An open letter to Olivet Nazarene University

To President Bowling, Members of the Board of Trustees, and the Administrative Staff of Olivet Nazarene University:

It has come to my attention that Olivet Nazarene University will be sending its marching band to perform in the inauguration of President-Elect Trump. Many of my fellow alumni have expressed concern about this de facto endorsement of Trump and all the hateful things he stands for. Indeed, as of this writing nearly one thousand of them have signed an online petition asking you to withdraw Olivet’s participation in the event.

I am not among those alumni. I am writing this letter to make clear my reasons for abstaining. It is not because I support Trump — far from it! I am utterly revolted by the man and view him as the enemy of everything that is important to me. I am abstaining because protesting this decision would imply that I view Olivet Nazarene University as less than fully, irredeemably corrupt. The institution has proven to me time and time again that it is beyond hope — willing to cast aside its values, instrumentalize its most vulnerable students, and throw its most dedicated faculty members to the wolves in the pursuit of the illusory power promised by the religious right.

Participating in Trump’s inauguration is the logical endpoint of everything I know of Olivet. And so, in the words of Holy Scripture, I exhort you: “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy” (Revelation 22:11).

Yours sincerely,

Adam Kotsko, Class of 2002

January speaking dates

I am planning to kick off next year with two speaking dates. The first will be part of a larger event on “The Temptation of Christ” for the DePaul Humanities Center on Monday, January 16 (PDF flyer), and the second will be a conversation with Peter Coviello (possibly known to you as the author of one of the best post-election essays in existence) on The Prince of This World at the Seminary Co-op on Thursday, January 19 (JPG flyer).

Books I read in 2016

Following on a suggestion from APS, for the past couple of years I’ve been keeping a note of all the books I finish. It’s been helpful to have a record, although occasionally difficult to resist turning it into a measure of productivity and consequently a source of anxiety. This year my fiction reading – mostly scifi – has been much less eclectic than my non-fiction reading which has, looking back, been kind of all over the place. The books I read this year that I enjoyed most, that stayed with me the longest, or that most shaped my thinking were, in roughly chronological order:

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic

Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother

Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy

Angela Davis, Women, Race and Class

Ann and Jeff Vandermeer (eds), Sisters of the Revolution

Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk

The Mud Flower Collective, God’s Fierce Whimsy: Christian Feminism and Theological Education

Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television

Nalo Hopkinson, Skin Folk

Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic

Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle

Linn Marie Tonstad, God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality and the Transformation of Finitude

W G Sebald, Austerlitz

George Ciccariello-Maher, Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela

Alexander Anievas and Kerem Nişancioğlu, How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Joan Sloncezwski, A Door Into Ocean

Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity

 

On fighting like Republicans

[As always, I am not recommending any particular course of action or political strategy. All I’m trying to do is work my way into the mindset that would allow the Democrats’ actions to make sense as something other than the product of personal cowardice or political naïveté.]

I agree with those who call for Democrats to be more aggressive and obstructionist in the wake of the cruel technicality of Election Day. I also understand why they characterize their preferred stance as “fighting like Republicans” — it has the appeal of apparent fairness and symmetry and reflects the fact that the Republicans have been seemingly much more passionate and committed in the pursuit of their goals than Democrats. As useful and appealing as the call to “fight like Republicans” may be rhetorically, though, I think it risks obscuring both the nature of Republican strategy and the options that are concretely available to the Democrats.

Continue reading “On fighting like Republicans”

A brief thought on Aulén’s atonement typology

I’ve had occasion to return to the topic of atonement, and specifically Aulén lately, and a thought occurred to me: Aulén’s typology of the three main atonement theories is strikingly similar to the commonplace typology of philosophical ethics.

The “Christus Victor” or “ransom” theory is utilitarian — God gets the job done elegantly, with some ethically questionable actions, to bring about the greatest possible benefit to humanity.

Anselm’s theory (both in reality and in Aulén’s reading, a somewhat rare overlap) would be the deontological theory where the overriding priority is making sure that all the rules are followed to the letter.

Finally, the moral influence theory (which Aulén wrongly attributes to Abelard) is a virtue ethics approach where Jesus’s main contribution is just to be the amazingly excellent person he is.

In short, it’s questionable typologies all the way down.

Bergsonian Continuations: Commemorating 75 Years Since the Death of Henri Bergson

The newest issue of the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy is out. I was the guest editor for this special issue, which is devoted to (extensions of) the thought of French philosopher Henri Bergson. It includes an essay by APS that I highly recommend. Also, it includes a translation by Len Lawlor of Bergson’s Politeness and a unique roundtable titled Bergson(ism) Remembered: A Roundtable (Curated by Mark William Westmoreland with Brien Karas (Villanova University, USA)) that features Jimena Canales (University of Illinois-UC, USA), Stephen Crocker (Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada), Charlotte De Mille (The Courtauld Gallery, UK), Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Columbia University, USA), Michael Foley (University of Westminster, UK), Hisashi Fujita (Kyushu Sangyo University, Japan), Suzanne Guerlac (University of California, Berkeley, USA), Melissa McMahon (Independent Scholar, Australia), Paulina Ochoa Espejo (Haverford College, USA), and Frédéric Worms (L’École Normale Supérieure, France).

Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy
Vol 24, No 2 (2016)
Table of Contents

Forum
——–
Introduction: 75 Years Later (1-2)
Mark William Westmoreland
Politeness (3-9)
Henri Bergson
Mysticism and War: Reflections on Bergson and his Reception During World War I (10-20)
Donna V. Jones
Human Rights and the Leap of Love (21-40)
Alexandre Lefebvre
Bergson and the Morality of Uncertainty (41-61)
Adriana Alfaro Altamirano
The Intuitive Recommencement of Metaphysics (62-83)
Camille Riquier
On Bergson’s Reformation of Philosophy (84-105)
Keith Ansell-Pearson
Beyond Dualism and Monism: Bergson’s Slanted Being (106-130)
Messay Kebede
Darkened Counsel: The Problem of Evil in Bergson’s Metaphysics of Integral Experience (131-153)
Anthony Paul Smith
The Concept in Life and the Life of the Concept: Canguilhem’s Final Reckoning with Bergson (154-175)
Alex Feldman
Bergson before Bergsonism: Traversing “Bergson’s Failing” in Susanne K. Langer’s Philosophy of Art (176-202)
Iris van der Tuin
The Cinematic Bergson: From Virtual Image to Actual Gesture (203-220)
John Ó Maoilearca

Roundtable
——–
Bergson(-ism) Remembered: A Roundtable (221-258)
Mark William Westmoreland and Brien Karas, eds.

Articles
——–
Beauvoir’s Reading of Biology in The Second Sex (259-285)
David M. Peña-Guzmán
Solidarity and the Absurd in Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête (286-303)
Sarah Horton

Review Essays
——–
Recent Work on Negritude (304-318)
Chike Jeffers

Books I Should’ve Written About in 2016

Unsurprisingly, there are considerably more books for which I didn’t write formal blurbs. This, however, does not mean that several did not merit it. On quite the contrary! Here is a list of a few books that came out in 2016 that I very highly suggest you check out, or perhaps give as a gift (if that is your wont this time, or any time, of year).

Poetry

** Daniel Borzutzky, The Performance of Being Human

** Tyehimba Jess, Olio

** Douglas Kearney, Buck Studies

** Alice Oswald, Falling Awake

** Solmaz Sharif, Look

** Ocean Vuong, Night Sky With Exit Wounds

 

 

Fiction

** László Krasznahorkai, The Last Wolf / Herman [trans by John Batki & George Szirtes]

** Halldor Laxness, Wayward Heroes [trans. by Phillip Roughton]

** Lina Meruane, Seeing Red [trans. by Megan McDowell]

** Daniel Saldaña Paris, Among Strange Victims [trans. by Christina Macsweeney]

** Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

**  Guillermo Saccomanno, Gesell Dome [trans. by Andrea G. Labinger]

 

Non-Fiction/Essays

** Brian Blanchfield, Proxies: Essays Near Knowing

** Renee Gladman, Calamities

** Lily Hoang, A Bestiary

** Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America [trans. by John B. Washington]

**  Philippe Soupault, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada & Surrealism [trans. by Alan Bernheimer]

** Eliot Weinberger, The Ghosts of Birds

 

Three ways of looking at an arc of history

longer-arc-of-history

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can take this to be the standard liberal-progressive way of looking at the arc of history.

There are two other possible variations:

  • that of the reactionary right: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward vengeance.”

  • that of the revolutionary left: “The arc of history is long and it’s going to keep getting longer unless we put a stop to it.”

Help me plan an Introduction to Political Philosophy

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on political philosphy to a mixture of first year students taking courses in Philosophy, Religion and Ethics and in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This is the rubric I’ve inherited:

This module introduces themes, theoretical perspectives and concepts in the study of politics and political philosophy and aims to develop an understanding of how political institutions operate and of how they are underpinned by adherence to a variety of political philosophies, or ideologies that act, globally, to order the global environment. The concepts and institutions studies are from a western perspective in order to, first, ground students in a knowledge of these themes per se but, second, to provide a framework for comparative study of non-western polities analysed in greater depth in Levels 5 and 6, such as those in the Middle East and China, in order to gauge the extent that western concepts of politics have been adapted, accepted or rejected in different environments. This is achieved by a pattern of lectures, seminars, tutorials and workshops.

Set texts look at key political thinkers from classical times through the Enlightenment to the present day (for instance Machiavelli, Locke, Rousseau, Smith, Burke, Marx & Engels, Gramsci, Marcuse, Hayek and Habermas) in order to examine such issues as power, justice, order, war, legitimacy, accountability, sovereignty and other issues of concern to the practice of politics and government at country specific, regional and local levels.

It’s essentially an introduction to modern Western political philosophy, then, and I’m grappling with the question of how to “teach the canon” whilst also trying to remake or decolonise it. I have eleven weeks, and this is the sketch I’ve got so far: I’d really appreciate any critiques, suggestions about how I could organise it better or differently, and recommendations of good primary or secondary reading either for myself or my students:

1 Introduction: what is political philosophy (with some selections from Nancy Fraser or Michael Freedon)
2 Hobbes
3 Locke
4 Rousseau and Louverture
5 Marx (with some space in the lecture for talking about Adam Smith and Marxisms-after-Marx)
6 J S Mill (perhaps paired with Wollstonecraft?)
7 Hannah Arendt
8 Foucault on disciplinary societies
9 Judith Butler on grievable lives, Agamben on homo sacer
10 Neoliberalism (Hayek)
11 Sara Ahmed on the cultural politics of emotion

Their fake news and ours

The term “fake news” has recently come back into vogue, to refer to the false news stories that circulated freely on social media and most likely contributed to the cruel technicality that occurred on Election Day. This is not the first time “fake news” has been a major topic of conversation, however. The term was also routinely used for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in their heyday, as well as The Onion. The comparison may seem unfair, given that contemporary fake news spreads malicious lies — like the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation ring at a pizza parlor — while the old brand of fake news spread jokes. But I think there is more in common here than most liberals would feel comfortable admitting.

Like contemporary fake news, the fake news of yore served primarily to form in-groups. For liberals, the retreat to The Daily Show was motivated by a justified sense that the mainstream media was no longer trustworthy given how easily the Bush Administration had manipulated them. Only a news report wrapped in overt liberal outrage and exasperation could be trusted. This is of course a variation on the perpetual right-wing theme of “media bias,” which in this case was actually based in reality rather than on paranoid conspiracy theories. But The Daily Show by and large didn’t give us facts unavailable elsewhere — indeed, it was almost totally parasitical on the mainstream media it was skewering. What it actually gave us was a certain attitude, a sense of being “in the know,” of realizing how wrong Bush & Co. and their toadies in the media were. And they really were wrong! But The Daily Show didn’t give us tools for clearly articulating why or building an alternative. Maybe that’s not the job of a comedy show, but then it’s also not the job of a comedy show to be your primary news source.

I would also advance a potentially more controversial point: like Daily Show-style fake news, contemporary fake news isn’t meant to be taken literally and it probably mostly isn’t. As a point of evidence, I note that only one idiot showed up at the pizza parlor looking for child molestors. Given the thousands of people who read and shared the story, you would expect the place to be inundated with concerned citizens if people were taking it literally. I assume that the conservatives themselves regard the “self-investigator” as a naive idiot. They know these stories are bullshit, but they don’t care because there is a deeper truth at work. “Democrats want to corrupt our children” — that part is true whether or not Hillary Clinton literally rapes children, and the important thing is that that basic message gets across.

If you’re having trouble believing this, think about your own attitude toward the meme that Trump is having sex with Ivanka. Do you literally believe this? Do you ever have a strong opinion one way or the other? Or are you happy to help the meme circulate because it fits with the message that Trump is gross and beyond the pale? I don’t want to draw a false equivalency here or shame people for joking about that — though there is something pretty ugly about such joking, which would probably be hard to maintain if we really thought about it literally as something that had happened, and was maybe even still happening, in real life — but just to give you a sense of the attitudes at work and suggest that conservatives, as fellow human beings, are capable of holding similar attitudes toward questionable stories that reinforce a narrative they want to promote.

This parallel would be a matter of purely historical curiosity if Hillary Clinton had not run a Daily Show campaign: pointing and laughing at Donald Trump’s obvious wrongness without ever clearly articulating an alternative. That kind of worked on liberals, but it was just as ineffective at reaching conservatives as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were. Now we’re learning that fake news was to blame for that, but let’s give the conservatives some credit: they knew the fake news was fake. They just hated Hillary so much they didn’t care. And for not realizing that was the case and continuing to reach out to conservatives to the detriment of mobilizing her base, I kind of hate Hillary too.