Digressions in the Time of Cholera

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Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/04/2020 - 3:10am in

How are you feeling? If you are like me, you've been in lockdown in your house for several weeks now. 

Likely, your experiences are unlike anything you've felt before. Because of the ubiquity of your experiences--weird as they are--they seem too banal to write down. Yet, it's important to do so. Keep a journal. We know a lot about the Great Plague because people like you and me chose to keep diaries, not letting the narrative be dominated by the few. Look back on what you have learned later. Hopefully there is a later. 

Initially, you might have tried to soldier on as you did before, synchronously teaching your classes through Zoom, and getting utterly exhausted in the process. You might have tried to remain a productive scholar, maybe even crank up your productivity, because that's what Newton did, apparently. Maybe you've started baking, knitting, doing your own home repairs, cutting your own hair. 

But now, as the weeks wax on, all that busyness cannot take away this growing feeling of clarity. This clarity is not merely an intellectual feeling. The ubiquitous sound of cars has all but died away. The air is crisp and clear. The birds have never sung more loudly than before. The streets are all but abandoned. 

There are lots of things presenting themselves to you that you have always known, but that you have never truly known. You always knew that departmental meetings are mostly not needed. Now you really know how many meetings we need (it seems more than a few a year, but fewer than weekly. We met weekly in the months leading up to the closure and all those meetings that seemed so important seem like they can often be handled through a vote by email).--Helen de Cruz, "Clarity"@Cocooners.

Helen's piece deploys the phenomenological method by using an irruption, or bracketing, to make visible the previously suppressed and, thereby, to change our practices. There is no doubt something therapeutic and cathartic about that at a time where one may justifiably feel vulnerable and powerless. I am, of course, partially joking about Helen's embrace of phenomenology. But what we may label as the critique of busyness [or Betriebsamkeit] is a recurring theme of Heidegger's thought.

With Heidegger in mind, it's indeed a bad thing when philosophy becomes any kind of soldiering, including soldiering on. And in so far as Helen is calling for both self-care and a critical attitude toward existing oppressive structures, including structures ordinarily not felt to be oppressive, it is difficult to disagree. In addition, her particular desire to keep track of the injustices and outrages that occur during the pandemic (in order, no doubt, to do better after) is salutary.

And, yet, and yet.

At any given time, the world outside of professional philosophy is full of genuine misery: torture, refugees, famine, abuse, war, discrimination, etc. In addition, professional philosophy itself is characterized by bad structural features and some awful practices many of which not conducive to true philosophy. Against those that wish to say that we live in special times, I am inclined to say back, not from the cosmic perspective Sub specie aeternitatis, but from the all-too-human imperfect limited perspective: the-pandemic-present is not really so special. Not because I buy into a narrative of progress, but rather because suffering, including politically preventable suffering, is part of the human condition. 

By this I do not wish to promote indifference or quietism, or to attack philosophy from a position of service or (since Helen invokes Dewey) a pragmatist conception of philosophy that aims to improve the world. I also do not wish to attack those that wish to bring their expertise or difficult questions (or distinctions) to bear on the present circumstances. 

But insofar as philosophy is necessary, and one's individual philosophising is necessary, this moment is no different than other moments. And while one sometimes can't philosophize on the precipice of disaster -- we have other attachments, needs, and obligations -- , sometimes philosophizing is also the highest and most urgent need.

By this I do not mean that I agree with Godwin's utilitarian argument that we must save Fenelon and not his valet. It is truly doubtful whether from an impersonal perspective of utility or the (philanthropic) policy-maker (or effective altruist) philosophy or the philosopher is more valuable than other activities; or that qua philosopher we must even understand ourselves as always contributing to the "happiness, information, and improvement of others."*

But rather, philosophizing is human need; sometimes as a species escapism; sometimes as a delirious dance above the abyss; sometimes as the reaching for mere clarity, understood as an aesthetic virtue; and now, more than ever, as a crutch to survive cruel indifference. 

 

 

 

 

*In so far as I am paid by the state or from state subsidized fees these considerations obviously also can and, perhaps, ought to enter into my considerations when I view myself as employee.