Monday, 19 April 2010

Our expedition to the academic wilderness in search of David Sztybel, Norm Phelps, and Steve Best

Having heard a reliable rumor that three self-identifying "animal rights pragmatists" - whose names are David Sztybel, Norm Phelps, and Steve Best - had been sighted roaming in the academic wilderness, we decided to go there on an expedition. Its aims were as follows: (1) to confirm the sightings by finding them and, if possible, (2) to bring back news of how they were managing to survive the rigors of life - loneliness, isolation, and marginalization - in the wilderness. In the following, we document our expedition.

After an arduous journey which involved crossing turbulent seas, traversing continents, trudging through desolate wastelands, and hacking through dense jungles, we arrived at last and with some trepidation in the academic wilderness. We realized immediately that here was a place that had long been forsaken; here was a place of oblivion and obscurity; here was a place where one's gaze could be seared by the terrors of gruesome night. Nonetheless, there were signs of habitation by academics. We found unfavorable reviews of their articles, for example, as well as replies from universities that were difficult to read as they had been torn up, perhaps in a paroxysm of anger. Evidently, their efforts to extricate themselves from here had perished in futility.

But just as we were beginning to lose hope of discovering Norm, David, and Steve, who in our hearts we thought to be lost forever, we espied something in the middle distance which looked like puffs of smoke making their way unhurriedly toward the sky. When we got closer to the smoke we realized it was emanating from a meager campfire, around which huddled three men, all of whom looked dishevelled - a toll doubtless conferred by the wilderness and its terrible importuning. We crouched down behind a bush; here, if we stayed very still and crannied our necks, we could overhear the conversation of these men. Before it was carried off by the swirling wind, the tail end of this conversation reached our ears; it sounded something like "...pluralism and contextualism...multidimensions...personal purity...futilitarianism...BOOMERANG!" - and it was from this that we concluded that we had reached our destination.

From our position behind the bush we deliberated over whether to approach Norm, David, and Steve; we ultimately decided against it, lest they be embarrassed by our discovering them in the wildernes. Just then we saw something happening: Norm, who had been starring at the floor, looked at Steve and said, "We need logically inconsistent tactics," and he added, as if in a world of his own, "Most people are not like us." This gave us hope; if most people do not think we need logically inconsistent tactics, there is hope that we can create a rational world. In reply to Norm, Steve, who had been tearing pages out of his latest book and using them as fuel for the fire, said, "We'll think of something." On hearing this, Norm smiled and nodded his head, as much to convince himself as the others. David, on the other hand, seemed annoyed by their talk, saying, "I have to complete a time-sensitive project of overwhelming magnitude." In response to which Norm said, "That's right, David; if you don't finish your dinner within the next five minutes, Steve will eat it." Then the whole group fell silent, perhaps in an effort to bare their fate in the wilderness with a sort of stoical dignity.

The silence was broken by Steve, however, who stood up and said, "Here, in the wilderness, I can say, 'I'm Steve Best - remember that name.' But outside of the wilderness, it is not the same." He then looked upward as if beseeching some higher power, and shouted: "Please, tell me what to do?" It was the sort of question that asks for no answer. But then he cast his glazed eyes down from the heavens and riveted them on David and Norm, and said, "I have a trailblazing, boundary-transgressing, bridge-building plan. Let me ask you: are you willing to practice a by any means necessary approach?" Norm and David signalled that they were. Steve continued, "But you must understand that I, as an academic who engages only in philosophical justification, cannot be expected to practice this approach, and therefore, you will have to carry it out for me. Do you agree to this division of labor?" Norm and David, goaded by desperation after spending many years in the wilderness, again yielded their assent.

Having got their agreement, Steve launched into the content and soul of his plan by way of the following speech, which he titled a Radical Manifesto for the Art of Consolation in the Wilderness. He said: "I propose we tactically employ in a non-narcotized way the multidimensionality of a pluralist and contextualist strategy based on the dialectically-enlivened, counter-hegemonically-responsive Total Liberationistical logic of the anti-Procrustean both/and." On hearing this wisdom, David and Norm looked a little bemused. But Steve seemed not to notice and continued apace by saying in an oracular tone: "I say to you, my brothers: stop throwing your hopes longingly into plans and projects that will inevitably perish in failure! Stop trying to get your articles published in good journals; stop trying to get good academic positions! Instead, I beseech you: learn the art of consolation in the wilderness! I myself practice this consolatory art with unwearied industry. What is most important here is that I set up The Institute for Critical Animal Studies, which is a sort of self-help group and lifeline for academics who are lost in the wilderness. It even has its own journal through which they can bare witness to their plight in the form of written testimony: as for instance David did in his article 'Animal Rights Law: Fundamentalism versus Pragmatism,' in which he achieved an unparalleled rawness of expression by writing in an idiom which was completely unmediated by theory. But all of this, laudable though it is, is not enough."

Then Steve paused for a moment. When he had collected himself, he continued his speech which seemed to be reaching its climax by saying with emphasis: "What we need above all is to invent our own narratives in which we ourselves feature as the protagonists. My narrative can be that I am at war with certain successful academics, who I will provocatively call my adversaries and rivals, while your narrative, David, can be to steer the ship of academia - which you must claim is in crisis - away from the reef of intuitionism to the clear, open water of your own theory, namely best caring ethics. We can even affect a certain conceited sagacity when we refer to our rivals by saying, for example, that we have refuted them and that we can always spot their mistakes. In this way, then, just as creatures who live at the bottom of the sea have adapted to its harsh conditions, so we can adapt to the harsh conditions here, in the wilderness!" Then, just as suddenly as he had began, Steve stopped, and fell silent, no doubt exhausted by his selfless exertions on behalf of academics everywhere who are lost in the wilderness.

Thus did we (over)hear Steve's speech to David and Norm; in so doing, we achieved both of the aims of our expedition: we sighted these "animal rights pragmatists" in the wilderness and discovered how they were surviving the rigors of life therein.

And so, having achieved our aims, we embarked on the arduous journey back to civilisation. As we were retracing our steps through the dense undergrowth, we glimpsed a rusty piece of metal partially obscured by a protruding branch. On closer inspection we realized that this piece of metal was a sign bearing an inscription, which read: The Institute for Critical Animal Studies...