Saturday, July 23, 2005

Peter Singer, milieu, output

Read this profile of Peter Singer, utilitarian philosopher, which sparked off many unrelated thoughts. An academic who provokes people enough to receive hate mail and death threats surely subverts that intensely annoying distinction between issues of 'mere' academic interest and the 'real' world. I'm particularly struck by his having been 'lured from the relatively liberal milieu of academic Melbourne because he thought the challenges in one of the world's most selfish, reactionary societies would galvanise him anew as an ethical person' - which suggests the interesting and not unreasonable possibility that one's best work might be produced in the most challenging and potentially hostile environments.

The relationship between working environment and output is explored in an entirely different context in an interesting piece on the production of 'third world' scholarship by scholars from and in those parts of the world (See Arlene Tickner, 'Seeing IR Differently: Notes from the Third World', Millennium 32, no. 2 (2003): 295-324), which is worth quoting at length:

'For those scholars for whom a colonial legacy, war, chronic instability and insecurity, and acute poverty form part of their concrete working conditions, the ways in which reality is reflected upon and problematised is no doubt influenced by the intrusive nature of everyday life. In Colombia, a bomb explosion two blocks from my home that kills 35 people and injures 170 more; a professor assassinated on the National University campus where I teach IR and another shot and nearly killed right outside; a research assistant kidnapped; the increasingly visible presence of the US military and private contractors in the country's conflict, force me to reflect upon problems such as war in ways different from other scholars inhabiting more accommodating life conditions...Not having access to a suitable library or to adequate internet resources, a common ailment of third world scholarship, is another way in which everyday practice creates dramatically different knowledge-building conditions in the global South...Core scholarship is also influenced by everyday conditions, albeit of a markedly different nature. First world working conditions are characterised by two sets of luxuries, including material benefits (research funding, travel to scholarly meetings and abundant bibliographical sources) and conceptual freedom (the autonomy that is accorded by tenure). The prevalent self-image of core scholars is that of individuals in 'ivory towers' uninhibited by their surroundings and free to pursue whatever theoretical venture they deem interesting or important. Academic privilege, however, may isolate core academics from critical problems in the everyday world.'

Sabbatical (mine) in Birzeit? As a matter of fact, London in its present state could more than suffice. This isn't at all intended to welcome adversity (how could anyone in their right minds?); merely to suggest that no place now is free from fear and insecurity (if it ever was). We are becoming a truly global risk society (Beck?).

Back to Singer, from whom I stray considerably. Obviously there is much to say about some of his immensely controversial pronouncements (which I don't know enough about) - the very onerous obligations of justice that he places on individuals, so that he sometimes sounds like he expects all persons to be moral heroes; the attempts to draw bright lines on the issue of when a life is no longer worth living, etc. Oh, and don't miss the part about how despite being a graduate student at Univ, it was a certain lunch at Balliol that sent him down the animal rights track.


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