Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wait, Which Part of the Office Suite Is That?

I like to read academicky conservative blogs -- Daniel Larison's Eunomia is the gold standard -- so when I saw that Culture 11 had a multiparty blog titled "Postmodern Conservative," I RSSed it tout de suite. But, yick, every post I've read so far is awfully dumb -- not stupid, but just kinda dumb -- and awfully self-assured in its half-informed dumbness. 

Consider "PowerPoint and Philosophy," which should be awesome:

The hidden premise beneath the proliferation of PowerPoint in university instruction is that there is nothing but data to share with students — that everything of practical, defensible value that can be taught can ultimately be captured by some quantitative measure. All else that remains, we are told, is smoke and mirrors. The obsession with data and information — versus ideas and human experience — has managed at a stroke to render university curriculua both excessively abstract and excruciatingly particular.

We now often exclude accounts of human life that take the big ideas seriously — ideas irreducible to discrete observable parts or explanations, which begin with lived political experience fundamentally resistant to mathematical representation. Our students are obviously hungry not just for knowledge but also the mentorship that cultivates their immature but powerful desires for meaning and purpose. Instead, we provide them with an avalanche of empirical data and a four year tutorial in job seeking. The widespread acceptance of PowerPoint is only the most recent and glaring example of the growing commodification of higher education. Tragically, universities have become factories of career accreditation, too sensitive to the moods of its customers and not sensitive enough to the demands of their souls.
Love the sentiment here, but hey, um... PowerPoint is a presentation application. There's nothing quantitative about it. I think you're thinking of Excel, which is sometimes used with PowerPoint, but generally not in humanities courses. You can say that PowerPoint can cut off the intellectual give-and-take that philosophy demands, but then you might as well denounce the chalkboard and the lecture. In fact, when you use it right, PowerPoint actually lets teachers and students engage with ideas in vivo voce speech more than traditional technologies, because you don't have to turn your back to write on the board.

This is actually something you can debate. But whatever PowerPoint's problems, an excess of quantitive data usually isn't one of them. This paragraph is too quick to jump to the big ideas, when taking them seriously requires being sensitive enough to the demands of getting details right.

Generally, I would say the problem with The Postmodern Conservative is that everything is tragic, without a clear or nuanced sense of what tragic means. Take a gander at "Socrates Belongs to the Red States":
Larison, as a Christian, understands this universe to be a tragic one because of the Fall (feel free to substitute some secular description of human nature’s brokenness, if you prefer), a condition which applies in all time zones. My "Red Socrates" thesis depends on the claim that cultural libertarianism is ill-equipped to make sense of a tragic universe. Tragedy involves looking at human suffering and saying that it was not only unavoidable but, more importantly, in some sense just and proper. Loyalties come into conflict and people get hurt, but that’s what’s supposed to happen when loyalties conflict!
Contrast this tragic sensibility with this definition of the purpose of politics (from a description of liberalism in an old Pomocon post I can’t find): "to reveal and institutionalize the needlessness of human suffering." I don’t mean to straw-man the Left, but it seems to me that liberalism/libertarianism has to attribute all human suffering to things like irrational cruelty, material scarcity, haste, poor judgment, and incomplete knowledge of the data set. They might be able to admit that some suffering is necessary because of the limited amount of stuff in the world, or the fact that human beings don’t have perfect knowledge, or the fact that instincts like selfishness are ineradicable. However, they can’t describe a universe in which suffering is morally necessary. This may be a particular prejudice of mine, but I believe moral philosophy rests on that fact. After all, if you’re just studying the most efficient way to allocate pleasure, isn’t that called economics?
Two points here. First, has Helen Rittelmeyer read the Oresteia? Aeschylus really did think that tragic suffering had the potential to be brought to a conclusion, as we set aside old blood feuds, revenge plots, tyranny, and torture in favor of Athenian justice, democracy, and a public and bloodless resolution of conflict. Orestes has conflicting loyalties, to his father and mother, and appears to deserve both suffering and praise, but the Athenian jury sorts that conflict out, the Erinyes/Furies become the Eumenides, and peace comes to both Athens and Thebes. That's what tragedy says. It's also what Hegel says, which is where this whole tragedy = competing moral claims business comes from.

Second, the issue is not whether the universe is or isn't a tragic one; it's which aspects of that tragic universe demand intervention by politics that conservatives and liberals usually disagree about. Conservatives generally have few qualms about the state stepping into matters of personal morality, while liberals don't flee in terror at the state addressing concentration of wealth and power. Authoritarian conservatism sees the resolution of all conflicts as the collapsing of the distinction between the logic of morality and the logic of the state; liberals are the one keeping that Aeschylean dream alive.

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