A Radical Solution For “The Crisis in the Humanities.”

An edgy essay by Robert Hanna

Mike Segar / Reuters

I.

But before this no doubt surprising, if not downright baffling, assertion can have its proper philosophical impact, I’ll need to tell you what I think “the crisis in the humanities” actually is, what HEWC actually is, and why HEWC is arguably the only fully adequate response to this crisis.[1]

II.

first, that “the crisis in the humanities” is widespread sharply declining enrollments in humanities courses, and in particular English, history, and philosophy courses — at contemporary institutions of higher education, and

second, that the cause of these sharply declining enrollments is a (probably unjustified, and at the very least, factually undersupported) psychological failure in contemporary college and university students’ individual and collective confidence that degrees in the humanities will get them well-paid jobs in today’s global corporate capitalist market economy.

But, on the contrary, I think that the fundamental crisis Schmidt is grappling with is neither sharply declining enrollments in the humanities, as such, nor a psychological failure in students’ individual and collective confidence that degrees in the humanities will get them well-paid jobs in the big-capitalist global system, as such.

Indeed, from my point of view, the most insightful and thought-provoking remarks in Schmidt’s article are these:

Decades of studies of college freshmen have asked incoming students how important various (and nonexclusive) life goals are to them in the context of their college decisions. The drop in humanities majors in the 1970s, Dennis Ahlburg and Evan Roberts show in a soon-to-be-published book,[3] corresponded to a great inversion. In 1970, seven in 10 students thought it was very important or essential to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life” through education, while about four in 10 (and five in 10 men) put a priority on using it to “make more money.” By the mid-’80s, these ratios had flipped. Of all the statistics on the humanities I’ve seen, I find this one the most depressing: For the past 40 years, the percentage of first-year college students who think highly enough of crafting a life philosophy in the course of their studies to muster the energy to fill out a bubble indicating as much has flatlined below half. It’s little wonder that so few major in the liberal arts in the end. But although Ahlburg and Roberts find a slight tick down in their time series since 2008 (offsetting a post-2001 rise in students seeking the mysteries of life), the current numbers are safely within the range of the past decades.[4]

Now I’m not going to contest Schmidt’s claim (i) to the effect that there is, as a matter of social fact, widespread sharply declining enrollment in humanities courses at contemporary institutions of higher education; and I’m also not going to contest his claim (ii) to the effect that the proximate psychological cause of this sharply declining enrollment is a (probably unjustified, and at the very least, factually undersupported) crisis of economic confidence among contemporary college and university students.

Nevertheless, I think that this social fact and that proximate psychological cause are mere epiphenomena — mere shadows without any efficacious social and psychological power of their own — of the fundamental crisis in the humanities, which is this:

Starting in the 1950s, but with cyclically increasing momentum in the 1990s and then again after 2008, scholars and teachers of the humanities at colleges and universities in the English-speaking world have allowed themselves to be successively McCarthyized, professionalized, scientized, multiculturally tribalized, and finally neoliberalized and utterly commodified, into their current condition of an intellectual and moral zombie apocalypse, which in turn consists in their profound failure to create, curate, and communicate the basic materials for “a meaningful philosophy of life.[5]

III.

Commodification, according to the Marxist-humanist[6] and Neo-Marxist[7] traditions, is the process whereby capitalism turns everything that has human moral and spiritual value into mere things — commodities — that can be produced, re-produced, bought, and sold.

Commodification also applies directly to rational human agents, namely rational human persons, who, by being unintentionally absorbed into the capitalist system, to that extent, turn themselves into mere decision-theoretic Hobbesian machines — self-interested, mutally antagonistic biochemical puppets — who endlessly produce and consume, controlled by their bosses and political masters, via ideology and coercive force, until they finally break down and die.

In the 21st century, commodification is a direct implication of big capitalism, neoconservatism, and especially neoliberalism, with its fusion of classical Hobbesian liberalism, Millian democratic or republican liberalism, hence Statism, and above all the valorization of big capitalism and technocracy.

It is by no means an antiquarian or irrelevant historical fact, however, that the origins of the 19th, 20th, and 21st century concept of commodification lie in the Hegelian and Young Hegelian idea that organized religion is the alienation and externalization of absolute Spirit, and in Kant’s moral critique of organized religion in Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason: you merely subsitute capitalism for organized religion, and then you have got Marx’s theory of alienation.

In Marxist humanist terminology, commodification systematically degrades, distorts, and finally exterminates our species-essence or Gattungswesen; and in Kantian terminology, commodification systematically degrades, distorts, and finally exterminates all human dignity or Würde and all human moral faith or Glaube. Therefore, commodification is the genocide of all rational human moral and spiritual values.

Serious critics of commodification in higher education in general, or in professional academic philosophy in particular, include Schopenhauer,[8] Nietzsche,[9] William James,[10] Robert Paul Wolff,[11] Jeff Schmidt,[12] Jane Jacobs,[13] William Deresiewicz,[14] and the pseudonymous anarcho-philosophers at Against Professional Philosophy.[15]

Now what contemporary researchers in cognitive psychology, social psychology, and organizational studies call collective intelligence is an emergent property of human or otherwise animal mindedness, that is constituted by the cognitive capacities and cognitive activities of a group of (for example) people as a group, especially including group-reasoning, group brain-storming and innovation, the social production of written texts and other kinds of social media, group deliberation, and participatory decision-making.[16]

Moreover, recent work in cognitive psychology, social psychology, and organizational studies shows that collective wisdom, or a relatively high level of group coordination, creativity, problem-solving, and productivity (aka constructive Gemeinschaft), is determined by high levels of socially-open, non-hierarchical, free-thinking, and non-conformist, but at the same time also mutually comfortable, mutually communicative, mutually respectful/principled, relaxed, mutually sensitive, mutually supportive, and highly dialogical collaborative activities within groups,[17] and is not a function of high average IQ levels among the group’s individual members.[18]

Sharply on the other hand, however, by collective stupidity I mean a relatively low level of social group coordination, creativity, problem-solving, and productivity, and correspondingly a relatively high level of group dysfunctionality (aka destructive Gemeinschaft).

The same recent work in cognitive psychology, social psychology, and organizational studies that I mentioned earlier that demonstrates the existence, character, and etiology of collective wisdom, also, by simple inversion, demonstrates the existence, character, an etiology collective stupidity.

Collective stupidity is determined by high levels of socially-closed, top-down organized, conformist, but at the same time mutually antagonistic and competitive, coercive, arrogant, non-collaborative, zero-sum, winner-takes-all, gaming-the-system-style activities within social groups, independently of high average IQ levels amongst the group’s individual members.

In other words, groups made up entirely of people with very high IQs can manifest very high levels of collective stupidity.

A more aggravated manifestation of collective stupidity is what I call collective sociopathy.

Collective sociopathy is when collectively stupid social institutions stop asking altogether whether what they are doing is morally right or wrong, and concentrate entirely on efficient ways of implementing group policies and on coercively imposing the policies and directives of the group’s administrative and/or governing elite on people belonging to, participating in, or under the jurisdiction of those institutions, who cannot effectively push back or resist.

These groups involve especially high degrees of coercion and vanishingly few opportunities for authentic collaboration.

Perspective-taking and empathy become very, and sometimes even impossibly, difficult.

At the same time, however, the “power elite,” consisting of those individuals who administer, control, and/or directly govern sociopathic institutions, as individuals, may seem to be otherwise quite normal, sane, and socially well-adjusted: they are “good, law-abiding citizens,” and they love, look after, and more generally care for their partners, their children, their extended family and friends, their dogs, and so-on, and so forth.

But, in an operative sense, they are social-institutional monsters.

The real-life, catastrophic paradigm of this, of course, was the Nazi bureaucracy’s increasingly effective, increasingly satanic “solutions” to the “Jewish question.” Eichmann, at least as portrayed by Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was the perfect “company man” or “organization man” in the modern world’s most evil, murderous example of institutional sociopathy.

But in a far less satanic and more mundane, although equally important and currently urgent sense, along the lines of Czeslaw Milosz’s classic critical essay on institutional sociopathy in post-War communist eastern Europe, The Captive Mind,[19] virtually all contemporary college and university administrations and academic departments operate on the assumption that effectively implementing various higher-administration-mandated, state-mandated, or Federally-mandated policies and directives, without any critical reflection whatsoever on the rational justifiability or moral permissibility of those policies and directives, as applied to the members of their academic communities, is their be-all and end-all.

So in that sense, these contemporary professional academic communities, the intellectual arm of the miltary-industrial-university-digital complex that drives contemporary big capitalist (neo)liberal majoritarian democratic States and their State-like institutions, also manifest institutional sociopathy.

In turn, it is obvious enough that professional academics, taken one-by-one, and in general, are highly intelligent people, “the smartest kids in class,” all the way from kindergarten to graduate school.

And, judging at least by average GRE scores across all academic disciplines,[20] physicists and philosophers are the most intelligent professional academics: physicists top out the quantitative scores across all disciplines and also have relatively high analytical/verbal scores; whereas philosophers top out the analytical/verbal scores across all disciplines and also have relatively high quantitative scores.

But as Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds[21] clearly shows, to the extent that a group is more and more “professionalized,” and therefore has increasingly levels of what Schmidt calls ideological discipline, the more they are, collectively, stupid, and even institutionally sociopathic, endlessly contributing to a downwards spiral of destructive Gemeinschaft, while, at the same time, all-too-busily promoting their own professional careers, slithering up “the greasy pole” of professorial and/or administrative promotion, reward, and status.

Since, as Z at Against Professional Philosophy has persuasively argued, professional academic philosophers are now, by virtue of their special training, methodological narrowness, and intellectual arrogance, in fact “hyper-disciplined minds,”[22] it follows that they are, as regards their collective intelligence, hyper-stupid, and hyper-institutionally-sociopathic.

As contemporary philosophers, therefore, the most urgent questions before us, therefore, are:

(i) how can this catastrophic trend towards professional academic philosophical collective stupidity and collective sociopathy be reversed?, and

(ii) how can contemporary philosophers move towards the kinds of collective wisdom variously imagined, for example, in the ancient Greek Cynics’ radical free-thinking and what Z has called Diogenes of Sinope’s “promethean philosophical failure”; [23] in Plato’s Socratic dialogues; in Kant’s conception of enlightenment, fully realized as the “ethical community” of his later religious writings; in Friedrich Schiller’s aesthetic and artistic extension of Kant’s conception of enlightenment,[24] yielding a fusion of an ideal of aesthetically and artistically creative, fully embodied, freely self-realizing, productive human activity with the ideal of an ethical community; in Marx’s early humanistic writings, with their emphasis on emancipation from the mechanistic, self-interested, alienating system of capitalism and on the ideal of free social production; in Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid; or in the early Russell’s vision of “the world as it could be made”?

Or otherwise put:

(iii) how can contemporary philosophers move from where they are now, in a downward-spiralling condition of destructive Gemeinschaft, to a radically different condition in which they begin to achieve high levels of socially-open, non-hierarchical, free-thinking, and non-conformist, but at the same time also mutually comfortable, mutually communicative, mutually respectful/principled, relaxed, mutually sensitive, mutually supportive, highly dialogical and collaborative, aesthetically and artistically creative, fully embodied, freely self-realizing, productive human philosophical activities within groups?

In answer to this question, here are three proposals. The conjunction of these three proposals is what I call borderless philosophy.

First, we should get rid of graduate schools, MA and PhD degrees, and philosophy departments altogether, and replace them with a network of interlinked borderless philosophy communities, each one created and sustained by voluntary association, team-spirit, and a shared sense of real, serious philosophy as a full-time, lifetime calling and mission, that combine dialogue, research, writing, publishing, the creation and sharing of original works of philosophy in any presentational format whatsoever, teaching, and grassroots social activism, whose members are widely distributed spatiotemporally, in many different countries, continents, and time-zones, and who are therefore also fully cosmopolitan thinkers, doing real, serious philosophy without borders.

Second, we should get rid of professional academic philosophy journals, presses, and the rest of the professional academic publishing racket altogether, and replace them with a cosmopolitan, border-less, worldwide network of interlinked borderless philosophy online sites and platforms for dialogue, research, writing, publishing, the creation and sharing of original works of philosophy in any presentational format whatsoever, teaching, and grassroots social activism, that are severally and collectively organized and run by the worldwide network of borderless philosophy communities.

Third, as a consequence of the first two proposals, philosophy should become fully cosmopolitan in the original, core meaning of that term.

IV.

1. Truly Generous Universal Basic Income (TGUBI):

Anyone 21 years of age or over and living permanently in the USA, who has a personal yearly income of $50,000.00 USD or less, and who is capable of requesting their UBI, would receive $25,000.00 USD per year, with no strings attached.

2. A 15-Hour Workweek for Universal Basic Jobs (FHW-for-UBJs):

Anyone 18 years of age or older who is living permanently in the USA, who has completed a high school education, and is mentally and physically capable of doing a job, would be offered an eco-job, paying a yearly wage of $25,000.00 USD, for no more than fifteen hours of work per week.

In that connection, I am assuming that Universal Public Education (UPE) — universal free access for all human persons of any age to good public education up to the end of high school — already exists in most countries, and needs no further justification.

And where UPE does not already exist, it would automatically become a necessary part of the Utopia Now package, thereby making it a seven-part package.

Now, built on top of UPE, I want to make a further proposal about the radical reform of education at colleges and universities, that, as per the first section of this essay, I call Higher Education Without Commodification (HEWC).

What do I mean by HEWC?

HEWC is the generalization of borderless philosophy, as a model or paradigm, to all parts of what has been traditionally called “liberal arts education,” but which Deresiewicz so aptly calls the neoliberal arts, that is, commodified higher education at contemporary colleges and universities, whether undergraduate or graduate.

More specifically, HEWC would make available to everyone, beyond their high school education, a free, three-year minimum, optional (but also open-ended beyond those three years, as a further option), part-time or full-time UPE program in the so-called “liberal arts,” and also in some of the so-called “STEM” fields, including the humanities, the fine arts, the social sciences, mathematics, and the natural sciences.

For many or even most people, their HEWC would fall between

(i) the end of their high school education at age 18 and the corresponding availability of eco-jobs, and

(ii) the beginning of their TGUBI at age 21.

But HEWC would be open to anyone with a high school degree, no matter how old they are, provided they are mentally and physically capable of doing the program.

Some people would opt to do HEWC part-time, along with eco-jobs, while others would opt to do HEWC full-time, either with or without their TGUBI.

HEWC would involve no credentialing whatsoever, and in particular, no degrees or diplomas.

Therefore, the current system of job-oriented education, or job-training, with credentialing — for example, business school, education school, law school, medical school, engineering school, social work school, forestry school, architecture school, communications and media school, film school, etc., etc., and technical-vocational schools of all kinds — would be entirely independent of HEWC and subject to the standard service-industry fee-structure of all such institutions.

The HEWC system would consist in a series of open-enrollment courses offered by HEWC instructors, either in person or online.

HEWC instructors would normally belong to at least one open research community, modelled on the borderless philosophy communities proposed in the last section, each one consisting of some voluntarily-associated, like-minded people wholeheartedly engaged in individual or collective research projects together with one another, belonging to a worldwide network of such groups — although this is not strictly required, merely highly recommended.

HEWC instructorship would fall under the general rubric of what I call eco-ed jobs, hence each HEWC instructor would receive a yearly salary of $25,000.00 for a 15-hour workweek teaching HEWC courses in some HEWC subject(s), over and above her/his $25,000.00 TGUBI.

Anyone could become a HEWC instructor, provided that:

(i) they meet the requirements for any eco-job, and

(ii) either they already have a PhD in the subject for which they propose to work as a HEWC instructor or they have already taught a minimum of 28 courses (= 7 years x 4 courses per year, roughly the same as what is required for tenure in most academic departments currently) in that subject.

Every HEWC instructor would be free to design her/his HEWC courses as s/he sees fit, provided that s/he assigns some written or performed coursework, to be submitted by a certain date falling within the same calendar year as the course.

HEWC instructors would make analytical-critical comments on all written or performed coursework, but there would no grades or other systematized method of evaluation.

Students would complete a given HEWC course if and only if they have finished the assigned coursework by the date determined by the HEWC instructor.

Students would be able to take as many or as few HEWC courses in a given calendar year as they want to.

At the end of every calendar year, HEWC students would receive a list of the HEWC courses they have completed during that year; but there would be no official record of uncompleted courses.

All HEWC courses would fall under one of three classifications:

(i) introductory,

(ii) advanced, or

(iii) research-level.

Students would be able to take advanced HEWC courses in a given subject if and only if they have completed a specified number and kind of introductory courses in that subject; and students would be able to take research-level HEWC courses if and only if they have completed a specified number and kind of advanced courses in that subject.

The classification-level and specific requirements for any given HEWC course would be determined by the HEWC instructor for that course.

Students would enroll in a given HEWC course simply by formally declaring their intention to take the course, to that course’s instructor.

The enrollment for a given HEWC course would be fixed by a certain date, to be determined by the HEWC instructor, and after that date no one would be able to take that course until the next time it is offered.

Nevertheless audits would also be permitted, provided that the HEWC instructor agreed.

Finally, there would be no official HEWC course evaluations by students: if students did not like a course, the instructor, the subject, or the assigned coursework, they could either formally declare their intention to drop the course, by informing the HEWC instructor, or else, they could implicitly declare their intention to drop the course by simply not submitting the assigned coursework.

Looked at synoptically, the HEWC system has two basic purposes.

The first basic purpose of the HEWC system is to enable people to pursue higher education for its own sake, for three years minimum, but also for their entire lives, if they wanted to, as an integral part of their “lifework” — that is, whatever they would choose to do for the rest of their lives if they were freed from financial worries.

The underlying two-part thought here is:

(i) that an essential part of the Utopia Now program is our collective self-liberation from commodification and, correspondingly, our collective active recognition of human moral and spiritual values, and

(ii) that higher education pursued for its own sake will substantially promote and sustain this collective self-liberation and active recognition.

And the second purpose of the HEWC system is to make it really possible for people pursuing higher education to devolve, dismantle, and exit the contemporary professional academy, aka Neoliberal U, aka The Professional Academic State, as we know it, and therefore to liberate intellectual inquiry, the pursuit of knowledge, the pursuit of aesthetic/spiritual experiences of all kinds, and the pursuit of creative art from their commodification, so that all of these activities can return, in a suitably updated way, to the ancient Greek Cynic, Socratic/Platonic, Kantian, and Schillerian ideals of free, dialogical, enlightened, aesthetic/spiritual, and creative artistic higher education.

V.

(i) the social institution of the humanities at contemporary colleges and universities is completely messed up and imminently going down into the ash-heap of history, and therefore

(ii) the only fully adequate solution to “the crisis in the humanities” is a radical one, namely, for all authentic humanists, and especially real philosophers, to exit Neoliberal U and the Professional Academic State, thereby intellectually and morally emancipating themselves from it, and to become rationally rebellious cosmopolitan scholars who think, create works, study the past and present human condition in all its variety, critically discuss what they have studied, and teach what they have learned to others, all performed “borderlessly,” in every sense of that phrase.

In turn, and finally, an internet-connected, world-traveling, worldwide, borderless federation of such authentic humanist nomads, together with their students, would be higher education without commodification.

NOTES

[2] B. Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis,” The Atlantic (23 August 2018), available online at URL = <https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/08/the-humanities-face-a-crisisof-confidence/567565/>.

[3] D. Ahlburg (ed.), The Changing Face of Higher Education: Is There an International Crisis in the Humanities? (London: Routledge, 2018), see also the online information at URL = < https://www.routledge.com/The-Changing-Face-of-Higher-Education-Is-There-an-International-Crisis/Ahlburg/p/book/9781138244832>.

[4] Schmidt, “The Humanities Are in Crisis,” underlining added.

[5] Of course, a few more-or-less isolated humanists still manage to pursue the full-time, lifetime calling of creating, curating, and communicating the basic materials for “a meaningful philosophy of life,” even in the midst of the roiling hordes of the professional academic undead. In fact, I’m married to one of the authentic humanists. But their efforts are hopelessly against the grain of contemporary Neoliberal U and the Professional Academic State.

[6] See, for example, K. Marx, Karl Marx: Selected Writings in Sociology & Social Philosophy, trans. T.B Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964); and E. Fromm, Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966).

[7] See, for example, Horkheimer and Adorno, The Dialectic of Enlightenment; M. Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1947); H. Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1964); R. Geuss, The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981); M. Hartmann and A. Honneth, “Paradoxes of Capitalism,” Constellations 13 (2006): 41–58; and A. Honneth, Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory, trans. J. Ingram (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009).

[8] A. Schopenhauer, “On University Philosophy,” in A. Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena, trans. S. Roehr and C. Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014), pp. 125–176.

[9] F. Nietzsche, “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions,” trans. J.M. Kennedy (London: Toulis, 1910), available online at URL = <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/28146/28146-h/28146-h.htm>.

[10] W. James, “The PhD Octopus,” Harvard Monthly (1903).

[11] R.P. Wolff, The Ideal of the University (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969), esp. chs. 2–4.

[12] J. Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System That Shapes Their Lives (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000).

[13] J. Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead (New York: Vintage, 2004), ch. 3.

[14] W. Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep (New York: Free Press, 2015); and W. Deresiewicz, “The Neoliberal Arts: How College Sold its Soul to the Market,” Harper’s (September 2015), available online at URL = < http://harpers.org/archive/2015/09/the-neoliberal-arts/.

[15] See, e.g., Z, “From Enlightenment Lite to Nihilism: How Professional Philosophy Has Totally Let Everyone Down about the Real Purpose of an Undergraduate Liberal Arts Education,” Against Professional Philosophy (17 September 2015), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/from-enlightenment-lite-to-nihilism-how-professional-philosophy-has-totally-let-everyone-down-about-the-real-purpose-of-an-undergraduate-liberal-arts-education/>.

[16] See, e.g., Wikipedia, “Collective Intelligence,” available online at URL = <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_intelligence>, and the information and resources stored at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, available online at URL = <http://cci.mit.edu/>.

[17] See, e.g., C. Duhigg, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” New York Times (25 February 2016), available online at URL = <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html>.

[18] See, for example, A.W. Woolley, I. Aggarwal, and and T.W. Malone, “Collective Intelligence and Group Performance,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, 24 (2015): 420–424.

[19] C. Milosz, The Captive Mind, trans. J. Zielonko (New York: Vintage Books, 1955).

[20] See, e.g., P. Shields, P. Shields, and N. Shields, “GRE Scores by Discipline,” Detached Ideas (4 January 2009), available online at URL = <http://www.arisbe.com/detached/?p=1905>.

[21] See note 12 above.

[22] Z, “Hyper-Disciplined Minds: Professional Philosophy and the Death of Dissent,” Against Professional Philosophy (26 February 2016), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/hyper-disciplined-minds-the-professionalization-of-philosophy-and-the-death-of-dissent/>.

[23] See Z, “On Philosophical Failures,” Against Professional Philosophy (4 October 2017), available online at URL = <https://againstprofphil.org/on-philosophical-failures/>.

[24] See F. Schiller, “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Humanity,” (trans. of the title modified slightly) available online at URL = <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6798/6798-h/6798-h.htm>.

[25] See note 1 above.

AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 170

W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 27 August 2018

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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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