We are delighted to present this conversation to you: an interview Taylor conducted with James Winchester, an author and professor of philosophy, who was also our undergraduate philosophy professor. His teaching was profoundly influential on us. Please enjoy.
The transcription below was provided by Taylor Adkins.
Taylor Adkins: Hello everyone, welcome to Theory Talk. I’m one of your hosts, Taylor Adkins, and today I am here with one of my professors from Georgia College and State University, and his name is Dr. James Winchester. He did his work as a graduate student on Nietzsche in Germany under Professor Müeller-Lauter, who has now been translated into English with a book on Nietzsche [Müeller-Lauter’s work is called Nietzsche: His Philosophy of Contradictions and the Contradictions of His Philosophy]. Dr. Winchester’s work includes Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Turn (SUNY, 1994). What’s the subtitle to that, James?
James Winchester: Reading Nietzsche after Heidegger, Deleuze, and Derrida.
Taylor: Right! And what have you published lately?
James: Let’s see, my second book was called Aesthetics across the Color Line: Why Nietzsche (Sometimes) Can’t Sing the Blues.
Taylor: Ok, that’s right! And that’s the one with the piano on the front, with the interesting artwork?
James: Let’s see, I’m not sure what’s on the cover to tell you the truth, haha!
Taylor: That’s ok, we’ll find out later, that can be a mystery for us. I think I remember that that was published when I was one of your students, right?
James: I think so, that was published in 2004 maybe?
Taylor: Ok, then that would have been right before or right during meeting you and becoming one of your students. In fact, listeners, as you know, our other co-host, while he’s not here, Joseph Weissman was also one of your students, and that’s in fact where we both met, so one of the things I want to thank you for is for introducing me and Joe.
James: Well, you were both great students, and it was a pleasure to have you, and I know in addition to myself, Sid Littlefield was a real important…
James: …influence for both of you at Georgia College. Sid is a great professor, and he was a real asset to us at Georgia College, and I know he did a lot for both you and Joe.
Taylor: Yeah, he was, it was interesting, you both fulfilled different roles in the tutelage of young Joe and me. What I do remember was when I was deciding to pursue the philosophy degree at Georgia College, and not some other college like Mercer, was the fact that you had studied Nietzsche and written on Nietzsche, and so Nietzsche was one of the writers who really engaged me early on as I began to study more in philosophy and the history of philosophy. So, that’s what sold it for me, it all kinda lines up nicely, and that’s how I met Joe, and I know that Nietzsche’s one of Joe’s key figures.
James: Well, as Nietzsche wrote when he was near the end of his productive life, he said: “It’s easy to get to know me, it’s hard to forget me.”
Taylor: That’s great!
James: Once you get to know Nietzsche, it’s hard to forget him.
Taylor: Yes, and I remember…I’m sorry, go ahead.
James: And I just think he’s a pleasure to read, he’s such a great writer, and he’s so important for contemporary thinking, too.
Taylor: Especially what I’m interested in…I think Nietzsche…without Nietzsche, I don’t think I would have become a translator, because Nietzsche is what led me into someone like Deleuze. I had heard not only about his seminal works but specifically the monograph he wrote, Nietzsche and Philosophy, and you have a chapter devoted to him in your Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Turn book, correct?
James: I do.
Taylor: And that’s also partly what sold me is seeing Deleuze’s name in that subtitle of your work; it was this happy coincidence, because I had just discovered his work, so it was just another determining factor in why I wanted to study under you.
James: Yeah, Deleuze is…you and Joe are definitely much more versed in Deleuze than I am, but he was a very interesting thinker. When I was an undergraduate in France, he was being talked about a lot.
Taylor: Right! That would have been…was that in the late 70s, early 80s?
James: Yes, that would have been 78 and 79.
Taylor: Ok, so he would have been still alive and I assume lecturing.
James: He was, I never saw him lecture, but he was actually on leave when I discovered him, but I did go out to Vincennes where he was lecturing, and I occasionally heard some philosophy lectures out there. His book Anti-Oedipus had just come out. And a man I was studying philosophy with said that that was the most important book of philosophy that had come out recently.
Taylor: Wow, yeah, so you said you attended lectures at Vincennes?
James: Occasionally, it was an open campus, so you could just sit in on a philosophy class, and they didn’t seem to mind.
Taylor: That’s so cool, haha! That’s much different than the model of the university system today, right? At least in America. Although I know in various ways, there are venues with online learning in the Ivy League schools, trying to make some of their classes available, to open up the classroom experience to non-traditional students, is at least a good measure…would you agree with that?
James: Absolutely. And what I’m increasingly trying to do is to write in a way that a general, non-technical audience would understand.
Taylor: That’s great.
James: Philosophy really loses a lot when it becomes so technical that only four other Deleuze scholars can understand it.
Taylor: Yes, I think sometimes, and this has always been my relationship with Joe and Fractal Ontology, Joe would always be…he would do very experimental, exploratory work, whereas my training in English I guess made my writing much more academic, trying to at least emulate being steeped in the text, and so, making sure footnotes count, and providing a kind of clear engagement with various texts. I think Joe was never as much for citation as I was…different styles! So, as we said, Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Turn was your first book, but tell me again what’s the name of your second book?
James: Aesthetics across the Color Line: Why Nietzsche (Sometimes) Can’t Sing the Blues.
Taylor: Oh right, that’s beautiful. Now you have another book, plus one you’re working on? Do you have more, please tell me.
James: My third book was published about three years ago. It’s called: Ethics in an Age of Savage Inequalities. Again, it’s written for a general audience, and I hope it has philosophical rigor as well, but it’s talking about the fact that even middle-class people are implicated in the inequalities in our world, and it asks us to think about, for those of who are middle-class, to think about the ways in which our wealth or our livelihood is often purchased at the expense of others. Asking what we should do as middle-class people to address the savage inequalities in our world today.
Taylor: Right, this is great, I’m looking at the Amazon page now, and I will link this for our viewers later on, and I see that you have recapitulated some of this. And I can see how you start with aesthetics with your first book on Nietzsche, and I see that you inevitably have moved into ethical considerations. I remember taking the ethics class with you, and you co-taught that…I’m forgetting the professor’s name…
James: Let’s see…I had taught a series of courses on Ethics. I co-taught a course on ethics and colonialism with Dr. Manyan. Sunita Manyan.
Taylor: That’s right. I was hoping that that was her name, that was the one in my head, but I didn’t want to mispronounce or say someone else’s name. But I remember that class and the work we did in it. Do you feel that the ethical line was already developed sufficiently in your first work on Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Turn?
James: You know, the last chapter of that book deals with ethics and what Nietzsche might mean to us. One of the things I talked about, although it was a while ago that I wrote that book…
Taylor: No, it’s fine, haha!
James:. …one of the things I talked about is the fact that the world is more interconnected than it’s ever been. It’s only in the 20th century that we’ve first gotten to the point where we can blow up the world, and certainly global warming was already an issue in that Nietzsche book, and one of the ways we’ve polluted in the United States, but the people living in Bangladesh in low-lying areas are the ones most likely to pay the costs. Global warming…I think 80% of the world’s farmers don’t have access to irrigation…
Taylor: That’s interesting.
James: …you know, they’re the ones who really suffer when the rains are irregular. One of the things global warming does is bring about erratic climate. It’s the people who really suffer, the people who’re the most vulnerable, who have done practically nothing to contribute to global warming.
Taylor: Now that sounds like a chapter from Ethics in the Age of Savage Inequalities, do you take up this question of climate change there?
James: Right, I do. There’s a chapter on climate change and ethical responsibility.
Taylor: And the Savage Inequalities, I’m probably projecting here, but it makes me think of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequalities, and it makes me think back to this primordial past where there was, in the conception of the noble savage, this paradise, this Edenic scene, where there are no differences, or at least differences aren’t recognized subjectively, it’s the moment when there’s a shift, and then there are hierarchies, and we get inequalities. Is some of that engaged…I assume the mode of engagement would be different, but were you thinking of Rousseau at all in this context?
James: Sure. I was thinking of Rousseau a little bit. “Savage inequalities” is actually a name that comes from Jonathan Kozol. That term “savage inequalities”…his book…
Taylor: Can you say his name again, and maybe spell that last name?
James: Jonathan Kozol.
Taylor: Ok, gotcha. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools. Is that correct?
James: Right, and this is a book I often taught at Georgia College. The first chapter of that book is on east St. Louis. As he put it, it’s one of the most distressed small cities in America. I think the thing is: if we just had some inequality, I’m not so worried about inequality; if everyone had enough of the basics, if everyone had enough to eat, a safe place to live, had enough to take care of their children, with some leisure time. Equality is not itself the problem…
James: …because what’s so strange in our world is that people have so much, and other people are just…literally, the poorest of the poor don’t have shoes on their feet. So, I think if you ever…I did some travel in Africa, and I saw some of that poverty, and I think that if you see it firsthand, it strikes you. The other thing is that the world has never been in a better position to handle that, to do something about that inequality, because the world is richer than it’s ever been. China has alone pulled 600 million people out of poverty in the last twenty years, so it’s not….a lot of people don’t think it’s a feel-good story, and in some ways it’s not, but in some ways it really is, because there’s a lot we can do now, it’s not just an intractable problem that will never get solved. The world has already made a lot of advances. When I wrote the book, a million people a year were dying of malaria, and now that’s been halved through the work of a lot of different people and a lot of African countries. Senegal in particular has done really good work in getting rid of malaria.
James: The Carter Center in Atlanta has done really good work in getting rid of river blindness. So in a way the world has never been better poised to tackle this issue.
Taylor: It does seem like you’re describing a double edge sword, right? But it’s through that sword and through…as you said it’s not as though all inequalities, it’s not an all or nothing question, there can be an incremental approach, and some of what you were describing…it’s incremental because, it poses one question, and the word savage inequalities fits, it poses one problem demanding an ethical response, and I suppose that’s…also I will say how I can see how one would move from Nietzsche’s aesthetics to ethical considerations. If existence is justified aesthetically, then what? And as we see in Nietzsche’s later engagements, it is a question of ethics: you know, Will to Power, Eternal Return of the same, and it is the question of plugging those into global societal possibilities that can address these issues. Now finally, you are working on a new book, correct?
James: Right. Tentatively titled Love, Pleasure, Friendship and the Good Life. Part of what makes a good life is that it doesn’t have to be extravagant wealth. Often very wealthy people live miserable lives, maybe because they’re worried about losing their wealth or worried about what’s going to happen to their wealth after they die. You don’t need an extravagant amount of wealth to lead a good life. You want the basics: you want to have enough to eat…You know, Epicurus says: give me a warm place to sleep, water, and food, and I’ll have the happiest arrival…does he say Zeus or a king?
James: You know, you don’t need much…friends are important.
James: Friends are very important I think…establishing communities of people who care about you and whom you care about…
Taylor: Right, it is interesting that when Nietzsche talks about Epicurus, he has moments, and he sees Epicurus’ worldview stemming from this inexpressible pain and yet still exulting in existence and affirming life despite that pain, and you know Nietzsche himself was a convalescent and wrote about convalescence, and I think that’s what he has in mind. I actually have to ask you a question: I’m going to make a short reading list for a summer camp for 8th graders, pretty advanced students, and I was trying to introduce them to some philosophy. One of which was the Symposium, and you’ve taught that, and that could be done. Now, you mentioned Epicurus, but what about Marcus Aurelius, does his Meditations fit in, does this Stoic framework resonate?
James: Yeah, you know, I am reading some of the Stoics, and talking about Marcus Aurelius in the book. You know, the Apology is a great book…for 7th and 8th graders, the Symposium is a fairly risqué book…you have to explore sexuality…
Taylor: That’s true…you do have to go through all the different depictions of sexuality, so that becomes the topic, it’s why one wouldn’t teach Freud, in the same vein, even if he’s not lewd or salacious…the intellectual content you’re discussing…But, the Apology, this is the text in which Socrates is put on trial.
James: And shows his tremendous courage…
Taylor: Yes, I like that idea, I’m so glad that you suggested it, I was thinking about that…I like the Symposium, but the Apology is much more appropriate and just about the same length. I’m sure it’s no more than 40 or 50 pages. I was also going to teach some of the Tao Te Ching, again, it’s one of those things where it’s quick, and it’s not just philosophy, it’s poetry. Do you think that’s appropriate, or do you think it’s too abstract? It’s an open question of whether 8th graders would enjoy that.
James: I think some of them would, and it’s worth it. You know, a nice book to put together with the Apology is Angela Davis’s book Are Prisons Obsolete?. That’s a book I teach in Philosophy of Law. Ya know, Angela Davis was working on a PhD in philosophy when she was raided by the FBI…
Taylor: Oh wow, ok!
James: …she was a student of Herbert Marcuse’s. Marcuse says she was the best student he ever had.
Taylor: I didn’t know that, that’s very interesting. Now what was the work again?
James: She’s a very powerful thinker. Are Prisons Obsolete? That’s a book I highly recommend. It’s very accessible, especially…I don’t know where your students are coming from, what class or social class…I think over-incarceration in the United States is a huge problem…
Taylor: Right, of course, and there are statistics that back that up. They’re middle class, mainly. This is in Dacula and Daluth, and they’re all Koreans, and they’re all very interesting and unique. One of the books I also want to teach is To Kill a Mockingbird, and as you know, one of the themes is social justice. Do you think that would be on the literary side something that would go along with the Apology?
James: Sure, absolutely. I think Davis really goes into the injustice in the incarceration system. I think those books would go really well together. It’s nice for them to see that philosophy has a whole history with the problems of social justice.
Taylor: I’m reading here about the FBI’s 10 most wanted fugitive list, and J Edgar Hoover…That’s fascinating to do some research on, and I will take that into consideration. The other book we’re going to read is the Great Gatsby, since I read that as an 8th grader.
James: It’s a beautiful work.
Taylor: And I taught it before. I feel fairly well versed in it, and I’d like to revisit it again, and it’s short, so they won’t get tired of it.
James: That sounds great.
Taylor: So, I’m sorry, we didn’t get to talk about your most recent book. Reiterate the title, and talk about some of the themes and principal thinkers that you turn to.
James: Love, Pleasure, Friendship and the Good Life. A host of thinkers. Certainly Epicurus is a major influence. I have a lot of problems with Stoicism, but I find it interesting…Montaigne is a thinker I really enjoy reading. I think he was very influenced by Epicureanism.
Taylor: I can see that, especially…his reflections are…I love Montaigne because his writing is a nice counterbalance to an abstract thinker like Descartes. You feel that life is being engaged directly in a certain way. So, yes, I can totally see that. So, you have Epicurus, Montaigne…I asked you, we brought up Aristotle, the Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics. Is that also a reference?
James: Absolutely. It’s amazing how many people are reacting to Aristotle. The whole question of the good life really in a way is a whole series of reactions to Aristotle, because Plato, certainly when I talk about Eros and love, I go into the Symposium and I talk about that, but in a lot of ways, Plato’s Socrates is a lot more concerned with immortality than he is with the good life.
Taylor: Yes, the good life is in some infinite afterlife dialoguing with the Forms.
James: Right, or in leaving behind a legacy. So, in a way, Aristotle is a much more practical thinker in asking what does it take to lead a good life. Aristotle was really worried about this question of if one could lead a good life and yet be unlucky.
Taylor: Haha, a question of karma?
James: Well, maybe not karma so much, I think just bad luck. And so, I think it’s interesting to sort of take that head on and say, absolutely, it’s a possibility. There are some people who are good people and they have bad things happen to them. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that reason is going to assure you, but then the life turns out good. You know, if bad things happen to you in your life, you will have hopefully some good moments in your life. I wrote a little…I weave stories of friends in with the philosophers. I wrote about my friend Arthur who, while he was never a professor of mine, he was a professor at Emory. We were just friends. And Arthur contracted Parkinson’s when he was 51 years old. When you’re diagnosed that early, it’s bad.
Taylor: Yes, right. One thinks of Michael J. Fox, who was diagnosed even earlier.
James: Yeah, so, in the last five years of his life, he was in a wheelchair, he got to the point to where he couldn’t even swallow anymore. He had a beautiful life for the first fifty years, he was a great scholar, had a wonderful family, but then had to deal with this wretched illness.
Taylor: And Nietzsche [I mean Deleuze here] talks about this as the event, as the encounter, one of the things he dealt with was having tuberculosis at an early age…he had to have a lung removed, and part of another. And yet he still smoked like a Frenchman. Anyway, you weave in some of these anecdotal examples, some of these life examples, which I assume provides a kind of flow of writing that doesn’t cultivate merely a sort of academic or philosophical, stereotypically philosophical, mode of discourse, but you’re doing something that’s a stylistic change. As you said, it’s meant to allow the layman to participate in these questions of existence, correct?
James: Exactly. One person I admire a lot is Sarah Bakewell. She’s written a book that’s gotten a lot of press that’s called At the Existentialist Café, which came out last year or the year before. She also wrote a book called A Life of Montaigne. She’s just a wonderful writer, it’s just a pleasure to read her stuff.
Taylor: Interesting, I will have to follow this up, I see that… At the Existentialist Café. I see this is about Sartre, De Beauvoir, Camus, Heidegger, Husserl, Jaspers, Merleau-Ponty. That’s a nice lineup right there…would you say that’s kind of the post-WWI philosophy, French and German, what set the stage for after the second war?
James: Sartre was active up until the 70s. And certainly they’re great thinkers. And Sarah does a nice job of weaving in a little bit of their biography with their philosophy. She’s really good at introducing these people and introducing their thoughts and has lots of wonderful anecdotes.
Taylor: Would you say that her style inspired you? Is that what you’re trying to say here?
James: Yeah! I’m not gonna claim…haha…I’m not gonna claim I can do what she does, but she’s an excellent writer, and she’s a pleasure to read.
Taylor: Well it wouldn’t be about imitation of course. You’re doing your own thing, but that’s good to know that kind of footnote, it’s nice, it’s nice to be anchored, obviously not in a tradition, but in a movement or the beginnings of a movement, you can be identifiable, yes you are doing something that wouldn’t be considered typical academic scholarship. But I think it’s good…the style of the philosophical essay should be for the 20th century, and the 21st century should be open.
James: I think that Nietzsche is a philosopher who’s often very accessible, along with Sartre…he’s not always accessible, but some of his writing, like his essay on colonialism, is very accessible.
Taylor: Yes, that’s true: it’s the disparity between Being and Nothingness, where you are going through a framing of a philosophical essay, but of course, as a writer, his works really vary, from the plays to the novels, to “What Is Existentialism”, which was one of the first philosophy texts I ever read, but Sartre is quite a rare bird, and that’s perhaps why he became such a celebrity. Bergson, too, is similar in this way. He straddles a tightrope between academically scientific and philosophical works that can capture the popular consciousness. Well, I’m really glad we got to talk about some of your work, and we went through your publishing history. I’m really excited about your upcoming work. Now, do you have a timeline for it to appear in print?
James: Well, I have a draft that needs some work. So, I’ll be working on it this summer.
Taylor: Great, great! So, are you finishing a sabbatical?
James: Yes, I will be teaching in Italy starting May 17th. My leave is quickly coming to an end, but then I will have time to work on it again in July.
Taylor: That’s fabulous. So, will this just be a short stint of lectures, or a class?
James: It’s five weeks of class. We are doing a study abroad in Montepulciano, which some say is the most beautiful wine village in Italy. But it’s work. The students know it’s work, they’ve seen the syllabus!
Taylor: That’s awesome, do you want to name a few other works you’ll be taking up?
James: I’m teaching some of the stuff from the book. Marcus Aurelius, Plato’s Symposium. There’s an Italian feminist by the name of Carvarero. She’s written directly on the Symposium, and we try to work with Roman and Italian works when we’re there.
Taylor: Yes, of course, that makes perfect sense.
James: Elena Ferrante is a pretty well-known Italian novelist. She’s rocketed to fame. So we’re going to read her book Days of Abandonment. And we’re also going to read a whole series of essays on friendship, two chapters on the Nicomachean Ethics. We’ll read Seneca and we’ll read a few other essays by Cicero, specifically his essay on friendship.
Taylor: Ok, well all of that sounds great, and I can see how some of that also feeds into the manuscript work, so at this stage, I hope that in July you’ll be able to edit it and shop around for some publishers, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in print, and I wanted to thank you again for taking the time today and for sharing, and I didn’t even get into stories about knowing you, I left that aside, and wanted to jump in and get to talking to you. Is there anything you want to add as we come to a close?
James: The pleasure was mine, Taylor. You know, one of the great joys about teaching is the great students you get to know, and you were certainly one of those, as was Joe, and I appreciate your taking the time out, and I appreciate having the chance to talk to you. It’s really a pleasure, and I thank you.
Taylor: Well, thank you Dr. Winchester, I’m glad I was able to feed back into some of my roots of philosophical apprenticeship and make it come full circle, and to be able to…of course, I always enjoy talking to you, and keeping up with you, and now, with what I’m trying to build with Joe, trying to build the machine, the social media machine, and plug the blog and the podcast into an engagement of the community of scholarly voices, and where better to start than with someone like you, and so I’m glad that we got to share some of what you’re doing, and you inspired me to follow up a few threads, and so you continue to mentor me without even trying, it seems so natural to you.
James: You’re an inspiration to me too, Taylor. Thank you.
Taylor: Ok, when this comes up I’ll let you know, and I’ll wish you the best Thursday, and congratulations to your son for graduating, and don’t enjoy the wine country too much!
James: Haha, oh no, that’s part of the good life, I’m going to enjoy it!