Saturday, May 15, 2010

Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: Part V

Rhetorician and pragmatist Steven Mailloux began his talk by repeating this dictum: "On the Internet people are demoralized in the shortest possible time at the largest possible scale at the cheapest possible price." This saying would prove to be Mailloux's summary of a talk given at the University of Copenhagen in 1998 by Heideggerian philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, which is now available online as "Kierkegaard on the Internet: Anonymity vrs. Commitment in the Present Age." Based on the availability of Dreyfus's work online, it is clear that Dreyfus was no Luddite even then, but Mailloux described how Rorty's response to the talk, which was available to him thanks to the Rorty born-digital archive, depicted a more optimistic view of online access and participation in public discourse.

Mailloux also described Rorty’s own reluctance to use the label "rhetoric," because Rorty wanted to avoid reintroducing the old "rhetoric vs. logic battle" of the era of Aristotle and Plato. Because Rorty was interested in the "use of language in a context," Mailloux argued that his neopramatism was inherently rhetorical. (At this point, Mailloux also raised the question of how language itself was defined and the fundamental difference between "tool" and "medium of expression.") He then reviewed the media history of the Habermassian model of development of the public sphere, in which the press extended to a broader public that included "the many and the mediocre." He explained how new media also produce this leveling with the new massive distribution of de-situated information that was making information available to everyone, including the de-situated detached spectator. Thus society faced a loss of local personal involvement, a development seen by Habermas as triumph. However, Kierkegaard saw the new media of his era as "just idle talk" or an "agent of nihilistic leveling." And Dreyfus read Kierkegaard with the deep suspicion of technology of a Heideggerian.

Although Malloux admitted to lacking definitive evidence that Rorty came to the same Copenhagen conference in person to deliver his response to Hubert, Mary Rorty volunteered the fact that her husband probably only missed "one conference and two classes" in the course of his entire career. Mailloux had also found a document that seemed to be Rorty's response, which was entitled simply "Comments on Dreyfus."

Bert Dreyfus and I admire many of the same authors, in particular Heidegger and Kierkegaard. But we differ about the use to which they can be put. Most of us Heidegger-freaks read him the way Christians pray, Zen Buddhists meditate, Janeites reread Persuasion, or Shakespearians rehearse the sonnets. We treat Heidegger as an author who helps us toward something like spiritual or imaginative perfection. It does not occur to us that he might be used for public purposes. Writers like Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Kierkegaard, we believe, were not at their best when commenting on current events or public policy.

Bert reads these philosophers differently. He once, famously, organized a conference on "Applied Heidegger"--the first of its kind. In the paper he has just given us he treats Kierkegaard as capable of offering advice on the problems of our own day, a use to which it had never occurred to me to put him. I am dubious about this, and particularly dubious about The Present Age, which seems to me Kierkegaard at his crankiest, and a big come-down from books like Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. The Present Age seems to me mostly just an expression of the same aristocratic disdain which we find in Nietzsche's passage about "the last man", in the works of Straussians like Fukuyama who resonante to that passage, and in Musil's disdain for Kakanian culture.

Rorty divides authors into those of "private autonomy" and those of "human community." Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard are placed in the former camp, while Marx, Dewey, and Habermas, as fellow citizens, are placed in the latter. He contrasts the vocabulary of self-creation with the vocabulary of justice as well.

Rorty proposes a different history of the new media and politics in his response, one that often sounds more like Nicholas Negroponte than a philosopher who inserted ancient Greek characters in his manuscripts.

Turning now from Kierkegaard to the internet, my own take is that the triviality of the chat rooms and the mindless proliferation of websites are a small price to pay for the political opportunities which the net offers. We in the rich old democracies, who are accustomed to intellectual freedom, may not appreciate what the net can do for people in places like Peru and Kazakhstan. I think it is significant that throughout the 1980's there was a fierce debate going on in the USSR between the ministries concerned with technology and the KGB. The former said that the Soviet economy would become non-competitive unless the USSR could raise a generation of hackers. The KGB rejoined that hackers made a police state almost impossibly difficult to administer. They were both right. In my utopia, all the funds currently spent on UNESCO, and on shipping people like me to international conferences, would be spent on fiber optic cables providing internet connections between every educational institution in the world, starting with the universities and proceeding down to the primary schools. One effect of this would be that whenever a portion of the web went dark--whenever it became clear that the teachers in a given city or village were no longer chatting with friends and colleagues abroad--it would be obvious that the thugs had moved in and taken charge. The endless abominations committed under the cover of night and fog by the police and the military in the backwoods of China, Zaire, and Ceylon would be less easily concealed. Even those done in the backwoods of Texas, Yorkshire, and Bavaria might come to light. Whistle-blowing would become much easier. Education would become much more accessible for poor children. A lot of wonderful things would happen. The internet could be for the development of an international political class what the penny press was for the widening of this class in nineteenth century Europe.

In Rorty's response, he then grants truth to several of Dreyfus's propositions only to denigrate their importance.
It is true, for example, that the net is a perfect medium for slander and innuendo. But that is like saying that money is a perfect medium for fraud and theft. So it is, but a money economy is still clearly better than a barter economy. Any medium of exchange of information will be put to slanderous purposes, but we are still better off with cheaper and more fluid media than without them. I do not see that the internet differs greatly from The San Francisco Chronicle or the Stanford University Library in this regard. It is true that the internet synthesizes the worst features of the coffee house and the newspaper, but it also synthesizes the best features. The separation of public opinion from power of which Kierkegaard was suspicious is a danger, but it is a lesser danger than an arrangement like that of the Roman Empire or contemporary China, in which only those with power get access to information.

Rorty closes his response with a paragraph with enthusiastic support for having those with technical expertise "just put everything they could think of on the net."

I am not sure what Bert has in mind when he says that "it should be the job of information technology to look for structures that solicit and support unconditional commitments and implement them." The first thing that comes to mind is making it for us easier to love Big Brother, though I know perfectly well that that is not what Bert intends. But I get nervous at the thought that somewhere a bunch of information technologists are sitting around trying to figure out how to help my prospective grandkids have unconditional commitments. I am not sure I want them to have such commitments, even though I admit Kierkegaard and Nietzsche make them sound attractive. I would prefer it if the information technologists just put everything they could think of on the net--rigorously hierarchical organized data bases, hypertexts, the complete works of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, programs that teach you symbolic logic and Danish and test your progress, and so on. They could just let us surfers take it from there.

Although Mailloux did not read this section, I also appreciated Rorty's comparison of contemporary web surfing to the distractions of life in ancient Athens.

Nor do I see we are encouraged to aesthetic light-mindedness and instability of character by the net to a greater degree than the ancient Athenians were by theatrical performances and by the gossip of the marketplace. I find it hard to believe the once upon a time, when literacy was less common and alternative models of identity less easily available, there was more ethical seriousness around than there is now. People disinclined to formulate a strong and consistent character have always had a lot of opportunities to avoid doing so.

In reading the Dreyfus and Rorty texts together, Mailloux suggested that we should "rhetorically, pragmatically" borrow from each to avoid the risks of being either "unthinkingly complacent" in Dreyfus's passionate "commitment," which could produce fundamentalisms on the right and left, or "complacently unthinking" in the daily practices of everyday information overloading. As Mailloux argued, "both texts are opportunities for thinking through our complacencies." Unlike Rorty, Mailloux claimed that it was important to recognize the "power of technologies that are not neutral."

In the question and answer session, philosopher David W. Smith asked if the Internet didn't show how commitment could be profoundly lacking and gave the example of an e-mail by a teenager that might lead to the suicide of another teen. (A recent New York Times story about a registered nurse entering into suicide pacts with despondent members of dysfunctional Internet communities might be another example of the lack of commitment that Smith described.)

Dreyfus's former student Thomson also took note of the fact that the Twitter stream was capturing detached snippets of conversation and representing them (or misrepresenting them) as a full account of the day's dialogue and its most significant insights. He also emphasized the ridiculousness of attempting to archive the conference itself, whether through audio or video or a kind of panopticon rendered in 3-D, which -- as the person anxious about losing the Camtasia recording for the day's events -- may not have been as amusing as Thomson intended.

Of course, Dreyfus, Rorty, and Mailloux weren't the first to make this analogy between the penny press and the Internet. It's a comparison that has also been made by Bruce Bimber (with caution) and by Henry Jenkins (with enthusiasm). But the fact that the history of philosophy is an important part of the cultural conversation was definitely distinctive to the "Mailloux on Rorty on Dreyfus on Kierkegaard" chain of reflection and reappropriation that Mailloux presented in his paper.

Three of Mailloux's former UC Irvine graduate students followed his presentation with a collaborative talk that was intended to represent "twenty-first-century scholarship" being done with the Rorty archive.

Ali Meghdadi was the first one to present in the graduate students' group. He emphasized the "continual conversation" he experienced as he learned Rorty's handwriting and reviewed the handwritten draft of Rorty's Ph.D. dissertation. Meghdadi also argued that there was plenty of ephemera to be discovered in Rorty's paper archive, which included an old will that left his garden to his mother, a speech to be delivered in Nepal, and old math homework from his K-12 education. At one point he showed an image of the swastikas on Rorty's dissertation and asked how the disquieting effect of those doodles might be read outside of Rorty's archive.

Next up was Tae-kyung Timothy Elijah Sung, who thought about the importance within contemporary Christianity of the social justice theories of Rawls and Rorty. He also discussed Rorty's impact on Christian schools, despite his so-called "militant atheism," although this influence came "not with religious arguments" but with engagement in current debates about the legacies of figures such as Walter Rauschenbush. This paper trail of letters and e-mails included "honest critiques" in which Rorty asked "how anything might be changed without making everything worse" and asserted his own "apolitical insouciance." He noted that Rorty sent an e-mail to Jeffrey Stout, whose research focused on Christianity and democracy. Then this e-mail was read aloud e-mail to Cornel West, who also cried at the moment of reception. Sung pointed out that such "born digital files" represented by that e-mail might someday be available, so that the future-oriented instrumentalism and thought-enabled action dramatized in the exchange might be accessible to future generations.

Finally Brian Garcia told how he found the "most interesting materials" in Rorty's archive were those materials about him as a teacher. These materials included syllabi, organized lectures, and pedagogical histories, which represented more than "the workings of a great philosophical mind." He described reading student evaluations, which criticized Rorty as "a bit too soft-spoken" and "not too much of a performer," although students praised his "availability and willingness to engage their ideas." He showed an image of Rorty's "Final Take Home," in which one student said, "More visual aids. Just kidding." Another granted, "your lack of pretension helps."

When asked, in the question-and-answer session, about their different experiences working with the online archive, Sung said that "I bring information with my search engine" queries and that he preferred browsing in which he was "not using it for my own purposes."

Update: Here is Brian Garcia's take on the day's events.

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