MAPH Week 20: Oh Crap, the Papers

Do you know that moment in Stephen King’s The Mist where the survivors in the Land Cruiser kill themselves rather than face a world–seemingly–without hope? 

Well, for me, that moment was last week and thing with the tentacles is named Heidegger.

Now, I consider myself an organized person.  I defined my undergraduate experience by starting papers months before they were due and spending weeks and weeks rewriting and polishing until every paper read like a diminutive monograph on some topic.  Where syllabi listed assignments ahead of time, I always tried to be at least a week ahead–creating a pillow to catch me in the event that some paper, project, or presentation took longer than expected.  Some of this behaviour was the direct result of a detail-oriented nature and some arose of necessities associated with taking twenty to twenty-one hours worth of courses per semester  All this is merely to say: I know a thing or two about keeping up.

First quarter at University of Chicago caught me by surprise.  Not only did I essentially only have nine weeks to get whole course spanning seminar papers completed–plus the extra two weeks of the MAPH program’s head start–but I found that getting information on or permission for paper topics was no longer as easy as staying late after class or scheduling a time to meet with the professor by email.  As a result, lets just say that even if you manage to select a paper topic early–say in the first three weeks or so of class–you won’t actually have the go-ahead to start the project until week five or six–if you are very attentive and your professor is very communicative.  (As one of my fellow MAPHers learned the hard way when a professor neglected to respond to any of this student’s paper topic emails throughout the entire quarter and refused to was time by answering questions during class).  So, at the end of week nine, I found that I still had substantial work to do on two papers plus the beginnings of thesis writing homework to contend with.

Second, quarter I resolved to avoid that uncomfortable position again.  I selected likely paper topics in my second week for two of my classes and got confirmation early before other students could flood professor’s email in-boxes.  By week five I had those two papers written and by week seven they were being proofed by philosophically minded friends and/or the classes’ teaching assistants.  By week nine they were both getting final content messages and prose polishing so you’d think I’d be sitting pretty right now going into week ten.  Problem is, that pesky third paper.

The third paper is in a class called Heidegger and Christianity taught by the amazing Dr. Ryan Coyn of University of Chicago’s Divinity School.  Now, my undergraduate training was from a continental heavy school and the class that made me a philosopher was a class linking Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida to a–providedly–postmodern version of Christianity, so in theory this class should have been a breeze.  I selected my paper topic for Heidegger and Christianity in week two along with my other two courses and started writing.  By week five I’d begun to despair of ever finding a “way into” my topic.  Heideggerians will tell you that Heideggerian philosophy is almost a self-contained world with uniquely defined terminology and a swirling eddy of intertextual correspondence among Heidegger’s published works.  Further, Heidegger seems to take almost perverse pleasure in subverting nearly any common ground that his phenomenology might have had–not only with any analytic philosopher–but with all previous forms of phenomenological reduction (Husserl).

The solution seems to be ready-to-hand: simply investigate some facet of Heidegger’s system without appeal to other streams of philosophy.  And that would be an outstanding answer if I had something unique and interesting to say about Heidegger’s philosophy qua Heidegger’s philosophy.  Problem is, that approach necessitates that I have a sufficient grasp of Heidegger’s project to pick this thread or that.  I don’t–at least not compared to the rest of the folks in the class who as Ph.D.s have been working on Heidegger for as many as seven years.  So, I need to bring in an outside source to relate to Heidegger–hopefully illuminating interesting features of both sources.

My first conversational partner for Heidegger was Gottlob Frege.  I’ve built some fairly strong chops in analytic philosophy of language since arriving at UChicago and Heidegger wrote about language and logic extensively so no problem right?  Wrong.  Seventeen pages into a seminar paper trying to bring the two into conversation, I realized–with the help of some Heideggerians and a Fregeian–that my reading of Heidegger was no-longer sufficiently Heideggerian to pass muster for a continentalist and my reading of Frege was too Heideggerian to satisfy an analytical inspection.  Seventeen pages and weeks of work… flush.

So, where am I now.  Well, I’ve recruited a new interlocutor for Heidegger that promises a more rewarding discourse: Kierkegaard.  Problem is, I’ve only got a couple days to write it, a couple more to polish it, and then it’s due.  Oh crap.

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