Decalogue 1: Reflections and Ruminations

by Zachary Way

As (ideally) many of you know, I’m running our “Philosophy & Cinema” film series throughout this Fall and Winter semester. The bulk of this series consists of Kryzstof Kiewloski’s the Decalogue, a 10 part Polish television series that thematically mirrors itself after the Ten Commandments of the Hebrew Bible but for a contemporary setting. While there was discussion after our inaugural screening last Thursday, I’ve taken here to offering some written thoughts on the film in question.

Simply titled ‘Dekalogue 1’, the common thinking on this first episode is that it is a direct examination of the first commandment; “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me” as found in our main character of Kryzstof’s “worship” of science. The crux of the third act rests upon our protagonists unfailing belief that the ice of a nearby stream cannot have broken and thus endangered the life of his son, Pavel, based on calculations of weather temperature’s he has previously produced. In this reading, a vengeful god has struck out at Kryzstof by way of Pavel’s death for improper worship.

But this reading seems awfully flat and uninteresting, in fact it seems to fly in the face of the otherwise grounded and normal presentation of the film.  Instead, I’ll turn to some explicitly philosophical concepts to navigate our way through the themes of our feature. The heart of our third act is the tragedy of what happens to young Pavel as seen from the perspective of Kryzstof, who is aloof to any sense of things having gone amiss until they are too late.

I turn to Derrida’s notion of L’Avenir for help. L’Avenir for Derrida is a specific kind of future, one which is unknowable and unforeseen. Typically we think of future events as set in a certain kind of way, we ‘know’ this future and map it out. I’ll have class on Thursday; I’ll see a movie on Friday, read on Saturday, etc. But this is only one ‘kind’ of future. There are those events that shock us in their unexpected and unannounced ways and in so doing change us. That friend you haven’t seen in years meets you at a coffee shop and you spend the next several hours talking feverously as your schedule for the day is thrown away. Derrida goes further of course to link this concept of the unpredictable future explicitly to his thoughts on the human Other, the person who summons the I to the ethical situation. I won’t go there today (perhaps in later films!) but this distinction between the known and unkown futures is forceful for Decalogue 1.

It seems like Kryzstof has most everything planned out. He teaches and takes care of his son, yes, but he heavily uses the then new personal computers for complex calculation around both mathematical and linguistic problems. He, by way of his calculations, has his future very much mapped out. This is why Kryzstof is so slow to even realize that anything is amiss in the first place. The ice simply could not have broken, he ‘knows’ it to be true. And yet, the ice has broken, and as that fact dawns on him, Kryzstof is shocked and saddened all the more by the events that follow. This is not the L’Avenir that opens up the human Other, but a terrible future that reminds us of that things in life are fluid and not set in stone like we think they are.

This is one of the many lessons I think we can take away from the inaugural episode of the Decalogue. The L’Avenir is out there, the unknown will intrude into our lives, and we will likely not be ready for it. What then can we do? Perhaps adapt to that dynamism as best we can, acknowledge that things will get out of our hands and things will not go as we plan them. But those are thoughts for another time. Till the next time!

Some Parting Thoughts

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by Rachel Robinson

After a winter that seemed like it would never end, spring is finally here in Toronto. There’s something about seeing the flowers in bloom all over the city, going for bike rides and runs outdoors, and sitting on a patio enjoying the warm weather that makes spring feel like a time of beginnings and adventures. For those of us graduating from the program, we are catching glimpses of the new horizon of life after Ryerson Philosophy. Whether moving to a different city, embarking on a PhD or forging a career path outside of academia, there is a sense of uncertainty mixed with excitement buzzing in our lives.

These new projects bring with them a familiar set of questions: Will I be good enough? Smart enough? Determined enough to succeed? Yet despite our worries and fear of impostor syndrome, we can take pride and comfort in the fact that we have received the kind of training and support from our Graduate program that has prepared us for what lies ahead – whatever that may be. We leave Ryerson confident that the past two years have not been in vain, but have truly enhanced our perspectives. Through the time spent in seminars, colloquiums, house parties, pubs, the lounge, and our conference, we have created and nurtured a real community.

Whether we will directly or indirectly apply our knowledge of the Western Intellectual Tradition, doing philosophy is not something that ends with graduation.

We study timehave had the privilege of working with and learning from a group of talented professors and fellow students. The environment at Ryerson embodied the spirit of doing philosophy both inside and outside of the classroom. When philosophy is done properly, it is a life-changing, transformative experience.

 

We complete this program knowing that there are certain phrases, certain quotations, and certain ideas that will stay with us long after we have left our seats in the boardroom of 440.

“I really enjoyed your talk. This is a clarification question…”

by Rachel Robinson

Ryerson’s Graduate Philosophy Conference was a few weeks ago, and the consensus from all involved is that it was a great success. An especially noticeable feature of the conference was the quality of the question period at the end of each speaker. One of the presenters even told me that she was impressed with how people at this conference were able to foster conversation without being overly acquiescent or hostile to the speakers. The audience members were not afraid to ask difficult questions – that is, difficult to understand and difficult to answer. However, the speakers in general were able to give confident and compelling responses to the objections made against their respective projects. As anyone who has attended a conference or given a presentation can confirm, the most intimidating aspect of public speaking comes after the scripted part: the dreaded question period. It is during these 10 to 15 minutes that the presenter’s personality and authority on the subject really becomes apparent to the audience. The manner in which the presenter responds to challenging or unclear questions reveals much about their own character, not simply as philosophers but as human beings.

Last week, a group of Ryerson students went to see Simon Critchley give a talk at King’s University College at the University of Western Ontario. While Critchley definitely lived up to his reputation of being an incredible speaker, I was far more impressed with his ability to respond to audience questions. Now, Critchley is something of a rock star in philosophy circles, and he is a seasoned professional in giving presentations. One would think that  he would be able to answer any question that was thrown at him with an authoritative and convincing answer. Yet Critchley was the first to admit that audience members made valid criticisms against his own theory, and that there are aspects of his research that require further attention. Critchley considered each question with (at least what appeared to be) sincerity, and was friendlier and funnier than I had anticipated. It was during the question period that Critchley modelled how to answer difficult questions: with grace and honesty.

Giving my paper at the 2013 Uehiro Conference

Giving my paper at the 2013 Uehiro Conference

Grace and honesty may seem like obvious traits to exhibit during a presentation, but they are harder to possess than they initially appear. For grad students especially, it can be intimidating when a learned professor raises an issue that you have not even considered in your research, and the instinctive response is to go on the defensive, or to assume that the question is not important. While I agree that it is imperative to maintain a confident demeanor while giving a talk, especially at a conference, the point of going to a conference (other than adding it to your CV) may be to enhance your research. If someone makes a claim or asks a question that you genuinely cannot answer, then it’s reasonable to let them know that you’re still working on this aspect of your theory, and that you appreciate their interest in your work. It’s possible that their criticism could make your work stronger, and learning how to gracefully reply that you don’t know how to answer their question at the current moment, is a skill that takes practice and time. Now, hopefully there will be more questions that are answerable with a satisfactory response than those that you cannot handle. Regardless, in my own experience, fellow presenters may not remember verbatim the answers that you give, but they are more likely to appreciate your ability to remain calm and composed while before the firing squad.

Relaxing during Reading Week (Winter Edition)

by Rachel Robinson

As February’s Reading Week is almost here, the cold weather is definitely an incentive to get lots of grading, reading and essaying done. However, we still live in Toronto! Here are some reasonably-priced (and often free) activities to do during this week away from school.

Feb. 15: Free Tour and Tasting at Amsterdam Brewery, between 1 to 5pm. http://amsterdambeer.com/retail-store/

Feb. 15: Free Ice Skating at Harbourfront Centre, with guest DJ “Yes Yes Y’all”, a queer-friendly Valentine’s theme skating dance party, from 8 to 11pm. http://www.harbourfrontcentre.com/whatson/seasonalfestivals/index.cfm?id=5678&festival_id=154

Feb. 18: See at movie at Rainbow Cinemas’ in St. Lawrence Neighbourhood for $5. http://www.rainbowcinemas.ca/A/?theatre=Market_Square&

Feb. 18: Free silent film showing, Very Valentino, at Drake One Fifty at 8pm. http://www.drakeonefifty.ca/whatson/listings/film/?page=1

Feb. 19: Free Jazz Series at the Canadian Opera Company, this week featuring “The Universe of John Lennon” from 5:30 to 6:30pm. http://www.coc.ca/PerformancesAndTickets/FreeConcertSeries/February.aspx

Feb. 19: Free from 6 to 8:30pm, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s general exhibit. You can also pay $12.50 to see their featured exhibition, “The Great Upheaval: Masterpieces from the Guggenheim Collection, 1910- 1918” (normally $25 with general admission). https://www.ago.net/home/

Feb. 20: Free exhibit at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre: “Moving On: An Exhibition of Photographs by Ryerson Students Exploring Urban Transportation in the Greater Toronto Area.” From 11am to 3pm. http://www.toronto.com/events/moving-on/

Feb. 21: See the permanent gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) for the student price of $9 (usually $14.50), or include the “Wildlife Photography” exhibit for $13 (usually $18.50). For the Friday discount to apply, tickets must be bought online. http://www.rom.on.ca/en/visit-us/tickets-hours

Feb. 21: Pay-what-you-can at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA), from 11am to 6pm. http://www.mocca.ca/

Feb. 22: Ryerson’s Philosophy Graduate Students’ Conference! See the Conference link on our website for more details.

Feb. 22- 23: Free “Icefest” at Bloor-Yorkville. Check out amazing ice sculptures. http://www.bloor-yorkville.com/icefest/

All week: Enjoy a “Winter Brew.” See a decent list of suggestions at: http://www.toronto.com/articles/best-winter-brews-in-toronto/

All week: Enjoy a beer at the Beer Academy (located super close to Ryerson), where their beer tasting menu includes 3 four-ounce beers for $6. http://www.beeracademy.ca/

Papers and Procrastination

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by Rachel Robinson

There are few things more intimidating to a student (or, for that matter, any writer) than a blank page. Sometimes, the empty screen staring back at you can appear to reflect your state of mind: empty. At this point in the writing process it’s common to feel overwhelmed IMG_0647at the amount of work still to be done, and simply thinking about the due date doesn’t necessarily make the ideas or writing any better. As philosophy students, writing papers is something that we’re familiar with, yet that doesn’t mean that we don’t occasionally fall prey to the beast that is procrastination. As a former Peer Tutor at the Write Place at King’s College at UWO, and as someone who’s written her fair share of papers, here are a few ideas to help you cope with the temptation to wait until tomorrow to work on that assignment.

  • Brainstorm. Before trying to write down anything formal, begin by writing everything that you know about the topic at hand. Set a time limit – say, 15 minutes – and in that time write down any possible ideas and trains of thought that occur to you about the topic. Don’t worry about the spelling, grammar or sentence structure at this point in time – the idea is just to get your mind thinking and engaged with the topic.
  • Look at your brainstorming. You will (hopefully!) be surprised at how much you already know about the topic, and what great potential some of those ideas have. Sometimes, just seeing that you have an opinion can be encouraging, even if you don’t end up using all of your rough work.
  • Pay attention to when you get your ideas. Sometimes, our best ideas for papers come to us during our down-time. For example, I find that brushing my teeth is often when I have a major idea for a paper, and I have to write it down on a post-it afterwards so that I don’t forget it later on. This doesn’t mean that it’s alright to spend days just waiting for inspiration – often we don’t have that kind of luxury. Rather, I mean to take time away from your work so that your mind can renew itself, instead of just obsessing over how little you feel that you’ve accomplished.
  • Similar to the previous point: write down your ideas when they come to you! Too many times we’ll say something interesting or useful in conversation, and then forget what it was when it’s time to write. Literally writing down your idea, instead of just making a mental note of it, will make it easier to remember later on when you’re at the computer.
  • Set up a schedule for writing – and actually stick to it. You probably know your writing style, and how many pages or words you can comfortably write per day. Do your best to set aside some time each day for writing, and don’t worry if it isn’t your best possible work. During the writing period, it’s important just to organize and explain your project in your own words. Having a daily goal to accomplish will help to make sure that the paper is being worked on, and not being neglected until the last day. If possible, write at the same time each day, when you’re at your most focused. This is habit-forming, and your mind will know to write during that period.
  • When possible, wait a day in between writing your first draft and editing it. The mind needs time to step away from the project, and come back to it with a fresh perspective.
  • Leave ample time for proof-reading. While proof-reading isn’t the most exciting part of the writing process, it is definitely necessary. This is the time to be harsh with your work. Read each sentence out loud (or, better yet, have someone else read the work out to you) and make sure that what you intend to say is actually what you’ve written down.

Living Philosophically: A Conversation with Dr. Lisa Guenther

by Rachel Robinson

Welcome back! I hope everyone had a restful winter break, and are re-energized for this new semester. As we begin to get back to work, it’s helpful to remember that philosophy is a way of being engaged in the world. To that end, young philosophers such as ourselves can look to people who are socially and politically active in their own communities, such as Dr. Lisa Guenther.

In November, one of our speaker series featured prominent philosopher Dr. Lisa Guenther, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the books, The Gift of the Other: Levinas And The Politics of Reproduction and Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. After her presentation on solitary confinement, I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Guenther about her experiences as a socially and politically active philosopher. As you may recall, the first blog piece was about philosophy as a conversation about the world. Dr. Guenther is therefore an exemplary model of someone whose engagement with philosophy extends beyond the so-called Ivory Tower of academia, and is instead highly active in her own community.

The terms “public intellectual” and “social philosopher” are resisted by some and embraced by others. I believe that these phrases evoke an individual who uses their philosophical knowledge and research to contribute to their social and political environments. It is with this view in mind that I do not hesitate to suggest that Dr. Guenther is a social philosopher. As the focus of Dr. Guenther’s current work is on solitary confinement, she has served on ethics committees, contributed to podcasts on the CBC and volunteers at a penitentiary in Nashville, TN.

When I asked Dr. Guenther whether she felt a responsibility to be engaged in her community, the response I received was highly Levinasian and therefore quite compelling. Dr.  Guenther explained, “due to the nature of my research [on solitary confinement], I felt an ethical obligation to be in conversation with people in prison. This led me to volunteer to facilitate a discussion group at a local prison. The unit where the prison chaplain placed me is a death row unit, so this raised the stakes of the conversation.” She states that, “I don’t write about the men in our group! My work on solitary confinement is based on interviews, etc. done by anthropologists, psychologists, etc. The discussion group is something different: a group for conversation, collaboration, and support. I did write one blog post about my experience in the discussion group, but I try to maintain a (semi-permeable) boundary between my writing ABOUT prisons and my collaboration WITH prisoners:  http://www.newappsblog.com/2013/01/reading-plato-on-death-row.html.”

Dr. Guenther is an advocate for finding a balance between the philosophical conversation and concrete action. Rather than abandoning the philosophical conversation, there is an enhanced need for striking a middle ground between thinking and doing. Dr. Guenther’s insight is invaluable for young philosophers. How do we find the balance between reading our philosophy texts, and actually engaging with the world around us?

Furthermore, with whom can we have philosophical conversations? How do we make our research more accessible to those outside the field? Part of Dr. Guenther’s volunteer work at the penitentiary involves a reading group with inmates. I wonder about the conversations that take place during that time, and how interesting it must be to discuss philosophy and literature with people who have vastly different educational and economic backgrounds. Perhaps part of living an examined life means that we need to re-evaluate what it means to do philosophy, and how we can use our interests and skills to play an active part in the world in which we live.

The Philosophical Body

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by Rachel Robinson

As students of Philosophy we are engaged in the Western Intellectual Tradition. With oct 30 blogmuch of the emphasis placed on mental activity, we often forget that our bodies are a key part of our success as students and scholars. For those familiar with Merleau-Ponty or Feminist thought, it is well-known the body is a subject worthy of philosophical exploration. In fact, some may say that the body announces itself. The body speaks especially loudly when it says that it’s time to stop working, whether by the stomach’s growling from hunger, the legs’ stiffness from sitting in one spot for countless hours, or the eyes’ burning from staring too long at a computer screen. At each of these instances, and especially when they’re combined, the body dictates how much quality work can be done. An anecdote that one of my professors often told was that of Kant taking his daily walk at the same time each day at such a precise time that the townspeople set their watches to his routine. Kant knew that spending all day long reading and writing needed to be supplemented by some form of physical activity, and this is advice that grad students tend to forget. Sometimes, the mental exhaustion that is part of extensive research can be helped by attending to the body’s needs. Here are some suggestions for staying mentally and physically strong:

  • Pay attention to your eyes. When they start stinging or burning from constant computer use, it’s time to step away from the screen. Sometimes, just closing your eyes for a minute and then getting back to the typing may be enough, especially in the middle of a paragraph. When you have a headache but still need to write your ideas down, do it the old-fashioned way using a pen and notebook.
  • Learn the difference between taking a mental break and just being distracted. A mental break is when you’re too tired to think clearly because the sentences no longer make sense, and you’re doubting the clarity of the last few sentences you’ve just written. This is the time to do something else, preferably non-academic to let your mind rest. Being distracted is when checking an unknown word online becomes hours logged on Thought Catalogue or Buzzfeed. Try to limit your computer-oriented breaks to 10-15 minutes, and then getting back to work. Sometimes we get easily distracted when we aren’t particularly engaged in the subject matter, and few things are more depressing than seeing a blank word document. Try brainstorming or free-writing any and all ideas that come to mind, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much more interested you become when you find you do have thoughts on the topic.
  • Stand up every hour. If you can, walk around to keep the blood flowing in your body. This will help you from cramping up and from feeling cold. If you’re working at home, open the front door or just step outside for a minute (even and especially in winter). A breath of fresh air is surprisingly refreshing from the stuffiness of indoor heating.
  • Keep water nearby. If you drink enough of it, you’ll be standing up and walking every few hours, guaranteed.
  • Take a short walk to clear your mind, perhaps to the grocery store where you can load up on great study foods like nuts, almonds and bananas. Similarly, take time to cook meals that you can then have as leftovers later on that week.
  • Go for a run. Or a bike ride. Or try indoor climbing. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the times that you’re the busiest are the best times to work out. Your body and your mind will be thankful for the change in routine. Soon, fitting in that daily run or gym time will be a natural part of your life.
  •  Call your parents. They miss you. Your emotional well-being shouldn’t be neglected either.