The last month has been a busy one. I’ve graded roughly 400 pages of student papers, and I’ve given about 60 hours of lectures. I haven’t spent much time writing, and I feel good about that. Well, I suppose I’ve done some writing, if you count lecture notes, syllabi, and emails to students. To adapt a phrase from Mick Jagger, it’s only teaching, but I like it. This is what I do.
I consider myself a teacher far more than I would consider myself a writer. Along those lines, I feel an affinity with Heidegger: my work is not to write, but to teach, where teaching is understood not as advising or instructing (belehren) but as a practice of letting learn (lernen lassen). Foucault is also a companion in that regard. I often recall his statement that he is a teacher and not a writer or a public intellectual or a philosopher. This isn’t to say that being a teacher precludes writing. Heidegger and Foucault wrote quite a lot. But they were not writers.
I would say that teaching is more difficult than writing. Indeed, teaching is even more difficult than learning, since the teacher has to learn how to let students learn. The teacher has to be more teachable than the students. I feel like that’s almost verbatim from one of my favorite Heidegger books: What is Called Thinking? Not incidentally, that book is a series of lectures, like so many of Heidegger’s works.
I’m sure there are some possible rebuttals to what I’m saying here. Nonetheless, I simply can’t shake some of my Heideggerian convictions… after so much walking along the path, still coming into the nearness of distance… Hier stehe, ich kann nicht anders.
I just got the new issue of the journal Environmental Philosophy. The theme for this issue is time and ecology (check out the table of contents). I was excited to see a piece by Deborah Bird Rose, “Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time.” It’s a delightful piece, and to make it even better, it’s available as a pdf HERE.
Rose discusses the ethical implications of the anthropogenic mass extinction of species currently underway. She draws on James Hatley’s work on ethical time, which is basically a Levinasian approach to ethics. Incidentally, Hatley has a piece in this issue as well, and he is likewise addressing the ethical impications of the mass extinction event.
Emphasizing the biosocial dimensions of the Hatley/Levinas approach, Rose draws on her research on multispecies kinships, specifically in light of her research with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory of Australia. She articulates a beautiful example of the coevolution of flying foxes and their preferred trees. She also makes a compelling point about the practice of writing as an act of witness. Some quotes:
My question is how we may encounter ethics in the world of multispecies differences and connectivities, which is to say—in the world of ecological death, gifts, and flows. (135)
If we were to hold ourselves open to the experience of nonhuman groups, we would see multispecies gifts in this system of sequence, synchrony, connectivity, and mutual benefit. We would see that every creature has a multispecies history—it came into being through its own forebears and through others. Each individual is both itself in the present, and the history of its forebears and mutualists. In the presence of myrtaceous trees we would see flying foxes; in the presence of flying foxes we would see dry sclerophyll woodlands and rainforests. We would see histories and futures—embodied knots of multispecies time.
Within this wider world of multispecies knots, ethics may be understood as an interface—a site of encounter and nourishment. (136)
Writing is an act of witness; it is an effort not only to testify to the lives of others but to do so in ways that bring into our ken the entanglements that hold the lives of all of us within the skein of life. (139)
Life is not only about suffering, of course, and my focus has been on the exuberant joy of ethical time. Flying foxes and their co-evolved blossoms express life’s glorious desire, the call and response, the encounter, and the great patterns of life, death, sustenance and renewal that intersect across species and generations to form flows of life-giving life. If we choose silence in response to the unmaking of all this exuberance, we ourselves become deader than dead, for without an ethical sensibility we lose our capacity to be responsive to the dynamic exuberance of life. (139)