Frames /sing


Professors of the Left: Unite!

The discussion that arose around my last post on the discourse of the Left brought to mind something said to me in passing a few years ago.

A professor of Classics at a college which is a standard-bearer for the American Left, who had been teaching there for nearly half a century, and at least seemed to have communitarian political views, said of his many decades of watching the dining faculty there (paraphrased):

“The further to the Left the professor, the greater the likelihood that they will leave their tray behind to be cleaned up by the help”

Now this professor was not one for over-statement, though he had a love for the anecdotal (he was smiling at the irony when he said it). I could not help but feel that he was reporting a valid, sedimented and anthropological fact. Nearly fifty years of the American Left had passed through the dining hall, and year after year this man had simply watched. I believe, because he himself made it an aim of personal friendships and personal acquaintance with much of the now largely Hispanic staff at the college, it probably alarmed him, or even amused him, that so many that speak on behalf of the silenced minority in strong theoretical fashion actually had very little connection to the labor that was all around them. He had come through the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s. In fact, there seemed a categorical disconnect. Their place of privilege as advocates for the exploited and abused necessarily somehow detached them from the “exploited” right beside them.

This is not to bash the Left in favor of the Right. And this is not to incrimate by association either. All have a propensity to make invisible. This is only to say given the stated theoretical views and values of the Left, “Please pick up your tray at the dining hall”, so to speak. Where do you think “revolution” begins and ends?

(Is there a conceptual connection between the brutalities exacted upon their populations by Maoist, Stalinist and Khmer Rouge party officials, and Leftist professors who tend not to clean up their plates? I don’t know. Hierarchy can be an unpredictable thing. Perhaps it can be called The Autonomy of Thought.) 

36 responses to “Professors of the Left: Unite!

  1. anodynelite March 24, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    There’s also a huge slant toward the highest tax brackets among Marxists in the U.S. (academic and otherwise), and although I sympathize with them on many, many issues, it always leaves me wondering–how is this revolution going to happen if the very class that’s supposed to be rising up is not even minimally represented or involved in “revolutionary” politics e.g. communism?

    It seems that in the places where communists have in fact succeeded in overthrowing a government, the underclass was mobilized and participated fully in this process. How are you going to get someone to fight for longer bread lines and hospital queues when they’re quite comfortable with the food stamps they already get via post, medicaid, and free housing? Is there a sincere effort to engage these people in revolutionary politics on the part of the academic left, or is “communism” now as it’s practiced more like a parlor (read: “language”) game for those with enough money/privilege to buy the intellectual sophistication required to be a player?

    These concerns seem quite pressing, but I’ve rarely seen them addressed by those within these movements.

  2. kvond March 24, 2009 at 7:46 pm


    All interesting points. I did not realize that bit about the tax brackets of Marxists, but it does not surprise me. There is a certain sense in which theory operates with a certain autonomy, circulating within a socio-economic reality that is very specific. Specialized thought for specialized people. It really forms a kind of Scholasticism in my mind.

    Now, I think that there are some important reasons for this. For instance both the policy makers (largely lawyers) and their theological critics (largely philosophers and sociologists) come out of the university system. The arcane nature of legal world-shaping nearly demands the obstruse philosophical critique.

    But the overall contradiction of the content of the message (some kind of universalized revolution, or at least a call for wide-spread breaks with the way things are currently done, whether it be of gender, or race or class consciousness), and the kinds of persons that being talked to, the kinds of investments being made by both speakers and listeners is really bizarrely disjointed. Its the old problem of the Party, the high-brown intellectuals that are supposed to lead the way for the illiterate, and then simply vanish into ether like some kind of Bodhisattva.

    On this general point of the contradiction between political/philosophical theory and its real world engagements, Eric Schwitzgebel, who always seems interested in these kinds of anomalies between belief and real world investments post recently that the voting rates of philosophy and political professors is not more extreme than average:

    As he concludes, “I find the overall results particularly striking for political philosophers: They are neither, on average, more prone to vote than other professors, nor are they bimodally split between conscientious voters and principled non-voters. Most of them just vote occasionally, sporadically, like the rest of us. It’s as though all their thinking about politics has no influence on their voting behavior.”

    Somehow I doubt this means that professors need to be radicalized in their thought (tons more Badiou!), but rather that the professors of theory actually are fairly normal, middle and upper middle class persons who in their lives live standard, American and European lives, while furthering the instutions in whose service they are placed.

  3. Mark Crosby March 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Something perverse about idiotic WordPress anticipatory systems misinterpreting what I type (at least on this Linux system): so RESTART..

    Can we lock all the participants of this Birkbeck conference in their own cubies in a lovely library overlooking the world where they can all read Colum McCann’s 2006 novel, ZOLI at their leizure? The story fictionalizes the life of “Papuza, the Polish poet who lived from 1910 to 1987” following Isabel Fonseca’s BURY ME STANDING: THE GYPSIES ADM THEIR JOURNEY (manhandled as they were by Bolshevik Rationalists ;( Note: It’s difficult to discriminate dialectics from diaspora in IT’s telegraphic notes but most of the speakers seem to simultaneously get it and not (gee, isn’t negativity wonderful ?)

    Maybe it’s an inherent distaste for philosophy that pretends not to be abstract by being uber-abstract? Whilst babbling in ontological generalities we have a perfect instance of the stunted communist spirit (which is the antagonist of ZOLI) in today’s Washington post report by Maureen Fan, “An Ancient Culture, Bulldozed Away: China’s Attempts to Modernize Ethnic Uighurs’ Housing Creates Discord”.

    Sayeth the dictatorship of the proletariat, the rationalist voice of “the commons”: “Our target is every family has a house, every family has employed members and the economy will be developed”. Sounds like capitalism to me! But, says “a 48-year-old woman in a red jacket and brown head scarf, who declined to give her name”, “They want us to live like Chinese people, but we will never agree. If we move into the government apartments, there are no courtyards and no sun”.

    Where is “the common” here that so easily seems to sublate from the abstract rhetoric of these muezzins from the communist ivory tower into Stransky’s corruption of Zoli’s gypsy poetry: “He thought the purpose of her poems was not to dazzle with any astonishing thought, but to make a single moment of existence unforgettable” (ZOLI, p115). The unforgiveable, absolute sublation of dyadic dialectical thought..

    “Grandfather didn’t have time to build any more walls, he said that now everything was held together by factory cement” – the people’s factory; the cement of “the common”! – “but if he ever built another wall he would do it his own way, and hold it together with what he called cunning” (ibid, 41)… Mark, a bit overly reactionary here, perhaps..

  4. kvond March 25, 2009 at 10:35 am


    I love all your leaping points. They make me smile.

    As to “the common”, on a slightly serious note, I’ve recently read unpublished material from anarchist anthropologist David Graeber, wherein he makes this refreshingly simple thought about Communism. The problem is ever with the notion that it is to occur somewhere in the distant future, after some kind of radical break. What is Communist (or “common”) is the moral and praxis ideal “from each…to each….” which is pretty much how families across the world, and workers within most of Capitalism’s workspaces, already operate. When the patient is bleeding “Pass me the scalpel” is very seldom answered with “What do I get for it?” The “common” in this sense is not a Party-lead form of governance, but really the identification of an already fully operative ethic and praxis. This is a proliferate state of mind that is part of the weave of every culture.

    The thing is, this way of relating, (and this is my thought), is a living aesthetic/praxis between persons, and not a governmental project. There are other logics that necessarily are to be employeed. It is an immanent relation, not a top-down (either by government or party intellectuals) bestowment.

  5. john doyle March 25, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    “The further to the Left the professor, the greater the likelihood that they will leave their tray behind to be cleaned up by the help”

    When we lived in Nice, we observed that every morning before dawn the orange-vested nettoyage crew would be out there hosing down the sidewalks and streets (just like in that beautiful early scene in The Third Man). During the daytime people walking along the busy sidewalks would, purposefully and without subterfuge, drop litter and other small bits of trash on the edges of the streets — and, notoriously, they would encourage their dogs to do the same.

    Nice is a tourist destination, but go two blocks in from the beach and you see that it’s mostly a working town. The litterbugs weren’t tourists; they were the local people dumping trash on their own streets, the streets where they live and work and shop. The lesson seemed clear: if everyone would just put their trash in the receptacles the town would stay clean longer. Life would be easier for the guys in the orange vests, too — so easy, in fact, that they’d soon be out of work. After awhile I started seeing the littering as a systematic way for working people to keep each other employed. Eventually I began dropping litter in the street too. Though the simultaneous thrill and shame I experienced in doing so gradually faded, it never disappeared completely.

  6. kvond March 25, 2009 at 1:42 pm

    John Doyle:”After awhile I started seeing the littering as a systematic way for working people to keep each other employed. Eventually I began dropping litter in the street too.”

    Kvond: Excellent explanation why the more Leftist professors at this college through the decades left their trays behind! Very thoughtful, very systematic.

  7. Carl March 25, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    I had the same thought as John. If one respects the work of others, one does honor to that work by feeding its possibility.

    But I also think you’ve got this right:

    “Somehow I doubt this means that professors need to be radicalized in their thought (tons more Badiou!), but rather that the professors of theory actually are fairly normal, middle and upper middle class persons who in their lives live standard, American and European lives, while furthering the instutions in whose service they are placed.”

    Theorizing is a different situation than daily living. If as Mead thinks our thinking is always situated and relational, there’s no reason to think there’ll be any overlap between our thinkings in one situation and another. Creating this overlap would require the resituation of all of our thinking, a dramatic break indeed….

  8. kvond March 25, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    Carl: “I had the same thought as John. If one respects the work of others, one does honor to that work by feeding its possibility.”

    Kvond: I have to say that because I liked John I remained terse in my response. But to be frank because now there are two who find the analogy enlightening, I have to say it struck me as ridiculous.

    Perhaps this is due to my failure to adequately describe the situation, but the very idea that the said professors over the years were leaving their plates behind on the tables in order to employ as many of the less fortunate as possible is hilarious. Of course the judgment is about what is “in” professor’s minds when they stand up, or what might be in their minds if you pointed out the action. One can not really form a final answer there. But will say that at least from the point of view of the witnessing Classicist, the idea that this was done altruistically would be the furthest thing from the truth. It was much more symptomatic of the general removal from the lives of the persons who were the “help” in the dining room, persons who were very seldom addressed as persons, whose names were seldom bothered to be learned, whose lives remained anomynous. This Classicist, on the other hand, knew and greeted each by name, and invested personal time in helping them in fill out complicated forms that vexed them, making translations when possible, and any number of other humane services. From the point of view of the said Classicist, the professors of the Left generally left the plates and trays behind out of a negligence toward the help that they exhibited in nearly all their other actions in the dining room.

    Now of course all of this could be incorrect. Leftists perhaps went around campus secretly tossing garbage cans over, breaking windows, poisoning shrubbery, all thoughtfully directed towards making sure as much of the college’s endowment when to the unfortunate ones.

    I find this highly unlikely, but we are free to interpret in the consistency of our position. I only offer the observation of a single man who had the odd privilege of watching half a century of the American Left in a college, and did not have the vantage of a summer in Nice.

  9. Carl March 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Oh, for sure. I grew up around these people. All righteousness, no respect. No sense of gentility whatsoever. The second explanation is the most charitable ‘real’ one I can think of. But John’s observation is fun to play with.

    Regarding his racont nicoise, I think a more likely explanation comes from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she observes housewives trying on huge bundles of clothing at the department store, then leaving them strewn around in piles for the workers to sort, neaten and restock. Her hypothesis was that this was these women’s opportunity to enjoy the services they spent the rest of their days rendering to others – that is, it was a moment of reversal from servant to master.

  10. kvond March 25, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Carl; “Regarding his racont nicoise, I think a more likely explanation comes from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, in which she observes housewives trying on huge bundles of clothing at the department store, then leaving them strewn around in piles for the workers to sort, neaten and restock. Her hypothesis was that this was these women’s opportunity to enjoy the services they spent the rest of their days rendering to others – that is, it was a moment of reversal from servant to master.”

    Kvond: Not sure that I follow (sorry to be thick). Are you saying something like, these Leftist professors spend their entire days “serving” the poor and exploited in theory and the classroom, so they then need to take a break and do a little harmless exploiting on their own?

  11. Carl March 25, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    No, sorry, I was re-explaining John’s story – the litterbugs are perhaps not expressing working class solidarity so much as having a moment of mastery at each others’ expense.

  12. kvond March 25, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    Ah, I understand then.

  13. john doyle March 25, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Well Kvond, you’ve pissed me off now, so I shall dump my tray on your floor and return to my villa forthwith.

  14. john doyle March 25, 2009 at 11:49 pm

    Carl, I believe we frequent the same establishments at times but I don’t think we’ve commented on the same thread before. For what it’s worth, I tend to go through the grocery check-out lines where real people do the checking out rather than using the automated self-check system. In introspecting about my motives, I find three: (1) habit; (2) I find the self-check system confusing; (3) I regard check-out automation as a scheme for eliminating jobs and thereby enhancing corporate profits. The moment of mastery doesn’t come readily to mind, but maybe I’m in denial.

    Speaking of leftist professors, the local news here in Boulder concerns Ward Churchill’s suit against the State of CO, in which he’s seeking reinstatement plus damages for having been dismissed fraudulently. I believe the University already paid him $2.5 million in severance. From what I know I think he’s got a good case, regardless of one’s opinion about his political views and his personality.

  15. Carl March 26, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Hi John, I’m an admirer. I do the same thing at the checkout, (I think) for the same reasons. Although oddly, the stock utopia would be automating all those nasty menial service jobs so that humans could be freed up for more substantive, creative pursuits. Looking forward to that, yessir.

    But the problem with using us as anecdotal controls in this analysis is that we’re both, I perceive, used to a sense of control and fulfillment in our work. We have some measure of mastery as an ordinary feature of our lives, so much so that we might fairly be called ‘privileged’. Or at least I might. As I argued at length some time ago at my place, this means we’re not members of the working class properly speaking.

    How we manage to be a little more mindful of the humanity of the workers from our lofty perch than these leftist profs we’re talking about is an interesting question. I doubt it’s just a shared psychological disposition.

  16. kvond March 26, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    What keeps coming up in my mind here is the caste system of India. Carl, I like your standard Craft idea, that the goal is work that is at least in some sense experienced as an expression of yourself.

    John, at least if you dump your tray in anger, I’ll still have the job of cleaning it up! (and will be grateful). I’m glad you brought up the automatic checkoud lines because I never thought about those. It is interesting when one tries to leverage wholesale economic/social change at the point of sale, as if with a vote. I use the automated checkout lines primarily because I don’t have problem number 2. They are an amazing breeze, (thanks to the help my wife offered me the first few times when yes, honestly I hadn’t a clue). But also, there is, admittedly the sense that I really don’t want to interact with people that hate what they are doing. The “checkout person” over here, upper New York, (I can’t say much about Boulder which may have a very different employee base – a friend of mine in Boulder, who is causacian, brilliant, good-looking was a bagger while lining up grad school options for his PhD, pursued in philosophy, a pretty affluent bagger), simply is a position filled by people who are not happy about what they are doing, and don’t have much option. I may be voting to do away with their jobs each time I scan. I’m not sure of the benefit or harm of that.

    As a sidenote, one of the stores around here recently went from not having most of its lines automated, to the opposite. The change happened when the store changed locations. It was interesting to see that many of the former check-out persons from the old store now walk around, still tremendously bored, but with electronic keys around their necks, over-seeing the automated lines as if a kind of manager, there to void items, detect stealing, enter items if they have to. I’m not sure that this is an improvement or not. They still don’t love what they are doing, but have been given an odd sense of authority over the process (likely with far fewer employees employed).

    For me the question would be, if you are going to use the human check-out line as a method of social action, are you going to treat those persons as humans? Does one smile at them? Does one learn their names? Perhaps others are much better at this than I am. I don’t find grocery stores nice places to be in. It is an effort I have yet been able to put forth. But equally somehow I have difficulty with helping a “them” when them are a group that we don’t really want to know.

  17. john doyle March 26, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    Maybe it’s just my Pollyanna temperament that wishes to think well of the lefty profs, Carl. I used to work in A.I. designing expert systems for automating immaterial labor. At the time I entertained the belief that automating the repetitive parts of the job would free these workers to delve into the unsolved mysteries of their professions; as you say “freed up for more substantive, creative pursuits;” etc. So I suppose that’s one source of my own psychological disposition.

    To continue our exercise in speculative non-realism, another anecdote of spurious explanatatory value came to mind when my barely-repressed ressentiment woke me up at 3:30 a.m… Our daughter attended a French Catholic grammar school. As one might expect, the school’s canteen served execrable cuisine — to this day our daughter retains her disgust at the very mention of chicken cordon bleu. The students’ natural response was not to eat this merde. However, nuns patrolled the canteen, making sure that all the children cleaned their plates. Kids would surreptitiously drop pieces of the food on the floor under their tables, or cover the uneaten portions left on their plate with a napkin. The nuns were onto all these tricks of course, and would yell at kids who tried them. The students bussed their own trays, and the nuns typically patrolled the area where the trays were placed, conducting their final inspections. If the kid hadn’t eaten enough, s/he would be reprimanded and sent back to eat more. One could imagine that this childhood trauma might instill a lifetime fear of bussing one’s cafeteria tray. Is it conceivable that lefty profs were more likely to have grown up Catholic, and consequently they suffer from this particular form of PTSD? Okay, it’s a stretch, but the anecdote does give me the opportunity to demonstrate to our host that we spent more than a summer in Nice.

    I never asked any French people why they dump their litter on the edges of the street. I expect that if I got anything more than a Gallic shrug, I’d have been told that “c’est normal — the netoyyage people hose it down every morning, that’s just the way things are.”

    Americans tend to prefer visiting Switzerland because it’s so clean there. Several French people told us they believe the French really are messier than the Swiss and the Germans and the Americans. So I suppose as yet another explanation we could invoke le sang impur from La Marseillaise.

    Of course Kvond’s old prof might be right: the lefty academicians really are more arrogantly and disdainfully out of touch with the working class than are their moderate or righty colleagues. I’m reminded Spiro Agnew’s “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “nattering nabobs of negativism,” “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history”, and “effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.”

  18. john doyle March 26, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Oops, sorry Kvond, I was dawdling about writing my last comment when you posted your own.

    I actually do chat with the checkout people most of the time, though I have no idea whether they enjoy the exchange or wish I’d just shut up so they can finish processing me. Sometimes the checkout clerks initiate the conversation though, so maybe not. Grocery shopping is kind of a menial task to begin with (at the King Soopers anyway, though maybe not at Whole Foods), traditionally allocated to women and servants, so maybe there’s some sense of camaraderie.

    Another French anecdote: French people entering any sort of shop typically wish a “bonjour madame” to the sales clerk. Americans are often perceived as arrogant because they don’t extend this common courtesy to retail workers.

  19. kvond March 26, 2009 at 1:20 pm


    The funny thing was that my Classics professor friend was the furthest thing from Spiro Agnew. He was an old Jewish, liberal-minded mensch who liked to read the New York Times into great depth. His point was not I think that Leftist are a bunch of such-and-suches, but rather that it is odd, ironic, perhaps a bit sad that those that spent the great investment of their lives theorizing on behalf of liberal values in a rather radical college were so detached from the very people of “labor” (and race) they came in contact with.

    Now the picture is more complex than this. The dining hall staff that is largely ignored by these Leftists have fairly cushy jobs (when compared to others of that kind), and perhaps because of their relative affluence don’t express much investment in their work there. There is a kind of worker’s malaise which certainly promotes detachment from the other side as well. (The said Classicist, who was concerned about this seemingly systemic problem even asked me because I have had experience in restaurants, what might be the solution. Again, a personal concern with a local situation made up of real lives.)

    It may well be that those professors closer to the moderate or right see themselves as more self-sufficient, self-contained, and that it is more natural to pick-up after themselves (not having a care for the workers either). For Leftists “the system” does the work, for those closer to the Right “I” do the work.

    Be this as it may, for me the question is not which person is better, but rather I am interested in the internal contradiction within the stated Leftist position (because I have much more sympathy for those expressed values, and thus have a stake in looking at the ways in which they are betrayed or lost). If you are to declare yourself as the defender of “labor” are your defenses to be made up of mere policy and theory actions? Is this inhuman?

  20. anodynelite March 26, 2009 at 2:09 pm

    One thing about leaving your trays in the dining hall: no American university is going to hire more people to pick up these trays. That’s bad business. They’d force more people to work overtime for regular wage or maybe–maybe–hire some part-timers so they don’t have to pay extra taxes or benefits for anybody. (I have a feeling econ majors would immediately pick up on this, righties and all).

    So if you leave your tray in the cafeteria, you’re just making more work for someone whose job is already pretty unpleasant.

  21. anodynelite March 26, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    Also, many universities contract out their food services staffing and management to one of a few major companies in the field. So the university itself may have little say in what happens to the cafeteria workers.

  22. john doyle March 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    “For Leftists “the system” does the work, for those closer to the Right “I” do the work.”

    Maybe — this presumes that groups of people really are acting differently based on different ideological commitments. I have to admit though, Kvond, that I don’t personally know any far-left academics, so maybe the personality profile you assigned to them in your original post is an accurate one.

    I agree, Ano: one person leaving a tray has unpleasant consequences for the other person tasked with picking it up. But what if everybody left their trays? Kind of like a labor strike of unpaid cafeteria workers.

    At the grocery store, I’m adding work to the checkout workers by not using the automated checkout. But what happens if everyone starts using the automated system?

    There are a lot of demeaning and exploitative jobs out there, but they’re better than no job. Most crap jobs need doing by someone, regardless of the economic system in which they’re embedded. Certainly it would be better if the cleanup workers actually controlled the profits that their efforts generate for the company.

  23. john doyle March 26, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    By the way, Ano, you’re already legendary for your interventions with Dominic. Did you have a blog prior to your current intervention?

  24. anodynelite March 26, 2009 at 6:27 pm

    “Certainly it would be better if the cleanup workers actually controlled the profits that their efforts generate for the company.”

    It sure would.

    Never had a blog before, used to be too busy for one–but I did visit a forum that is frequented mostly by UK journalists and had bumped into some bloggers (including Dominic/Poetix) there.

    I hope I’m not riling anybody up too much, btw, I just feel excited when people seem to care very deeply about sexism and equality, and then become disappointed and dejected when the “whore”-shaming and summonings to violence start.

  25. Mikhail Emelianov March 26, 2009 at 10:39 pm

    This whole exchange read all in one sitting makes me miss obsessively reading a 100 blogs a day and then commenting on another 50…

  26. kvond March 27, 2009 at 9:19 am

    John Doyle: “I agree, Ano: one person leaving a tray has unpleasant consequences for the other person tasked with picking it up. But what if everybody left their trays? Kind of like a labor strike of unpaid cafeteria workers.”

    Kvond: Hmmm, a Kantian-like answer to the question. One should leave their trays behind because when doing so one sets a mandate for everyone to do so, and therefore radically change the world. This may point out some of the difficulty I have with Kantian flavored morality.

  27. kvond March 27, 2009 at 9:44 am

    M.E.: “This whole exchange read all in one sitting makes me miss obsessively reading a 100 blogs a day and then commenting on another 50…”

    Kvond: Nice.

  28. Mikhail Emelianov March 27, 2009 at 10:45 am

    I think in Kant everyone would clean up after themselves, it depends on what maxim you act when you leave the tray – if you leave the tray in order to cause tray-cleaning to be overwhelmed and ultimately disabled, you’re acting on a self-contradictory maxim.

    I think we need a bit of St. Paul here – my favorite lines from Romans 6:1 – let’s me paraphrase: “So should we keep leaving our trays so that proletarians can have more work? Of course not! Since we have died to tray leaving, how can we continue to do it?” Solid argument…

  29. kvond March 27, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I love Paul in many ways, and Badiou’s book on him is one of the most interesting, pocket-sized philosophy books ever written. And your paraphrase is wonderful. But Paul had the distinct advantage of believing the that world was going to end in his lifetime. One can die to many things when all things are going to die and the God is coming.

    In regards to Kant, yes he cannot be purely prescribed by John’s thinking, which is why I called it Kantian flavored. There is a kind of universalization of action, as in such ideas as “You have to vote, what if everyone did not vote” or “you can’t murder, what if everyone murdered” that simply is only part-of-the-pie thinking. One may justify (to oneself and others) your position like this, but the universal normalizations that one presents in an action, the implicit “Do as I do” cannot be maxim reduced. Maxims require circumstances and defintions which are ever context dependent. Ever the qualifications of what it is that one has done, and who else measures as an equally acting subject are aesthetically balanced to the reading of the situation.

    Yes, all faculty leaving their trays may be one thing. And all faculty and students another. And all faculty, students and workers another. Or, all leftist professors.

  30. Carl March 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Kvond, I agree, and note with many feminists that there’s something sneakily patriarchal (or, more generally, power-oriented) about the idea that any one person can legislate for others as if their limited perspective and rational calculus could/should achieve universality.

  31. kvond March 27, 2009 at 2:00 pm


    Yes, not only to “speak for others” (as in a surpassing calculus) but literally to become the voice of the others, to have that authority, to become their mouthpiece (oh, the perversity of social action. It is not “I” who wants this, but “they”). While there are very important times that representative structures are required (one is for instance represented before the Law), those occasions of representative speech, at least in my mind, should be critiqued and analyzed via the specific restrictions that put such representation in place (i.e., in what way is the Law shaped such that one can only be represented within it, for example), not to mention the account of the pleasure that representational thinking accrues for the representor, and thus those investments they themselves may have in keeping things status quo, i.e., to forever remain a mouthpiece, and to see things only in that way.

  32. john doyle March 28, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    I don’t know if this discussion has run its course, but I enjoyed the last few installments. Mikhail’s Pauline paraphrase suggests also Romans 7: “I would never have come to know the sin of tray-leaving except through Law. I suppose there’s some small pleasure to be gained in violating the “bus your own tray” directive.

    Is it nobler to bus or not to bus your tray? Arguments can be proffered and parried, but surely both the self-righteousness and the self-loathing of individual diners has no impact on the larger structural forces. There was a time in the history of university cafeterias when trays were gathered by paid “busboys,” typically comprised of students taking part-time jobs to help pay their tuition and unskilled workers who couldn’t get a better paying job. Then the table-bussing jobs were systematically phased out and replaced by self-bussing. Almost surely the main rationale was to keep dining costs down, and so it became a matter of personal honor to bus and of public shame not to bus. I think it’s safe to say that self-bussing hasn’t done much to keep the price of a university education within reach. Along with healthcare, the cost of post-secondary education has risen faster than just about any other sector in the economy.

    Surely also the self-serve restaurants like McDonald’s attribute their success in part to the low-overhead format that eliminates waitrons and buspeople, thereby keeping prices low. How many hundreds of thousands of jobs have been eliminated by fast-food restaurants? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know, but surely there’s no public protest value in refusing to clear off my table at McDo’s. Patronizing sit-down restaurants that cost more just to show solidarity with food workers is an absurd bourgeois conceit. Still, it’s not unlike paying double for “fair trade” coffee when only a few pennies end up in the hands of the workers while the rest is collected as a sort of guilt tax and added to the corporate bottom line.

    Regarding the grocery stores, it’s likely that a strong grocery workers’ union would protest the elimination of jobs caused by automated checkout facilities. A strike by all the checkout workers at all the King Soopers grocery stores would I think prove quite effective, with all the shoppers being forced to stand in the automated lines. The “what if everyone did it” ethos makes more sense in this context, where at least for a day everyone really does it. Would I support a checkout workers’ strike? Sure. Would I go out of my way to patronize a grocery where only real people checked out and bagged groceries, if I had to drive further to get there and pay higher prices? Probably not. All these individual acts of conscience seem like pissing into the wind.

  33. kvond March 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm

    J.D.”Is it nobler to bus or not to bus your tray? Arguments can be proffered and parried, but surely both the self-righteousness and the self-loathing of individual diners has no impact on the larger structural forces.”

    Kvond: Perhaps we have different views of the problem implied by the post. For me the problem is of internal coherence and personal authenticity when taking a moral/ethical public position as your life’s work (vocation, or otherwise). The point is not “how do we change the superstructure” but “how do we remain faithful to those that we declare ourselves in sympathy towards”.

  34. john doyle March 28, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    I understood your point, Kvond. I just think it’s hard to infer individual motivation from observable behavior, or even to know how one’s political stance points to appropriate individual behavior in specific circumstances. But I presume you understood my point too.

  35. kvond March 28, 2009 at 10:28 pm

    I suppose it comes down to my trust of the observer (my knowledge of his motivations and the acuity of his perceptions), and not to providing sociological data to be inserted into a thesis of analysis. The observation in recall actually dovetailed into my recent thinking about the discourse of the Left (something Anodynelite picks up on in her recent post), the absurdity of a bunch of text-producers thoroughly invested in the university system, writing somewhat opaque, jargon-laden theories to be largely read by the children of rich families, all thinking about on how to “make good” on Marxist promises of analysis which accidentally produced some of the largest scale human brutalities of the 20th century. That the discourse of the Academic Left is so rarified and locked into a very thin slice of Western society, also, anecdotally, its professors proved detached from the Labor force around them, seemed bookends to me, in particular of my own experiences of such professors and such discourse.

    As you live in Boulder (perhaps acknowledged to be a sub-culture of largely left, white sprituality and the upwardly mobile), and admit that you do not know any Leftist professors, perhaps our base for comparison is disjoined. But the larger point that the discourse of the Left appears to be detached from those for whose benefit it is supposedly designed, remains I think whole.

  36. john doyle March 29, 2009 at 10:59 am

    I’m with Mikhail: an enjoyable and stimulating discussion — thanks Kvond.

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