2020 Meeting of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor

I just received confirmation of the line-up for our session at the 2020 meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago:

Thursday, February 27
Thursday evening, 7:30pm – 10:30pm

International Association for the Philosophy of Humor
“West and East: Humor in the History of Philosophy”
Chair: Lydia Amir (Tufts University)

Speakers:

John Marmysz (College of Marin)
“That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes”

Lydia Amir (Tufts University)
“Clarifying Montaigne’s Thought through Homo risibilis: How the Philosophy of Humor Bears on Unresolved Problems of Interpretation”

Matthew Meyer (The University of Scranton)
“Between Tragedy and Comedy: Nietzsche’s Zarathustra IV as Zwischenspiel”

Jonathan Weidenbaum (Berkeley College)
“To Laugh in a Pluralistic Universe: The Relevance of William James for the Philosophy of Humor”

Choong-Su Han (Ehwa Womans University, Seoul)
“An Elucidation of the Meaning of the Buddha’s Smile”

APA Blog Post

I have written a guest blog post for the American Philosophical Association’s website detailing the arguments from my book Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. It includes an excerpt from “Chapter 9: Yukio Mishima and the Return to the Body.”

You can read it here:

American Philosophical Association

Seattle APA 2017

The 91st annual meeting of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association was once again held in Seattle, Washington this year. I was invited to present a paper, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor, which met as a part of the conference.

My last visit to Seattle was also the first time I had ever been to the city. My wife and I had a great time, so we looked forward to seeing the place once again. Deciding to try something new this time around, instead of flying we travelled the 800 miles by car, with stops in Ashland and Portland. After the conference we drove back to the Bay Area in one day; a test of endurance that proved, due to torrential and blinding rain, to be the biggest challenge of the entire journey.

The quickest route from Marin County to Seattle is to get on Interstate Route 5, point the car north, and hit the accelerator while dodging 18 wheel big rigs and Highway Patrol speed traps. Route 5 through California is straight, long and mostly boring, cutting through farmland and rural towns up until you reach the area around Mt. Shasta, near the California/Oregon border. It is here that the road begins to get more interesting and curvy while the scenery becomes more awe-inspiring. As we climbed in elevation through the Cascades, we were treated to beautiful views of Mt. Shasta, Black Butte, and breathtaking vistas from the mountainous pass into Oregon.

Along the way through this region of California, we began to see signs proclaiming that we had entered the State of Jefferson; a proposed 51st US state. The push to carve this state out from Northern California and Southern Oregon dates all the way back to 1941, but recently there has been a renewed burst of enthusiasm, with the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors voting in 2013 for cessation from California. While much of the motivation behind the creation of Jefferson is rooted in the feeling that this area of California is more conservative – more “red” – than the rest of the state, there is, apparently, also an alternative, punk-inspired energy associated with the movement as well. On a recent visit to Yreka, the proposed capital of Jefferson, a friend of mine discovered a flyer authored by “Jefferson Crew,” a coalition that strives to foster a sense of community among small town punk scenes in the area:

Passing through Jefferson, we entered into Oregon and stopped for the night in Ashland. We had visited this destination many times before; both as a convenient stop while on motorcycle rides and as attendees at the town’s famous Shakespeare Festival. This time around we had dinner with a friend who had recently moved here with his wife and his new family. We had pints and mushroom burgers at the Standing Stone Brewing Company before turning in for the night and then continuing our quest.

A short, 300 mile northward jaunt took us to Portland, where we stayed the night at The Kennedy School, an elementary school, first opened in 1915, that has now been converted into a boutique hotel. The classrooms (complete with chalk boards) have been converted into rooms, the cafeteria into a restaurant, the offices into bars, and the gymnasium into a movie theatre. The school is located in the middle of a suburban area, and serves as a meeting place for locals, conference goers and travelers. Visitors wander the hallways, sipping beer and wine that has been made on the premises, browsing the restored decorations, antique equipment and old photos, or lounging in the soaking pool. That evening, after a salmon dinner, we went to see Rouge One at the movie theater, relaxing in one of the very comfortable couches that serve as audience seating. The seating was so comfortable, in fact, that I fell asleep halfway through the film.

The next day we set out on the final leg of our journey, arriving in Seattle after braving our way through a torrential downpour that made things downright terrifying. Visibility was only a few feet, and I spent much of this part of the drive keeping my eyes on the glowing red tail lights of the car in front of me, hoping that they didn’t drift off of the freeway while we played follow the leader. Happily, as the skies cleared, and as we saw signs for Sleater-Kinney Road, we knew that we were getting close to our destination.

The APA Conference was, once again, held at the Westin Hotel, in downtown Seattle. I’ve written in previous postings about how the character of the APA has changed over the years. It has evolved from an organization that was at one time mostly unwelcoming to non-analytic philosophers into one that now seems enthusiastically to embrace a wide range of continental and non-western perspectives. In addition to the session on humor and philosophy that I participated in, I attended a fascinating panel discussion that addressed Hegel’s response to nihilism, another panel on the positive aspects of negative emotions (like envy and disgust), and a really interesting symposium addressing inconsistencies in the arguments of Socrates as he is depicted in the early Platonic dialogues. Conversation was lively and people were friendly.  I had the chance to meet and chat with an advisor of mine who I had not seen in many years, as well as discussing potential book projects with a commissioning editor from Palgrave Macmillan. This felt the way a conference ought to feel. We were able to mix with people of like interests, gaining exposure to new perspectives, and sharing ideas with others. The conference was certainly a success.

On our previous trip, we didn’t explore the downtown sections of Seattle too extensively, but this time we spent more time walking the streets and exploring various neighborhoods. One of the places we visited was  Left Bank Books, an anarchist collective that sits on prime real estate, right in the middle of the tourist area at Pike Place Market. I love the fact that this radical, independent bookseller is nestled among overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops, sitting right down the street from the very first Starbucks cafe. It has an amazing selection of literature, ranging from poetry, to philosophy to history to fanzines. While there, I purchased a copy of Beating the Fascists and dropped off a couple of copies of my own book, The Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel. 

Afterwards, we walked up to Belltown, where I dropped off more copies of the novel at Singles Going Steady, an incredible punk rock record/DVD/memorabilia shop. I spent a while talking with the guy working the counter who, as it turns out, originally comes from my own home of Marin County. We reminisced about old times, sharing memories and swapping opinions about our favorite bands. Afterwards, across the street, my wife and I played videogames and pinball at Shortys, a hipster bar with lots of atmosphere, good pints and friendly staff. We also went shopping at Gr8Gear, an old-time, no nonsense army/navy surplus store where we were attended to by a very friendly Sikh man who helped us find the correct sized hats and pants while also recounting his adventures in the navy. We then wrapped things up by joining a street march and protest that was conveniently winding its way through the streets as we emerged from the store. While the protest was no “battle in Seattle,” it was, I think, an appropriate capstone to our visit.

I’m looking forward to seeing Seattle again. After this second visit, I feel as if I’m more familiar with the lay out of the city and the areas that I would like to return to for further exploration. The place feels friendly, and the culture is agreeable to my tastes. If they could just dial the rainfall back a notch and raise the temperature, I could even imagine living here.

 

A New Year

marmysz_1-2-2-1-draggedI have submitted the manuscript for Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings to the publisher, Edinburgh University Press. It looks like the cover has already been posted on the Amazon UK website. The official release date is quite appropriate: Halloween, 2017.

In April, I’m looking forward to the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association, where I’ll make a presentation to the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor. My presentation, “Humor, Nihilism and Film,” will address the ways in which nihilistic incongruity is implicated in both the humorous and the horrific aspects of films like Trainspotting and The Human Centipede.

Currently, I’m putting the finishing touches on a paper about spiritual homelessness and punk rock that will be part of a collection, edited by Juneko Robinson, tentatively titled Thinking Through Things. The collection focuses on the interconnection between artifacts and human thought.

The new year is off to a nihilistic start!

Pacific APA 2015

Welcome to VancouverThe 2015 Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association took place April 1 – 4 in Vancouver, British Columbia. It may seem a bit odd that the American Philosophical Association would meet in Canada; but Canada is part of North America, after all.

This marked my first visit to Vancouver. It is a place that I never previously thought much about. The only reason that it was even on my radar is because it is home to the classic punk band D.O.A. Consequently, I really didn’t have any expectations built up in my mind for this visit. I knew that I wanted to eat seafood, and I was looking forward to being outdoors. That’s about it.

Well, it turns out that Vancouver is really quite a nice place. It reminds me a lot of Seattle (where the APA met in 2013), as it is situated on an inlet of water that opens into the Pacific Ocean and it is nestled in amongst stunning mountains and wilderness. During our stay, the sound of seaplanes taking off and landing in Coal Harbor was a constant, background soundtrack, making me feel like we were in a place far from home; some place way north, where salty fishermen still risk their lives on the sea and lumberjacks still work the forests. The old TV show Northern Exposure kept coming to mind. Unlike the small rural Alaskan town in that show, however, Vancouver is a big, modern, metropolis.

Vancouver BuildingsThe city center of Vancouver looks like a simulation. Most of the skyscrapers are very new, and of a uniform style, making it seem like they were built all at once; like someone was in a hurry to complete the skyline. The buildings sit in a cluster, crowded right next to the water and demanding attention a bit too stridently. It is like the city planners really wanted people to recognize Vancouver as a metropolis. It is so polished and planned that it appears as if was intended to evoke  the generic form of “CITY”. Maybe this is why it is often used in films as a stand-in for other locations.

The conference itself was fun. I’ve mentioned in previous postings that over the years, the APA has become increasingly inclusive, hosting more and more sessions devoted to continental thought rather than just being a good ‘ole boy’s club for analytic philosophers. This time around there were multiple presentations on Heidegger and Nietzsche. I participated as a chairman in a session focused on the topic of authenticity. There were a number of presentations devoted to aesthetics; the most enjoyable for me being the inaugural meeting of the International Association for the Philosophy of Humor where I had the pleasant opportunity to meet John Moreall and Noël Carroll for the first time. I also enjoyed attending sessions on the aesthetics of disgust, film and philosophy and two meetings devoted to Kantian philosophy. There were so many thrilling things to listen to and discuss that I almost felt like I was at a philosophy carnival(…and yes, there were some clowns in attendance)! Now that the APA has become so open to speakers and topics across the whole range of philosophy, I’m thinking that I may have some success at organizing a panel on nihilism for a future meeting. We’ll see how that flies.

TotemPoleWhen not attending the conference, my wife and I spent our time walking. We wandered through picturesque Stanley Park, enjoying the sight of thousands of tulips and other sorts of flowers, the choppy waters of Vancouver Harbor, and an assortment of totem poles.  We also walked along the waterfront and into Gastown; the oldest part of Vancouver, which is now a hipster heaven crawling with tattooed twenty-somethings, overpriced restaurants and coffee houses. It was there that we enjoyed some good cookies (but awful coffee) at Maple Delights, a shop dedicated to all things maple. Later, at Chill Winston, I had some decent octopus on toast, brussel sprouts and a pint. My wife had a veggie burger. I thought the meal was too expensive. My wife said that’s because I’m part Scottish. Which reminds me: we also browsed the items in a shop devoted to Scottish imports called The House of McLaren. I didn’t buy anything, however, since everything was overpriced.

Pork Bun StoreOn another day, when we walked to Chinatown to eat pork buns, we found ourselves at one point engulfed in a sea of drug dealers, runaways, homeless kids, and other sorts of street people who seemed to appear out of nowhere. The throngs were crowded into an area of probably about 3 or 4 blocks on what I think was Hastings Street. As we passed into this area I initially thought that perhaps there was a street fair going on. Guys and girls with multicolored hair, mohawks and facial piercings lined the sidewalk, sitting on blankets spread with things for sale: books, old records, televisions sets, an engine that looked like it came out of a lawnmower, a kitchen sink. Every few steps that we took, there were people exchanging money for drugs. An unkempt man, smelling strongly of body odor, accidentally bumped into me and politely said, “Oh. Excuse me sir.” I checked my wallet. It was still there. As we continued on, I realized that there were police cars parked on either end of each block with officers monitoring the whole situation, not intervening but apparently just keeping an eye on things to be sure that they didn’t get out of hand.  This, as it turns out, is the part of town that the tourist guides suggest you avoid. I, however, disagree.  It was one of the highlights of our visit!

Capilano BridgeOn our last day in Canada we rented a car and drove to Capilano Reserve Park, a tourist attraction that features a long, alarmingly elevated foot bridge stretching across a deep river ravine. My wife and some of my relatives had warned me about the treacherous nature of this attraction and how it would take a great deal of bravery to walk across its narrow, swaying span. When I finally did mount the bridge, however, I felt let down. There really was nothing too scary about it at all. It was wide enough to accommodate three people shoulder to shoulder, and it was so solid that I wasn’t even aware of it swaying. In pictures it looks precarious. In reality its just another walk in the park.

I enjoyed our visit to Vancouver. It is a city that has a good mix of sophistication, urban grit and outdoor beauty. I think I’d like to go back sometime to go camping and see a punk rock show.

Pacific APA 2013

402238_159649527482086_84650288_nThis year’s Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association was held right here in the Bay Area, at the Westin St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. I chaired a session in which Scott Jenkins, from the University of Kansas, presented his paper “What Does Recurrence Weigh On?” Commenting on Scott’s paper was Babette Babich from Fordam University, a world-renowned Nietzsche scholar who I was particularly excited to meet. The session was quite well attended, and the interaction between Scott and Babette gave everyone who was present a dramatic and spirited taste of the differing ways that analytic and continental thinkers approach the interpretation of  Friedrich Nietzsche’s works.

Professor Jenkin’s paper came from an analytic perspective and focused on trying to clarify the meaning of the “recurrence question,” (RQ) which is posed by Nietzsche in his book The Gay Science. The recurrence question, in a nutshell, asks us to consider whether or not we are able to bear the “heaviest weight” of thinking that the entirety of our lives might be lived again and again into eternity. The text upon which Jenkins focused his analysis comes from section 341:

What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your most solitary solitude and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over and over again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

The passage goes on to ask if you would greet this possibility with joy or with horror. Would it be a comfort or a burden to you to think that every single event in your life – both wonderful and terrible – was destined to be repeated infinitely into the future?

To may contemporary Westerners, the idea of experiencing any sort of afterlife is commonly thought of as a comfort, and yet in Eastern philosophy, reincarnation is treated as a kind of punishment. Buddhists, for instance, think of reincarnation as a sign of spiritual failure. Consciousness is recycled for repeated rounds only because of residual karma that has not been worked through in one’s present life. The reward for spiritual success, on the other hand, is final extinction or nirvana. It is interesting that in Nietzsche’s works, the idea of repeating life again and again is characterized, following the Eastern example, as something potentially negative; hence the title of the particular section of Nietzsche’s book that Scott focused on: das grösste Schwergewicht (the heaviest weight). The thought that you may come back again and again, reliving life exactly as it has been lived in the past, is the “heaviest weight” precisely because, according to Nietzsche, it is difficult to bear.

The question is, why? Why is this thought such a heavy and burdensome weight?

One possible answer is suggested by those who think that RQ acts as a guide to decision-making and deliberation. In this view, asking yourself the recurrence question becomes a way to decide if you are capable of willing your very next action into eternity. Cast in this way, the recurrence question resembles something like the various formulations of the Categorical Imperative in the writings of Kant. It is a device for deciding how enthusiastic you are in embracing some proposed course of action. If you are joyful about the possible repetition of an action into eternity, then that is a sign the action is good or valuable. If, on the other hand, you are distressed about such a potential repetition, then that is a sign the action is bad or to be avoided. In this view, the “weight” of RQ is the result of how it guides and constrains our efforts of deliberation.

The problem with this interpretation, Jenkins argued, is that Nietzsche clearly states that we must consider every single one of our past actions – “everything unspeakably small or great” – when entertaining the thought of recurrence, and this would certainly not aid in decision-making, but would more likely undermine our ability to act. Considering every single event in our lives, both the important as well as the insignificant ones, is not only a practical impossibility,  it would also reduce us to indecision and inaction. Therefore, Jenkins claimed, this can’t be the “weight” of RQ.

So what is the weight of RQ? Jenkins’ conclusion was that Nietzsche provides no adequate answer and that it remains unclear what purpose asking this question is supposed to serve.

Babette Babich replied to Jenkin’s analytical exegesis with an impressive response that called into question his entire approach to reading Nietzsche. Drawing on a wide and varied set of references (everything from Nietzsche’s other works to the Torah), Babich stressed the importance of thinking the question of recurrence within context, demanding that we avoid isolating RQ from the very thing that it is supposed to highlight: the issue of human finitude and the struggle with nihilism. “The point is the paradox!” she insisted, suggesting that it is not the answer that matters, but the vigor with which we confront the idea. RQ, in this way of thinking, forces us to face the reality of a life rooted in the here-and-now and which promises nothing more than what we make of it. For Nietzsche, since heaven and God have become untenable crutches in modern life, we modern humans must learn to live in this world as if this is all there is. In considering that all our actions will be repeated into eternity, we free ourselves from the thought that some force outside of ourselves can intervene to save or rescue us from our own decisions. How we react to the thought of eternal recurrence is an indication as to how well or how poorly we have come to terms with this reality. It is not a question that has or needs any particular answer.

Nietzsche bustBoth presenters were fascinating to me in their own ways. I was impressed by Scott Jenkin’s clarity and his analytical rigor in trying to clarify the meaning of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the Eternal Return while I was also impressed by Babette Babich’s wide-ranging scholarly erudition. Ultimately the difference between the two boiled down to the difference between analysis and synthesis. For Scott, the meaning of RQ needed to be sought in the analytical dissection of the idea while for Babette, its meaning was to be found by synthesizing an understanding of its place within Nietzsche’s entire body of work, his overarching philosophy and his worldview.

It was a pleasure to meet these philosophers. It was also a pleasure to see that the APA these days seems much more open to the inclusion of presenters advocating a continental perspective. Doing so makes for a much more lively, rich and intellectually stimulating environment.

Nihilism, The Specials and The Eternal Return of the Same

220px-OuroborosThe last two weeks of March will be packed with all sorts of fun.

On Friday March 22nd, I will give a presentation to the San Francisco Regional Mensa group on the topic of nihilism in Scottish film. The talk will take place at Fort Mason Center at 7:30 pm.

The Specials, still one of my favorite bands, will be playing in San Francisco at the Warfield Theater the following evening, Saturday the 23rd.

The following week, beginning on Wednesday, March 27th and running through Sunday the 31st, The Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association will take place in San Francisco at the Westin St. Francis Hotel. I will chair a session on Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same on Saturday the 30th from 1 to 2pm. Scott Jenkins from the University of Kansas will present his paper titled “What does Eternal Recurrence Weigh On?” and Babette Babich from Fordham University will comment.

Hasn’t all of this happened before?