Notes on delirium and locality

Or, how to get a public conversation going

The previous mad thought (‘Mad people, sane ducks’, Feb. 14) I offered here to our marketplace of ideas (if ‘ideas’ is still what ‘we’ are happy to call a product of our thinking minds, but the struggle people seem to have in barely acknowledging that – never mind explaining how – they may be thinking makes me wonder, and makes me anxious, to echo G.E. Moore) sparked some responses in the form of posted comments that I’d like to fold over into further thought, delirious and otherwise.

Delirium as opportunity

Delirium, to start off with, can serve as a synonym for mad thought, and both are close to philosophy (even if only in some philosophers’ minds as the enemy). I take these mad thoughts as opportunities to analyze (break down) problems and paradoxes (to echo John Donne and others in the style or genre of the mode) presented by the delirium of thought in the chaotic flow of the experiences of a life (to echo Gilles Deleuze in Pure Immanence: A Life).

Such a formal or ‘intellectual’ definition runs the risk of obscuring the everyday nature of what I am describing – that is, the ordinary events that make our minds bend to make sense of them as we keep going forward (to speak in the newspeak of today’s government-media officers, displacing the shorter, simpler, and truer notions of acting freely and preparing for the future, and so on).

The bends and twists of thought, then, as movements connected to places and events: the folding of a commentary back onto its stimulus, the sparking of a thought from the memory of a site visited many times, like the duck pond where ‘one’ taught one’s children how to feed ducks and other birds and animals (well or badly). It seems the Memorial University duck pond sparked some connections for readers of these thoughts, and in a way that ‘more general’ issues and events don’t, at least in terms of generating continued activity – that is, a response (a question may be framed so: what gets me to respond?).

Back to the duck pond, then…

…Burton’s Pond, by way of some meta thoughts, me putting on my philosophical hat, so to speak (but blurring that with my everyday hat is really the point), in order to return to the feeling generated by a pond and a few dead ducks (one description). Someone wrote to diss my apparent anachronistic 1970’s hippie ethos. Thanks for making me laugh. Another wrote to bemoan the wall erected around the pond (note the way walls maintain their symbolic sense of hard barrier or access obstacle in today’s geopolitics, e.g., the Israeli wall of exclusion, and media-communications, e.g., firewalls).

Two different, contrary points of view on livable space, I’d say, on what that means and whether or not ‘we’ want it (at least in some public sense, that is, outside the confines of one’s own private domestic sphere/property or gated community extension of such).

Another comment: my nomination for Memorial’s political theatre star of the decade, Professor Ian Jones, would not have done what he did if he was not tenured; this was joined with the observation that the actual scare for bureaucrats here was the negative publicity, not the actual dead ducks.

On ducks fear of criticism and tenure distrust of public discourse

Let me deal with the negative publicity issue by connecting to the story of Memorial Professor Judy Adler and the negative publicity she has received, locally, for commenting publicly on the ignorance of basic geography among many of her second year sociology students. That leaves me speechless. Is the explanation a local fear of criticism or a global distrust of public critical discourse and democratic institutions?

Both, I’d suggest.

And that segues nicely into the issue of tenure, something I also hold (notwithstanding which some people advised me to consider anonymous authorship of these columns, given the above). Absolutely right. I am sure that Ian Jones’ tenure had something to do with his actions, and what an excellent argument for tenure (though that’s not where the geopolitical consensus on universities and employment security is tending, or trending, these days). (And to make my own university connections a little clearer, I know Judy Adler but though I am pretty sure I’ve met Ian Jones I would not be able to identify him.)

What the conversation could be about

Finally, a comment asking for more on my closing thoughts in ‘Mad people, sane ducks’ claiming universities are over-bureaucratized to the intense degree of squeezing out the life of their inhabitants. Thank you for the question (what else is out there documenting such?), and I’ll offer local experience back as a partial answer. I have not done the research or number-crunching myself, but my local experience working as a lecturer/instructor/assistant-and-associate-professor at Canadian universities over three decades gives me a palpable lived sense of the basic truth: more administrators relative to faculty/teachers and more time spent by faculty/teachers on administration than in the classroom or speaking with students (to leave research out of the equation for now).

Either there is no problem at MUN because MUN is catching up to elsewhere, OR the problem is global, not merely local.

A personal anecdote to crystallize some of what may be dismissed as mushy anecdotal impressions: approximately ten years ago, I and others in the philosophy department at Memorial floated the above hypothesis to a vice-president. The response was informative in that the tendency or trending was acknowledged (not disputed) but justified by national and international tendencies/trends. So, either there is no problem at MUN because MUN is catching up to elsewhere, OR the problem is global, not merely local. I’d pick the latter, though that’s where the deferred analysis would have to kick in (e.g., in arguments for the value of public critical discourse on site/location at real university campuses as of greater value than virtual learning). That’s a public conversation that I believe we need to have, though how capable we are of engaging in it is another question.

To conclude, a pithy and hopefully therapeutic and elegant construction from the twentieth century philosopher of logic, Nelson Goodman: “What we often mistake for the actual world is one particular description of it” (Fact, Fiction, and Forecast).

Photo illustration by Zach Bonnell.
Photo by Zach Bonnell.

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