The Chairs are Where the People Go

About 6 weeks ago, while in the process of doing some research on the history and critiques of self-help books, I came across an interview with Sheila Heti. In the interview she discusses two of her recent books, The Chairs are Where the People Go and How Should a Person Be? I immediately put The Chairs on my Pinterest reading list–I’m not sure why I didn’t add How Should at the same time, but I remedied that by adding it to the list this morning–and about a month later, I requested it from the Minneapolis public library. A few days ago, I finally had a chance to read it while sitting at Lake Nokomis and the Highland Park pool. Here’s a picture that I took at Lake Nokomis, right after finishing one of the chapters on manners:

I really enjoyed reading this book! Such a great twist on the usual advice/self-help book (on the back, it is described as a “self-help book for people who feel they don’t need help”). It’s a collaboration between writer Sheila Heti and her friend, Misha Glouberman, in which Heti interviewed and then recorded (almost word for word) Glouberman’s thoughts on a  wide range of topics that he cares most about. While Glouberman gives some advice on wide-ranging topics like, How to Make Friends in a New City (ch 2), How to be Good at Playing Charades (ch 5), Don’t Pretend There is No Leader (ch 6), Seeing your Parents Once a Week (ch 45) and Get Louder or Quit (ch 49), this book isn’t about advising you on how-to do anything in particular. Instead, it is about documenting one (very interesting and thoughtful) person’s ethos/approach to life. After reading (almost) all of the brief 1-2 page chapters, I feel that I have some sense of who Glouberman is–what he believes, what he does, what he cares about–and I feel inspired to both incorporate some of his ideas into my own ethos and to document some of my thoughts (and the thoughts of other interesting people) in a similar way.

As I was writing the line about this book not being about how-to do anything in the above paragraph, I began reflecting more on my own aversion to “how-to manuals.” I really don’t like giving advice to others, or telling them how exactly to do things (which sometimes gets me into trouble as a teacher, especially with students who expect demand that I give them explicit instructions/directions on how to do things). I like to help/encourage/inspire others by giving them tools to figure things out for themselves. Of course, this doesn’t always work; some people/students need more explicit guidance and strongly want to be told “this is how you do x.” I have a lot of difficulty fulfilling this need/want. Does that make me an ineffective (bad?) teacher or parent? I struggle with this question sometimes.

A few of Glouberman’s chapters really resonated with me. In chapter one–“People’s Protective Bubbles are Okay”–he talks about how people sometimes need to not be interacting with others. In response to those who view this non-interaction as a problem and who try to force people to interact in public spaces through public art projects, he says:

It’s necessary to screen people out. It would be overwhelming if you had to perceive every single person on a crowded subway car in the fullness of their humanity. It would be completely paralyzing. So don’t try to fix this. There is no problem.

Yes! As I read through this passage again I wonder, what does it mean to “perceive every single person in the fullness of their humanity”? And how does this differ (if, at all) from recognizing their humanity…or their right to be perceived as human? Also, what counts as interaction?

Another chapter I really enjoyed was #46, Asking a Good Question. This chapter focuses on the rules that Glouberman offers to people who wish to participate in the Q & A portion of his lectures. Here are a few that I’ve paraphrased: (Admittedly, I’m reluctant to paraphrase because I really like how he writes. However, for brevity’s sake, I’ve decided to condense/summarize here.)

1. A question has to be a question. You can’t turn a statement into a question by raising your voice at the end of your sentence. You’re not fooling anyone.

2. There are no two-part questions. They are 2 separate questions. Pick the best one and ask it.

3. Think about the feelings that motivate you to ask the question. Curiosity and anger are good motivators for effective/productive/engaging questions. Pride and a desire to look smart (or to make others look stupid/small) are not. 

I love how he provides these rules for participants. It would be wonderful if all academic conference attendees were instructed in this way! His statements here make me want to come up with my own list of rules for asking a good question. Sounds like a great project for my staying in trouble tumblr!

on self-help

Currently I’m (very slowly) reading Micki McGee’s Self-Help, inc. While I am a little disappointed by the lack of serious attention to race in relation to labor and being belabored, I find her book to be a useful introduction to the rise of self-help culture in post Industrial U.S. It’s fascinating to read the larger history of books that I used to see as kid on my dad’s bookshelves (or that he told me about in our many conversations); books like Robert Schuller’s Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do. Schuller was a favorite of my dad’s. I remember him watching Schuller’s Hour of Power, direct from the Crystal Cathedral in California. Ah, the memories!

In the chapter I’m reading right now, McGee is tracing the differences between Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins. While they have contrasting relationships to religion, ethics, values, both Covey and Robbins use them for achieving success in business. Robbins draws upon the tradition of televangelists, developing a system that focuses on personality and mind-power. Covey looks to Ben Franklin (his company is Franklin Covey after all) to develop a rational system based on improving the quality of one’s character. As I remember it, my dad was definitely more of a fan of the Covey approach. Does he have any Tony Robbins books? I don’t know, but I’m sure that he has Covey’s book and that in the 80s/90s, he spent a lot of time and money in Franklin planner stores. Did he still use them in 1997, when the Franklin planner became the Franklin Covey planner? 

Here is a passages that might be useful as I think through the relationship between self-help literature, virtue ethics and Foucault:

Rather than suggesting, as does Stephen Covey, that self-control should govern the self through the ascendance of mind over body (exercising “character,” or, in Covey’s metaphor for early rising,” mind over mattress”), Robbins imagines each of us as the disc-jockeys and film directors of our own lives, programming, rather than suppressing, our impulses. In this sense, Robbins leaves behind the Enlightenment notion of the reasonable creature and moves in the direction of a Nietzschean model of “giving style to one’s life” (McGee 62).

Earlier in the chapter, McGee spends some time discussing how self-help culture involves a turn from the spiritual to the therapeutic and aesthetic and a focus on treating the self as a work of art. I’m interested in thinking through how to read Foucault’s care of self and self-as-stylized against, beside and through this notion.

How I’m using Social Media to Make Trouble, part 3: TUMBLR

After several weeks break, I’m finally returning to my four part series about how I’m using social media to make trouble. Today, I’m focusing on Tumblr. While I have been busy with other projects (personal and professional), that’s not the only reason why it’s taken me this long to write about how I’m using Tumblr. It took this long because I didn’t really know how I was using it to make trouble. When I first started posting on Tumblr, I had a general, very vague, sense that I wanted to use it to post my examples of making and staying in trouble, but I didn’t have a more specific sense of how I would track/post these examples.

In the brief time I’ve been on Tumblr (since Jan, 2012), I’ve come to realize that it works best, at least for me, when you have a fairly focused and consistent approach to posting. One thing I’ve always liked about my trouble blog is how I can take a very broad and open-ended topic like trouble/making and open it up even further by experimenting with a diversity of ways that it can be understood; the format of the blog encourages this expanding and complicating. In contrast, there’s something about the format of Tumblr that encourages me to focus my ideas and narrow/streamline my vision of how to track and post trouble inspirations. What is it about the format? Even as I love broadening visions and being open to increasingly wider ways of being, I like how tumblr is encouraging me to focus.

Some have argued that Tumblr’s lasting contribution to social media is the single-serving site (although others, like STA, disagree with naming this as “single-serving” because a single-serving site is technically a site with a single post, not a site with a series of posts on a single theme). I’m not sure that I agree, but I do like how some people are creatively experimenting with single-serving (or single-purpose?) tumblrs. A few of my favorite include:

A Very Brady Blog
Fuck Yeah Lisa Simpson
Feminist Care Packages
Hipster Animals 

Hmm…as I look over this brief list, I’m not sure that some of these count as single-purpose/single-serving tumblrs? Maybe single-serving sites are even more focused and short-lived (like feminist harry potter or animals disappointed)?

Anyway, I like how Tumblr is encouraging me to experiment with focusing my efforts and with developing projects and products that are consistent and brief. Now, after using Tumblr for almost 5 months (and posting 80 examples), I finally have a more focused plan for how to use it in my own efforts to, as I express it in my tumblr description, “track examples of trouble for inspiration and for training to be a virtuous troublemaker.” Instead of posting tons of examples of troublemaking or troublestaying (I’m using Pinterest for that), I’m using Tumblr to post my experiments with inspiring/provocative “posters.” These posters are intended to model yet trouble self-helpy type posters and are a first attempt at playing with (troubling, challenging, disrupting) self-help methods, approaches and attitudes. Here’s a gallery of my posts far:

Each tumblr poster combines a question or a quotation that has shaped my work with a picture that I’ve recently taken with my iPhone camera while on a walk/hike/run/bike ride. Clicking on the image links to a previously written post on my trouble blog about the question or quotation. I plan to post these daily (as part of my larger goals of understanding troublemaking/staying as a virtue that needs to be cultivated repeatedly through daily practices). I’m not sure if these will be interesting for anyone else, but I think they might help me to make my feminist/queer academic ideas more succinct and accessible. Plus, it will allow me to experiment with being more creative and encourage me to get outside more and enjoy the summer in Minneapolis.

Who cares? I do

It seems as if the theme for this summer is self-care and care of the self. I have brought it up several times on this blog, with entries about (feminist ethics of) Care of Self (help) sources,  and personal reflections on my own need for care outside of the academy. It’s also implicit in my thinking through what a troublemaking app might look like. And, it has been a central part of my everyday (or, every other day) practices as I train to run a 5K in September (using a couch to 5K app that I wrote about briefly).

Self-care/care of self brings together many different ideas that I’m thinking about right now, including:

Virtue ethics VE is all about caring for the self; practicing/developing virtue involves cultivating certain attitudes and engaging in specific practices that promote living well (whatever that means…my current manuscript includes an entire chapter on critically thinking through the problems and possibilities of flourishing/living well as ethical goals, and on how living well relates to the good/livable/bearable/unbearable life).

Troublemaking/troublestaying Troublemaking and troublestaying are also about care: paying attention, being curious, caring about the world, and caring for self through self-critique and critical and creative self-reflection. I’ve certainly written about care a lot on this blog. Just check out my care tag.

Foucault Foucault is an important source as I think through my own vision of troublemaking as a virtue and its relation to feminist ethics. Foucault’s later writing on care of the self (and self-writing and technologies of the self) is central to my own imaginings of what an ethics of care that isn’t necessarily careful (or comforting) might look like. Plus, my biggest inspiration for troublemaking as a virtue is Judith Butler; she draws a lot of inspiration for her ethical projects from Foucault.

Feminist ethics of care One key tradition within feminist ethics is a feminist ethics of care. I am interested in positioning my own vision of feminist ethics beside/in relation to (but not necessarily within) this tradition. I aim to trouble and rethink what care could me and how it might connect with making and staying in trouble (yes! as a troublemaker, I like putting things together–like care and trouble–that seem to be radically opposed).

Self-help literature/products Self-help books and products (smartphone apps, websites, etc) are promoted as ways to care for your Self. In some ways, I was raised on self-help speak. Not by my mom; she liked to tell family stories and talk about literature, American history and art. But by my dad. An ordained Lutheran pastor with an MBA (and a PhD in church history with a dissertation on Finnish radicals, unions and copper mining in the upper peninsula of Michigan–what an interesting mix, huh?), he didn’t just read self-help books (a couple favorites: The Power of Positive Thinking, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff) he used their slogans to shape our family traditions. Every Christmas he would ask us to go around the table and answer: What 3 things did you accomplish this year? What 3 things do you want to accomplish in the upcoming year? I must confess that I liked this tradition, which ended a few years before my mom died, even as I dislike self-help books and their simplistic, business-oriented frameworks. I am not interested in using self-help logic (framework/language) in my articulation of troublemaking as a form of (self)care. However, I do need to come to terms with how self-help literature has shaped my thinking by engaging with it directly. Plus, I like making trouble for self-help (by disrupting it, playing with it, uprooting it) because I see its production of easy, soundbite answers that encourage us to stop thinking and just start doing as having seriously harmful effects for critical and creative thinking, feeling and engaging.

Blog writing/blogging For some time now, I have been interested in reflecting on how blog writing contributes to the development of moral/ethical selfhood. Based largely on my own experiences as a blogger, I see blog writing and engaging to be important ethical practices that encourage us to make/stay in trouble, and to be curious, critical and creative. These practices can also enable us to care for our selves–for example, writing/engaging on my blog has played a central role in my efforts to grieve/process/cope with my mom’s death in 2009. What would it mean to think of a blog (or blogging) as more than a space for superficial confession–a dumping ground for every thought and feeling that you might have, but as a critical and creative space that enabled you to engage in ethical practices that contributed to your own health and well-being?

I am in the process of researching/writing a chapter for my manuscript on care and troublemaking. One focus of this chapter will be on putting Foucault and his care of self into conversation with a feminist ethics of care (and also explicitly and/or implicitly bringing in the above resources). Right now, I’m especially interested in devoting attention to what Foucault’s care of the self is. Here are some sources that I will review in the next few days (or weeks, everything seems to take longer in the summer–especially when it is August 1st and I haven’t started prepping for the one class that I’m teaching this fall):

  1. Foucault, Michel. “Self-writing” in Ethics
  2. Foucault, Michel. “Technologies of the Self” in Ethics.
  3. Foucault, Michel. “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom” in Ethics.
  4. Crampton, Jeremy W. “Part II: Technologies of the Self” in The Political Mapping of Cyberspace. (includes a section entitled: “Resistance: blogging as self-writing”)
  5. Fletcher, Peter. “Why I’m Interested in Self-Writing
  6. Theory Teacher’s Blog. “The Ethics of Teaching: Some Small Advice for New Teachers”
  7. Heyes, Cressida. “Foucault Goes to Weight Watchers” in Hypatia (excellent article. wish I could get the image of Foucault at Weight Watchers out of my head…)
Note: When I first started writing this entry, I had planned to give a brief introduction to the topic of Foucault and care of the self and then a close reading of “self-writing.” That will have to wait for later. For now, I’m glad that I was able to articulate some of my thoughts about influences for my chapter.

Tracking Trouble, Day Three

I’m on my third day of tracking my virtuous troublemaking. While I still don’t think their focus on daily rating your virtuous behavior  is the most effective approach, I have enjoyed how using this app enables me to think about what I want in a virtue app and also what the practice of virtue on a regular basis might look like. I did my reflection/evaluation for day three this morning (on day four) because I didn’t have time or energy last night. In the summer–maybe because of the heat?–my brain shuts down around 4 PM. Oh well. I ranked myself at a 3 out of 3, partly because I’m over the ranking system and partly because I did spend a lot of time during the day thinking critically and creatively about the world and my work. I even mapped out an outline for my troublemaking book (next step: find a publisher!). Here are my thoughts from the reflection box: Another somewhat arbitrary ranking here. I put it at a 3 because I did get to write about troublemaking a lot today. Should writing count? Is tmaking just about thinking? Did I challenge anyone else today? Connections with an in relation to others? Still stuck on evaluation here. My reflection here is helpful for me in thinking through how often we should practice tmaking.

One key concern I keep coming up against with this app is its lack of guidance in helping the user figure out what virtuous practice is and whether of not they are engaging in it. What resources does the user have to draw on when developing their own plan for tracking and reflecting on virtue? I suppose the most obvious answer to this question is Ben Franklin. But, what about other sources? The brief quotations that they provide from Franklin don’t offer enough substance for really thinking through virtuous practice. I find this to be a big problem with self-help/self-improvement products (books, apps, etc) in general; they provide quick answers without any larger vision to back them up. 

As an aside: for some reason, I seem to be fixated on self-help this summer. I am struck by how self-help can take philosophical/intellectual/dense ideas and makes them more accessible to a wider range of audiences. Unfortunately, this accessibility quite frequently comes at the expense of complexity/deeper vision and is done for the purpose of selling products/ideas/ideologies. What are some other ways to make critical self-reflection and virtue ethics accessible (and compelling) to folks outside of the academy? What about care of the self? I’ve found a couple of sources on Foucault and self-help that I need to check out, including this one:

Rimke, H. M. (2000). Governing citizens through self-help literature. Cultural Studies, Volume 14, pp. 61-78.