Monday, March 26, 2012

Bikers and Irony

The standard sort of conversation that was discussed following the death of David Foster Wallace was that his project was an attempt to combat irony. In fact he often mentioned that post-modernism had ran its course and in a wonderful essay on television and US Fiction, he argues that irony is simply not good for the soul.

I say that to say this: Bikers are not ironic. There can be no hipster biker. I recently played two gigs for a set of bikers and we played, well, Biker Music. So I'm playing some tunes that I don't really care too much for - songs by people like Kid Rock, for example. However, while I was playing them - to quote a line from a piece of ironic fiction - I had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity: the people listening to these songs, really like these songs. They are meaningful to them and they see nothing wrong with enjoying music that reflects and reinforces a world they understand.

I don't mean this to sound condescending - in fact I mean the finger to basically point back at me - "my people," liberal academics or whatever group I am also in. Basically, what struck me as both sad and illuminating is that none of my friends - myself included - can listen to a lot of music without a stance of irony - a subtle sneer. I have friends that love to point out that the song by Alanis Morissette misuses the word "ironic."

Where this gets complicated is that I have to admit I get a certain amount of joy out of sneering at a few things - Irony is almost a default position and I don't think it's always a bad thing. In fact, a lot of times I think it's a great thing, but I do ultimately agree with DFW that if everything becomes irony - if everything is always-already a parody, something is lost and that loss is hard to articulate but easy to feel.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Choice

And so my students, in general think of themselves as radically free-willed individuals. They make choices. They do shit. And they are right, up to a point. The problem is an extension of my last post - our American ideology and even down to the grammatical structure of our language suggest a subject spewing his will all over the object world.

But the world fights back. Reality has its own structure - now you're part of reality, obviously, but you don't control the structure of the world; however, you do contribute, alter, play with, and do all kinds of other things to help that structure be a structure.

So what tends to happen, as I see it, is that things that appear as choices have pull, have a sort of ontologic and even theologic magnetism. For example, I could choose to not use the internet tomorrow, but I would constantly feel it working on me, trying to seduce me. And like most people, I actually don't have the choice, unless I don't want to be capitalistically viable, to not get online. I teach - I check email. I fucking hate email, but I must check it and respond to it, no matter how poorly written it is. On the plus side, student emails are often a good source of interpretative practice in making meaning - or making mean, which is what I seem to be doing now.

Point being - you aren't in control. You are always-already responding. However, you have some control. You can usually choose a more or less meaningful response. I mean sometimes you're just sort of screwed - if the cop asks me why I was speeding - I don't have much room for meaningful response. I think the correct answer is something like "I'm sorry - I'm dying - I'm on my period (which I doubt would work for me, though in a transgendered, hyper-politically correct world, who knows), I am in need of evacuation and so forth. But usually, one has choices, in fact, usually one has too many choices.

But this in itself is still part of the system. If I'm hungry I have lots of choices; however, I don't have choices that aren't there. If I want fastfood I'm in luck in my town; if I want Thai food I'm not. So the choices are always-already limited by the environment.

The point is pretty simple - you aren't in control and neither is the "world." What you are involved in is a constantly evolving negotiation of possibilities.

Okay why does this really matter? Well I am thinking of this in terms of the larger framework of Global Capitalism and something occurred to me in the reading and thinking about Don Delillo's amazingly smart novel Cosmopolis: sometimes the very notion of free-will turns back on itself in weird and violent ways.

In America we are constantly taught an ideology of autonomy. You are you - I am me - and we are not connected unless we choose to be. (Sounds like a bad nursery rhyme) So if this is the ideology that's being manifested it means that outliers - Occupy (Wall Street and so forth) people (who I always pulled for) and extremists like the Unibomber (who I didn't pull for, but will say he's more interesting than most terrorists - not sure that's worthy of an award though) actually contribute to the ideology of choice, which creates the idea that we have a functioning democratic system. "How can you say people don't have power - look at all those protesters?" But those protesters, since they don't have the resources to radically change the global, end up reinforcing the system they are so very mad it. And to be clear - I want them to keep it up, but strategy is more important than ever.

Finally, just to be appropriately recursive: did I have a choice to write this? Yes. Sure. I could have not written it. However, did I feel compelled? Yes. Am I responding to the world? Yes. Perhaps the most appropriate term is neither free-will or determinism, but rather the old, wonderful religious term: vocation. Vocation means that the world calls and you choose to respond. But it's not one choice among many - the choice is to "become who you are" or nihilism. Perhaps not that drastic - but perhaps THAT drastic.

Oh - and nothing is behind anything - that one is still coming in full, and partially implied here.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Metaphysics of The Sentence

If you read people like Derrida eventually you're going to run across the idea that the English language - or languages in general - are always/already involved in metaphysics. Now as a philosophy undergrad, I didn't really understand that. It sounded correct, but I couldn't quite grasp it.

Well years later, I finally gave the lecture on the metaphysics of the sentence, assuring myself that I might, maybe, know what the hell that means.

So one of my students in ENG 111 (Expository Writing) asks me about my PhD. And I go - well my focus is Rhetoric and Literary theory. I'm interested in the theoretical. And I go - here's an example.

And I write this: "Bob hit the ball."

Well we could diagram it - or point out that it's Subject-Verb-Direct Object. But, I say, that would be boring. (Now for teachers out there - I do teach them this stuff, but it's not what I care about.)

So I go English language is active/violent by it's construction. (Violence being used loosely) English is always an active subject knocking about in a passive world. It's the metaphysics of our grammar. And, well, it's both good and bad - easier to understand if you put the subject early in the sentence, but always implying a world that's not active which is philosophically, well, wrong.

And I get blank stares from lots - which I would have also given this stare in their position. So I give them the counter example - and I'm proud of this one: Yoda. (This one's for you Phillip)

Yoda is basically a Buddhist and hence he speaks in basically passive voice. Yoda would say something like "Hit the ball I did." Now, we usually just laugh and go "That's how Yoda talks." But it's not an accident. Yoda is talking in a way that conforms to his metaphysical understanding of the world. Yoda thinks the whole problem is a bunch of active subjects thinking they beat up on and manipulate the world of objects. And perhaps we should learn something from him - perhaps not adopt his rhetoric, but embrace the lesson that is metaphysically behind it. (Next time we'll discuss how nothing is being anything. Or something like that.)

Wrote an essay I did.