Once more with feeling: Aristotle remix (blog mash-up 2, part 2)

For some reason, I am drawn to musical references. First, mash-ups and now remixes. Why? Not sure.

Last week I finally got my copy of Sara Ahmed’s latest book, The Promise of Happiness. I’m very excited to read it (and hopefully teach it) in the fall. You may recall that I have written about and taught parts of the book already. With all of my other writing to wrap up, I haven’t had a chance to do a close reading (or even much of a skim) yet. I anticipate that this book will be extremely helpful as I continue to think through troublemaking and its political and ethical value; I see lots of connections between Ahmed’s feminist killjoy and unhappy queer and my troublemaker.

Today I took a quick peek at the book. Since I am thinking a lot about virtue with my current mash-up, I decided to check her index for Aristotle. I found him. On pages 37-38, she discusses habit, happiness and Aristotle’s (mis) treatment of feelings. While Aristotle claims that being good and happy (and having a good life) are not the same as feeling good and feeling happy, Ahmed argues that he continues, through his emphasis on the regulation and balancing of feelings (between excess and deficiency), to link the two in ways that make one seem to naturally follow from the other: “we assume something feels good because it is good. We are good if it feels good” (Ahmed 37).

Check out what she has to say about feeling good and being good and their connection to the regulation of desire:

A happy life, a good life, hence involves the regulation of desire. It is not simply that we desire happiness but that happiness is imagined as what you get in return for desiring well. Good subjects will not experience pleasure from the wrong objects (they will be hurt by them or indifferent to them) and will only experience a certain amount of pleasure from the right object. We learn to experience some things as pleasure–as being good–where the experience itself becomes the truth of the object (“it is good”) as well as the subject (“we are good”). It is not only that the association between objects and affects is preserved through habit; we also acquire good tastes through habit. When history [of repeated habits?] becomes second nature, the affect seems obvious or even literal, as if it follows directly from what has already been given. We assume that we experience delight because “it” is delightful (Ahmed 37).

So, being good and feeling good are inextricably linked; when we feel good it is because we did something good and when we do something good our reward is that we feel good. One naturally follows from the other and we are able to neatly balance/regulate/guide our feelings in the “proper” direction. Ahmed sees this as a problem because the connection is not natural; it is produced through repeated habits that reinforce the connection between what feels good and what is good. Moreover, what is “proper” gets narrowly defined and is guided (almost exclusively) by a particular vision of the future–in other chapters (and previous excerpts that I have read), she discusses the heteronormative future, where the end goal/the happy ending is heterosexual marriage. Feelings get regulated through this narrow vision, making anything that doesn’t fall in line with it (say, anything that falls outside of Rubin’s charmed circle or that doesn’t reinforce heteronormative desires) as producing bad feelings or bad (as in unhappy, non-flourishing) lives.

Ahmed wants us to pay attention to feelings and how our responses to certain objects get regulated/shaped/determined in ways that dictate what sorts of actions and objects of our pleasure are deemed proper (and good) and which are not. And she wants us to challenge (make trouble for, perhaps?) the ways in which Happiness, as an end goal, so often only directs us towards certain paths (at the expense of others).

In what I have read so far by Ahmed on Aristotle (pages 36-37 and earlier versions of “The Unhappy Queer” and “Feminist Killjoys”), I don’t think that she wants to reconsider Aristotle. Aristotelean virtue ethics seems to be too mired in a limited and regulating view of happiness, one that overemphasizes naturalizing our habits and our emotions and directing them towards one universal vision of the Good. In thinking about these last two sentences some more, I happened across this passage by Ahmed which reinforces my own assessment. She writes:

I will not respond to the new science of happiness by simply appealing for a return to classical ideas of happiness as eudaimonia, as living a good, meaningful, or virtuous life….Critiques of the happiness industry that call for a return to classical concepts of virtue not only sustain the association between happiness and the good but also suggest that some forms of happiness are better than others (12).

So Ahmed is not interested in thinking (too much) about Aristotle in relation to her analysis of happiness and unhappiness (this is clearly evident in her index; out of 233 pages of text, Aristotle is only referenced briefly). But I am. How much attention do I want to give to Aristotle? At this point, I’m not sure. I do know that I want to take up Judith Butler’s challenge–the one that I mention here, here, and here–to rehabilitate Aristotle. While Butler suggests that we rehabilitate Aristotle through Foucault, I want to add a few more thinkers into the mix with him: Butler and Sara Ahmed. Hence, the title of this entry. My revisiting (remix) of Aristotle is one that involves an emphasis on and serious critical attention to feeling (both good and bad feelings) and how they circulate within our experiences of and discourses on goodness, flourishing and virtue ethics. I’m not sure if this makes sense yet….

Because I was curious, I looked up the phrase, “once more with feeling.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is the title of the Buffy Musical Extravaganza from season 6. Cool.

blog mash-up #2, part 1: Foucault, Butler and Virtue

My first attempt at a blog mash-up was not successful. I have spent the past 10 (or more) days trying to put my entries together in a way that would generate an academic journal-worthy article. Trying is the key word. Trying and failing. But, maybe failing here isn’t so bad. I think that that mash-up (in which I combine Horton, We Care and feminist ethics of care) shouldn’t be the first one I write. Instead, I need to finish up the article I started on Judith Butler, troublemaking, virtue and Foucault. Here are the entries that I will use in this mash-up:

So, in my first entry about my blog mash-up project, I asked if anyone had any good mash-ups for me. No response. While I still haven’t found any mash-ups that I really like, I did find this very disturbing one:

That’s right. You’ve just been rickrolled. And, okay, this video isn’t really a mash-up (or is it?). No worries. My project of combining these different entries isn’t really a mash-up either. Maybe I need to call it something else…

blog mash-up #1, part 3: shifting my attention

Note: I last edited this entry on June 15 (but I had started it at least a week before that). As I indicated in this post, I have decided to shift my attention away from this mash-up and towards another one. Before I completely shift my attention, I want to post this entry. I am adding a few more ideas at the end…

So, my big issue in my latest blog mash-up is this: how to frame what I already have in relation to some of the literature within feminist ethics about care. In my last entry, I came up with a promising approach: focusing on “daring to be bad” and its connections to troublemaking/troublestaying and ethics. In that entry, I briefly discussed Marilyn Frye’s essay in which she rejects ethics and its call to be good by arguing that being good is too mired in a desire to please others/be seen as acceptable. Such a desire, she cautions, encourages “good little girls” to reinforce/support oppressive structures. For Frye, the solution is to grow out of this need and to stop looking to ethics for guidance.

It is interesting to note her word choice. She writes that we should grow out of ethics instead of grow up beyond ethics. Could we read her growing out instead of up as something akin to Kathryn Bond Stockton’s growing sideways, which I discuss here?

In encouraging us to reject ethics, Frye reinforces a popular understanding of ethics by many feminists (and those engaging in queering theory too): ethics, which is created by those in power, a. is based on rigid rules/structures that regulate behavior and reinforce oppressive structures and b. is in opposition to politics (and political resistance/justice). I like this idea and all day yesterday I thought about how it might work for this essay. Then, I stopped thinking about it. I realized that I am trying to do too much. I need to focus in, at least for this paper, on how I fit my thinking about troublestaying as care into feminist care ethics.

As I struggle to polish up some of my ideas for publication, I am struck by how much more difficult traditional academic writing is then blog writing. When I start to put together an essay, I think I panic a little. I think about all of the ideas that I should include and then worry about how I might be leaving something out or not exploring something else enough. How much of this anxiety is helpful (as in, helpfully reminding me to to be “rigorous” and thorough in my thinking/research/writing) and how much of it is damaging (as in, damaging to my ability to ever produce something of publishable quality? And, how much of this anxiety is just a necessary part of trying to really do something with my ideas (and produce something that is fixed and finished)?

The question I need to ask myself is, what original ideas do I want to present and how I can use the background literature to support/clarify/explain those ideas? I am interested in thinking about troublemaking/troublestaying as a form of care (or, if not a form, at least connected to it) and I want to think about it in relation to Foucault and his use of care in the essay, “The Masked Philosopher.” I want to think about care as a willingness to:

  • see the world strangely/differently
  • pay close (and serious) attention to what exists or might exist
  • maintain a critical awareness of limits/problems
  • act on what one cares about
  • question/challenge/reject traditional hierarchies

These descriptions all point to care as curiosity and making/staying in trouble. I want to read this vision of care in relation/against/next to Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher and their definition of care. Here’s the definition:

On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (103).

In addition to their general definition, Tronto and Fisher offer up four different phases of care (which Tronto also discusses in greater detail in Moral Boundaries and which I discuss here): caring about, taking care of, giving care and receiving care. Tronto/Fisher are interested in giving serious attention to care and providing a detailed description of how it is practiced. I appreciate their efforts here and find their analysis to be very helpful as I try to think through what I mean by care and troublemaking as care. (In fact, I always really appreciate it when scholars develop clear, concrete and detailed definitions of terms/ideas. Clarity, what a concept!) So, I want to use this definition as a starting point and as something to work with and against.

In their definition of care, Tronto and Fisher emphasize care as being about maintaining, continuing and repairing our world. Where do I fit making and staying in trouble into this definition? Is staying in trouble a form of repair? Interestingly enough, I wrote about this problem right after posting my entry on Tronto. In that entry, I pose the question:

Is it possible to imagine making trouble–disrupting the status quo, challenging ideas that are assumed to be givens and emphasizing the brokenness of ideas/images/visions–as actually contributing to the sustaining and repairing of the world?

Since writing that entry, I have checked out and skimmed Elizabeth Spelman’s book, Repair.  Her book is really great. I especially appreciate her writing style which is fairly relaxed and less-academicky (and mind-melting) than most philosophy books.

For Tronto, the notion of care as repair is all about solving problems and fixing things/people/needy situations. While I agree that these are important activities (we do need to find solutions, even if they are temporary, for meeting the needs of various groups), I don’t think that this is the only way to imagine what we could do with care. What if care wasn’t just about identifying problems and then solving them, but about giving focused and careful attention to how those problems get created and why they are problems in the first place? Here’s where Foucault and his notion of care (and problem posing) could come in. And what if repair was not only about fixing things or restoring them to their former glory, but about reworking them in new ways?

My understanding of the implications of  repair as taking care of a problem (Tronto’s second phase) was enhanced after talking with STA about a computer/web problem he needed to fix. He wasn’t able to get rid of the problem (which was the desired, and potentially achievable, goal), so he had to work around it. This solution was less than ideal because he really wanted to finally and fully take care of the problem. Now this sort of language concerning repair–taking care as getting rid of–makes a lot of sense when you are talking about computer bugs or code breakdowns. But, does it make sense to use this language when we are talking about people and their needs? Is it possible to take care of their problems once and for all? How can we think about care-as-ongoing repair? Or, how can we think about care as tinkering and experimenting instead of solving?

When I return to this mash-up later in the summer, I want to make sure to start with Elizabeth Spelman’s idea of the tinkerer as one who repairs, in her chapter, “From Bricolage to Invisible Mending.

oh bother, part 13

Is this a brussel sprout or are you just happy to see me? Here’s an advertisement for Subzero refrigerators on the first page of this month’s Bon Appetit:

Hello primary signifier and hello food porn! Does anybody write about this (as in, food porn/exploitation of food) from feminist materialist or queer ecologist perspectives?

Note: I also posted this image (with a slightly different discussion) here on another blog.

Agonism, criticism and the trouble with fault finding

Last night, I came across an article in The Chronicle Review that immediately caught my attention (yes, it made me curious). Entitled “In Praise of Tough Criticism,” this article argues for the value of tough, combative criticism over and against compassionate and supportive engagement with ideas. Even though warning bells went off in my head and one of my inner voices sang out (because my inner voices sing out, with lusty vibrato, of course), “Prrrroblemaaaatic!,” I kept on reading. Before getting to why and how I found this essay to be problematic, let me appreciate (as in, summarize) the author’s argument. Here it is, in a nutshell.

At the beginning of the essay, the author wants us to consider two typical ways in which to engage (or eschew) criticism in the academy. On one hand, we have Professor Jones. Jones is patient, friendly, compassionate, non-confrontational and, above all else, positive. Their mantra is: “If you don’t have something positive to say, then it is best not to say anything at all–at least not in public.” Jones is so invested in collegiality that they will decline to review a poorly written book by a colleague, rather than write anything “negative” about that colleague. Jones strongly dislikes (and avoids) harsh criticism–or criticism at all, for that matter; they understand it to always and only be harsh. On the other hand, we have Professor Smith. Smith likes to tell people they are wrong and has built a successful career doing just that. They understand criticism to be primarily concerned with both persuading others to agree with them and proving that ideas other than theirs are wrong. For Smith, criticism is about competition, being a brute and having strong (as in, not “wishy-washy”) ideas. They are very good at arguing. They like to say, “Public criticism is as valid as public praise.”

According to the author, we need to be more like Smith. While being compassionate and caring is nice, and could help foster more collegiality, it doesn’t encourage us to become better intellectuals (or critics). Rejecting the idea that compassion is an intellectual virtue, the author writes,

If a compassionate, caring form of criticism entails removing the “critical” from “critical exchange,” then I would rather see the field move toward a more combative, confrontational style–even if it means ruffling a few feathers.

The author’s big concern seems to be that compassionate criticism is not criticism at all. Academics like Jones “bend over backwards to praise books more than they deserve” and, when they do disagree, they are either quiet about it or offer only faint praise. This type of engagement is no serious engagement at all and leads to mediocre and banal criticism.

Towards the end of his essay, the author contrasts Professor Smith’s brave and brutal criticism with one other, seemingly inferior form of critique: anonymous blog/web comments. Drawing upon Foucault and his discussion of the “nameless voice” in The Archaeology of Knowledge, the author argues that unduly harsh comments posted anonymously on a blog are cowardly and “antithetical to critical dialogue.” He concludes his essay by encouraging critics (particularly literary critics) to stop being a Professor Jones and start being a Professor Smith:

We need to grow thicker critical skin. Why? Because critical behavior that always results in a chorus of affirmation is nothing more than conformity; because allowing views to persist that need to be challenged is nothing less than critical mediocrity; and because failure to tell our colleagues what we truly think about their work is simple dishonesty. A reshaped critical culture will help build a more robust, honest, and transparent academy.

While I agree with the author’s promotion of a robust, honest, and transparent academy and the need for scholars to be better (as in more seriously engaged and honest) critics, I disagree with both his approach to achieving this type of critical scholarship and his framing of the problem altogether. In presenting us with Professor Jones and Professor Smith, he offers two opposing options: either we are compassionate and eschew criticism in favor of supporting each other or we are combative and embrace harsh (but honest and responsible) criticism. Putting aside the extremely problematic gendered implications of the author’s favoring of the one position over the other (Professor Jones, the caring/nurturing/uncritical professor, is repeatedly referred to as a she and Professor Smith, the harsh, brutal, yet honest and full of intellectual integrity professor, is referred to as a he), I can’t help but wonder if these are our only options? Are we either compassionate or harsh, positive or honest? His articulation of the problem produces a very particular, and limited, vision of what criticism is, what it does and how it does it. Furthermore, it suggests that compassion, caring (and openness to other’s ideas) are all enemies of criticism. Here, let me elaborate. The author defines critique in the following ways:

  • Aimed at fault finding and pointing out how an idea or an author are wrong
  • Harsh, but honest
  • Negative, not positive
  • In opposition to compassion, caring, and nurturing support
  • Demands that we take strong (and firm) positions on a topic and that we diligently attempt to convert/persuade others to our ways of thinking
  • Demands that we stop being so soft and cowardly and develop courage and a thick skin

Wow, as I read over this essay again, I am struck by how much it seems to be a veiled critique of feminism and a call to return to a more “manly” (and, therefore, proper) form of critique. It’s not just that he refers to Jones as a she (and therefore, pins the “bad” behavior on the woman); it’s that his reference to Jones as a she further reinforces the already strong (and essentialized) connection between caring/ nurturing and women, a connection that is part of a dangerous hierarchy of reason over emotion and critical thinking over feeling. On top of that, his language of combat and courage in opposition to compassion and friendly engagement, immediately conjures up images of boys (the warriors) versus girls (the mushy, touchy-feely types). He almost (but doesn’t quite) seem to say: Come on men! Are you going to let those ladies strip us of our manly criticism? Of course not! Grow some thick skin (and a pair, while you’re at it) and start fighting! This is war!

But seriously, I appreciate reading this essay because it brings up some very important issues concerning critique and, importantly for me, care. While the author positions care and critique against each other in this essay, I have been thinking a lot lately (especially as I attempt to write my blog mash-up about troublemaking, care and feminist ethics) about how we might link them together. In my own work, I want to argue that care and critique (as a form of making and staying in trouble) are connected and not in opposition. But, such a move requires that we rework our understanding of critique and criticism. I’m glad that the author brought up Foucault. I want to look briefly to him too in order to point to an alternative way of imagining what criticism is and what it can and should do.

In much of his later work, his “turn to ethics,” Foucault is interested in imagining a different way of engaging in critique. Since I am running out of energy (and time without the kids), I need to keep my description brief for now. Instead of providing much explanation, I want to offer a few passages from Foucault as a response to critique as agonism, antagonism, fault finding, and harsh/brutal honesty. I think, in some ways, Professor Smith is who Foucault imagines as the polemicist when he writes about critique in “Polemics, Politics, and Problematizations.” He writes:

The polemicist proceeds encased in privileges that he possesses in advance and will never agree to question. On principle, he possesses rights authorizing him to wage war and making that struggle a just undertaking; the person her confronts is not a partner in the search for truth but an adversary, an enemy who is wrong…For him, then the game consists not of recognizing this person as a subject having the right to speak but of abolishing him, as interlocutor, from any possible dialogue; and his final objective will be not to come as close as possible to a difficult truth but to bring about the triumph of the just cause he has been manifestly upholding from the beginning (Ethics 112).

I wonder, in his attempts to persuade others of his position, does Professor Smith leave time/space to listen to other perspectives? Is he willing to relent his position if proven wrong or must he steadfastly hold onto it as a matter of courage, fortitude and intellectual integrity?

Foucault contrasts the polemicist with the problem poser (or what I like to call dun dun duuunnn: The Problematizer. Right now FWA is in a camp where they talk about and create their own comic books. His super hero is “Fishy man.” I think mine is “The Problematizer.” I can already imagine the super cool comic book. But what would she wear and what would her super-hero powers be?). He writes:

…my attitude isn’t a result of the form of critique that claims to be a methodical examination in order to reject all possible solutions expect for the valid one. It is more on the order of “problematization”–which is to say, the development of a domain of acts, practices, and thoughts that seem to me to pose problems for politics.

In posing problems, one is not merely pointing out the faults of a system in order to judge that it is wrong and should be corrected. Instead posing problems, and giving serious critical attention to those problems, could enable us to engage in experimental (and potentially productive) conversations about what is being done and how we could not do it in this way or that way.

Now, Foucault is talking specifically about politics and political judgments (particularly in relation to what is to be done in situation x or y). So, my applying his words to literary criticism might not totally work, or even be fair. However, Foucault’s call to think about the implied goal of critique (winning a battle) and its implications for those engaged in critique, are helpful as we attempt to think about critique outside of the framework of either compassion or serious intellectual and critical engagement.

I want to conclude my list of Foucault passages with one that points to a different way of imagining critique and what it can or should do. This one is from “The Masked Philosopher,” perhaps one my favorite Foucault essays.

I can’t help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes–all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I’d like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign or dressed in red. It would bear the lightening of possible storms (Ethics 323).

I really like this passage. It speaks to me and what I want to do with my own critical thinking. Being critical can require that we point out the faults in an argument or an idea, but surely that’s not all that being critical does or requires of us. As Foucault suggests in this passage, being critical doesn’t mean we have to wage a war against others or their ideas. And it doesn’t demand that we shut down other possibilities, condemning them with our judgments about how/why they are wrong. Critique/criticism can open up possibilities and wake up new ideas. Instead of draining us and making us weary from battle, it can energize us and give us renewed strength by introducing other ways of being. For me, this type of critique is caring and compassionate and, most importantly, critical.

Note: This entry was helpful as I struggle to figure out what to do with my essay on feminist ethics, care and troublemaking. While this entry remains somewhat unfinished (and perhaps underdeveloped), it speaks to and connects many different ideas I have about caring. confrontation, critique, and troublemaking. These ideas, which have been brewing for years, first came up in my disseratation. This entry also gave me a great idea for a kids’ book: The Adventures of the Problematizer. Okay, I don’t like that title, but you get the idea.