Category Archives: Thunk

Peripatetic purpose

Stumbled upon an interesting article by researcher Glenn Morrison that touches on differences between the European custom of walking for wonder and adventure and the Aboriginal custom of walking as duty and ceremony.


“Last week I spoke to Shaun Angeles, a northern Arrernte man from Ayampe who is working at the Strehlow Research Centre in Alice Springs.

Shaun is a researcher with the Indigenous Repatriation Program and elaborated on the walking tradition in Central Australia.

“Families will always walk within their tribal boundaries; it was their obligation and responsibility,” he said.

“We were always surrounded by Ancestral spirits, whether it be the spirits that first created the country, or the irrernte-arenye (from the cold) spirits of our human kin that had passed.

“We would never walk without a purpose: We walked with our songs, always teaching our young and always in a state of worship and respect of spirits imbued in the landscape.

“To walk softly with intent, was always our obligation to the law and land.”

The article also refers to a book of essays which goes on the wish list: Making Connections: A journey along Central Australian Aboriginal trading routes, eds Valerie Donovan and Colleen Wall.


Age tale

I return to myself, familiar.

A sense of timelessness, but not eternal.


Today’s unread articles and links (Bookchin etc)

A new book on Bookchin: Murray Bookchin’s New Life

An Editorial Flop Revisited: Rethinking the Impact of M. Bookchin’s Our Synthetic Environment on its Golden Anniversary

And from the Reader

Institute for Social Ecology

Libertad Guerra on CHARAS Co-Founder & LES Community Hero, Chino Garcia

The Retreat of the Intellectuals


Foucault doco from 1993

Alas, quickly moves into predictably sensationalist TV dross.

Punk prof.

“I think that teaching punk allows for a socially informed pedagogy”. “We learn about history; we learn about the historical and material conditions that punk comes from.” Jessica Schwartz

Self as fictional abstractum/s

Dennett, in The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity (1986), on the problem of interpreting the complexities of human beings and other animals:

The hermeneuticist or phenomenologist – or anthropologist – sees some rather more complicated things moving about in the world – human beings and animals – and is faced with a similar problem of interpretation. It turns out to be theoretically perspicuous to organize the interpretation around a central abstraction: each person has a self …

It is interesting to try to imagine an interpretation where this self is somehow removed, or bracketed – not only of a cohort or the self in relation to other selves, but to one’s relation to one’s self, and particularly in the context of auto-ethnography.

It is “possible for a person to engage in auto-hermeneutics, interpetation of one’s self, and in particular to go back and think about one’s past, and one’s memories, and to rethink them and rewrite them. This process does change the “fictional” character, the character that you are …”

Why are we all such inveterate and inventive autobiographical novelists? As Umberto Maturana has (uncontroversially) observed: “Everything said is said by a speaker to another speaker that may be himself.” But why should one talk to oneself? Why isn’t that an utterly idle activity, as systematically futile as trying to pick oneself up by one’s own bootstraps?

Dennett here is discussing the notion of multiple personalities, “split-brain subjects” communicating between themselves. This becomes interesting when thinking of the notion of the daimōn, the ‘spirit’ element of eudaimonia, and the self’s relationship with this apparent resident other. It is interesting to try to think of this intra-self communication outside the normative, Aristotelian sense. Outside too of conscience, in the sense ascribed to Heraclitus where “character is for man his daimon”.

According to Gazzaniga, the normal mind is not beautifully unified, but rather a problematically yoked-together bundle of partly autonomous systems. All parts of the mind are not equally accessible to each other at all times. These modules or systems sometimes have internal communication problems which they solve by various ingenious and devious routes.

Dennett is now discussing, speculatively, the evolutionary aspects of the compartmentalised reasoning: asking questions with one autonomous system, only to find others as potentially delivering answers. That is, talking to yourself.

By way of Ryle (1979): “… there is no conscious self that is unproblematically in command of the mind’s resources. Rather, we are somewhat disunified. Our component modules have to act in opportunistic but amazingly resourceful ways to produce a modicum of behavioral unity, which is then enhanced by an illusion of greater unity.”

‘… it can turn out that the best hermeneutical story we can tell about that individual says that there is more than one character “inhabiting” that body.’

I was expecting Dennett to go on to discuss this simultaneity of the compartmentalised mind as the basis for the problematised self. He didn’t. He used “psychological disorders, or surgically created disunities” to put his point about “two centers of gravity, two selves”, more than one abstraction. Which kind of confused me – is he arguing a single, multi-modal mind-self or more than one of these, a second or third multi-modal mind-self? Fictional abstractum or abstracta?


Adventures in cultural anthropology

Spent the good part of an evening recently watching and reading the work of Dr Michael Wesch and his students at KSU.

I particularly enjoyed the video project Smile Because it Happened, where his Digital Ethnography class spends a semester living in a retirement community.

His new website is My Teaching Notebook.

That Rilke quote from those letters

I searched here for this quote then realised I posted it to a now deleted site. So here it is. It is a fairly well-known quote from “Letters to a Young Poet” (1903).

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

I was reminded of this quote when watching an interview with Michael Wesch, who teaches digital ethnography at Kansas State University. Wesch was speaking about the importance of the question in the context of learning. To simply give answers as ‘knowledge’ is not enough. The delivery of knowledge in the form of a laundry list of answers is an anachronism, belonging to a 19th century teaching paradigm.  Rather, learning must be about exploring and addressing the ‘burning questions’ that are front and centre of students’ minds. This is the heart of learning. “Oftentimes,” Wesch writes, “the answer to a good question is irrelevant – the question is an insight in itself. The only answer to the best questions is another good question.”

Just as in this post, the quote is not given in the context of the full letter. It is advice given (at first reluctantly) to a young student, Franz Kappus, who is trying to decide between pursuing the path of a poet or that of a soldier.

Rilke’s suggestion is not only to not seek the advice of others but to ‘Go into yourself’, to:

‘trust in Nature, in what is simple in Nature, in the small Things’ … ‘take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself, and don’t hate anything.’

‘And don’t be puzzled by how many names there are and how complex each life seems. Perhaps above them all there is a great motherhood, in the form of a communal yearning.’


Against the learning outcome

An addendum to the title of this post might read along the lines of: but not the income. And by that I am referring to institutionalised teaching.

Oddly enough, earlier today I was reading about the peripatetic nature of the early Greek form of transmitting knowledge. No, that’s not quite right. Perhaps more like their – well, Aristotle’s in particular – en plein air development of methods of critical thinking. Out in the open because, it is said, The Philosopher was not a citizen of Athens, a requisite to property ownership, and therefore wandered orating around the grounds of the Lyceum.

For Diogenes, however, even this extolling while strolling was elitist and a corruption of the true meaning of any and all philosophical discourse, namely the path to arete (ἀρετή) or virtue. What brought me back to Diogenes and the goal, as it were, of philosophy was this Scott Soames article, titled Philosophy’s True Home, the gist of which is a defence of the institutionalisation of philosophy as a discipline: “philosophers actually function best in universities”. Philosophy is not the quaint little practice of the everyday it once was, goes the argument. It is now massively complex, the accrual of a couple of millennia or more, a fully fledged discipline too big for any one person to carry round in their head.

This is a repost to the argument put by Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle in a piece from January, titled When Philosophy Lost Its Way. Taking their cue from Bruno Latour’s notion of philosophy ‘purified’, the authors argue that the practice died once it hit the modern institution, where:

“Real” or “serious” philosophers had to be identified, trained and credentialed. Disciplinary philosophy became the reigning standard for what would count as proper philosophy.

Moving from a practice to a discipline, philosophy lost its moral moorings in the institution; it “should never have been purified”, they argue.

So, as it turns out, the idea of philosophy’s death-by-credentialism was merely the prelude to a bunch of articles that came my way today, which was the purpose of this post. They came via a post by Alistair Livingston, which pointed to a piece by Jeff Noonan, titled Ten Theses In Support of Teaching and Against Learning Outcomes. Learning outcomes, Noonan argues, ‘are part of a conservative drift in higher education towards skill-programming and away from cultivation of cognitive freedom and love of thinking.’ That is, away from how to think and towards a what to think. Noonan, in turn, cited some earlier pieces, most notably a very interesting and persuasive piece by Frank Furedi, titled The unhappiness principle. The author here lays out in some detail the many contradictions in the logics of the institutional learning outcome. Again, an indictment against the present paradigm of dumbing down critical thinking. The fixation with the quantification of standardised learning outcomes is at odds with the often creative and unpredictable process which underpins critical thinking. (Another article cited: Who are the spongers now? by Stefan Collini.)

This need to quantify is endemic across all institutions and organisations – just about anywhere people perform activities. Among its many logics, almost certainly the product of school of management thinking, is that of return on investment (ROI). Every practice consists of discrete calculable units, and learning outcomes are one of the deemed measurable units of teaching. ROI models may function adequately enough in some domains, economics, finance and the like (even these are hugely problematic), but very quickly become pretty much alchemy and woo-woo in others insofar as conventional metrics simply do not migrate across to other fields. The results are in fact counterproductive. Furedi:

It is important to recall that the principal reason for the invention of learning outcomes was to hold academics and their institutions to account. As an integral component of auditing culture, advocates of learning outcomes claimed that through rendering the work of institutions more explicit, higher education would become more transparent and accountable. But, paradoxically, a method of organising education that has as one of its aims the institutionalisation of accountability fosters a climate of non-responsibility.



Three quotes from Learned Hand

Our dangers, as it seems to me, are not from the outrageous but from the conforming; not from those who rarely and under the lurid glare of obloquy upset our moral complaisance, or shock us with unaccustomed conduct, but from those, the mass of us, who take their virtues and tastes, like their shirts and their furniture, from the limited patterns which the market offers. The Preservation of Personality.

The condition of our survival in any but the meagerest existence is our willingness to accommodate ourselves to the conflicting interests of others, to learn to live in a social world. To Yale Law Graduates.

Life is made up of a series of judgments on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us. On Receiving an Honorary Degree.