How I Lost Philosophy But Found Myself In H.G. Wells

Hello, dear readers of Maphmatically Yours. It’s Bill Hutchison here again!  It’s an honor and a pleasure to be invited back to post again on Maphmatically Yours. With one of Maphman’s intents for the blog clear in my mind—to be of use to those researching the MAPH program—I thought a wee biographical tale couched in terms of a lesson about intellectual flexibility might be of service.

I dropped out of college after three semesters my first time around and it took me twelve years to go back and finish. When I started up the second time, I began as a journalism major. It had been my major the first time around, and after dropping out, I had parlayed my writing skills into a newspaper job. It was fun, briefly. I wrote stories, won some prizes, and then started hated writing. Picking that as a major the second time around was foolish. I switched to English, then University Studies (a sort of build-it-yourself BA), then CSCL (Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature). This was in the course of my first semester back.

The second semester of my first year, however, I took an Existential Philosophy class with a man who was to become a mentor, teacher, and (somewhat intimidating) friend—Iain Thomson. I don’t even remember why I signed up. I knew little about philosophy and nothing about Iain. It was there I first met Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, and Heidegger—dead thinkers who would become allies in my efforts to build some sort of philosophical understanding of the world that would allow me to understand myself. (I am suspicious of philosophers who do not, on some level, believe in the importance of what they study as a sort of practice. Interestingly, I remember a philosophy professor saying to me once, “Watch out for philosophers who do philosophy of ethics. Those bastards will knife you in the back without thinking twice about it.”) Existentialism blew my mind. The questions these thinkers were asking were relevant, powerful, and life-changing. It feels naïve to admit that now. I knew nothing then, and thanks to them—and others—I know even less, but in the best possible way. I switched my major to Philosophy & English, a strange little dual major my university offers that allowed me to stick with the literature I had always loved without abandoning my newfound passion for philosophy.

I took Thomson’s Heidegger seminars (early and later), and his seminar on Derrida, with whom he had studied at Irvine. (A post is forthcoming on perils studying Derrida.) The best advice—or at least, the advice that I most often listened to—came from Thomson, including: “Don’t take classes. Take professors.” It is advice that has not yet failed me.

It was in his Derrida seminar, the semester between Early and Later Heidegger, that I became interested in animals in philosophy, and what has become more widely known as “critical animal studies,” “animals and animality theory,” or any of a half-dozen names. I had been working in animal welfare/animal advocacy for several years at that point, and the intellectual approach missing in the work was found in my studies. Derrida, Heidegger, Descartes, Levinas, Foucault—they (and many others) had much to say about the lives of animals. Not only had I found my field, I found my focus. This was due in large part to Derrida’s seminal work on the subject, The Animal That Therefore I Am, which is crucial reading for those involved or interested in the field, regardless of one’s views on Derrida. Buoyed by the support of Thomson and other excellent professors in many different departments at my undergraduate university (Leslie Donovan, Walter Putnam, V.B. Price), my work became quite serious, and I engaged with animals and animality across many different texts in works that I have been quite proud of. Even those infantile works that will never be able to stand up well on their own (four) feet have been crucial to my development as thinker: an animal thinker, a thinker of animals. Trained by brilliant and caring professors, I finished my BA, graduated with a handful of honors, and was ready to begin the next stage.

It became clear very quickly that my interests fit cleanly in neither the discourse of philosophy nor of literature, but lived a hybrid life between the two. I applied to several interdisciplinary programs and a handful of philosophy programs. Rejected from all, I found a home in MAPH. After a luncheon in the philosophy department, however, I realized I would not find a home there. Though packed to the gills with brilliant faculty, they were not doing work I was interested in. There work did not have the kind of life, the vibrant vitality that I found in animal studies. So I made a quick and strategic move: I wanted into a PhD program after MAPH, so I jumped ship to the English department. I did this for two reasons: first, it’s the only other thing I’m any good at, and second was Maud Ellmann’s class, “Modernism & Animality.” I choked back the tears of relief that such a class would be offered my first quarter in this weird program at this terrifying school and ran toward it.

Looking at Ellmann’s syllabus, I felt like Dorothy after waking from the tornado-spilled Oz-dream. (You were there! And you! And you too!) Freud, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas, Haraway. Old friends—we had found one another again. I realized that what I knew as continental philosophy was, by and large, being practiced more in English (and Comparative Literature) departments than it was in philosophy departments. Even self-described continentally-focused departments often seem to have an analytical bent in their philosophy programs. (See Maphman’s opinions on the matter here and here.) I found in Ellmann’s class not only a world-class professor (and generous, wise thesis adviser), but a brilliant modernist critic who could hold her own in any conversation about continental philosophy and psychoanalytic theory. Maybe this English thing wasn’t going to be so bad. Maybe being torn between philosophy and literature wasn’t a matter of being torn, but a struggle to properly integrate the two. The fiction writers on the syllabus—Kafka, Coetzee, Woolf, Wells—could be read against the philosophers in the most fascinating ways. They were the integration, the hybrid creature, Kafka’s kittenlamb crossbreed.

Reading The Island of Doctor Moreau, I was taken by the use of hands in the novel as a point of delineation and permeation between human and animal. I was reminded, thanks to Thomson, of Heidegger on the hand (cf. What is Called Thinking?) and Derrida on Heidegger on the hand (cf. “Heidegger’s Hand (Geschlecht II)”). My crossbreed thinking had found a home among Moreau’s crossbreeds. I could let genetic material from the work of Wells and Heidegger interpenetrate and form precisely the sort of strange creation I wanted to make. My MAPH thesis was born, and I became wildly excited by H.G. Wells and 19th-century science fiction. I was reawakened as a thinker and a writer. My discouragement, fueled by PhD rejections and the lack of a discourse that felt like a home, evaporated. Like Moreau’s creatures, I had allowed myself to be reshaped under the careful blade of brilliant minds—both on the page and in the classroom—but had not suffered their tragic fate. Instead, I was reborn, reinspired, reinvigorated.

What, then, is the moral of this story? Why the lengthy biographical sketch for future MAPHers and other readers? It is to ask us to challenge what Wells called “the limits of individual plasticity.” It to remind us all that the flexible mind remains nimble. It is to notice that only the tacking sailor feels the power of all winds. And it is to give this piece of…not advice, but caution. Do not be overeager to name yourself. Recently, in conversation with Maphman, I said that I felt more comfortable calling myself a thinker than a philosopher. “Philosopher” feels like a name to me, and it was a name that caused me tremendous pain when I tried to call myself by it. “Thinker” is the name of the activity I do, and I can call myself many names under its aegis without adopting any of them permanently. I think of a line from Derrida, who called this “the wound without a name: the wound of having been given a name.”

It is daring and terrifying to chase after plasticity, after hybridity, after the interpenetrations of discourses. But I think it is among those animals, those we recognize but cannot name, that some of us find ourselves at home, in our herd, our family-of-minds. It is there we can bury our face in their fur, and breathe deep of wild thoughts that beg to be born.

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