Let’s just call him Steeltown or… Neverland… no, let’s call him Steeltown. He’s an older, white, male, married, and procreated professor. He is not American and– I think– educated “abroad.” And I knew I was making a mistake by taking his class. But maybe, I thought, it could be one of those: know thy enemy mistakes. (Now that I’m in div school I think it’s best if we use more Biblical pronouns whenever possible, thank you.) The course, EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY, is hugely popular at my school. And Steeltown has a massive, enthusiastic following. As far as I can tell this following is largely semi-Buddhist, rich, white, faux-hippie, philosophy men. But there are others… I wouldn’t want to exclude the others.
The stated premise of the course: existentialism is crazy theoretical and doesn’t deal with real people but it’s also SO RIGHT!!! So, Steeltown swears, we’re gonna deal with real people an how right existentialism is.
The presented syllabus consisted of lots of Theory from Steeltown and Arendt and lots of anthropology from various sources.
My initial hesitation about the course: It turned out that by “real people” Steeltown meant that we were going to be looking at the indigenous and the abject. Perhaps this is predictable because he seems to be one of those old-school relic anthropologists who is doing anthropology in a wicked scary way.
The situation was further complicated because of the content of the theory produced. In the best Cartesian way, Steeltown presented a kind-of-scary perspective on agency that insisted that the individual is/was transparent to itself. This means that having agency means: we accomplish the thing we want to accomplish. There is no room for not knowing what one wants because there is, conveniently, no pesky psyche.
And the slippery slope-y downfall of all this is: Steeltown et al.’s insistence on the primacy of “lived experience” seemed all progressive and shit but really reduced actual, material, difference between experience to mere fantasy. In one article by the professor he actually described this problem by citing two examples. The first was of three unequally educated Mexican men who “felt like” they didn’t have the same advantages in life. The other was an anecdote about how, despite the fact that his Wife had given each of their two children an equal amount of candy, the younger one still felt that the older had been favored. So you see: no matter what the world looks like… we all feel like we’re getting slighted. Who cares, I guess, that the difference between candy and education isn’t just about feelings but is also about survival.
Slippery Slope-y: So, you see, although feelings are real/legitimate/and-in-fact-all-we-have, they actually bear no consistent or meaningful relationship with reality.
So. I was going to class, like a good Grad Student, when we managed to slip down the slope in a scary, racist, way that I thought we would never have entered.
We are talking about violence and how it’s just a different register upon which experienced injustice manifests. Steeltown is rehashing Mauss’ reciprocity model in which all interactions are repayment for historical debt and all repayments produce new debt which, then, begs repayment. Steeltown’s argument is that violence spurs more violence– violent debt can never be settled… etc.
Classmate: So what about forgiveness? Does forgiveness actually break the cycle? If someone forgives someone else– is the debt forgiven? Or does the forgiven person now just owe the other person for forgiving him?
Steeltown: Forgiveness is a really interesting case because it only happens in really particular circumstances. That is– it only happens when you have someone who is really powerless. For example, I once saw an indigent farmer forgive a hawk for stealing one of his hens. He could have been angry but instead he realized he couldn’t do anything and he moved on— to take care of the remaining hens.
Steeltown continues: What is interesting here is that forgiveness is associated with the moralistic. So what looks like the moral choice is really just the product of extreme powerlessness. Whereas, if you have someone with more power, you might have revenge instead.
AND THEN HE SAYS:… Which makes you rethink people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.
Really? I mean, REALLY!?!? Does it? So, according to Steeltown, MLK and G acted out of powerlessness. We only now understand them to be heroic and moral because their actions happen to be associated with Goodness?!?!?!1?1!1?!?!
This is when my new mental health plan (adapted from dearfriendGrover) became: WTF, don’t go to that class anymore… what the hell are you doing to yourself!?
FORTUNATELY! there was still a weekly section to attend. Mostly section was better/less subtly evil than class was. It wasn’t totally full of Steeltown-afficianados. And since, I guess, I can be a pretty … intimidating… classmate, they didn’t totally dominate.
One choice moment from section though. The section leader for the day had decided to tackle to the topic of the “real world.” That is… the mysterious and cruel place that lies in wait outside of the university and how scared we are to get there. There is a lot of talk about how people are prolonging their education because they know that this is actually the Real World where we get to talk about Real things. And jobs, everyone knows, are totally boring. This seems to be the biggest stated hesitation about joining the real world: fear of boredom. Maybe this was a really productive conversation for a lot of people in the class. We were a good ten minutes into an earnest conversation about how people are so nervous to join the realworld when I decided to ask a question.
Femmephane: Um… Are you guys serious? I get that we’re having a conversation about a really specific upper-middle class trajectory here but… Really? When people treat me in belittling ways about what’s going to happen when I get to the real world (especially professors who are “in it” etc) I get kind of insulted. Just because we’re in this program doesn’t mean that we all have had the same trajectory that people assumingly retroject for us. And some of us have very different realities outside this place…. on on blah blah blah
People have a really good conversation, mostly, about how this is actually a weird conversation that is only relevant to a particular class of people. It strikes me that way more of them belong to that class that I had initially estimated. The section is primarily white (maybe 17/20) and many of them came straight from undergraduate and attended expensive private universities and Ivies.
Classmate: Question, when do we start feeling like adults? Does that just happen at some point.
TeachingAssistant: As the oldest person in this room, I can say definitively “never.” Adult is just an arbitrary state of mind.
[I silently disagree]
Latino Classmate: I disagree. I felt like an adult as soon as I realized I could be tried as an adult for a crime.
Intense Silence. Uncertainly about whether L.C. is joking or not. The answer is: yes.
Section tries to recover with talk about how the concept of “taking time off” to do things like Habitat for Hum is totally weird because really the Habitat part of their lives is the REAL part.
Section leader very gracefully wraps up conversation, including my comment in his analysis in a very productive way.
Latino classmate: It’s weird. No one has ever asked me what I’M gonna do when I join the real world or talked to me about what a shock it’s going to be.
Femmephane: Have you noticed that you’re not white?
Latino Classmate: WTF?! I AM NOT?! NO way!
Abiding Discomfort Presides. LC and I celebrate final section with drinks and friendship.