Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reading Habermas

Robin spends her days zooming around town picking up linens and dropping off used flower vases,  She meets with anxiously beautiful brides and their beautifully anxious moms.  She helps them make decisions about flowers, photographers, caterers, musicians, and so on—incredibly detailed decisions that involve things like coordinating the color of the flowers and food and linens and so on with the color of the bride’s eyes.  Then she comes home to her office to call florists and photographers and caterers and so on, and to keep track of it all on papers organized in files according to date and the color of the bride’s eyes.  When she walks in the door exhausted and in a hurry to get to work and meet a deadline, she sees me sitting on my ass reading philosophy.  Been there all day.  Day after day.   For weeks.  Good thing I did the dishes.

For the first time since graduate school, I’m reading a lot of philosophy; and for the first time in my life, I’ve set myself a program of reading a large chunk of a philosopher’s oeuvre, four and a half books approaching 2,000 pages so far.  To support my position that sitting on my ass all day is not vacation, I’ll say that 1) reading Habermas is hard work, and worth some hard work for its insights into everyday life.  Reading Habermas also 2) takes me back to what could have been a brilliant intellectual career if I’d read Habermas twenty years ago.  Finally and most significant for my defense, 3) it’s opened up new writing ambitions.


Proof that reading Habermas is hard:  I’m constantly stopping to use the internet, not only to take a break from holding all those philosophical balls in the air at the same time, but also to check up on some half-forgotten or half-learned philosophical term, or research one of the many thinkers I never read like Weber or Durkheim or barely even heard of like G.H. Mead or Talcott Parsons.   I’m sure learning a lot, not only about Habermas but about the history of philosophy.  Habermas draws upon everything that has ever been written, and he aims to explain every aspect of our species from the combined perspectives of philosophy, sociology, psychology, anthropology, art history, literary analysis, and etcetera. 
It’s hard but it’s worth it, especially since his basic concepts are very practical and recognizable in people’s everyday lives.  His main purpose is to rescue us all from the dominance of thinking about money and power, and instead celebrate more human and moral ways of thinking. He calls it “system” versus “life world.”  Think Wall Street versus Occupy Wall Street.  I might even argue at some point that Habermas’s theory of communication is a theory of love.


Reading Habermas brings back the ambition of the old days, back when I thought I might make a more significant contribution to scholarship.  I lost that ambition back in the painful 90s, as I slowly awakened to the reality that trying to get a job as a scholar was like banging my head against the wall.  It felt much better to stop, yet I didn’t know how.  I was that guy in the old joke:

A young man runs away with the circus because he wanted to be in show business.  Years later, his brother catches up with him, witnesses his job cleaning up after the elephants, and exclaims, “You spend all day knee deep in elephant shit.  You don’t have to do this.  Quit!”  

The guy responds, “What! And leave show business?!”  

Despite the bitter delight in such irony, my professional woes continued for a long time.  Even after I landed in Santa Barbara and got my personal life back together, I couldn’t live with myself as a second-class academic, a poorly paid teacher rather than a respected scholar.  So I left academe altogether.  

It wasn’t six months before I wanted my old job back.  Took me five years to get it, and five years more to return to philosophy.

In retrospect, I’m feeling that—with my blue-collar pedigree, my preference for spending time with family and friends, my satisfaction with woodworking and gardening projects, my taste for the bitters, and my increasingly principled aversion to spending 18 hours a day sitting on my ass reading everything that’s ever been written—I’ve done about as well as I have a right to expect.  I love my job these days.  I’ve become a damned good teacher, and I relish the six weeks it allows me to sit around reading Habermas.


I’ve embarked on some concrete writing projects that reading Habermas enables.  

(a)     I came to Habermas first from my scholarly frustration with genre theory in American composition studies.  I hoped to gain the conceptual ammunition to launch a comprehensive attack on genre theory, American Pragmatism, and Composition Studies as a discipline that fails to distinguish between practical and instrumental reason, remains blind to the systemic sources of power and hegemony in our society, and thus fails to satisfy its own liberatory aims.  I also hoped to gain from Habermas a communicative practice that doesn’t make me sound like an asshole, always a problem. 

(b)   I also came to Habermas hoping to explicate the failure of the environmental movement to initiate the changes it clamors for.  Habermas might help at least to explain the problem as life-world versus system.  Accordingly, the eco-problem is not simply a matter of convincing people to do the eco-right thing.  As an idea, sustainability has already achieved consensus; no one really wants to trash the planet.  In the life-world, environmentalism rules.  Yet the economic and political system continues to trash the planet.  In short, from Habermas’s perspective, the environmental movement becomes part of the larger effort to make the system more responsive to human concerns.  I could elaborate this somehow in relation to environmental texts like Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption.  But what I’m really hoping is that I will discover among Habermas’s later essays one that deals directly with environmental issues.  That way I can simply read it and save myself the trouble of original thought, even of the derivative, secondary literature, apply-some-really-major-thinker’s-ideas way. 

(c)    I’m also thinking that perhaps my real destiny is in articulating how academic theory offers insight into everyday life. Last year I spent a good part of my six weeks of concentrated writing and research working on a project that aimed to make literary analysis relevant to a non-academic audience.  I focused on a little artsy film called Get Low and planned to work up a series of interpretive readings from different theoretical perspectives, each one more ambitious than the one before—pop-cultural, moral, political, socio-economic, philosophical, and so on.  The idea was to treat the non-academic audience as smart and wisely grounded in life, though with no time to waste on academic specializations, and to treat academics like me as ass-sitting arrogant windbags, too specialized and professionalized and focused on mental masturbation—in short, too unwisely ungrounded in life—to realize that we were saying some pretty profound stuff.  I wrote two interpretations and posted them on my blog as parts 1 and 2 of “The Low Down on Get Low.”  I’m pretty sure no one read the posts.

Undaunted—or unintelligent—I’ve been thinking of taking up the project again in light of reading Habermas.  His thinking opens up whole new possibilities.  I figure that I could incorporate Habermas’s really smart way of looking at everything into my own brand of blarney (or McHughing), focus it all on popular culture texts or phenomena like Occupy Wall Street, address it to an intelligent public audience, and ramble on about whatever I feel like, movies and morality, the environment and the market, love and happiness.  I could spout all kinds of world-healing wisdom.  

Whether I’ll have any actual readers for any of these writing projects is entirely another question.

1 comment:

Barbara Butler said...

I want to read Habermas along with you - got any recommendations for a starter essay?
I highly approve of your ass-sitting, reading & pondering. Someone must oppose the tyranny of the busy people (me being one of them) that rush around DOING things.
You are an explorer and until you discover a new continent, you aint going to get any respect. That's ok, just enjoy the road.
Reminds me of what an old furniture maker said - as a craftsman, you will never make enough money to make it a smart financial decision. so it is important to create a process of making your art where you enjoy every step - from sanding to varnishing - because that will sustain you. I imagine it is similar with philosophy.
So keep at it, dude!

eXTReMe Tracker