Get to Know a Steward: John Flowers
April 1, 2014
For the eighth installment in our Get to Know a Steward series, the GAU Communications Committee asked John Flowers, co-steward for the Department of Philosophy, several questions about his life, his mom and dad, philosophy, Zen, martial arts, John Stuart Mill and rumors about John’s intentions to run for GAU president when elections roll around.
GAU Communications Committee: Where are you originally from, and what brought you to SIUC?
John Flowers: I’m originally from Oak Park Illinois; it’s a suburb outside of Chicago. Oak Park is famous for Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, and being the source for a vast majority of the bricks that went into rebuilding Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire.
I came to SIUC for journalism after visiting UIUC and Central Michagan University, neither of which had the feeling I was looking for. CMU was beautiful, but very, very small; UIUC reminded me far too much of home, and the person I was at the time did not want to be at home.
While I was here, I learned that a number of the writing courses that I was taking for my degree in Journalism also applied to the English program as it was structured at the time. So, for me, it was just a little bit extra effort to take the remaining courses in the department of English to earn my degree in English Literature.
GAU: You’re pursuing a doctoral degree in philosophy. Can you help us understand, why such a poor life choice? Kidding! But really, why?
Flowers: There are a number of reasons why I do philosophy. Recently, I have started to think that I’ve been doing philosophy for as long as I’ve been doing martial arts, especially where self-cultivation is concerned.
First, philosophy is a way of relating, expressing, or describing lived experience to other people. It is also a way of giving meaning to those experiences, such that people can share in those experiences and the meanings they have for you. Initially, I did philosophy as an attempt to relate to people how and why I felt that the martial arts were an aesthetic experience on par with dance, painting, and literature.
In line with taking philosophy as an expression of lived experience, I began to look at the way in which these expressions are oriented around particular ways of experiences. For example, my work in the philosophy of race focuses specifically on expanding the understanding of the ways of being black in the world to come to a position where one way of being black is not privileged over others. This may be the influence of Daoist and Buddhist philosophy on my thought.
I also do philosophy because much of the way we perceive and move through the world is governed by structures set-up by philosophers. These structures organize the habits of our daily lives, in such a way that often renders invisible. In my view, philosophy gives us the tools to engage with and critique those structures, especially when they serve to maintain oppression and marginalization.
Therefore, I take the task of the philosopher to be the interrogation of these structures and demonstration of the way in which these structures oppress or marginalize members of our community both globally and locally. Further, I think that philosophers have the responsibility, and this is a dangerous word to use in philosophy circles, to combat these structures wherever the practice of philosophy reveals them.
To put it simply, I do philosophy because it lets me change the world, one student at a time. As a philosophy teacher, I seek to cultivate into my students the skills that will enable them to critique their own cultural situation and, hopefully, act in such a way as to push back against these structures of oppression, so that they can live fuller lives.
I’m a bit ambitious.
GAU: You previously described how both your mother and father were involved with unions and education. So, who was the bigger influence on you, and who can we thank for you becoming co-steward in the department of philosophy and generally getting involved with GAUnited?
Flowers: I would say a combination of both. My mother was (or maybe still is, if retired members count) a member of the IEA, and my father was involved with various union activities when he worked at AT&T, so this seemed a natural fit for me. Both of my parents imparted upon me a desire for civic responsibility, in their own ways, and that I should work to help everyone in my community.
As for who was directly responsible for my getting into GAUnited, I point to Jessica Soester, Dennis Lunt, and Kevin Taylor for that through their constant work towards getting new graduate students involved in the organization. Without their willingness to explain the purpose of GAUnited and the way the union works to enhance the quality of life for all graduate students, present and future, I’m not sure I’d be in the union right now.
Also, Matt Ryg and Sandy Kim were also partially responsible for getting me into GAU, mostly though just talking to me about the union. As for my stewardship, that came as a result of asking a question during a meeting: I didn’t know who our steward was, so I asked at a General Membership meeting and ended up becoming co-steward.
GAU: On the department of philosophy’s website listing current, active graduate students, you list the “Zen Aesthetic Tradition” and how “it informs the Japanese consciousness through literature and other art forms,” as your research interests. Kevin Taylor, the GAU vice-president for Communications who is studying Zen Buddhism, has described how an “engaged Buddhism” informed by Zen praxis can augment social transformation. Has your research led you to a similar conclusion, or does the aesthetic tradition provide a different perspective?
Editor’s note: This question was based in part on an older profile post for John when on the philosophy department’s website for graduate students. As John points out below, the site and his profile have been updated. Check out his new profile here!
Flowers: First, I’d suggest you check the department page for an updated profile for me: it might change some of these questions.
For me, Zen provides a host of resources for social change, including the recognition of a plurality of experiences and the conditioned nature of the world that we inhabit. When applied to the social structures of our current lived experience, it demonstrates that we are not essentially what we are: our “selves” and “identities” are contingent upon the interaction with other selves, which serves to orient us in particular ways.
What I take from this is that we need to be aware of the way in which the institutions and social structures of the world, as part of the causal conditions of oppression, determine that oppression and marginalization appear differently depending on the context of the marginalized body. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and any other mode of oppression does not simply disappear when the person moves into a new situation; the oppression changes depending on the situation as the causal conditions change.
Further, since the conditions that give rise to different phenomena are always changing; conversations about the “essence” of an individual are called in to question. This is one of the things that has pushed me to challenge essentialist rhetoric in social justice movements: if the conditions that give rise to particular phenomena, people, ideologies, selves, keep changing, then to argue for a single way of being as authoritative is to deny the possibility of other ways of being. Nothing is “essentially” what it is, it is conditionally what it is.
So, Kevin and I reach similar conclusions but are grappling with different problems.
GAU: On the department’s website it also states that you are interested in “the writings of John Stuart Mill.” Is Mill’s “On Liberty” still worth reading?
Editor’s note: The above question is also based on John’s older profile.
Flowers: All texts are worth reading, especially if they form the foundations for the culture and society we find ourselves in. If you find yourself in disagreement with the texts that help to organize your society, then you might want to begin to question the society itself. So, yes, “On Liberty” is worth reading if only to understand where certain structures of our society came from.
In light of this, one of the first things that I did was read trough the GAU contract as well as the materials on the GAU website and the By-Laws so that I could better understand the organization that I had joined. In so far as the By-Laws and the contract help to orient how GAU and graduate assistantships function at SIUC, they tend to form the ground for much of what we do at GAU.
GAU: At the American Philosophical Association’s 2011 Pacific Division Group Program conference, you presented on “Martial Arts and Ethical Responsibility.” Can you explain the gist of your talk, and tell us if martial arts at all informs your own ethics?
Flowers: One of the things that the martial arts cultivates into serious practitioners is an awareness of the responsibility that comes with the skills that we learn. The gist of the presentation was to explain the way that the various rituals and habits within the martial arts help to cultivate an ethical responsibility for the deployment of the skills that we cultivate, particularly at higher ranks.
For me, this comes down to the etymology of the martial arts in Japanese: the kanji for “budo” means “the way of stopping spears,” as the kanji for “bu” is formed with the character for “stop” and an ideogram of crossed spears. Thus, the practice of the martial arts is the practice of stopping conflict, not just on the battlefield, but in all aspects of life.
This responsibility to stop conflict in all aspects of life informs how I do philosophy, and is part of the reason I am involved with GAU. Conflict is not always between armed forces: it occurs between ideologies, people, races, concepts, administrators and those they are responsible for. To this end, if I have the power to stop conflict, or at least resolve it, I should deploy that power, especially if it preserves the integrity of both sides involved in the conflict.
I take it to be the case that my studies in philosophy allow me to see the conflicts in the world in different ways. As such, it allows me to point towards solutions that help preserve both sides of the conflict in such a way as to prevent one side or the other from being destroyed.
As I said above, I take it to be the role of the philosopher to be the critique and interrogation of the structures of society, oppressive or otherwise, and their amelioration. I view my involvement with GAU as one way of making actual “budo” in so far as I view GAU as a place wherein conflicts within our SIUC community can be resolved, and I view the responsibility of the steward to help that process within the local community of the department that they are stewarding.
GAU: Rumors are afoot that you might run for president of GAU next year. Any truth to that?
Flowers: There is some truth to that. I don’t know how you found out about that so quickly, but I would like to run for GAU president once Matt’s term has expired.