Anxiety, the Examined Life and Staying in Trouble

The end of the semester is almost here (less than a month away!) and I am getting very excited for the thinking and writing work I hope to do this summer. In anticipation of my future work, I decided to take a break this afternoon from preparing for next week’s discussions on the Prison Industrial Complex and Hope, Utopias and Optimism to watch a recent documentary about philosophy and critical thinking called Examined Life. I have wanted to watch it ever since it came out last year, so I was very excited to see it show up on my netflix watch instantly page.

Seemingly inspired by the famous saying by Plato that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” this documentary consists of a series of interviews with famous philosophers/thinkers reflecting on their own ideas about thinking, philosophy and meaning. As an aside, I wonder why it is called the “examined life” as opposed to examining life–the past tense seems to suggest that thinking and examining is something that can, at a certain point, be accomplished. Is this ever possible? Do we want it to be? Life, even after death, can still be examined, right? Should our goal be to get to a point in which we have determined all there is to know about our life? Hmm….Anyway, here is how the film is described on the Zeitgeist Films’ website:

Examined Life pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets…

In Examined Life, filmmaker Astra Taylor accompanies some of today’s most influential thinkers on a series of unique excursions through places and spaces that hold particular resonance for them and their ideas.

Featuring Cornel West, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Hardt, Slavoj Zizek, Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor.

So far, I am really enjoying the film; it’s a great way to get an introduction to some of these thinkers’ big ideas, like West and his focus on finitude and blues/jazz, Appiah and cosmopolitanism or Nussbaum and human capabilities (that’s as far as I have gotten in the film). One of the first thinkers to speak is Avital Ronell. I am not that familiar with her work, having only come across it in Butler’s 2nd preface to Gender Trouble, so it was exciting to hear her thoughts on non-meaning and anxiety. Describing the search for meaning as a cover-up or a “way of dressing the wound of non-meaning,” she argues for a politics of refusing gratification and an ethics of anxiety. Here is what she says about anxiety:

Precisely where there isn’t guarantee or palpable meaning, you have to do a lot of work and you have to be mega-ethical. Because it’s much easier to live life and to say, “that you shouldn’t do and that you should do because someone said so.” If we’re not anxious, if we’re okay with things we’re not trying to explore of figure anything out. So anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity, I think.

She continues her discussion of anxiety, suggesting that the truly ethical person (which she contrasts with GW Bush) is one who is always anxious and always concerned with whether or not they are doing the right thing; the ethical person is the one who can’t sleep because they are uncertain about what they are doing or failing to do. The responsible being is not the one who does one good deed and then thinks that that makes them an ethical person. The responsible being is the one who thinks they have never done enough, that “they have never taken enough care of the other.” Wow–an ethics of anxiety seems similar to my idea of staying in trouble. I was particularly struck by how she connects this (only fleetingly) to the idea of care. Anxiety and trouble (being troubled, staying troubled) are central to being ethical responsibly and effectively caring for others. Cool. I like her discussion here. I am not sure I like how she describes it as anxiety (in the interview she indicates that she is not suggesting that we should all get anxiety disorders), however. Is anxiety the best (as in most productive, most rewarding, most hopeful, most sustainable) way in which to discuss this mood? Could we describe our vigilant effort to care for the world and others by using some other term? One final note: Ronell’s discussion of anxiety makes me think of Ahmed and her notion of unhappiness and worry (which my troublemaking class is reading about in two weeks).

Here’s the trailer for the whole movie (can I just say, having heard Cornel West speak on three different occasions, at each of the 3 institutions that I got my BA, MA and PhD from, that he is amazing!):

Troublemaking and Feminist and Queer Pedagogies: Some Sources

I am fairly certain that I want to devote at least one week to troublemaking and feminist and queer pedagogies this upcoming semester in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. But what to include? Here are some sources to consider:

97804159331241. Troubling Education: Queer Activism and Anti-oppressive Pedagogy
by Kevin Kumashiro

I had initially thought about using this in my Feminist Pedagogies course this semester, but ended up going in a different direction. So, why is this book called Troubling Education? The troubling of the title seems to be about more than just education that is in trouble (as in, oppressive, unjust, in need of transformation) or education that makes trouble (as in, challenge, disrupt, transgress). The troubling of the title seems to be about both of these things and, in fitting with this blog, about staying in trouble. Here is what Kumashiro writes in the introduction:

I am curious about what it means to address our resistances to discomforting knowledges, and about what it means to put uncertainties and crises at the center of the learning process (8).

Kumashiro’s goal is to put trouble (in the form of uncertainty and crises) at the center of his own antioppressive pedagogy. Cool. I must read this book soon. I am particularly interested in the final chapter: “Addressing Resistance through Queer Activism.”

97807914732832.  Grappling with Diversity: Readings on Civil Rights Pedagogy and Critical Multiculturalism
Edited by Susan Schramm-Pate and Rhonda B. Jeffries

In this book, the authors are primarily concerned with exploring civil rights pedagogy, tracing how binaries (North/South, black/white, rich/poor) are produced and reinforced, and critically interrogating the concept of privilege. Here are some chapters that sound particularly interesting for the class (and for my own research interests): “Introduction: Imagine No Fences, No Borders, No Boundaries,” “Chapter 3: Horton Hears a Who: Lessons from the Highlander Folk School in the Era of Globalization,” and “Chapter 7: The Impact of Trickster Performances on the Curriculum: Explorations of a White Female Civil Rights Activist.”

97804159898173. Critical Perspectives on bell hooks
Edited by Maria del Guadalupe Davidson and George Yancy

Divided into three key sections, Critical Pedagogy and Practice, The Dynamics of Race and Gender, and Spirituality and Love, this edited collection critically reflects on hooks’ work. In my feminist pedagogies course, we read hooks’ Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community. I think adding an essay or two from this collection would fit very well with troublemaking. After all, hooks’ notions of talking back and transgressing are forms of making trouble. I have only briefly skimmed the introduction to this collection. What I like so far is their emphasis on critically engaging with hooks’ work instead of merely celebrating it. I also like Michael W. Apple’s articulation of the seven tasks of critical analysis, outlined in the series editor’s introduction:

  1. Bearing witness to negativity: illuminating how policies/practices are connected to exploitation
  2. Pointing to contradictions and spaces of possible action
  3. Redefining research: who does it, how it is done
  4. Not throwing out elite knowledge but reconstructing it to for progressive/transformative aims
  5. Keeping traditions of radical work alive in relation to recognition and redistribution
  6. Relearning and developing of a variety of new skills for working with a wide range of groups and in many different registers
  7. Acting in concert with progressive/social movements

Nice. I have been thinking more about what it means to be a critical thinker: what skills do we need to be critical thinkers? What are the links between troublemaking and critical thinking? What do feminist and queer methodologies offer to critical thinking theories and practices? How can we use feminist and queer pedagogies to teach and practice critical thinking?