Portal Headings

Noodling around possible chapter or portal headings for my hypothetical reader—one might be “What am I?”  All the headings will have the single letter word “I” in it.  As in “How Do I Feel?” protalheadingThere’s a bit of a pun in that one.  One asks how do you feel and one says well, I feel fine or whatever.  But I mean “how” does one feel in biochemical sense—what are the emotions/feelings/affects biochemically speaking.  This heading too might point in the direction of those “lower” portions, down on the brain stem, that seem to have something to do with the primal fight/flight response. 




“What Do I Feel,” however, pretty much says what it means.  What is one feeling?

“Who Am I” points in the direction of identity.

But what am I?—that’s a bit odd I think.  I guess one would first say—man or woman.  But I think I am thinking some lower down and a bit more primal than that: the distinction or the attempt to make it between human beings and the animals.  Aristotle: the rational animal, Hegel the sick animal.  My response though would be more in the direction of: human beings: the social animal.

My readings in and around evolutionary theory suggest that may be really What One Is?  The social animal.  In spite of all the nonsense about the selfish gene, human beings appear not selfish but completely gregarious and mutually supportive.  Selfishness is the epiphenomenon of this deeper phenomenon.  People throw out the baby with the bath water on that one, depending on the fish they want to fry.  But what gets us along in any case is not individual, atomistic selfishness, but group being and group creation. 

Thus human beings: the social animal.  And so, sociology points out at the extreme, coming at times quite close to a tabla rasa notion of mind, that what human beings know is what they have learned from other human beings and from the very social structures (quite real structures like building and roads) that guide them in their responses to each other without really having to know anything.  Human beings have moved or changed rapidly because they leave behind them structures upon which the next generation builds.  Genetic adaptation is not necessary, since we build our own environment.  But this capacity to erect a social environment that might be built upon is no doubt the result of a genetic predisposition.

The downside of this or at least one downside—because there are others—is the business about hyper conformity.  Nietzsche emphasizes this aspect with his quite correct characterization of human beings as the herd animal.  Supposedly—this is the ideology—individuality, individual effort, and most especially individual responsibility are prized qualities or values…But it’s well nigh impossible to buck conformity.  Hell, it is impossible.

Remark re: history of ideas.  The enlightenment set off this whole view with people like Helvictius and Rousseau later.  Nietzsche is made possible by the sociological view—in fact his philosophizing might be an attempt to figure out how individuals might arise from the herd.


A Slight Case of Total Bias

So what’s objectivity?  I guess I don’t know anymore.  But that’s sort of what I tried to be way back in college or, let’s say, I saw that as a task intimately allied with the pursuit of Truth.  I think Freud redmenaceequated objectivity with the attitude of the surgeon relative to the person being cut open.  Given my limited experience with surgeons, I think that a bad analogy.  Or perhaps he equated objectivity with the determination to look at the truth however gross, ugly, and morally repellant it might be.

I think I once thought of it that way—objectivity as the means to pursue the ends of truth, requiring a kind of emotional willingness to look at ugliness and moral decay however repellant and with the determination too to try as hard as possible to make myself aware of the beliefs and assumptions and perspectives that might shape my perception of the truth however ugly it might be.  Or perhaps it was only some unseen or unquestioned believe or attitude that made it seem repellent.

Who knew.

I felt in any case that I had a duty to look at myself as I looked at the object to see, if I could, how my self shaped what I saw.  But I guess I had a pretty high faulting notion of the truth or something like it.  I sat through lectures by professors that were very biased and apparently the professor felt no need to point to the bias or identify it as such.  And I am not speaking of something here as super-subtle as that business of constructing disciplinary distinctions.

I sat through a political science class that was devoted to international relations and the study of revolutions. This was a GE course and intended I guess as a survey of a couple of big topics.  The international relations part was informed entirely by the realist perspective I have previously mentioned (though not announced as such).  

The revolution part was quite amazing because the professor, no matter what the revolution—Russian, Chinese or Vietnamese—made it out, one way or another, that Communism had not won.  No, the pre-existing order or the mélange of parties that arouse during the revolutionary turmoil and opposed to the communists had failed to rise to the occasion.  If Communism won that as not because they had a positive agenda or appealed to the hearts and minds of the masses but because the opposition had proven inept and admittedly at times quite corrupt.

Over and over the pattern repeated itself in the analysis of this particular Professor who was Chinese and born in Taiwan.  Perhaps this Professor lacked any introspective powers or actually believed what he said.  I don’t know.  But the context of this theory—that is, himself—in his origins and attitudes was never addressed as a possible contributing factor to the Professor’s particular take on Communism and on theories of revolution more generally.

 I was appalled but didn’t mention the Professor’s possible bias to my students because I was busy trying to keep them for ridiculing and complaining about the Professor because his spoken English was, how to say, rather foggy.  The students just didn’t like the Professor it seemed, and I remember one student perturbed because the Professor had given her an A- on her first paper because he said it was “over-organized.”  What the heck, the student wondered, did that mean; and frankly I had to say that I had never heard that particular criticism of a student’s paper before.

I suggested that she visit the Professor in his office hours and ask him what it meant.  She did and her grade was changed to a straight A.

Over organized?

Objectivity is Repression

The instructors for the ethics course were all devotees of “thought experiments.”  These were rather fanciful affairs designed, as far as I could see, mostly to throw students into confusion concerning thoughtexperimenttheir “moral intuitions.”  They involved trains going down tracks and people tied to the train tracks and someone standing by a lever and having to decide whether to switch the lever so that one or three people died, even if the one was your brother and so on and so forth.  They also involved people getting stuck in caves and having to drive over people to save people stuck in caves.

The questions these thought experiments are intended to evoke involve such matters as whether or not it is ever morally right to kill an innocent person even if killing that person might mean saving many lives.  Also involved, in the experiments I heard was the attempt to make the distinction between killing and letting die.  The amount of mayhem and mutiliation evoked–all spoken about in a very light hearted manner complete with stick like illustrations drawn on the black board–for the purposes of philosophic speculation was quite amazing.  The thought experiments, as one can see, along with discussions of capital punishment, abortion and euthenasia all involved, in one way or another, the topic of death. However, death, as an issue of some subjective importance to the individual, was never addressed.

For a number of years I also taught a writing class linked with a course international relations. At that time, the mid-80’s, the course concerned itself with US and Soviet relations.  A full three lectures were devoted to nuclear war and the possibility of nuclear disarmament.  The different forms of nuclear destruction, whether from air craft, submarines, or rockets, was quite amazing.  Additionally, rockets differed considerably in “throw weigh,” some had multiple war heads and some didn’t; some were in cased or hardened silos and others weren’t.  The discussion was very complete and designed to show that disarmament was probably impossible.  

Every time I sat through these lectures I got a headache.  Also amazingly, though I had heard the lecture three or four times, each time it seemed I had completely forgotten everything I had previously known about the subject.  I didn’t at first understand why my head felt all abuzz after these lectures; but one day it hit me that basically we had been discussing mass destruction, and the possible end of civilization as we knew it.  And once again death was never directly addressed as a matter of some possible significance to the individual.

I have long wondered what academics mean by “objectivity,” because as far as I could tell, especially in the social sciences and humanities, none of them remotely approach it.  Perhaps this is what they mean—talking about death, pain, misery, mutiliation all as if they had no relation to anybody in the lecture hall, as if it all were happening somewhere out there in a kind of giant thought experiment.  Talking about sticking or not sticking a needle of poison into somebody’s arm as a way of distinguishing between killing and letting die.

Personally, I don’t call this objectivity.  I call it repression, systemmatic and unconscious repression.  Boredom is an odd thing.  Sometimes it is a mask for anxiety; perhaps that’s why the ethics class seemed at times to drag on endlessly. Anxiety is timeless.

Shoe Laces

Amazing.  I was going through a box of junk, old letters and such, and found an article, dated 1963, reporting the winners of the essay contest in my local area.  It reads in part:  “William ranks fifth in his class.  He is looking forward to a career in teaching though the field of his major hasn’t kidshoebeen decided.”  I am William—god, I hate that.  Mostly I just forget that’s my first name.  But what’s amazing is the career in teaching part.  That must have been the old lady talking because I don’t remember having thought about teaching as a career, except maybe as something I had a pretty good chance at doing.

 But that’s how it turned out.  Teaching has been my primary source of income since 1973.  That’s about 33 years of teaching, I guess.  At one point, I thought, when I got my PhD, I would be a professor instead. That doesn’t involve much teaching.  But that didn’t work out and I became a teacher of writing at a University.  That’s what I have done most of my adult life.

Looking back I think maybe it was in the cards.  The title of my PhD thesis was:  “Romantic Thought: Education and Alienation.”  Seems as if I had been thinking about education all along—and alienation too, as part of that.  For a long time I thought about writing a book for which I have only the title, “Growing Up Educated” which is supposed to be an allusion to another book called, “Growing Up Absurd.”  I guess that’s because I decided somewhere along the line that education as it is currently practiced is not all that it’s cracked up to be.

But I was lucky, I suppose, in a way.  Because I turned out to be pretty good at the teaching racket.  I have always taken it really seriously.  I think about it a lot; and I feel almost that I have been given a sort of public trust, and I should try to live up to that trust and do the best job that I can.  But I have wondered why I have stuck it out so long.  The reason could be pretty simple: fear of unemployment.  I shouldn’t minimize that reason because I don’t think I have ever fully grasped how much those early poverty years filled me with a deep fear of there being no limit to how far a person could fall.

But I don’t think fear makes a person good at teaching.  And I think I am pretty good and I have thought a good deal about why that might be.  I am not sure I have reached the bottom of it.  But one day I visited an elementary school class in creative movement that my wife teaches and afterwards the kids were all putting their shoes back on.  But one kid was left there.  He was retarded, as people used to say, or developmentally disabled, as they say now, and I could see that the idea of tying his shoes was wearing him out.

So I went over, knelt down, tied his shoes, and when I was done, instinctively, tapped the side of his shoe to indicate I was done and he got up and left wordlessly.  I sat there realizing that I had tapped a lot of shoes in my day.  One brother is seven years younger than I, another 14, and I do believe I had tied and tapped their shoes a good deal in the years before Velcro.  In some complex or confused way, my being a teacher and being good at it and still receiving some satisfaction from doing it is related to tying my brothers’ shoe laces.


So in high school, I took three freaking years of Latin, a damn dead language.  To the best of my knowledge, unless somebody has a time machine, nobody in this day and age has heard how thosekillerbee Romans actually said the stuff.  So while in French and Spanish you are always talking the stuff, since people know how it is supposed to be said, in Latin all you do is translate the stuff.  And to translate the stuff you have to memorize all manner of conjugations and declinations and stuff or you can just go to the library and check out a translation if you want.

Roland took Latin in our sophomore year.  I don’t know why except maybe I told him I was taking it and so he did too.  We had a pretty interesting teacher that year.  His name was Mr. Dell and he was a full blooded Navaho or maybe Apache Indian.  Anyway he is a full blood Native American, and a good looking guy too in a pretty boy way.  He was sort of short and he always wore a suit, the complete thing.  What a full blooded Native American was doing wearing a suit and teaching Latin to a bunch of working class whites kids I don’t know.  But hey anybody can do anything.  This is America.

I think maybe he was still in graduate school or something like that because he only taught a couple of Latin classes and then he was gone for the rest of the day.  And he wasn’t around the next year which was too bad since he told us about the interesting stuff—the sex and the violence and the gladiatorial games—maybe because he didn’t have a teaching credential and didn’t know any better.

But one day he is standing up front in his blue suit and suddenly he starts waving his hands around his head and fucking screaming!  And then he runs to the side of the room, still screaming, and waving his arms around his head and then he goes right out the door.  Still waving his hands around.  We just sit there looking forward at the spot where he was and wondering what was going on, and Roland says, I think there was a bee.  So we’re muttering about what a wimp he must be, when he comes back in, looking all sweaty and tells us he has this allergy to bee stings and if one bites him he could die.

So maybe that’s why he is a full blooded Native American teaching Latin to a bunch of working class white kids.  He wants to stay away from bees as much as possible.

We like him though because he is a nice guy and a pretty lousy disciplinarian but one day he gets fed up because we are talking too much among our selves and it’s hard to miss because there are only about ten of us and he makes us sit right up front, so what are we going to do but talk right in front of him.  And then he gets angry and says, that the next person who speaks out of turn is going to get what they called a “case card,” which is a kind of form the teacher fills out saying what you did wrong that is sent to the principal and then to your parents.  So I turn to Roland who is sitting right next to me and I say, he’s kidding right? (because I can’t believe he would do that).  And Roland says, yea, he’s got to be kidding. 

And we say this right in front of Mr. Dell who has just said he will give a case card to anybody who talks out of turn and what do you know but the fucker gives Roland and me case cards for talking out of turn.  We couldn’t fucking believe it.

I hope Mr. Dell got his PhD in classics and went on to a nice professor job somewhere far away from bees.