Library Court and drinks with Rhodes Scholars

2005-09-27

in Canada, Daily updates, Oxford

A cluster of Canadian Rhodes Scholars

This morning, as on previous mornings, I’ve been reminded how the panopticon is more of a panaudiocon. Despite my total lack of an alarm clock, I’ve been awake before 9:30am each day. This is something I would have been hard pressed to do in Vancouver, under such circumstances and when going to bed around 2:00am, but here it has been automatic. Less automatic today, I suppose, when one of the ‘scouts’ and I were able to terrify one another quite thoroughly when she came striding through my unlocked door as I was asleep. Despite that minor incident, life here is developing as before. A number of other people have now moved into Library Court and the staircase that you must pass through to get here. In England, it seems, the word ‘staircase’ can denote a dormitory.

I took my first books out of the Wadham Library this morning, which was a delight. I found Hollis and Smith’s Explaining and Understanding International Relations through the Oxford Libraries telnet service. Right beside it, I found the Bull’s The Anarchical Society and Carr’s International Relations Since the Peace Treaties: classics, both. The process of withdrawing them was equally excellent. I just scanned my Bodeleian card, still bearing a misspelled name, and then the books.

This afternoon, I read the articles by Simon Critchley that Tristan sent me in response to my general hostility towards critical theory and abstract analysis of international relations. Personally, I feel more sympathy towards a view of Marx that is much more critical than Critchley’s, though reading the articles was interesting – despite what a small fraction of them I understood. Reading these articles is exactly like reading a complex book in French, where I have only the vaguest sense of what all the complicated words mean and where I struggle along looking for short and straightforward sentences that can be the anchors of my shaky understanding.

Critchley’s second article, on Derrida, makes reference to “patient, meticulous, [and] scrupulous” reading. Stressing the importance of that probably highlights the major difference in approach between philosophers and me. I don’t do patient, meticulous, or scrupulous reading. Reading is a springboard into new ideas: part of a breathless race into territory that at least seems new. Taking on a new text is just a way of getting a few more girders to hold up the causeway you are building for yourself. Maybe that is sloppy scholarship, and I am not particularly keen to defend it, but it seems to me that if we want to change the world, we don’t have time to “read… the text in its original language, knowing the corpus of the author as a whole, being acquainted with its original context and its dominant contexts of reception.” Doing so is a kind of prison; it allows you to perform startling feats of analysis, but principally ones that can only be understood by fellow initiates. Through the process of becoming de-alienated from a particular author, you become alienated from the rest of humanity, Still, I am quite willing to accept that philosophical texts ‘stay fresh’ for longer than works in international relations or environmental politics do. Perhaps that means that enough people can develop an adequate corpus of knowledge for broad debate on technical matters to take place. Whether such debate actually tangibly impacts the rest of the world, however, I remain profoundly uncertain about.

After reading for a while, I met with Joanna Coryndon again to have my Bodleian card corrected. I also started the week long process of opening a bank account and getting a credit card here, as well as having some photographs of myself printed for the college. My second foray to Sainsbury’s involved the acquisition of large amounts of organic vegetables, six kinds of cheese, and many bagels.

In the evening, I met Abra, Ben, and several others who were on their way to get some dinner. We ended up meeting about fifteen people outside the Burger King on the high street. All were Canadians, and we introduced ourselves to one another by hometown and academic specialization. It struck me as vaguely odd, right off, that a large contingent already seemed to know one another quite well. In the end, we went to The Head of the River: the pub right beside the Folly Bridge. There, I learned that I was sitting at a table with six of the Canadian Rhodes Scholars – members of the group I had perceived the outline of beforehand. While quite intellectually intimidating, it was also quite thrilling. To be living twenty metres from a Rhodes scholar and to have the email addresses of two others in my wallet is an odd sensation.

After leaving, we walked back to Wadham by means of Magdalen College, where one of the most interesting Rhodes Scholars I met is living. Back in Wadham, we visited the bar in the JCR for the first time. In my case, two more pints of Guinness were added to the one I had already consumed – a progression that partially explains my lack of desire to write at too great a length about tonight’s happenings.

Suffice it to say that I met an interesting young student of literature at the JCR, who is also a photographer in possession of one of the best accents I have ever encountered. I hope it will not be our last meeting. Once Andy, Ben, Kelly, etc. departed from the bar, I was left talking fruitfully with Nora. From there to an eventually rather rain-swept bit of roof near Library Court, we spoke for another couple of hours. I am a bit hesitant to write about it because I think it more than likely that she will eventually find her way here. It’s not that I couldn’t post a transcript without embarrassing her intellect in the slightest; it’s a matter of disclosure and non-disclosure.

I wonder how long it will take for Oxford water to be the ‘normal’ or baseline water for me. Quite possibly around the time when my current kind of tea, brewed in such water, eclipses in my mind the primacy of the Murchie’s Earl Grey to which Kate first introduced me, and which I sat sipping at kitchen tables in Fairview with Meghan and Tristan for hours on end.

Things I need:

  1. More towels
  2. An alarm clock that doesn’t get fried by 240V power
  3. French press
  4. A second pair of dark, non-torn pants

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan Laing September 27, 2005 at 2:57 am

coudnt you purchase Murchies tea in Oxford? I mean, you are in England.

I hope your internet connection is better than mine. My knees are contorted in the most uncomfortable position so that I can sit and connect to “mustardhill”. At least its there.

Tim L-G September 27, 2005 at 3:18 am

Let me know if you encounter a fellow (a Canadian Rhodes) by the name of John Anderson. He’s from Calgary/Victoria, and in Economics..

Tris September 27, 2005 at 4:09 am

You meantioned Ayn Rand a few posts ago, I believe. The name came up to me again when speaking with a colleague who is teaching Rand in her tutorial. So, I looked into it. It seems, from some preliminary research, that Ayn Rand is just about the worst philosopher ever. She believes that reason itself can be the source of values. This is just wrong, it doesn’t get any wrong-er. She also believes in the supremacy and creativity of the individual above society. This is a tougher one, namely because many people, right and left, exalt the free play of the imagination and the ultimate expressibility of human freedom. Those on the left have sense enough to remember that this freedom is limited through structures of domination. I would, however, reject this thesis altogether, but I certainly would still respect those who feel a need to hold on to the self as an originary position for thought and free play.

What is disturbing, however, is that her ethics seems to privledge this creative and free individual over the other, always prior to the other. The other comes up only in the sense of non-interference – one cannot harm the other. But the self seems to bear no responsibility for the other. Think Sartre here, or rather just think – how can a free individual not bear any responsibility for the other? This is a philosophy of radical apathy.

As a side note, Ayn Rand seems to have said some very bad things about Kant. Which is a bit strange on the one hand because Kant tried to show how moral laws can be derived purely from the operation of reason and its relation to the understanding – basically a more complex (but equally, in the end, proposterous) version of what she seems to be doing.

Apathy. The propensity to apathy, to not-having-to-care-for-the-other, or rather in english, not having to care for the other (I think dashes only simplify things fo us heideggarians) is the only psychological reason why I can see someone would accept this philosophy and not reject it outright.

Bracket – of course I havn’t read any actual Ayn Rand, but am rather relying on a few bits of commentary and diagrams from Wikipedia and elsewhere. Is Rand actually doing something more sophisticated than this? Sophistication, however, is no excuse for an ethics in which the liberated free subject is free to starve.

Milan September 27, 2005 at 5:09 am

Tim,

One of the five other people at dinner was a Calgarian Economist, so I am willing to guess that he was John Anderson. Do you know him?

Milan

Tim September 27, 2005 at 6:40 am

Yeah, John Anderson went to my high school, and to my church in my more pious days. He’d been over to my house a few times to chat with my Dad (about Oxford), as they share many aspects of their career paths.

I notice he’s in your picture…

Say hi for me, if you get the chance!

Kerrie September 27, 2005 at 9:04 am

Tristan:

No. Ayn Rand does not have anything else to offer.

She is born in Russia.
Her middle class upbringing is destroyed by communism/communists in her teens.
She goes to America.
She hates Communism
She likes Capitalism, enough to try to promote it as a-actually, the- moral system. Capitalists don’t beat up her family and rape her friends (because she went to America, not South America). Yay Capitalism.

Secondly, I appreciate that you would take my sarcastic suggestion of checking out Ayn Rand so seriously. In fact I seem to have really touched a nerve with a lot of people.

Milan September 27, 2005 at 9:23 am

Tristan,

As I posted on your blog, there was no reason for any of us to make the leap, in Nora’s case, between being an advocate of capitalism in general and being an appreciator of Ayn Rand specifically. There are plenty of other authors, publications, and ethical positions that affirm capitalism as a moral enterprise, whether on teleological, deontological, or other grounds. While you may assert that all such theories are deficient, they cannot be debunked by means of nothing but an attack on Rand.

Tristan Laing September 27, 2005 at 9:02 pm

“who chooses who rules, and for how long? Who tells governments how companies will be regulated? Who in the end owns the companies? Workers for hire—the proletariat.”

Does anyone here believe this? For a second? This is from the Economists article on why “Marx, on everything that mattered, was wrong”.

The article seriously misses the point. Most everyway it makes Marx ‘wrong’ concern aspects of Marx’s thought which were changed and re-formed by writers after Marx. Would you expect Adam Smith to hold up all of Capitalism on his sholders alone? Or, are there rather a collection of writers – some better, some worse, but all owing a debt to Smith in some way as the “founder” of a movement? It is not outrageous to read a little less Marx, and a little more Gramci, Adorno, Marcuse, Althusser.

Perhaps the most important theme the article fails to pick up on is it’s own notion of “truth”, or should I say “correctness”. Most marxists will have rejected such a simple criterion of whether something is right or wrong. Things are right and wrong inasmuch as they reveal the operations of the world, which is to say there can be mutually exclusive theories which are both ‘right’.

Ask any Marxist if Marx’s predictive power played out in any way like Marx predicted, and of course they will respond negativly. However, they might point out instances of communism which have been more or less successes, and point out others which were crushed by American imperialism in latin america.

None of this is nearly as important as what is happening in Haiti. Or what happened in Guatamala a few decades ago. I’ve learned to stomach american military imperialism in the middle east, Iraq etc…, but their interventions (which usually did not take the form of military invasions qua Iraq) still make me sick – physically ill. I mean, there are still american colonies – porto rico.

I wonder if violence projected outwards in the form of imperialism (both economic and military) is as essential to capitalism as violence against citizens is to communism.

B September 27, 2005 at 9:10 pm

If you are going to speak on behalf of the people of Puerto Rico, you may want to spell the name of the place correctly.

Milan June 6, 2007 at 10:23 pm

More towels

Funny. I still don’t have any more, and I am leaving Oxford in a couple of weeks.

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