Relativism: The spontaneous ideology of the undergraduate

In the Social Sciences capstone at Shimer, we spend a lot of time on texts that emphasize the social mediation of reality and call into question any kind of simplistic empiricism — Mannheim’s “sociology of knowledge,” Foucauldian power analysis, feminist critiques of the scientific enterprise, etc. One thing that has stood out to me in these readings is how often they are haunted by the specter of relativism. Mannheim probably does the best job of accounting for the problem out of our readings, pointing out that it is a kind of intellectual halfway house where the idea of absolute truth has been denied and yet the basic dichotomy of absolute truth vs. opinion has persisted — hence if nothing (alas!) can attain to the impossible ideal of absolute truth, everything must be “your opinion, man.”

Other readings are more openly scornful of the idea of relativism, though the attention they give to it shows that they expect it to be tempting. And in my experience, it is tempting for a population I spend a lot of time with: undergraduates. One might even call relativism the spontaneous ideology of the first-year college student. The absolute truths of their upbringing are being called into question. Even if they are able to dispense with the content of their previous truth, though, it will take time and work to get rid of its form — hence the ideal of unlimited open-mindedness and the profound realization that “everything’s subjective.”

It may not work well as a consistent intellectual position — though once in a while you’ll get the truly principled relativist who’s unwilling to pass judgment even on Nazis or slave traders — but it does function as a strategy for avoiding conflict. If the negative reference to relativism is a kind of trump card in high-flown theoretical debates, it serves as a different kind of trump card in the student lounge: any serious argument can be shut down before it gets too heated. At the same time, it serves as a means of self-defense as well, because if one’s views are worthy of respect simply by virtue of existing, one does not have to put in much work in defending them (to others or oneself).

I know it sounds like I’m making fun, and to a certain extent I am. But I don’t think we should underestimate the extent to which this somewhat irritating step in the process is necessary — not only on the world-historical level charted by Mannheim, but in the unfolding of the individual mind. Eventually one starts to realize that total relativism simply isn’t very interesting and that it doesn’t make sense to say that the best way to “respect” intellectual positions is to abstain from seriously engaging with them. Even if the quest for absolute truth is fruitless, there is still local knowledge to be had, and perhaps that local knowledge will turn out to be richer and more interesting than the illusion of absolute truth ever could have been. Even the self-defensive move of exempting one’s own views from criticism is shifted into a more productive gear, as one becomes capable of detaching oneself from one’s opinions and assessing them critically — indeed, one might perhaps learn that the having of opinions is not an end in itself and that engaging in the search for local knowledges can be more satisfying without the teleology of the “hot take.”

To get to that point, though, one needs that initial act of purely negative suspension.

The beginning of a thought on “religious liberty”

As noted in the title, this is just the beginning of a thought, but I think there may be something about the public/private distinction at play in the recent (deplorable) “religious liberty” cases involving businesses. The question, it seems to me, is whether a business is public or private. The vague Hobby Lobby standard of “small, closely-held companies” seems to indicate that there are certain types of businesses that are more like a private concern, and hence you have control over whether your values are respected in that space. The implicit contrast is with publicly-held companies, which are (in principle) owned by “the public at large” and hence can’t demand the same kinds of rights that businesses more associated with a defined individual or group can.

In Aristotle, the economic realm is what we would call private. It’s something like the threshold of the political — there are forms of power at work, it is necessary as a support of the political, but it’s not yet the political. The modern concept of economy seems to carry the economic at least partway across the threshold, insofar as the economic is the realm of contract and law, etc. Yet in the terms of classical liberal political theory, there’s also a sense in which it remains a pre-political space, a presupposed background to political deliberation.

A “publicly held” company is fully across the threshold — it has entered into the public realm and is accountable to public norms. The “privately held” company is part of an individual’s property, conceptually a part of his “household” — and here I’m thinking in the full Aristotelian sense, where the workers he hires are also included in his household, as were the household slaves for Aristotle. It may be creepy and weird (not to say illegal) for the HR director at Bank of America to take an interest in the sexual practices of employees, but what about for a servant I’m inviting into my home? Perhaps it makes sense that this is the new staging ground for the “family values” campaigns of the conservative movement.

Notes toward an overanalysis of a failed sci-fi spin-off

I’ve been using Gerry Canavan’s Star Trek CFP as an excuse for “researching” the red-headed stepchildren of the franchise: Enterprise and The Animated Series. I began by rewatching Enterprise over the last couple months, a process that is coming to completion. Over the course of this rewatch, I shared with the members of the Daystrom Institute a wide range of theories and assessments — again, justifying this as “research,” to see how the fan community responds to my ideas. This morning, I wrote up my definitive assessment of the final season, so hopefully my obsessive Enterprise redditing is at an end. Hence I compile some highlights here for those who are interested in my hermeneutical approach to an unpopular and mostly forgotten Star Trek spin-off.

  • In which I consider how Enterprise might reframe certain events and themes from the original series.
  • In which I make the daring claim that the Borg episode does not cause a continuity error and indeed is necessary to preserve continuity.
  • In which I debunk of a popular fan theory that the show caused an alternate timeline.
  • In which I cautiously reassess the concept behind the series finale and argue that it was in principle a cool idea that should have been used more frequently in earlier seasons.
  • In which I stake out the claim that the first two seasons were actually the best, contrary to most fans.
  • In which I ask what it was like to watch the season 3 Xindi arc in real time, prompting a Post of the Week-winning comment relating a time when the online fan community collaboratively invented a made-up episode in the course of “critiquing” and “defending” it.
  • In which I wonder aloud whether the Temporal Cold War could provide the grounds for an in-universe explanation of the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  • In which I argue that Enterprise and The Animated Series are the most systematic instances of world-building within the Star Trek franchise.
  • In which I investigate the possible influence of MacGyver and X-Files on Enterprise.
  • In which I reveal that the reboot films draw to a surprising degree on Enterprise.
  • In which I put forth the episode “Hatchery” as exemplary of Enterprise‘s particular strengths as a series.
  • In which I issue a scathing critique of the Orion Slave Girls episode.

  • In which I assess the final season, contradicting the widely-accepted fan opinion that it is among the best of the series.

As they say, look up on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

The dangers of using the master’s tools

Everyone knows what “diversity” means in an academic context. It does not mean making sure there is a good balance between chess players and lacrosse players. It does not refer to the desire that Republicans and Democrats should be roughly equally represented. It refers, rather, to the attempt to give more space to people (including texts) of personal backgrounds that have historically been excluded from universities and from academic consideration of their experiences and perspectives—people of color, women, working-class people, people of non-normative sexual identities, disabled people, etc. Again, everyone knows this. Anyone who does not should be able to pick up on the context clues and determine that, ah yes, this is the kind of diversity in question.

Some people feign ignorance on this question, however. They claim that there are many possible kinds of diversity and that we need to be really clear on our definition. They may say that they support diversity when it turns out that they mean they support greater representation for their pet subject or group. In other words, they take advantage of the apparent abstract formalism of “diversity” and take it literally—in a way that undermines the actual goals that everyone knows the term is supposed to serve. And there is no way to stop them from doing this. The very thing that makes “diversity” rhetorically attractive—the content-free universality that makes it such a good fit in the realm of liberal formalism—is also what makes it so gameable.

From the perspective of poetic justice, it may seem fair enough for diversity advocates to get gamed, because they’re trying to game the system of abstract liberal universalism—trying to slip in particularist demands through the back door. I personally don’t object to such gaming and even think it can be strategically necessary. But I think this is also a good example of the fact that attempts to game the system always put you up against the people who designed and benefit from the system, the people who live and breathe the system. And whatever we think of using the master’s tools in principle, in practice there remains the indisputable fact that the master is probably better at using those tools than you are.

This is where the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is so attractive. It doesn’t obsfuscate the goal through strategic abstraction. It says exactly what it wants, rather than setting up some new form of liberal proceduralism that will supposedly deliver what it wants without offending anyone. It’s unafraid of being divisive. Best of all, it’s a trap that exposes the lie of abstract liberal universality—the defensive white person who responds #AllLivesMatter is quite literally enacting the erasure of Black experience in the guise of a false universalism.

Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History (by Ashley Boggan)

As some of you might know, I have been for several years a copy editor for the journal Methodist History. This peer-reviewed journal regularly has articles on the history of global missions, various aspects of the Wesley families, stories of defunct colleges, and interesting stories about preachers in the Methodist tradition, broadly defined. A few years ago I published an article in the journal on the Methodist Bishop’s declaration of Altizer’s theology as heresy.  In the new issue, I was very much impressed with Ashley Boggan’s article, “A God-Sent Movement: Methodism, Contraception, and the Protection of the Methodist Family, 1870-1968,” a link to the article is below. In particular I appreciated the fresh approach to the history of sexuality being told here within the context of the history of Methodism, particularly in the post-Civil War period, especially in light of the national press that the United Methodist Church has received in the past two years about its teachings on homosexuality.  I asked Ms. Boggan if she would like to write a guest post for AUFS to introduce her research to a wider and different audience.  Ashley Boggan is a third-year Ph.D. candidate at Drew, with a focus on American religious history, and is working as an intern with the United Methodist denomination’s Human Sexuality Task Force.  The following is her introduction to the article.

Methodists, Family Life, and Contraception: A History

When one discusses the United Methodist Church and its position regarding human sexuality what most likely comes to mind is the denomination’s current impasse regarding homosexuality.  For over forty years now, the UMC has upheld its position in the Book of Disciple which states that homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  However, by looking at a larger notion of human sexuality, one that moves beyond the homosexual/heterosexual binary, academics, clergy, and lay persons can learn what historical events and reasonings, both secular and theological, led to particular stances on human sexuality, why denominations still uphold these stances (or why some have changed their stances), and why many Americans hold certain (and often differing) ideologies of family life and constructions of human sexuality. Read the rest of this entry »

Can blog commenting be revived?

I frequently complain about people responding to my posts on Twitter rather than in comments. Literally everything about Twitter militates against good conversation — space constraints (made worse if including multiple @-handles), inadequate threading, near-impossibility of finding conversations later, near-impossibility of following them unless you are involved “in the moment,” etc., etc. Yet time and time again people insist on commenting on Twitter and often get angry at me for suggesting they do otherwise.

This is undeniably a systemic problem, and systemic problems have systemic causes. I have two possible causes in mind, which have been suggested to me by multiple sources in my frequent complaints about this phenomenon:

  • Technological obstacles tied to the hegemony of cell phones: Despite the difficulties surrounding Twitter as a conversational tool, it is nevertheless much easier to post a tweet from your phone than to leave a blog comment. Working with online forms in the phone browser is cumbersome and error-prone, and the multiplicity of blog services makes it difficult to imagine a single app that could solve this problem. In other words, an obviously inadequate format like Twitter could only triumph because the problematic nature of blog-commenting on a phone makes it the least-bad option.
  • Changing expectations about online space: Tools like Twitter and Facebook allow us to experience the Internet as increasingly “our own” space, cultivated and curated according to our own preferences. A blog, by contrast, is the author’s own space, where you don’t have control over the content posted (it could be deleted, for instance) nor over who you will be in dialogue with. Hence there is a natural bias in favor of keeping the conversation on your own terms, which in many online circles is strengthened by explicit attention to the power dynamics at work when the less-privileged enter into spaces controlled by the privileged (for instance, a white guy’s blog comments).

I have resigned myself to the secular decline in blog commenting, only insisting on blog comments vs. Twitter responses if it’s something where I want a ready reference (primarily book recommendations). Blog comments do seem to me to have obvious advantages over Twitter especially, and even over Facebook — greater public accessibility, for instance, and easier categorization for later reference. (And here I’ll admit that my principled refusal to use Facebook — I only signed up for an account in order to gain access to Spotify and never check it — may be artificially biasing me toward blog comments as the natural alternative to Twitter, even though Facebook is also free of Twitter’s space constraints.)

As a blogging veteran of over a decade, however, I have to admit to the sad truth that blog comment conversations are seldom good enough that the availability of easy archiving and public access is a significant consideration. In all too many cases, it may even be advantageous for the discussions to be lost in the sands of time! In any case, it’s clear that those unique qualities of blog comments, which are well-known to most online discussants, are insufficient to overcome the other disadvantages (technological, habitual, political) that blog comments bring with them in our current situation.

And so, in a possible performative contradiction, I ask you readers: can blog commenting be revived? Should we even want to?

Villanova Philosophy Conference: New Encounters in French and Italian Thought (updated flyer)

A remainder about an upcoming conference that Philly-area people may be interested in.The Villanova Philosophy Conference taking place on March 13th and 14th. The schedule and other relevant information may be found on the flyer.

Poster 11 by 17 FINAL


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