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“When we do philosophy my way, we just talk about what’s goin’ on and try to find our way about.” - Rick Roderick
Rick Roderick led a life committed to the mass understanding and diffusion of philosophy and its application to popular culture. Through teaching both at universities and through his videotape lecture series he reached hundreds of thousands of people, making complex ideas accessible to everyday life.
Roderick was born in Abilene, Texas in 1949, son of by his own description, a "con-man" and a "beautician". In school, he first studied communication, self-admittedly in order to focus on anti-establishment student and anti-war activities, but moved after a few years towards philosophy. In a 1987 interview, he tells his colleague, Anne Buttimer, that the origins of his interest in philosophy coincided with his discovery of a certain intellectual tradition that goes against the grain of history, or exists somewhere outside of it:
“I began to see the hidden past of America; the past that was there in the thirties, that was there when I listened to Woody Guthrie, which I came to after Bob Dylan, right? And I began to see a hidden past of America. A past full of promise that had basically been taken over by a bunch of shoddy insurance salesmen and techno war bureaucrats. And I began to see and feel part of an America that’s been hidden. And it’s certainly systematically hidden at the university, in my opinion.”
From 1977 to 1993, he taught Philosophy, first at Baylor, then University of Texas and then at Duke University where he was much revered by many students for a Socratic style of teaching combined with a brash and often humorous approach. This wild man of philosophy, a Texo-Marxist genius with a hellacious drawl, was too busy being an activist to get tenure at his job at Duke University; so he became an itinerant philosopher.
His breakthrough into wider circles came in the 1990s with his engagement with The Teaching Company where he recorded three lecture series released on video and cassette tape. Part one, released in 1990, is called “Philosophy and Human Values” and covers Socrates, Epicurean, Kant, Mill, Hegel, Nietzche and Kierkegaard. Part two titled “Nietzsche and the Postmodern Condition'', covers all things Nietzsche and was released in 1991. The final part of the series is titled “The Self Under Siege – Philosophy in the 20th Century” and covers Sartre, Marcuse, Habermas, Foucault and Derrida and was released in 1993.
Roderick’s incoherent sense of timing, his acute colloquialism, his gift for making hyperbole seem like an understatement: these all elevate the subjects above an abstraction. He’s too incensed to avoid speaking in contradictory fragments. His low-brow cultural references, though, often do justice to complex subjects. Here is how Roderick summarizes Immanuel Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals in part one of his series:
“Now, what’s more interesting than this so far, are the principles that Kant draws from the Categorical Imperative. And some of which have remained extremely important to us today – and one is still important to me now – I think at least one of them. He draws from this Categorical Imperative four principles. The first one, is one that if it were followed, as a moral rule, would make the capitalist economy impossible, at least in its current form. It would also make the state socialist economies that just fell impossible, which they already are under their present form. Anyway, it’s the “Ends Principle”. The Ends Principle – Kant says – follows from the Categorical Imperative and the Ends Principle is as follows: “Always treat others, and yourself as though you were an end, and never a mere means”.
You need to think about that one for a while. Always treat other people as an end, and never as a mere means. Now, my West Texas boys way of saying that is “Don’t use folks”. Don’t use them. That means, don’t hire them at Burger King so you can make extra money as an Assistant Manager. Dating is frequently not a relation that obeys the Principle of Ends. Frequently the situation is one in which somebody is supposed to use someone else as a means to an end. Well, it’s wrong, according to Kant because you should never treat any person – including yourself, by the way – as a mere means, but only as an end. That’s the Ends Principle. Connected to that, and connected to the imperative is one that I think is worth fighting over.
I said I deeply believe in some principles. This is one I deeply believe in: The Principle of Freedom. Which is, we must always act under the practical postulate that our will is free. Now, here is what Kant is saying, and I think it’s worth remembering. That we all have these arguments that we can’t do anything about something, and that so much stuff is going on, how can I help? For Kant, none of that works. It’s all excuses. Later, Sartre will call it “Bad Faith”. The practical postulate under which you should morally act is that you are free. Now, why does Kant call it a practical postulate? It’s simple. Because you can’t show that you are free, you may not even be free, in other words you could even be in prison – as Sartre says – or you could be determined by psychological, social factors, whatever. But you should act under the practical postulate that your moral decision makes a difference.
Now – if you have noticed – so far all Kant is doing is giving us an account of what a lot of folks think moral action is anyway. Sort of, maybe this one is controversial, but we’ll see. In any case, that practical postulate is one that you have all adopted today, whether you knew it or not. Because hardly anyone gets up in the morning and dresses themselves as a cleverly constructed automaton, and says: ‘I wish I could freely do something today, but since there was the Big Bang and I know the laws of physics and biology and behavioural science, that means I am going to go through the day like an automaton.’ No. Practically speaking, you got up and went: ‘Hell, I am going to go to the talks’, right? As though you were free to do it. And, you’re here! Great.
But, it’s funny when we turn to politics we forget this. We go ‘Well, you know, there is just nothing I can do…’. Well, Sartre called that Bad Faith because… in other respects you act under a practical postulate. Act as though you are free. You might get lucky. You might be free, who knows! Act that way. It’s worth trying!”
In the final part of The Self Under Siege, the third part of the series on twentieth century philosophy, he discusses the intellectual vertigo produced in human beings as they rush deeper into the information age. In this purgatorial state, the major obstacle between humans and reality is not a lack of information, but an excess of it. We are bombarded by information, little of it useful, and the result is a muddled existence staggering between lies, half-truths and scraps of propaganda. It is never clear whose truth we are consuming, or for what reasons it has been offered. Twenty-First century humans no longer live on reality’s ground floor. To even get a glimpse of reality we must sift through and decipher so much information that by the time we discern what is “real,” it is often no longer particularly relevant.
Rick took on the task of boiling down western philosophy to its most significant, critical, and above all, useful ideas. Rick was a captivating speaker and writer, a skill he considered paramount, and cultivated with purpose. Knowledge, for him, was useless if it could not be shared, and his greatest talent was in sharing knowledge in the form of a story that was always compelling, whether it dealt with our best, worst, or dullest natures.
Rick first talks about information overload in terms of our personal narratives, what we think of our own journeys through life. He gives the example of a Native American living in a traditional tribe. Such a man didn’t have a lot of choice concerning his ultimate identity. A hunter was a hunter, a priest was a priest. For this imagined primitive, there was no need to figure out what it meant to be a priest and why it was important. The modern man by contrast, is racked with doubt. According to Rick:
“This is not cartesian doubt, you know, this isn’t doubt brought on by an evil genie who makes me wrong to my clear mind, no, we doubt in a different way now. We doubt that we could know enough about the big picture to even make sense of anything. I mean that’s why, you know, one of the battle cries of these lectures will be to ‘just make sense’, because that will be very difficult to do. Because we will be doing it in a situation in which there is way too much to make sense about… Even our purest motives get caught up in these systems.”
This is coupled with the idea that our intellectual pursuits, at least in the American vein, have become deflationary. This is now self-evident. Proof can easily be seen in the artifacts of our generation, which always emphasize self-actualization over understanding. In Siege, Rick quotes the anti-foundationalist philosopher Richard Rorty. His article “The World Well Lost” seemed to Rick a prime example of intellectual decay. According to Rorty, any problem that has been around for 2500 years and remains unresolved is necessarily and correctly met by the modern person with the answer: “I don’t care.”
To Rorty the practice of philosophy was always a selfish one. He was looking for a philosophical replacement for God, but discovered that one could not exist for him. From then on he devoted himself to convincing others to stop chasing absolutes, saying in a 1992 paper “There is no automatic privilege of what you can get everybody to agree to (the universal) over what you cannot (the idiosyncratic).” In a sense what he argued for was the pointlessness of rigor, the emptiness of accomplishment.
Rorty ended up being right. No universal knowledge remains for our generation, all of our agreements, our “truths,” are understood to be idiosyncratic and malleable. Solutions are temporary – but the problems persist. All of our problems, in point of fact, seem to have gotten worse at astounding speed since Rorty’s views entered the zeitgeist. Under this influence, what good is philosophy? What good is anything other than pleasure and self-confidence?
In another lecture, focusing on Derrida, Rick articulates a response to this lack of resolution:
“Derrida’s noticed, as one could hardly fail to notice, that the history of Western metaphysics has been filled with the attempts to answer the question “Being is _____” and to fill in the blank, and if you follow the history of Western metaphysics; Being is the demiourgos. Being is God, Being is whatever is uncovered by the empirical sciences, Being is this, Being is non-existent, whatever we have tried to fill in the blank with we have not yet reached closure. That’s why I said that philosophy is a funny endeavor, it has a 2500 year history of failure and yet it continues. So obviously it’s not quite in the spirit of capitalism to engage in this enterprise. That’s a long time to run a failing business; 2500 years…”
“See, philosophy is not like building a house, where you start with a firm foundation and build it up and you are finished and you walk off and that’s philosophy. Philosophy under the heading of deconstruction is housework, which means every day the floors have to be swept again, the dishes have to be done again, and I’ll be damned, the next day it's just like that again, and it's just like that again, and it's just like that again… That is at the heart of – I think – the best of philosophy in the late 20th Century… the idea that it’s not getting finished and it can’t be.”
The noise of modernity makes it easy to see questions of self as distant from the practical necessities of life. To continue living without studying that living we construct simple selves capable of surviving the onslaught of context: gamer and troll, activist and reader, Democrat and Republican. The work is too difficult, and since there is no longer any pretense of reward for solving life’s complexities, the contemporary person is encouraged to adopt lives defined by jobs, tastes, and demographic ranges. An authentic self is just as good as any “identity,” any combination of imaginative narrative and costume which may be easily bought, abandoned, modified or commodified for a variety of obtuse social or political ends. To quote Rick again:
“We have life changes now, and they have become… not changes in our life – for example, to give you… to show you the distance that we have traveled – not like Augustine’s conversion to Christianity when he hears, or thinks he hears the voice of God saying ‘tolle, lege’ – ‘take, read’ – and he reads the scripture and becomes a Christian and then he is a new man. He is born again. No, no, no, that’s over now. Now we change, alright.
We change rapidly. We change, as I said, professions six or seven or eight times and we change who and what we are the way we used to change our clothes and our fashion. I mean, there are kids now who get through college and they are six different people before their junior year. Two months as a bohemian. Two months as a pre-med student. Two months as a preppy. Two months as a poet. A month and a half as a journalist. A month and a half as an ecologist… None of it felt. None of it part of affect. A fad. A personality formed as a fad, as a fashion, as an ornament. I mean, this really doesn’t overstate the case for me.”
Rick began to die at Duke, when he was denied tenure in 1993 and essentially fired. It was the same year that The Self Under Siege came out on tape. Those who remain romantic about his history claim that there was no reason for the firing at all, while more practical people point to the fact that he didn’t publish as much as he was expected to.
One of Rick’s associates, Doug Kellner, got him a few seminar gigs at UCLA, and he accepted a position at National University, where he was told he would be helping working class people get their degrees. This was little more than a con-job, however: they wanted to legitimize themselves using Rick’s name and reputation, but didn’t care what he taught, or if his students learned anything at all. Duke and National University represented opposite sides of academia, and neither of them saw teaching as an important part of Rick’s identity.
Being rejected by Duke isn’t what separated Rick from his potential success, it was only a symptom of his disillusionment. He had considered teaching his life’s calling, and thought that he had been earning respect for his skill. Duke and National in turn demonstrated that Rick’s effect on the student body and their experience meant nothing compared to his effect on their own reputations. They did not serve humanity; they fed off it. They fed off him. So Rick gave up.
Even though his tone sometimes makes him an unlikely ambassador of the world of ideas, we have to admire how Roderick avoids reflexive veneration for the texts he lectures on. He approaches canonical philosophical texts with that alternative, non-academic “tradition full of promise” in mind, and tries to reconcile his hard-earned erudition with the specter of what it might have blinded him to. Roderick is using his authoritative status in the discipline as a tool to take us beneath the surface of a constructed existence, to try to re-discover something for us and in us that requires a flare for drama as much as for disciplined explication. Playing Virgil to our Dante means that, for him, incoherent rambling becomes the ultimate articulation, erudition the ultimate dilettantism, praise of great philosophers’ minds the greatest denigration of their spirits.
If it can be difficult to tell when Roderick is joking and when he’s serious, however, that may be because his humor sometimes intimates an underlying despair. Throughout Self Under Siege, Roderick worries that the contemporary individual’s prospects for freedom, autonomy, and happiness are steadily eroding. His idealistic attitudes toward education are balanced with a realistic—even pessimistic—assessment of how much change a teacher can ultimately affect. Toward the end of many lectures, Roderick begins to sweat a little heavier, intone his words with more bitterness, and gesticulate with more abandon. But his darker moments can turn rather quickly to something more serene. This captivating transformation of mood often happens when Roderick manages to give his audience a final, culminating point. At the end of “Heidegger and the Rejection of Humanism,” Roderick’s humor, annoyance, and dread seem to finally, irrevocably entwine:
“For now, that’s all—except be sure and fear death. I mean, that’s important to being human. Fear death and realize that even if you don’t smoke, and even if you jog, you are still going to die. And that should come as a great relief to all of you.”
Seymour led a major revolution in American illustration and graphic design during the late 1950s and early 1960s, triggering the shift from sentimental realism to comic expressionism, among other radical feats. The illustrations for magazines, posters, advertisements, book jackets, record covers, product packages, and children’s books that he created after founding Push Pin Studios with Milton Glaser and Edward Sorel in 1954 directly influenced two generations (statistical fact) and indirectly inspired another two (educated conjecture) of international illustrators and designers to explore an eclectic range of stylistic an conceptual methods.
He was very instrumental in wedding illustration to typographic design (a concept that was viewed as passé by modernists). In addition, Chwast (pronounced “kwast”) contributed his distinct brand of absurdist wit to twentieth-century applied art and design. And although his methods were unapologetically rooted in vintage-style decorative traditions, his work never slavishly copied the past. Instead, he synthesized, reinvented, and often parodied it.