Friday, September 01, 2006

Comedist Convocation

Brothers, Sisteres, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

The administration of Gettysburg College, at the highest levels, made an error of epic proportions. In what could only be described as a collosal failure of judgement and foresight, or out of pure desperation, they asked me, your humble servant, the Irreverend Steve, to present this year's faculty address at the college's opening convocation. In front of the assembled faculty, staff, in-coming first year students, and their tuition paying parents, I delivered the following words of wis(e-ass)dom (feel encouraged to heckle post facto in the comments):

For those of you who don’t often listen to philosophers, which includes my wife, here’s the drill. I start by making a claim that is so bizarre, so daft, so completely inane that you are shocked that anyone with half a brain would say such a thing. I then clarify some terms and concepts and go on to use them in a clever little argument that makes the initial egregiously stupid proposition suddenly seem undeniably true, self-evident, indubitable. Impressed, you then make the claim to a friend who asks why you would say something so mind numbingly absurd. You reconstruct the argument as you remember it and, unimpressed, your friend asks you where you heard such nonsense. You say “from Steve Gimbel, a philosopher” and your friend says, “Don’t listen to him, he’s an idiot.” So, from one idiot to another, here’s my proposition...

“Gettysburg College and the education you will receive here are a complete joke.”

Now it is unfortunate that in this society we use the term “joke” to refer to that which is meaningless, pointless, or useless. The notion of a joke is actually something quite noble, indeed for some of us it is deeply religious. So much so that I have started my own religion. It all began when I was teaching an ethics class years ago and we were drawing the distinction between ethical precepts, on one hand, and social norms and mores, on the other. A student raised his hand and said to me, “Excuse me Steve, but what are mores?” I looked at him and replied, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s a more.” Bathed in the pun-induced pain of my class, I realized at that moment that I was in the presence of the Divine. Set-ups that perfect don’t just happen randomly. That had to be comedic Divine intervention. And so I started a new religion where humor and comedy are the central notions. We call it “Comedism.” Our holy book, of course, is the Comedist Manifesto and the central theological notion is the joke.

Think about how a joke works. You start with the set up which sketches a normal situation that you think you understand. A chicken crosses the road or the pope, a rabbi, and a Viagra salesman walk into a bar. You then get the punchline, “to get to the other side” or “well, at least the beer isn’t flat anymore,” and its job is to force you to realize that there was a completely different way of understanding the set up. A precondition for the possibility of a joke is seeing things in two completely different ways. The humor of a joke is to be found in that instant where your mind is caught between interpretations, when it simultaneously sees things both ways and isn’t sure how to reconcile them. And that is the central spiritual insight of Comedism, there is always more than one way to see the world. Like love, reality is a multi-splendered thing.

Your job for the next four years is to be interested and interesting. Think about the big questions in the universe you inhabit. Want to know. The education you will receive here will allow you to ask the questions you have always wanted answered and to follow the answer wherever it goes. Be interested. Be active in your pursuit of what captivates you because somewhere on this campus are very smart, well trained people who are also captivated by that very same question...and sometimes, quite often, in fact, the captivated people you will need to listen to weren’t the ones you would have first thought to ask.

Take any question you might be interested in, there’s a set up, that is a department here that is the obvious place to start to answer that question. What is the nature of consciousness? Go to psychology. How do stars form? Go to physics and astronomy? What led Lee to decide to bring his forces north? Go to history and Civil War studies. Why do third parties always seem to fade away here, but thrive in countries with parliaments? Go to political science. Are the epistemic considerations underlying a realist conception of mathematics the same as a non-instrumentalist account of scientific truth or does the a priori nature of mathematical propositions force us to redefine what we mean by necessary truth? We’ll talk.

But the point is that as soon as you start looking into the answers to your question in the obvious department, you are going to soon run into more questions that will need to be answered by someone in a different department. What you thought was a biological question, turns out to also requires, math, computer science, and philosophy. What you thought was a religious studies question suddenly moves into anthropology, art history, and classics. It’s all connected. When you look around this campus, what you are seeing is a giant playing board for the intellectual version of the Kevin Bacon game.

The key is not only to not lose sight of the forest for the trees, but often not to lose sight of the tree for the tiny part of a single leaf you will be studying. It turns out that while it is all connected, it is also very, very intricate. The temptation will be to overfocus on the immediate, on what will be on this test. But never lose sight of the fact that everything you learn is part of the bigger picture. Remember that unless you want the joke to be on you, that the faculty is here to help make you the person in the joke. For the next four years, we will help you be the pirate with the steering wheel attached to the front of his pants, the traveling salesman who sees the three-legged chicken, the guy who walks into the bar with a duck on his shoulder...let me be completely clear that I meant that last one metaphorically...most of the bars in town don't allow ducks.

No matter what you choose to study at Gettysburg, there's always another way to look at it. That’s the punchline and that is why this college and the education you will receive here in the next four years – or if you’re a lacrosse player, five years – is a complete joke. (I was a lacrosse player myself, it took me five years.)

I’m currently editing on a book to be released this spring entitled The Grateful Dead and Philosophy and the guy writing the forward for me is named Steve Silberman out in San Francisco. He wrote the liner notes for a number of the band’s albums, put together their boxed set, and was a close friend of the band. He said to me that guitarist Jerry Garcia was not only a very smart man, but had a sense of intellectual playfulness that radiated from him. He said that when you were around Jerry, he always made you feel like the two of you were in on the universal joke. And that is exactly the sentiment, being in on the universal joke, is exactly what a liberal arts education, especially a Gettysburg College education, is all about. Being able to look at the world and see it in all its multi-faceted splendor, being able to appreciate reality with all of its intersections and interconnections. You will see that this institution and the wonderful education you will receive are a joke...and I mean that with all possible reverence...and, of course, all possible irreverence.

Thank you.