Adventures in Grad School: Episode 1 – Nietzsche and Adorno

One of my course right now is on Theodor Adorno, and my professor assigned both texts by Adorno and the philosophical grounding on which they were written. Last week we read the first chapter of Dialectic of Enlightenment, preceded by Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” and Marcel Mauss’s A General Theory of Magic. This was an incredibly useful exercise, as without it reading Adorno often feels like hearing one-half of a conversation in a different language. At least now, only translation is required.

This week he assigned the first Excursis of Dialectic preceded by the preface and first essay of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.

Academic reading is often laborious, but Nietzsche is not that. He writes in aphorism and polemic (two words I did not know the definition of until very recently) and will switch between highly scholarly etymological examination and seemingly spiteful anger. There are sections in the first essay that read like contemporary SJW etymological arguments. He approaches the genealogy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ from the point of language, identifying that words associated with nobility and high class are always etymologically related to the words for ‘good’ while those words associated with the common folk or lower classes are always linked to ‘bad.’

As someone who has written extensively about political correctness and language like the ‘man-bun,’ this was FASCINATING. He was using an approach that I had always felt drawn towards to make a similar argument that which I was making, or so I thought.

I think there’s something odd about translated texts. My favourite example is the word ‘consequence.’ In French that word carries no moral connotation. In English it is a term referring to the bad results of an action. The connotation changes, and so does the meaning if one is not careful.

Reading Nietzsche’s etymology of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ felt like the preface to saying this etymology created meanings that were unfounded in an objective moral position. But then in the seventh section he says the following,

“All that has been done on earth against “the noble’ “the powerful,” “the masters,” “the rulers:’ fades into nothing compared with what the Jews have done against them; the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge.” 

Here, just as the earlier sections seemed to have a clear moral connotation, only it seems reversed and undeniably anti-semitic. He continues on about Christianity and the “slave morality”

“And could spiritual subtlety imagine any more dangerou~ bait than this? Anything to equal the enticing, intoxicating, overwhelming and undermining power of that symbol of the “holy cross,” that ghastly paradox of a “God on the cross,” that mystery of an unimaginable ultimate cruelty and self-crucifixion of God for the salvation of
man?”

Reading this felt wrong, and yet his language (or at least the translation of his language) is so crisp and clear, so polemical and angry, that it’s hard not to want to read more. And that aesthetic impulse is further driven by an ethical one: how could someone so obviously brilliant write such awful things? I had a responsibility to continue reading, not just to fulfill the requirements set by my professor, but because there had to be something more.

Strangely enough, in a footnote I found exactly the trail I was looking for.

“Having said things that can easily be misconstrued as grist to the mill of the German anti·Semites, Nietzsche goes out of his way, as usual, to express his admiration for the Jews and his disdain for the Germans.”

I don’t read every footnote in a text because, for the most part, the elaboration is just that. Here though, the editor is pointing something out that seems essential to reading the text. Nietzsche’s language is not clear, at least not its moral connotations (a hilarious point given the subject matter). And if one is to fall in love with work of this magnitude, it will require more effort to do so. So I went back through the earlier footnotes and found this:

“No other German writer of comparable stature has been a more extreme critic of German nationalism than Nietzsche.”

Nietzsche knew of anti-Semitism and of nationalism and wrote in this way anyways. Why? That’s what I want to know.

So I went to a bookstore today and bought this book (I had previously read from an excerpt) and Beyond Good and Evil as well as two essays of Schopenhauer and the Confessions of Augustine. Grad school is getting me to read more, read more deeply, fall in love with authors who died long ago even when I disagree with them vehemently. That’s the moment I knew I was in the right place.

 

 

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Disputes in Leftist Assumptions and Activism: Part 1

Since November 8th, an incessant desire emerged among the internet intelligentsia to “break out of our media bubbles.” Apparently, on all sides of the political spectrum, echo chambers have emerged where people are only being exposed to ideas they already agree with. I disagree, and the title of this series is an attempt to explain why. In my experience, the left is consistently debating and interrogating itself

In my experience, the left is consistently debating and interrogating itself, trying to come to better understandings of political ideas that only emerged from the recesses of chat rooms and academic journals in the past ten years. Different priorities in leftist activisms come into conflict with one another and debates centre around both principles and ethics. Often times, these debates are actually based in the conflict between principles and ethics, how we can make broad political/ideological statements that fall apart under scrutiny.

This post is not going to examine any of these in particular. However, here I want to list out some of the topics that I will be covering on my own and invite anyone else who wants to contribute to do so (either here on this blog or elsewhere and would let me direct people to them). Here’s the list that I’ve been developing recently based on conversations I’ve had or witnessed online.

  • Vegan Activism vs. Anti-Colonialism vs. Anti-Poverty
  • Sexual Orientation Essentialism vs. Socialization
  • Trans Identity Essentialism vs. Historical Construction and Re-Construction of Gender
  • Rape Culture vs. Masculinity vs. Mental Illness
  • Labour Movement vs. Post-Vocational Workforce
  • Pro-Choice Freedoms vs. Ethical Parenting
  • Representation on screen vs. Representation in industry
  • Gentrification vs. Urban Development Theory
  • Rape Culture vs. Drinking Culture vs. Casual Sex Culture
  • Anarchism/Revolution vs. Safety and Justice

These are just the initial ideas, I’m sure more will hit the brain as I actually start writing.

Social Justice Language and Free Speech

Language matters. This is a value that comes right near the top of my list of most important values in how I live in the world. The words I use have impacts and I want my words to reflect my desires, beliefs, and intentions as much as I can muster. To do this I have to acknowledge not only the context in which I am speaking but the contexts in which I have lived and spoken. I am a white queer settler Canadian and I have, without any doubt in my heart, contributed to settler colonialism, institutionalized racism, and hetero-normative misogyny numerous times in my life through speech I knew was wrong, should have known was wrong, and could have known was wrong.

“Why the confession?” you may be asking. Well, it has to do with the hoopla around the “appropriation prize” controversy that emerged last week. Specifically, I want to quote Jonathan Kay’s editorial in the National Post and explain why he completely misses the point of the language social justice warriors (like myself) use in regards to social justice and equity issues.

“What I (and other Canadian writers and editors) am angry about is the effort by TWUC and its Equity Task Force (which released its own statement) to shame Niedzviecki, and to suggest that his liberal approach to speech is somehow outside the bounds of respectable discourse. TWUC’s over-the-top apology describes the “pain” that the article allegedly caused. It’s part of what may be described as the medicalization of the marketplace of ideas: It is no longer enough to say that you merely disagree with something. Rather, the author must be stigmatized as a sort of dangerous thought criminal. Indeed, the Equity Task Force situates Niedzviecki as an apologist for “cultural genocide,” and accuses him of peddling “a long-debunked false universalism.” The Task Force also claims that the publication of his article is a symptom of “structural racism,” or possibly even “brazen malice.”

This is extraordinary language coming from an organization that represents the interests of “professionally published book authors.” Their mandate should be to seek the broadest possible range of opportunities for their constituents—not act as a chorus for the most restrictive views on acceptable speech.”

What he calls extraordinary language is not extraordinary at all. In fact, it is the most common and daily language among people who work for social justice. You’ll note above that I used some of that language in reference to myself and yet I call myself a social justice warrior and ally to lots of groups of which I am not a part. I am a part of social justice networks and communities that accept me and, more importantly, hold me accountable. I have worked hard to raise myself not only to the base level of common decency to the human beings I share these spaces with, but to actively work for their liberation where I can. And I fail all the time. I can list many moments in the past year where I had reactions that were undeniably racist. I still have a lot of work to do to overcome that deeply cultural training I have been living with my whole life, and I will very likely never overcome it.

When someone calls me out for saying something racist, they are not shaming me or calling me a member of the klan who intrinsically and intentionally desires the elimination of entire cultures. They are holding me accountable for my words and actions and how those contribute to systems that I do not have control over. At their most stringent they are calling me tacitly complicit in those systems that do see the elimination of entire cultures. That’s because I don’t have the power to stop settler colonialism or any form of racist imperialism on my own. And yet it is incredibly easy for me to contribute to the narratives and policies and make them stronger and when I do that there is no way for me to take that momentum back. I don’t get kicked out of those spaces or communities when I slip up. Maybe I’m told to take a back seat and shut up for a while, but literally every group that has a set of rules governing debate has a way to temporarily censure a member. In these cases I feel bad, because I should feel bad; but I don’t hold on to those bad feelings and make the slip up about me. I reflect, change, and move on to do better.

So what Jonathan Kay was reacting to in the TWUC equity report is a gross mischaracterization of what they were saying. Describing the context of a situation and using the words “colonialism,” “cultural genocide” and “racism” do not equate to shaming Niedzviecki, nor are they some form of extreme hyperbole. They were holding a powerful person responsible for his words, and his words were ignorant, glib, and consequently contributing to settler colonialism and racism. We all know that’s not what he intended, but that doesn’t matter. Niedzviecki wrote what he wrote and people reacted accordingly. That’s how free and open discourse works. Someone says something and other people are allowed and encouraged to respond until the group in question comes to a decision of some kind. If the freedom of speech you are constructing and defending does not allow for criticism of that speech, then you are only defending the freedom to speak and not the open exchange of ideas you also talk about so fervently. So, finally, it is ironic to see Kay, the great defender of free speech in Canada, get so uppity about someone else’s freedom to use the language they see fit to describe a situation. It’s almost like the only free speech he cares about is his own.

P.S.
And finally, since I can already see that some people will call me out for having a double standard about who’s speech deserves to be interpreted graciously, Niedzviecki’s words were interpreted graciously. His words, in every context, contribute to harm the discourse around cultural appropriation by invalidating the concerns of those who care about cultural appropriation. Authors around the internet were not criticizing the message of his piece, except perhaps to say that he was creating a strawman. Rather, they were criticizing the words themselves and how the glib and ignorant use of those words undermined not only the message of his piece, but also the wider discourse around settler colonialism in Canada that that issue of Write Magazine was attempting to address.  The TWUC Equity Task Force’s words on the other hand were not interpreted graciously. People saw the words “racism,” “colonialism,” and “cultural genocide” and assumed that the TWUC’s Equity Task Force was calling Niedzviecki evil and beyond repair.

Thinking About Highschool

After my last exam in high school, I deleted about 95% of my graduating class from facebook. I hated my high school. There were some people I liked, but it was a bad place for me at a bad time and the further I get from it the less I care about it and the people who were there. A few teachers there made a big impact on me and there are a few people whose lasting footprint on my psyche has me reflecting on who I was then.

I was a prick. That might just sound like self-deprecation but I mean it sincerely. Today, the person that haunts me most from high school, someone I hurt deeply and whose presence in my thoughts keeps me up at night, liked a photo of mine on Instagram. Gladly, I’m pretty sure they’re not aware of how I feel in this regard – though, if you are somehow reading this, I am sorry –  but it sent my mind into the same spiral I’ve come to frequently this year.

How do I know I was a prick? Because in this week’s spiral I went back and read through the entirety of my chat history with this person – well, the chat history on my current facebook account. I haven’t decided yet how much of my old account I’m going to read through, but I just downloaded all the data from it so I guess we’ll see. Anyways, looking back at the way I used to talk has me kind of ashamed of who I used to be.  I usually like to say that I don’t believe people can change, but there’s no other way to describe the absolute transformation of my life between then and now. I changed. I’m a different person. I can barely recognize the thought processes of my old me. I used to be so cynical, sarcastic, obviously depressed, and most aggravatingly I was bitter to everyone. Most of the actual memories I have from a lot of these people are positive. And those memories that aren’t, I’m the bad guy because I very much was the bad guy. But those moments still feel like a part of me – these messages are not a part of me anymore. Or at least I hope they aren’t, time will tell I guess.

The therapy I’m doing right now is helping me figure out how those old parts of me do not define the me of today. Going through this, I think it’s working.

Thanks be to God.

Reflections and Confessions

It’s really late right now. I’m awake watching The Americans. I’ve been thinking about confessions and reflections lately. The Americans has a lot of episodes in the second and third seasons about EST which was the 70s answer to a lack of availability of therapy and social. It’s all about honesty and sounds a lot like the stuff I talk to my therapist about. Then I listen to albums like Good Kid M.A.A.D City, or 808s and Heartbreaks which are confessional in their own way. What I’ve realized is that I need to be better at writing out my confessions and reflections. Some of it will be public, like this post. Some of it won’t, because I’m still a coward. Either way, putting it to the world by pen and paper or pixel will help excise the demons I carry with me.

Breaking my bubble with art

I’ve been struggling a lot lately with how to break out of my political bubble. I hoped that a quick change to my facebook newsfeed might be helpful, adding the National Review and America Magazine to my diet. This lasted maybe a week as I found I couldn’t stomach a lot of what the NR was publishing and that America Magazine was more inside my bubble already than out. Evidence of this? How about this article that was published back in February that, if anyone looked too closely, one might assume I plagiarized in a recent blog post about the same topic. In reality, this is just evidence of the greatness of contemporary music speaking to two people in different corners of the world – but it also speaks to how America Magazine is not going to be what breaks my bubble.

This weekend I participated in my most recent ministry interview with the United Chruch of Canada. A pastor and good friend drove me down to Belleville for the day and on the way we discussed all the arts and culture that usually populates our conversations between discussions and reaffirmations of theological issues. He’s from Ontario, but has family in the States and did his post-secondary education there as well. Both he and the other chaplain at my school played a big role in keeping me from the front lines of vitriolic hatred in political discourse. In light of Trump’s election, it is so easy to just ignore the opposition. But here I’ll say something that might surprise you: avoiding debate with the opposition is not a bad thing. I have no interest in having political discussions with people on the other side of the aisle from me for two reasons. 1) I am not a politician and have no access to political power that could use compromise to move forward on certain issues that can be agreed upon. 2) I don’t see people on the other side of the aisle as completely human in the way that I ought to. In the same way that our culture asks us to objectify and dehumanize everyone around us, I have an idea of what “The Right” is and that is likely divorced from the lives of those people. I hear stories from people of colour, queer folk, immigrants, and women in my spheres that place me squarely against ‘those’ people; however, that is no excuse for trying to at least understand them complexly.

But how do I do that? I still firmly believe that protesting keynote speakers coming to colleges and shutting down the platforms accessible to the most vocal of The Right is perfectly within my rights as a human being. Just because I don’t believe that the government shouldn’t have the authority to throw people in jail over what they believe does not mean I believe all spaces are spaces for “free speech.” It was during and after this car ride that I had a realization about how I can begin to imagine others complexly without inviting vitrolic conflict into spaces where it can only do harm.

I was introduced to this song which has some really beautiful poetry in it about how Alabamans imagine themselves. But more importantly, it sparked in my brain the notion that art could be the first place where I could start to break through my bubble.

This wasn’t the first time I had done this; black metal is a genre that I engage with to understand how pain and anger at the church and God can reveal beauty and truth. I don’t have to agree with the artist to see how their art is calling to the transcendent in this world, even if it’s a different transcendent to the artist than it is to me. The same is true with the Right and with the South. In a similar vein to my piece on passing the microphone, I want to hear the good and the bad about communities from people within those communities. I want to listen to Lynyrd Skynyrd to understand how white southerners construct their identity in the same way that I listen to Outkast to understand how black southerners do the same. I want to listen to the Drive-by Truckers to hear critiques and celebrations of Lynyrd Skynyrd instead of listening to Neil Young’s decrying of those southern men. I want to remember that neighbourhoods, cities, states, countries, and religions are not monolithic. They are complex and multidimensional, containing voices that can speak inward and outward with more authority than any old liberal culture critic. Because isn’t that really the lesson that both the Bible and contemporary social justice writers have been telling us? The Bible demands that we talk to our communities differently than we talk to the rest of the world because we hold ourselves to higher standards. Social justice authors have been begging us to listen to the lived experiences of the suffering as long as social justice has been written about. If you can’t go and debate and discuss with people on the other side of the aisle, I do not blame you. But it doesn’t absolve us of our responsibility to try and imagine others complexly. When we have the strength and courage to do so (understanding that a lot of the time we just don’t) I think this is a way to start peering outside our bubbles.

And to celebrate here’s some Skynyrd.

Three Rolling Stones Records Because YAWWWWNNNN

So I listened to three more Stones records, and it blows my mind that the good folks at Allmusic give all of them 4.5 or 5 stars. 12 X 5The Rolling Stones Now, and Out of Our Heads are some of the most boring records I’ve ever heard in my life. And it’s not necessarily that they are “bad” or anything. They’re just completely undistinct one from the next. Only one of them comes close to that level of quality and that’s because it has “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” on it. That song is such a breath of fresh air on the fourth record in a row of pure rip off blues rock.

Seriously, it’s the only distinguishing factor between the first four Stones albums. I couldn’t tell you the name of any song on any of the albums except that one because they all bleed together.

So here you go, the first better than okay Rolling Stones record.