April 20, 2016
Phyllis M Taylor Professor of French Studies and Professor of Philosophy
I am deeply honored to receive this award before so many friends and colleagues at the university that has played such a great role in my life. My thanks go to President Alexander, Provost Koubek, Vice President Valsaraj, Associate Vice President Beck, Associate Vice President Kousoulas, the members of the Council on Research, and to the staff members of ORED who have made this occasion possible. In addition, I’d like to thank Dean Haynie, Associate Deans Blanchard and Richardson, and the College of Humanities and Social Science staff, as well as my colleagues and the staff and students in the Department of French Studies and in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. And most certainly I want to acknowledge the love and support of my family, especially my wife, Kate Jensen, with whom I’ve shared an amazing 21 years.
It’s customary on these occasions, I think, to take a look back at one’s research trajectory. My current work brings together recent French philosophy, with recent developments in the life sciences and the cognitive sciences, all with an eye toward the concrete intersection of the social and the bodily that we live out everyday. I call that intersection “the body politic,” by which I mean to bring out the individual bodily aspect in addition to the usual collective civic aspect.
How I got there, though, requires a little storytelling. I was trained in what we call “continental philosophy,” that is, classical German and French philosophy from the 18th to 20th centuries (from Kant to Habermas on one side of the Rhine and from Rousseau to Foucault on the other). I was especially taught to connect those thinkers to the masters of the then-canonical Western tradition: Plato and Aristotle of course, but also Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume and so on.
So how did I get there, that is, to the study of “continental philosophy”?
I did it the way anyone enters a field, incorporating from peers and teachers (at Penn State, in my case) a set of beliefs / desires / tastes / emotional triggers, and so on, about what constitutes “good” or “bad” philosophy, or at least, “the sort of thing our people do.” I think this process is better described in terms of initiation or acculturation than it is in terms of rational deliberation. I certainly never had equal exposure to all philosophical traditions in my undergraduate training, and my decision to pursue continental philosophy training at the graduate level can’t really be said to be the result of rational deliberation. CP just felt right to me – I knew enough about it to know that it was a challenge I wanted to take up; the other main tradition in American universities, “analytic philosophy,” was largely unknown to me.
How I got to Penn State is no real mystery; I was a middle-class kid from suburban Philadelphia. I ended up doing a few majors before spending a few years in the late 70s studying Physical Education. I love sports, so the part about learning how to be a coach or gym teacher wasn’t painful, but I was aiming at a PhD in what they were just beginning to call “Kinesiology,” so what really turned me on was Anatomy, Physiology, Exercise Physiology, Biomechanics and so on. So when the PSU Phys Ed department wouldn’t let me arrange an internship in Cardiac Rehabilitation, I took a leave of absence to think things over.
And during that time, I picked up Plato’s Republic, which I remembered from an Intro to Philosophy course. I was hooked, especially by the treatment of the body: the erotic component of philosophical training; the training of the guardians; the discussion of desire, appetite, spirit, all of it. There’s always a danger of retrospectively creating a unified story that wasn’t really there all along, but I can’t help but feel a resonance between that first surge of interest in a philosophy of corporeal training and my current work on “bodies politic.”
But why did Plato and the connection of bodies and politics so appeal to me? I can’t say exactly but I don’t think it’s a simple case of outside-in conformity to an environment: there was something in me open to what the Republic was saying to me. The social circle of my family was Mid-Atlantic middle-class Irish-American “Kennedy liberals” (we had a picture of JFK and of Pope John the 23rd on our mantelpiece). Furthermore, I was 13 in 1968 and ever since that year of assassinations and riots, politics seemed a matter of life and death, a point that was reinforced when I registered for the Selective Service in 1973, when I turned 18. The Vietnam era draft was winding down, but they still had a lottery that year, even though they weren’t actually drafting people. My number was in the 300s, so I was safe, but I never lost the impression of “the system’s” claim on my body in a time of war. Looking back, I lived out a good example of “the body politic”: my body was a place where the American society was concretized such that the government had a claim on it.
Having taken up CP then at Penn State, my earliest serious work was on one of the classical metaphysical notions: time and its relation to inner experience and outer motion. My MA thesis was on Augustine’s notion of time in the Confessions, distentio animi (“stretching out of the soul”) and my PhD dissertation at Loyola University of Chicago was on Aristotle’s notion of time in the Physics, arithmos kineseos (“number of motion”). In both those works I triangulated my own reading with those of two important 20th century philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. The dissertation was revised and expanded in my first book, Time and Exteriority: Aristotle, Heidegger, Derrida (Bucknell, 1994).
Now while the greatest personal turning point of my life was meeting my wife, Kate Jensen, here at LSU in 1994, an important intellectual turning point occurred the next year. A variety of accidents, and the good friendship of my graduate school colleague, Miguel de Beistegui, who nominated me for the award, resulted in me becoming Leverhulme Research Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Warwick in 1995-1996. There I underwent two intellectual transformations: I met some very interesting people and so read the contemporary French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995: that’s “contemporary” for philosophers!) for the first time. What I like about Deleuze is that he thought about what is called “complexity theory,” that is, the use of various mathematical elements to model dynamic systems involving feedback loops allowing unpredictable changes in behavior. And to understand that area, in a second transformation, I started reading some analytic philosophy of science and mathematics.
This was a big turning point. I had been vaguely dissatisfied with the way Heideggerians and Derrideans weren’t really that interested in science, and I wasn’t thrilled with Heidegger’s politics, to put it mildly. But I loved what they did with the history of philosophy. But suddenly here with Deleuze there was a chance to do science, politics, and the history of philosophy all together! This part of my career resulted in my second book, Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida and the Body Politic, (Athlone, 2001) and my third, Deleuze and Geophilosophy (Edinburgh, 2004), co-authored with a professional geographer, Mark Bonta, an LSU PhD.
But there’s another biographical accident that has also shaped by career. One of my wife’s best friends is Amy Cohen, who is the widow of Francisco Varela. Through Amy I had the chance to meet Francisco twice, and even got to translate some of his work. It was reading Francisco’s work, and that of his collaborator Evan Thompson, that got me hooked on the enactive school of cognitive science (it takes the guidance of action by an organism as its paradigm of cognition, rather than the symbol manipulation of a computer). That turn to “enaction” heavily influenced by last two books, Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic (Minnesota, 2009) and Life, War, Earth: Deleuze and the Sciences (Minnesota, 2013).
I have two favorite essays from that time period, both of them case studies of particular “bodies politic,” one a narrow focus and one a wide angle one: on the Terri Schiavo case and on Hurricane Katrina, both written in a frenzy in 2005 as the events unfolded. With those pieces, I had the impression I could now “speak in my own voice,” in combining politics, science, and philosophy, but only by immersing myself in many different fields, from neuropathology to jurisprudence to meteorology to the history of slave revolts to ... Of course that breadth comes at the risk of superficiality, of cherry picking results that confirm that I wanted to say, of making connections and leaving the details to others, but those are risks I’m willing to assume, though at the cost of an intimate familiarity with Impostor Syndrome.
I mentioned that the Schiavo and Katrina pieces are case studies. I think case studies should be used more by philosophers, in addition to the thought experiments of which we are so fond -- brain transplants, brains-in-a-vat, zombies, and others. Case studies do not aim at identifying the necessary and sufficient conditions for an essential distinction, as do thought experiments. Instead case studies reveal the outlines of concrete problems, which are the points of intersection of "multiplicities," a Deleuzean term of art which means a "problematic" field in which linked rates of change create conflicting pressures so that (1) any one move changes the conditions for future moves and (2) no one solution exhausts the potentials for future creatively different solutions. Deleuzean problems, the problems of life, cannot be "solved" once and for all; they can only be dealt with. With case studies we come to realize that facing the concrete situation individuates while de-personalizing; we lose our habits to gain our singularity, our uniqueness, at the intersection of the communal and individual I call “the body politic.”
In doing the Schiavo piece I end up arguing that we should re-conceive the ground for the right to privacy from sovereignty – control of a substantial body – to embodied and embedded singularity – our ability to feel, to generate intuitions that are embodied appraisals of socially embedded situations. In doing the Katrina piece, I argue that a racialized fear contributed to the delay in government rescue efforts in Hurricane Katrina until sufficient military force could confront thousands of black people in New Orleans; the government’s racialized fear flew in the face of the massive empathy of ordinary citizens, a communal solidarity that lead them to rescue their friends, neighbors, and simple strangers until they were forced to stop by government order. The political philosophy framework of the chapter comes out as I juxtapose the way in which pundits indulged a rhetoric of Hobbesian fantasy, when the reality was much more Rousseauean. In New Orleans, there was very little, if any, atomized anti-social predation; there was instead massive and spontaneous solidarity born out of empathy for threatened lives. If Hobbes was present at all in New Orleans, he was there beforehand in the atomizing practices of neoliberal capitalism, and afterward in the neoconservative militarization of rescue efforts. During the storm and the days of solidarity following it, he was absent.
And, although I am not unreservedly rousseauiste, the Hobbes / Rousseau contrast will show up again in my current book project, Human Nature between Philosophy and Anthropology. There I will join with others in criticizing the assumption that widespread pre-State warfare was the selection pressure for the evolution of human tendencies toward altruism and prosociality (or emotional investment in social patterns). If one adopts the position that there was not enough war prior to the simultaneous development of cities, agriculture, and states, to serve as a selection pressure, then we much come up with other explanations for altruism and prosociality. I present such an alternate explanation via recent work done in evolutionary anthropology, developmental psychology (so-called communicative musicality or intercorporeal rhythms), neuroplasticity, and epigenetics.
I don’t know how many more books I have in me, but I think this one will bear the mark of what I’ve been trying to do for years now: write philosophy with science, in a conceptually adventurous but empirically responsible way. So looking back at the distance from my first training to my current project, I’m seeing a pattern of shifts of the behavior of my “complex system” accompanied by a feeling of being conceptually at home when I’m on the move, synthesizing different schools of thought. In sum, I’ve been able to make a habit of changing my thinking habits, in response to the twists and turns, the invitations to new thinking, which the biographical accidents of my life have provided me.