bite-sized philosophy 2019
I did go more prepared this time—I brought water, a phone charger, my camera, and wore comfier shoes. But I also learned some new lessons: just because they give out free water doesn’t mean you’ll be able to find it, backpacks > tote bags, it will be hot inside even though it’s freezing outside, and there was a lot more waiting around than I’d remembered.
Like last year, there was no core demographic. The attendees were incredibly diverse. But what struck me was how crowded it was. Every single lecture I went to was overflowing into the library stacks. There wasn’t a single lecture that there wasn’t a line for. And I guess it makes sense, given that the people attending are willing to give up their Saturday night (and Sunday morning) to listen to people talk about philosophy, but I was still surprised that people were so eager to learn about what felt like very niche topics.
I’ve decided to make this a yearly thing. I often miss the stimulation of university learning, but sometimes feel a bit intimidated by academia (for no good reason), and this is a great way to keep my brain working even if I’m not actively enrolled in classes. What I really like about it is that all of the lectures are about such complex topics but they’re still highly approachable at 30 minutes each, just a taste to get you to think a little bit more critically about your perspective.
keeping calm in a ranging world (trungram gyaltrul rinpoche)
I hadn’t originally planned on attending this lecture, but the line was so long, so naturally I was intrigued. It was easy to guess why this talk was so popular, but I was curious as to why people were going—if they were cautiously optimistic or anxiously survivalist. As it turned out, it was the latter; most people were simply there looking for ways to deal with our current social climate (there was emphatic applause when the speaker brought up the example of the New York subway as something that elicited anger). It felt as though everyone there was honestly searching for some wisdom with which to make sense of today’s world, ways of keeping calm to benefit coexistence.
getting angry is a habit pattern formed out of powerlessness
Think of the times you've gotten angry—it’s usually, at its core, because of a false moral high ground (e.g. "how dare you do this to me). We hold the false belief that we are entitled to our anger—"I am right/good and you are wrong/bad"—and codify people as friends or enemies depending on whether they benefit or harm us in the moment. But moments pass; our lives are compilations of moments in time, and one moment of weakness does not equate to a lifetime of moral condemnation. Nor does a moment of goodness redeem someone who has spent a lifetime antagonizing others.
The Buddhist concept of equanimity states that “neither a thought nor an emotion, it is rather the steady conscious realization of reality's transience.” It’s the idea that we should keep an even mind toward all experience. This, coupled with the idea of interdependence, results in the idea that things do not exist inherently; it depends on context. Each moment is not an end-all, be-all—all moments pass, and that’s the Buddhist nature of reality.
feelings are not independent facts
Emotions are a valid form of information, but they can also cloud judgment. People who push past you on the subway often take on a monstrous quality. It can also be the opposite cognitive bias—the halo effect, where your affection or amiable feelings toward someone are because of one particular favored quality. But being emotional is not effective; people will not change their mind because of anger. Learning to protest peacefully and with dignity is what we respect.
don’t take it personally
She used the example of comedian Patton Oswalt reacting to a Twitter troll by donating to help his medical expenses—in understanding his attacker’s motivations, he was able to empathize; an example of true compassion.
I read something a long time ago on an /r/AskReddit thread, asking something like “What have you learned?” and one of the answers was “If someone is rude to you, it’s rarely about you,” and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. It’s helped me a lot on the New York subway, that’s for sure.
understand where anger comes from
It’s important to acknowledge your anger and understand where it comes from. She said that she doesn’t advocate for peace all the time, which is fair. Some guy asked about revolution, cases in which anger was necessary in changing the course of history, and it made me think that the ability to rise above anger could also be privilege—when people are attacking you and threatening your safety, like so many people are today, peace is not necessarily the answer. But it is a good lens through which to look at past anger
the new york times travel booth: call a journalist
This was a new installation—a soundproof video call booth in which you could Skype New York Times journalists from all over the world. I read Sebastian Modak’s name on the list and immediately signed up. He’s the new 52 Places Traveler, the person traveling to all of The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go in 2019.” I followed all of Jada Yuan’s and was incredibly envious of both her and Sebastian, so I had to talk to him. Two other women asked if they could come with me, so the three of us crammed into the booth and Skyped a sleepy Sebastian, who was posted in Houston for the week, having just stepped off a plane from Panama hours before. We talked a little bit about how he got the job—he was raised moving around a lot with no singular definition of “home,” and he’s traveled extensively as a editor for Condé Nast Travel—but I was most curious about what he looks for when he travels. Being the 52 Places Traveler requires that you really be immersed in a place and paint a comprehensive picture in your dispatches, in only a week in each place. He said that he looks for “the unexpected”; the little things that most people don’t notice. We only got him for a couple of minutes, but it was amazing to see him at the start of his journey, when he’d already visited a couple of the places (Puerto Rico and Panama) but still had so many more to go. He said that he’d already felt changed by those two weeks, by the experience of living in a different place every week and seeing so many different things and meeting locals from all over the world, and I was envious all over again. What a life-changing (and probably life-defining) experience.
Edit: I tweeted at him later, asking him what was “unexpected” about Panama, and what he’d learned from Jada, and this is what he answered: “I didn’t really expect anything specific in Panama so everything was pretty unexpected. But the scuba diving was especially incredible!! And there’s so much I’ve learned from @jadabird! From tips on keeping track of expenses to raincoat recs she’s been awesome!”
on the importance of the concept of submission (manon garcia)
This one was also fascinating—power dynamics are easy to dismiss but they are the invisible constructs that rule our world. In this lecture, a French philosophy professor argued that there is power in submission, and in the choice to be submissive.
what does submission mean?
She began with the most basic form of submission—BDSM, which stands for Bondage, Dominance, Sadism, and Masochism. In 2014, criminal law in Europe was changed to state that the law cannot infringe upon sexual consent; in other words, willful submission.
Submission is often regarded as a moral fault in classical philosophy, the alienation of freedom; however, in pop philosophy, submission is sometimes depicted as a good thing (Desperate Housewives, Penelope in The Odyssey.
what is the use of submission?
This is especially relevant question, especially in the patriarchy. The paradigmatic myth of the veiled Muslim women is, “Oh, she defines herself in relation to men; she deems herself inferior.” But there are also contemporary examples of submission: preferring to be under a boss instead of self-employment or serving someone else without expectation of reciprocity. We give up freedom for goods, like the well-being of our families. It can be a way to cope in a patriarchal world.
Therefore, we should adopt a non-moral view of submission. It’s a misconception that submissive people don’t have agency.
what is the link between submission and dominance?
Submission and dominance are not necessarily opposites of one other; a lack of submission ≠ dominance, and a lack of dominance ≠ submission. There is an ambiguity in the word “submission” because it’s both transitive and reflexive—you can be submissive to someone, or you can submit yourself to someone. It’s not being passive, but rather actively being passive.
Dominance is also ambiguous; it explains what A is to B, but relation is not action. We conflate the relation of domination with what the dominator does to the dominated, but in order for us to have a relation, we have to have two people!”
Dominance, even the threat of it, is a form of dehumanization. It’s the ugliest kind of power. And you can be dominant without doing anything, which explains privilege.
why do we need submission?
Submission allows us to look at power from the point of view of the powerless—from those living it but not exerting it.
My seventh grade World History teacher once remarked that “history books are written by the victors,” and this explains how our world views are shaped by the stories we have been told, stories of power. But “look how I serve you” can be a form of power. We choose to be submissive sometimes.
Feminism is not just fighting the patriarchy but fighting the consequences of the patriarchy; in a patriarchy, women’s voices are often erased. We tend to think that women are irrational, but there is power in the refusal of the patriarchy and there can be joy in BDSM. She left us with the hope that these ideas complexifies the debate about the veil.
what makes a song good: franz schubert, kurt cobain, and philosophy (michael brofman)
Is “good” in music ever completely objective? Michael Brofman, the curator at the Brooklyn Public Library, spoke to us about his job curating the library’s collection of music—it’s actually his job to determine what is “good” and what isn’t. His mantra is: Taste is one thing but a good song is a function of philosophy. Songs are considered “good” in the way the lyrics and melody interact; the existence of the lyrics and melody inherently have no value, but it’s how they play with each other and work toward something.
what do franz schubert and kurt cobain have in common?
“Im Frühling” is in German, but you can hear emotion in the refrain. The premise is that it’s spring, and the singer is looking at spring things that remind him of his lover, who is revealed to have died last spring:
Quietly I sit on the hill's slope.
The sky is so clear;
a breeze plays in the green valley
where I was at Spring's first sunbeam
once - ah, I was so happy;
Where I walked at her side,
So intimate and so close,
and deep in the dark rocky spring
was the beautiful sky, blue and bright;
and I saw her in the sky.
Similarly, “Lithium” begins with a flip:
I’m so happy, ‘cause today I found my friends
They’re in my head
The titles set expectations. “Spring” connotes aliveness and blooming, but there’s a juxtaposition between death and mourning and the pretty melody. “Lithium” is a reference to lithium salts, used to treat depression. In both songs there are two sides of a coin—the melody is a phrase, and the rest is a break between the ideas, e.g. “’cause today I found my friends [rest] they’re in my head.” This false cadence is harmonic deception, a melodic trick.
The chorus of “Lithium” is one word—“yeah”—and it’s at a part where the dynamics change; although it’s affirmative, it’s also despairing, similar to Schubert’s “ach” (“oh”). When the two sides of the coin converge, words are superfluous and the melody takes over. “Lithium” says, “I miss you, I’m not gonna crack,” but there’s a key shift from major to minor, so he is, indeed, cracking.
Great songs connect us to an emotional truth, and music = power.
Oscar Wilde writes in The Soul of Man under Socialism that, “A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman.” In other words, what Bronfman referred to as “hypercommodification.”
But connection to what makes us human is essential, and that’s where music comes in.
colonial persistence in new york city (benoît challand)
This was one lecture that I accidentally sat in on—I was actually waiting for a lecture called “The Current Crisis in Our Sexual Relationships” (we never found out what it was, and I am still so intrigued), and I happened to hear this one. But it turned out to be very relevant. It was all about connecting bodies and ideas; the lecturer had worked extensively in Palestine on Islamophobia. He argued that the frame of mind, “settler-colonialism” lives with us, and that there is too much exclusion and too much specialization in academia, and while it is necessary to focus on certain ideas, it is important to understand that they are informed by context.
Colonialism invokes a distant past of ugly European occupation, but many contemporary examples in living traits and practices remind us of its relevance. The official flag of New York City reveals an ignorance of its past—there’s this trope of New York City as a migrant city, but it had a violent past that is often disregarded altogether.
“facing our present”
The motif of this talk was “facing our present,” which he dissected into three parts, one for each word:
Facing: Who are the people? This can be the basis for an alternative history, so it’s important to put faces to the people and give them credence for their place in history.
The seal of New York City, on the flag, has the bald eagle (which represents the USA), the sea man (the colonizer), the beaver (trade), the Native American (the settler), and the windmill (Dutch architecture).What’s missing? The destruction of the enslaved African-Americans that built the city. Slaves had a rich knowledge of languages, and often created contacts with native people, thus serving as an instrumental part of the foundation of New York, but there is no commemoration of their roles. In fact, on the map of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, the site doesn’t overlap with City Hall; it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that they built City Hall over the bodies of enslaved peoples.
So why mention the Native Americans? By the time the seal was created in 1916, they had already been destroyed. It’s there as a reminder of liberation on the island of “Manna-hata,” and paints a picture of the “good” Indian—the tame Indian—with no mention of the 1712 or 1742 rebellions.
“Facing” is an antidote to self-complacent liberalism and whiteness.
Our: Who is we? We are implicated; there is a pluralism and a focus on the collective in the word “our” that makes it the way forward. It is a way to make multiculturalism palatable, indicating a shared responsibility.
Multiculturalisms insists on the contributions of individuals, but we should not concentrate on emancipation; rather, on cooperation. Let us avoid thinking of erasure or destruction in isolation—we have to look at it as a part of our history and identity. We cannot distance ourselves from our ugly pasts; we have to acknowledge that it made us who we are.
Present: The way he phrased it was “post-slavery Jim Crow,” or the idea that simply because we have established what is “right” and “wrong” doesn’t mean that our society has caught up. Now we have vulnerable migrant groups, and we are looking at the present through a “prism of capitalism” rather than minimal intervention. Capitalism is not just an economic system—it bundles human achievement and environment into restorative + constructive.
what does capitalism have to do with colonialism?
It’s the same thing. Colonialism is marginalization, and it’s the foundation of capitalism; essentially, capitalizing on opportunity, the generated relayering of collective space. For example, the hotly-debated institution of ICE is connected to shameful privatization—it needs vulnerable bodies to fill cells.
In order to move forward, we have to fight against our colonial legacy and highlight solidarity. We have to be aware of multiple paths of history, and make an effort to change the landscape of memory and make these narratives known (another example of “history written by the victors.”) Reclaiming spaces like Black Gotham Experience is a great start, and with this, we can form a more nuanced version of post-colonialism, or arguably, true post-colonialism.
This night gave me so much to think about! I’m still thinking about it, several weeks later, which is the hallmark of a really impactful lecture. But I really like events like these because they really allow you to open your mind to new ways of thinking, which, if I’ve learned anything from this set of lectures, is how we move forward as humans and as a society.