Generosity

by CarlD

This is another spark thrown off by Larval Subjects’ meme post (see previous post for link).

Some time ago another blog colleague posted on a now-deleted blog about the generosity of famous intellectuals. He has found them to be gracious, open and helpful, even early in his career when his status was low. I’ve been mulling this. I can’t say my own experience in this respect has been entirely consistent – this colleague is himself becoming noted for selective graciousness – but in general I can confirm that many of the bigshots I’ve run across are actually pretty cuddly.

Well, sometimes that old guy wants to give you candy because he’s just super nice, and sometimes it’s because he’s got some more back at his house plus other things he’d like to show you. Levi’s argument about memes is that their top priority is to reproduce themselves, and they’re looking for whatever ways to do that they can find. What makes intellectuals famous is that they are the source or vectors of memes. They are accordingly on the make, the more so the more successful they are (or want to be).

The generosity of famous intellectuals is no different than the generosity of the old guy with candy or that fellow who winks and buys you a drink from across the bar. If he looks good to you, go right ahead. But it’s not generosity yet until you turn down the bedroom proposal and he still wants to talk to you. It’s how you treat people who aren’t means to your ends that counts.

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15 Comments to “Generosity”

  1. Hmm, but doesn’t looking at it this way set up a weird opposition “authentic generosity-inauthentic generosity,” which occludes the fact that both types of generosity operate in the power-game of academia? I mean, I don’t think anyone denies that some famous intellectuals are good people, so the operative question here is “how generous are famous intellectuals qua intellectuals?”. And if that’s the case, I’m not sure authentic generosity is all that much better than inauthentic generosity, since in neither case are questions of power (or, for that matter, memetic reproduction) really evacuated.

  2. You’re on a roll today man, I agree with you again. Not even getting into the usual objections to the thin kantian moralizing. But I’m cranking the analysis handle one turn at a time here, starting from where my sources left off.

    So yes, if I let the famous guy do me on the first date that doesn’t mean he isn’t a swell fella, and if I play hard to get and he hangs around that doesn’t mean he isn’t just a canny and patient operator. But in the first instance the power/reproduction game is immediately in play, whereas in the second mediations have been introduced that complicate the vulgar machiavellian reading significantly.

  3. Spinoza feels that selfishness and pleasure is the key to Ethics. But, an enlightened selfishness and pleasure.

    To me, the only truly generous offer is the offer to risk and include change in oneself in the offer to aid another.

  4. Kvond, could we say relate to another? Or do you mean that all relationships with others are potentially (if generous) a form of aid?

  5. Sure. But you seemed to be framing this in terms of “generosity”, which implicitly includes the concept of “gift” (free or otherwise). Perhaps it would be interesting to bring Mauss in here, but in the context of Levi’s seeming criticism of “immunology” and Harman’s own perpetual feeling of being invaded, it seems to me that generosity itself, if it is to be considered gift-giving, must involve the risk of personal change. For instance Harman’s seemingly generous offer to let undergrads how to fake a philosophy paper are themselves rather immune to change. Or, as you seem to have retranslated, he is not “relating”, but perhaps only broadcasting, or manipulating to a narrow advantage.

  6. Oh yeah. I’m proposing a further reframing where any relationship in which we open ourselves to change by the other is a form of gift, in that sense of Maussian reciprocity. I think we agree, and further that offering to change someone else without being changed in return is not really a gift, or generous.

  7. We certainly agree on some very essential things.

  8. “Opening ourselves to change by the other” is an interesting way to put it. On the one hand, it’s a pretty welcome idea. On the other, though, one assumes that most intellectuals believe their ideas not to be simply expressions of their personal preferences–so changing them based on feelings of generosity would on some level constitute a betrayal. I’m not really sure where I stand on that.

  9. Greg, my personal preference is to get it right. I consider all my ideas to be approximations based on my limited experience and exposure to the universe of possible ideas, subject to change on further review. Of course it’s true that all new experiences and ideas must pass through the filters of my old ones, and it’s therefore true that I am drawn to the familiar or the unchallenging Other, but I know this which makes me even more suspicious of the ultimate value of my thinking.

  10. Kvond said,

    it seems to me that generosity itself, if it is to be considered gift-giving, must involve the risk of personal change.

    My initial response is positive. I have for several years been advocating a notion that I call generous reading, i.e., approaching texts with an open mind in a non-judgmental attempt to understand where an author is coming from and what he is trying to do, before proceeding to the nit-picking and gotcha phase that is normally too easy to be anything but cheap. Approaching texts in this way does, of course, incur the risk of being, for good or for ill, taken in by what the author is saying.

    I am not sure, however, that gift-giving necessarily involves the risk of personal change. When I was growing up, we had a large garden and my parents took great pleasure in sending away visitors loaded down with tomatoes or watermelons or whatever else was in season. Were they risking personal change? I would have said that they were affirming a constant in how they saw themselves. Were those who received these gifts changed by them? Perhaps. But I saw little evidence of any dramatic change.

  11. We have to be selective consumers of memes, obviously some degrade and others inhance. Tomatoes and watermelons seem like pretty enhancing gifts. But others, complete trojan horses. Panty hose and hate mongering, for example. I think some naively pass on gifts in true generosity not realizing their little present is mind poison. In other cases people know they are selling crap but couldn’t care less as they recieve money or power they crave, and selling this carp kills a part of them or is symptomatic of some kind of preexisting atrophy. We can all hope to have the wisdom to distinguish what truly noursihes from those seductive things that undermine our better sense. Recently I read something described as a meme that destroys memes.

    I am having a very bad reaction to cases of a certain philospher who seems to be selling hate without realizing what he does or taking any responsibilty for what he does. (Isn’t blogorama already a market? blogora?) Is there ever an instance when hostility doesn’t sanction more hostility? Sorry for changing the subject to sell my meme, but I hope it’s a helpful one.

  12. Welcome Amarilla, thanks for stopping by. You’re so right about panty hose and in your analysis of selective consumption in markets stocked with commodities of dubious value.

    I don’t think hate is too strong a word (and I believe we have the same philosopher in mind), but exclusivity is a key selling point for both high-end commodities and cults, so in this respect perhaps hate is not so much the message as the medium.

    I’d say hostility never sanctions more hostility, but is merely its occasion. I hope hostility is not what my work here conveys.

    Your photographs are fantastic. My wife is from Maine and will soon be returning from two months there for her MFA program. I visited and as usual it was lovely.

  13. I am having a very bad reaction to cases of a certain philospher who seems to be selling hate without realizing what he does or taking any responsibilty for what he does.

    This is the best way to go about it though. Imagine selling hate and then having to come home and put the back down and feel all that hate inside it and then wonder “why am I selling hate?” – existential crisis inevitable. So much easier to talk about “trolls” and “grey vampires” and “projects” and so on, thinking that one is “hating the hate” and saving humanity from an invisible army of enegry-sucking monsters who prey on the weak and [throw in your own metaphor of the cosmic battle between the producers of philosophical awesomeness and the lazies who nitpick at it]…

  14. Thanks Carl, hope your wife is enjoying her program here. Thanks for the explanation M.E.

    In some posts and reactions on the blog mentioned there’s this assumption that if someone is politically incorrect you have to hate them, that any other reaction is an immoral one. Why is hate productive though? Seems like being disturbed and vigilant is another valid option, but I get the feeling people really like to get shipwrecked on reefs of anger and self-righteousness, and there’s a lot of exteriorization of self-loathing in it. It’s a commonplace misery I suppose, the root of ornery is ordinary. We are raised to be really really good at resentment and creating polarization, and also of not giving the time of day to people. I see it in myself all the time.

    But I don’t expect I’ll throw the baby out with the bathwater. Thanks for listening.

  15. Thanks from me too, M.E. Amy, you are wise. This is all so well said. I hope you’ll visit this salon often!

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