The only problem is that this popular conception of the performarivity of gender misunderstands Butler’s point. She argues that our performance of gender is, at least in part, not up to us. We are assigned roles, often by violent means. But, since our social practices are “iterable” (a concept she gets from Derrida), they can be copied and recopied – or not. Since social roles are iterable, we can choose not to reproduce them, or reproduce them differently. Gender, then, becomes something like a “social” performance, in which one is assigned a role, but because these roles don’t go “all the way down,” one can find ways to either reject the performance of that role or reinterpret it. The big point missed is that the performance is not (entirely) something an individual chooses, but is rather partially a product of social forces.

I give this example because I have a feeling that All Things Shining will (have) be(en) misread in a similar way. Dreyfus and Kelly are basically recapitulating Martin Heidegger’s argument for the possibility of postmodern living beyond what he calls late-modern “Enframing” (Gestell). Enframing is a kind of ontotheology (a way of understanding the world both “from the ground up” and “from the top down”) that assigns to everything, including humans ourselves, the status of Bestand, or “standing reserve.” Things are, within this ontotheological framework, fundamentally resources to be exploited. There is no longer any qualitative difference between one thing and another. The question “should we do this?” is now trumped by “can we do this?” And, if the answer to the latter is yes, then there is no a priori reason not to do it, whatever it is. Dreyfus and Kelly don’t mention Heidegger specifically more than a handful of times, but their argument is essentially a kind of popularization of his thinking. They do this by tracing the origins of the nihilism that makes enframing possible through several canonical texts of the Western literary tradition. I haven’t gotten to the end yet, but I have a feeling that their gesture toward a renewed meaning of the world against nihilism will have to do with the late Heidegger’s “fourfold” (Geviert).

I don’t want to jump the gun here as I’m still reading the book, but at least one value I can see from this book is a pretty clear object lesson and articulation of what Heidegger thinks “art” (which includes literature) means and does. They also offer some interesting readings of canonical texts in the Western tradition from the Odyssey to David Foster Wallace. Even if the reader doesn’t buy the whole argument, these readings are worth a persual.

I know Dreyfus was an expert on Heidegger, but I don’t know anything about Kelly except that he’s at Harvard. The general idea they’re presenting is familiar to me since I’m familiar with the later Heidegger, so I’m trying to read as a “general reader” and evaluate the book on those terms. We’ll see if that’s possible. No timeline, of course, on when I’ll get those essays up. Being one’s own editor isn’t always bad.


Other than reading, I’ve mostly been worrying about final papers, the holidays, etc. You’d think that after being in grad school for nearly a decade I’d have figured it out by now and could preempt end-of-semester nerves, but you would, of course, be wrong. Nothing better than perseverating, I always say. Except maybe procrastinating by cleaning the house.

This semester has presented a strange series of challenges. On top of big-deal Life Events like buying a house (in a new city), looking for and finding a job and graduate funding, and failing to recognize people from last semester’s Zoom classes when I see them in person, it’s been difficult for me to be around other people in public. I’ll confess that I rather liked not having to go anywhere last semester, even if the reason why was bad. UNM instituted a mandatory vaccination policy for all students, so I’m not really worried about Covid (on campus, anyway), but just being around groups of people is increasingly difficult for me. It’s always been exhausting for me to spend time with large groups, but I feel much more sensitive to the exhaustion these days. Maybe I just need to be patient and my old tolerance will return, such as it was.

Another significant change I’ve made is that I’ve stopped setting myself a reading goal each year. I’ve been keeping track of the books I read since March of 2017, but last year I set myself a goal of 50 books for 2020. My final total was 68, but it occurred to me earlier this semester that I was treating this pursuit like a game, just trying to beat a high score. I doubt I was paying close attention to many of the books I read last year, even if I did in fact read them, and that’s not what I’m after. I’ll probably write more extensively about the experience of keeping track of my reading later, maybe in the new year. Of course, The Editor hasn’t set me a deadline, so we’ll see.

Thus concludes this inaugural Report from the Workshop.

New look, new ideas

This site has languished for quite some time as I’ve been busy with coursework, buying a house, etc. Now, I think I’ve finally gotten it where I want it.

When I started this site I wasn’t sure what I wanted it to be, exactly. I played around with some ideas and never quite felt satisfied. But now, and with remarkably little conscious thought, I think I’ve figured it out.

Some time ago, when I was still teaching high school English, I found myself “afflicted” with hypergraphia. I would write, and write, and write, like I had to drain the words out of myself or risk rupturing something. At the time I also experienced periods of hypomania. Just the depressive parts, without any of flights of intense experience characterized by full-blown bipolar disorder. Writing, I found, helped me keep those hypomanic episodes comparatively mild. I keep all my notebooks, so I could probably excavate these old torrents of words and examine them, but that doesn’t seem wise. I still feel the compulsion to write, and still experience hypomania on occasion, but now I’m beginning to understand what to do with my writing and how to channel it. To look back at my earlier discharges now seems like a kind of sacrilege or an exhumation. Better to let the dead horse lie.

I’ve been in graduate school for a long time, with (theoretically, haha) several more years still to go. I enjoy grad school and find it stimulating, but I’ve also come to realize that a big part of why I wanted to pursue it in the first place was to find a way out of a bad situation. With a boring career of teaching English staring at me behind the barrel of a gun, anything more intellectually stimulating seemed appealing, and I jumped in with enthusiasm.

I’m less enthusiastic these days (or maybe the enthusiasm has mellowed with age), and now realize that my writing and other projects no longer need to be a “way out.” Hence the renewal and revitalization of this site. Here, I can pursue thoughts and inclinations in a more relaxed manner than I can in my coursework. While I’m busy specializing in my academic life, I can indulge my generalist habits with this site as a working space, portfolio, and archive. My academic work will no doubt occasionally bleed into these pages, but it won’t be my main concern here.

And now, after the preamble, the new program.

  • I’m in the midst of reading Hubert Dreyfus’s and Sean Dorrance Kelly All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age and will post an essay on it – or maybe several essays – here soon(ish).
  • I will also be holding myself to a regular posting schedule of Reports from the Workshop: what I’m reading, writing, thinking about, etc.
  • I’ve also hashed out the skeleton of a new long-term project on botanical gardens. You can check out the page for that project in the menu above. It’s fairly ambitious, so I’m not holding myself to any deadlines. After all, there’s no professor here to assign me a due date.
  • Finally, I have some other ideas in the works as well, one involving photography, landmarks, and geo-tagging. More on that to come later, since I have to learn how to take better pictures first.

That’s all for now.

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