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.

Author: Krumholz

Dreams are messages from the deep.

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