Tuesday, February 28, 2006

New Mummies

In Egypt, they've discovered the first new tomb since King Tut was found in 1922! And this one contains five mummies in wooden sarcophagi.

The tomb, believed to be some 3,000 years old, dating to the 18th dynasty, does not appear to be that of a pharaoh, said Edwin Brock, co-director of the team from the University of Memphis, Tennessee, that discovered the site.
"I don't think it's a royal tomb, maybe members of the court," he told the Associated Press. "Contemporaries of Tutankhamun are possible—or of Amunhotep III [also called Amenophis III] or even Horemheb."

I've always loved the Egyptian aesthetic- it's so alien and strangely becomes so refined and elegant that it returns to an inchoate state. It never fully develops, and yet seems so fully developed as to be inhuman. These tombs keep sprouting and the aesthetic's roots spread throughout human history.


Higher Ed's Excellence Adventure

I get these emails once a month for free workshops on improving my teaching. I'd like to quote one, and I promise that this is entirely representative.

"Evaluations by students of teachers and courses provide useful feedback to faculty about student satisfaction. Additionally, student evaluations often influence administrative judgments about faculty and classroom quality. The new College of Arts & Sciences on-line evaluation system is being modified to produce a set of sophisticated reports about teaching for faculty and others with responsibilities for teaching excellence. This presentation describes reports on teaching that will soon be available. A summary of on-line evaluation data for the past four semesters will also be presented as the strengths and limitations of evaluation data have become clearer. The talk will be of interest to faculty, students, and administrators."

Okay, here are my notes:
I have never gotten an email for a workshop on how to "improve my teaching" in the sense of how to increase the amount of things that the students know.

I have never gotten an email suggesting that the student's experience in higher ed should be measured by how much they have learned.

Instead, I constantly get these emails suggesting that my "teaching excellence" is directly proportional to "student satisfaction". Not student abilities, student knowledge, or even student grades, but if they're having a good time.

Did you catch the subtle threat in this line: "Additionally student evaluations often influence administrative decisions about faculty and classroom quality"? Again, I have never been told that student grades, abilities, etc. have any "influence on administrative decisions about faculty and classroom quality".

And this, more than anything, is why the public will never get behind "reforming higher education"- one of the largest entrenched interests that has a stake in keeping standards low is students.


No Tuition Left Behind

Okay, so if this wasn't a boring enough blog, I am going to finally explain just what has happened to higher education in the last decade. Because, if anything should be obvious by now, it should be obvious that I have a very bad feeling about where higher ed in general is going. This is not a slam on my specific University, but hopefully will illuminate national trends that I see as being endemic, serious, and worth fighting.

So, What the Hell Happened to Higher Ed in the Last Decade?

1. The states have slowly defunded universities. So, if a university recieved 35% of its operating budget from the state in 1996, it's entirely likely that they recieve 25% now. I do not see this as being as apocalyptic as some academics do, but it's clearly had an effect in universities.

2. The universities have generally not responded to the defunding very well. What they've generally done are a few things: they've raised tuition, increased the number of courses that are taught by TAs, and increased admissions. Most have not, however, cut any major programs, or even let go of senior faculty, who in many cases do not teach any courses anymore, but who still command salaries in the six figures! It's common to see profs who make this much each year who teach one seminar annually. Let me now consider the other solutions universities have put in place...

3. They have raised tuition. Great God almighty have they raised tuition! In our state, there are universities that charge double what they did ten years ago for an education. Can you name another institution that has doubled its cost in ten years without adding any noticeable value?

4. Moreover, they have slowly replaced full-time faculty with TAs, who are cheaper, but who have no real experience teaching. So, as a student, you're paying twice as much to be taught by TAs. Many schools have added "perks", like free concerts by Snoop Dogg or whoever to give the school a "summer camp" feel. But, I cannot think of any area where educational content has improved. TAs save money, but actual contact with senior faculty could have a real impact on a student's education.

5. They have increased admissions. Many universities actually make this a goal: "5,000 more students in the next 5 years, or bust!" But, what happens is that they're covering the debt with more students, who are coming in less and less ready for college. So, we now we find that at least 50% of our incoming students cannot make sense out of things that they read. 50%! Just ten years ago, I think you could expect students to enter college with proficient literacy. But, not any more. And yet, in order to keep the machine running, there is an incredible emphasis placed on "retention", which is a fancy way of saying "pass them through, ready or not!" So, incredibly, they come out of university unable to read! According to the Department of Education, only 31% of college graduates can read proficiently.

What students pick up on is that, increasingly, it really doesn't matter what they do here. If they work hard in a course, they get an A. But, if they don't even try, they'll at least get a B. As the standards have dropped, the "curve" has declined significantly. Instead of refocusing our attention on educational quality, or even figuring out what the hell students should be learning in a university, and then enlisting the public in our struggle to return to those standards, universities have generally tried to make higher ed more "fun", because students who have fun give higher reviews to their professors, and more importantly, pay for four years.

It is "No tuition left behind", and it is failing. At this point, some of us believe that there is no real difference between High School and the first two years of university. The idea that this declining quality, this "deal" with the students- "Give us your money and good reviews and we promise not to make you work too hard"- won't be noticed, when our graduates go into the corporate world needing remedial reading and writing courses, is just crazy. Again, if there's anything important to what I write here, it's simply this- Education cannot be both a moral good and a marketable good and expect to survive.


Monday, February 27, 2006


The President's approval ratings are at 34%. I'm struggling to figure out why I don't care.


Quote for Today

"I was brought up to question authority, and thank God for that. There's a lot of questions. A lot of people are into this escapism thing and don't want to think, and if you force them to think, you become boring."
-Pink (Oh, and why not!)


Put that in your pipe

Job at City University of New York teaching literature, rhetoric and composition full time for applicant with Phd and previous teaching experience: Starting salary $35,031/ year.

Job as plumber fixing pipes for experienced applicant: Starting salary $77,483/ year.

So, I'm off to True Hardware then!


Evening in America

More libertarian than some, Bruce Bartlett (author of the 1981 book 'Reaganomics') feels that traditional conservatism has been stolen away from Reagan Republicans by George W. Bush. Yes, that could be it... or possibly Gipper Conservatism always had the sort of irreconcilable goals that come from trying to say everything that everyone wants to hear in order to get elected. Anyway, conservatives, who pride themselves on their stern intellectual fortitude, have responded by firing Bartlett from his job at the National Center for Policy Analysis and ignoring what he has to say. Yeah, he's probably some wacko left-winger anyway, right?


Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Sickness unto Death (Notes)

This is pretty much just for me, although others are welcome to read it. I'm currently reading The Sickness unto Death by S. Kierkegaard for the first time, and have decided that it demands to be read very deliberately and slowly. I'm going to put my notes here and add to them as I go. All told, I may end up with a great amount of notes. But, that's okay with me.

Part 1.A. That Despair is the sickness unto death.

A. (p.43-44)
Despair is the sickness of the spirit...

The Sickness.
The Bible speaks of Lazarus having "a sickness unto death". But, this cannot be a sickness unto death, and in fact, no sickness can be "unto death" for the Christian. Kierkegaard believes instead that the sickness unto death is despair. This is a sickness of the self, or the soul. Most people are apparently sick in this way, although many do not know that they despair.

The Self.
A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and finite, the temporal and the eternal, and freedom and liberty. The human being is not a self, and in general, I think Kierkegaard sees selfhood as something that has to be achieved, or at least a consciousness that one has to come to. In the relation he has established, there is a third term- the relation itself. And this relation which relates to itself is, I think, the self, or the spirit, or soul. Selfhood consists in consciousness. Although, by calling it a "relation that relates to itself", it seems that selfhood consists of self-consciousness. Also, there are degrees of selfhood, with the highest being standing before God and answering to one's true name.

Kierkegaard thinks that there are two true types of despair: despair in which we do not want to be ourselves and despair in which we want to ourselves. The self is not self-established, and we know this because we don't just want to be free of ourselves, but also want in despair to be ourselves. So the self is a relation that relates to itself and which is established by something else. Despair then is an imbalance in this relationship.

When is despair overcome? When the self, by relating to itself and wanting to be itself, is grounded in the power that established it.

Notes: Okay, so I can understand the sickness, and have a sense of what the self is. I'm not sure why it cannot be self-established. Perhaps though, Kierkegaard could say that a self-established self would not be infinite or free either.

B. (44-47)
The possibility and Actuality of Despair.

First off, despair is a benefit in that it reflects the infinite loftiness of man being spirit. It is what saves him from being an animal, and the possibility of overcoming despair is what makes the Christian blessed. Kierkegaard agrees with the Buddhist that despair is a part of every human life.

The possibility of despair lies in the synthesis (infinitude/finitude, etc.), and if the human were not a synthesis, he could not despair. But, the despair itself comes from the relation in which the synthesis relates to itself, from the spirit or self. In this sense, he brings it upon himself. It is a sickness of the self, and one can never be rid of the self.

Notes: It is becoming clearer to me. I can understand how every being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, and actually find that to be a brilliant idea. Can you imagine how it would change your encounters with strangers to consider them each to be a synthesis of the infinite and the finite? What a gorgeous thought, and how much more significant it makes existence seem! At any rate, by being aware of the synthesis, we have self-consciousness, and this is where despair is recognized, and so comes to exist. The psychological aspect of Kierkegaard's writing is bracing. It's no wonder Freud was so fond of him.

C. (47-51)
Despair is the Sickness unto Death

The Christian believes that no one ever dies, so no sickness can be unto death. Yet, despair is the sickness unto death in the sense that the torment is precisely the inability to die. Despair cannot consume the self, and the despairing cannot die. Because he lives to experience death for a moment, he lives to experience it forever.

To want to be free of oneself is the formula for all despair. But, eternity will not allow a man to be free of himself because it is the greatest concession made to man, but also eternity's claim on him.

Notes: He's talking about the athiest here, I think. The athiest "dies death eternally" as Kierkegaard puts it because he lives to experience death, while the Christian doesn't. By refusing to surrender himself to God, he actually surrenders all hope, and lives with that. I think the gist here is that only the athiest really dies, as far as hope goes, without ever physically dying. So, only the athiest experiences death.

1.B. The Generality of this Sickness (Despair) (52-58)

Every human being despairs, even the Christian. This is not pessimistic because it views every man in regards to the request to be spirit. The common view only sees man as being in despair when he recognizes he is in despair. But, this is a poor view because not being conscious of despair is a form of despair. But, it is a sickness that is truly providential to get. It is easy to slip through this life and be distracted by it, but he who says that he is in despair is a step closer to the cure for that despair.

The truly wasted life is one who lived it so distracted by life's pleasures that he never became aware of himself as spirit, and that he exists as such before God, whose blessings only come through despair.

Notes: There's something a bit Romantic in Kierkegaard here, in the way that he emphasizes the corrupting influence of social life and how it distracts us from our true inner selfhood. It's specifically Christian with Kierkegaard, but it's a Romantic Christianity.

1.C. The Forms of this Sickness

It is whether or not despair is conscious that distinguishes one sort of despair from another.

(Fill in Tomorrow)


Startlingly Ahistorical Quote for Today

As a future historian, one thing I am startled by is so many people's lack of historical sense. This quote relates to the gentlemanly disagreement between William F. Buckley and William Kristol about the war. Essentially, Buckley says that the US mission in Iraq has failed, Kristol says it's just going to take time, and this fellow says:

"Thank God for people like Kristol on the Right. What his crowd (derisively called “Neo-Cons”) has done has pushed conservatism past Buckley’s famous description of “Standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’”. Finally the right has a vision of the future, not simply a longing for the past (which is not a bad thing, but not all that is needed to advance thought). Don’t get me wrong, I like a lot of what William F. Buckley says. I just don’t think he (and other conservatives like Robert Novak) have a plan for our current world, with America engaged with everyone else on the planet."

Because there are no disconcerting parallels through history of states using military power to engineer a universal "vision of the future", are there?


A Clockwork Orange

Once again, here's a startling piece by Theodore Dalyrimple, the one conservative who should be required reading for all liberals. This one is also worth reading because it contains an excellent analysis of Anthony Burgess's novel A Clockwork Orange. Dalyrimple aptly notes:
"Clockwork Orange remains a novel of immense power. Linguistically inventive, socially prophetic, and philosophically profound, it comes very close to being a work of genius."

How right he is.

I think it's amusing that Burgess was a schoolteacher; lucky myself not to have taught any droogs. Dalryimple contends that Burgess: "sensed a stirring of revolt among the youth of his country and elsewhere in the West, a revolt with which—as a deeply unconventional man who felt himself to be an outsider however wealthy or famous he became, and who drank deep at the well of resentment as well as of spirituous liquors—he felt some sympathy and might even have helped in a small way to foment. And yet, as a man who was also deeply steeped in literary culture and tradition, he understood the importance of the shift of cultural authority from the old to the young and was very far from sanguine about its effects. He thought that the shift would lead to a hell on earth and the destruction of all that he valued."

Was the lapsed Catholic really so gloomy? In the Britich version of the novel, the Ludovico Technique, a Skinneresque behavioral modification approach, fails miserably, of course. But Alex does outgrow his violent ways, bringing to mind the often startling difference between a boy at 19 and a man at 25. Again, I think Dalyrimple might go too far in universalizing what he has seen as a prison social worker.

But, I don't know if he's wrong, and I think that is usually the strength of his writing. Is it as bad as all of this? "It would not have surprised Burgess that magazines for ten- or 11-year-old girls are now full of advice about how to make themselves sexually attractive, that girls of six or seven are dressed by their single mothers in costumes redolent of prostitution, or that there has been a compression of generations, so that friendships are possible between 14- and 26-year-olds. The precocity necessary to avoid humiliation by peers prevents young people from maturing further and leaves them in a state of petrified adolescence. Persuaded that they already know all that is necessary, they are disabused about everything, for fear of appearing naive. With no deeper interests, they are prey to gusts of hysterical and childish enthusiasm; only increasingly extreme sensation can arouse them from their mental torpor. Hence the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has followed in the wake of the youth culture."

Dalryimple's central claim is that we live in a society in which values have been so inverted that young people are considered to have a wisdom that adults lack, and not vice-versa. And, sure enough, I often find that my student's are trying to educate me. "Mr. TA, you just have to accept the fact that some people are just not going to read, and you have to figure out how to teach us this stuff some other way." Of course, I ignore this. But I wonder if this sort of laying down the rules for the old-timers isn't just accepted everywhere else. Certainly, the university does spew its share of "You tell us how you should be taught" bullshit. Pop culture is similarly obsequious to whichever kids who will buy, buy, buy. Parents worry about being "cool" because they haven't the time to be parents. Even among conservative talk show hosts there seems to be an attitude that: "Those farty old eggheads don't know anything. Come on! Let's have a therapeutic religion, therapeutic patriotism, and a therapeutic war, and tell them to blow it out their ass!" Again, it's the conviction that there's no more genuine expression than a loud belch in a public place.

I think Dalyrimple is correct that young people are sort of floating, cut off from anything ordering or elevating in their lives. But, I think, far from being droogs, many of them are simply profoundly boring people, more ready to shop for more clothes than cut someone's throat. I tend to ascribe to J.G. Ballard's even gloomier belief than Burgess's that the future will be incredibly boring, punctuated by the occasional meaningless act of violence.

More somnabulant than ultraviolent.


Friday, February 24, 2006

How to Identify a Non-Reader

So, does it make any difference cognitively if people don't read?
I think it does. At least, as far as I can tell from what I've seen, there are noteworthy differences between the readers and non-readers as far as common arguing styles, comprehension and even emotive responses in the world outside the book.

Books train the reader to think in a specific way. They cause us to follow an extended argument over several pages, and often ask the reader to find implicit meaning. They train the reader to recognize various rhetorical styles, even in fiction. Often, they introduce the reader to nuance, ambiguity and various shades of meaning. They are not always easy, and often they require great patience. More importantly, they require the reader to "fill in" many spaces with their own cognition. Nobody has the same reading of a book. Book-reading is private and internal. It is quiet and patient. And, as such, it teaches these behaviors.

What I see quite often with my non-reading acquaintances and students are the following traits, which you'll notice are also very widespread:

1. Fairly shallow and emotive arguments. A statement like "George Bush doesn't care about black people" is, cognitively, very much of this era because it's more an emotive statement than a logical argument. It's hard to respond to in any way, whether you agree or disagree. As people's arguments become more shallow, they seem to become more angry or emotive because it's much harder to respond to "You hate America!" than it is to respond to an actual argument. When people complain about the "polarization" of our society, I wonder if communication mediums don't foster this.

2. An inability to understand other people's arguments. With some exaggeration, what I see happen quite often is something like this:

Mr. Brown: I believe that people who walk their dogs should have to have the dog on a leash at all times.

Mr. Green: So, you're saying that people should be forced to own dogs?!?!

The shocked outrage is also quite common. In general, when a person doesn't understand arguments in print, it seems to me that they're not terribly good at understanding them in oral form. (Although of course, books are an extension of the oral form anyway)

3. A sort of low-level floating hostility and inability to understand humor. I don't know if this is related to non-reading or something to do with the stress of living in a sped up world, but I see it most often in my non-reading acquaintances and very rarely in my frequently-reading colleagues.

4. What Bill Maher once said of Americans in general: They don't do nuance.

5. Flattening of affect.

6. Inability to see others as fully human.

7. And most noticably, a general lazy cynicism about the world as such. "People are all corrupt, the government is crooks, the opposite sex is heartless, work is miserable, and everyone is out to get theirs." Is this attitude related to reading? Maybe not. But, for me, books have taught me to pay attention to the world and to others- that there is more than just surfaces to the world around me. I've said before that life rewards close readings, and I think that books teach us this. Good books teach us to be mindful, just in order to read them, and they transform the way that we see the world, allowing us to see it for the first time in a new way. For many people I meet, there really is little more to the world aside from struggle and suffering. Life is something they carry. Books suggest that life doesn't have to be this way. Writers like Blake, or even someone like Henry Miller (corny though he is) force us to confront lives that are no better than our own, but lived more exuberantly. The sort of cynicism and malaise I see is widespread, but it is anything but learned cynicism.


For once, a picture of a crowd holding up signs that doesn't make me cringe

From Time Magazine and Andrew Sullivan's blog. Taken at a downtown vigil at the Danish embassy in support of free speech. Nice to see, isn't it?


Thursday, February 23, 2006

And Then They Came for the Blasphemers

Germany has apparently decided to one-up Austria for illiberal nonsense by throwing a man in jail for blasphemy. Apparently the guy (who has the usual subtle-as-a-jackhammer and clever as a slug sense of humor so characteristic of these dark ages) printed up toilet paper with the word "Koran" on them and offered them to mosques. Yuck, yuck. What a card.

So, now he's going to jail for "insulting religious beliefs". Yes, that's illegal in Germany. A liberal and enlightened society decides that the state should abandon one of the central tenets of enlightenment liberalism so that it can persecute one of its citizens. Hasn't Germany been down this Sonderweg before?


Why They Don't Read

Looking at that last post, I think I may have misrepresented my students, who I would like to stress, I am not criticizing here. I'm taking their non-reading as a fact that we have to deal with, not as a flaw in their character. I should basically explain them a bit better. They do not read for a number of reasons.

The most popular, of course, was that "reading is just not interesting." Of course, you have to remember that teenagers are essentially bored by everything. But again, reading has become a fairly vestigial part of modern life. And this is not just true of American life, if my encounters in Ontario libraries are indicative of Canadian reading trends. So, reading is more of an off-beat hobby- like fly fishing or stamp collecting. This naturally makes it difficult to convince students that reading can actually be an exciting, intensely transformative experience.

But, another reason students, and adults, also don't read is that reading takes time, and most people today seem convinced that they have no time for anything. A Reuters story headline reads "Americans work more, seem to accomplish less". The text:

"'Technology has sped everything up and, by speeding everything up, it's slowed everything down, paradoxically,' said John Challenger, chief executive of Chicago-based outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

"We never concentrate on one task anymore. You take a little chip out of it, and then you're on to the next thing," Challenger said on Wednesday. "It's harder to feel like you're accomplishing something.'"

Increasingly, it has become obvious to me that we desperately need to de-technologize our lives and physical spaces. However, most people work jobs that dictate to them that they cannot un-wire, or have time to themselves for that matter. Many students work full-time as well, and it's hard to tell them that they should take up a habit that future life will deny them.

Then, of course, many of them have a general inability to read well. The factory process that has been applied in High Schools simply has not prepared them to read books. And, I suspect that they tend to have the sort of generally-distant, but highly indulgent "cool parents" that aren't able or willing to get them reading at a young age. So, it's up to the schools. Clearly, both schools and parents are failing, and I'm not at all convinced that standardized testing is helping. When we get so many students who are not able to get the meaning out of even the most brief texts, and by my estimation, %50 cannot, something has failed dramatically. One might ask how they got into college, and I'm guessing the administration might say: "Their money is green."

So, reading is boring, takes too much time, and is entirely too difficult to do, according to my students. Naturally, I have to ignore these claims entirely in order to do my job well. And, I'm sure that I have some students who read, but it's not hyperbolic to suggest that they're %5-10 at best. Of course, we will keep assigning them readings and failing them on tests when we see no knowledge of the readings.

But, again I ask, where should we go from here?


The non-reading public

The other day I had a talk with my recitation students about the readings that they are supposed to be doing for our class, and I realized that almost none of them actually do the readings, which is somewhat expected. However, I also heard from them that none of them actually read at all, which I honestly don't know if I expected. In fact, none of them have any plans to read ever, if they can help it, because "reading is just not interesting", "I just hate reading things", etc. etc. Of course, I realize that reading is becoming relatively peripheral in contemporary life. In fact, I think we need to be clear-minded about this and admit to ourselves that this is a society that almost never reads books anymore, and which will probably be done with book reading altogether within a few generations.

However, this raises an interesting question about the future of the university: to wit, if we are, more or less, a non-reading, or aliterate society whose young people are non-readers, how can a cultural institution that is rooted in the close reading of texts possibly survive as such? Will the university phase out books, or students, or itself?


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Okay, so as not to be a downer...

Here's some good news though! San Diego has come up with a novel solution to the problem of homelessness- giving them homes. Read the article and see if it isn't the most sensible and humane idea about homelessness in the last 20 years. Not only is it cheaper than the other way of dealing with the problem- random services, soup kitchens, jails and mental hospitals, but it's also a decent thing to do.



Once, I said that I believed that the US was morally correct in overthrowing Sadaam Hussein. This had much to do with Hussein's attempted genocide of the Kurds, which put the man and his regime beyond the pale, as far as I was concerned.

Later, I said that, if things weren't going well in Iraq, we still had a responsibility to finish the job and not surrender the country to civil war.

But, I have a very bad feeling that it's now too late.


Summers End

Larry Summers has resigned as President of Harvard after another no-confidence vote by faculty. Not surprisingly, Alan Dershowitz claims that this is political correctness run amok. I'm guessing that will be the meme on the cable news networks as well. I've said before that the faculty outcry over his comments about women and science was goofy and disturbing and gave the impression that these were people who had no experience with open intellectual debate. But, there's something deeply dishonest about the "PC Stalinists run amok" line too.

For one thing, there's this: "Andrei Shleifer, a prominent Harvard economist and personal friend of Mr. Summers, was a defendant in a lawsuit alleging that he and a former staff member had defrauded the U.S. government through a program intended to help Russia make the transition to a market economy. Harvard defended Mr. Shleifer throughout the litigation and last August agreed to settle the case by paying a $26.5-million penalty. Mr. Shleifer has never been disciplined by Harvard, and in fact was awarded a new chair during the litigation, said the professor who spoke to The Chronicle. As a result, Mr. Shleifer's relationship with Mr. Summers has drawn increasing criticism. The professor said the combination of the penalty and legal fees had cost Harvard $44-million."

So, Summers's crony cost the university its largest-ever legal payout and severely damaged the school's relationship with the federal government, and he gave the guy a promotion!

More Cronyism: "his defense of the bonuses paid to the money managers of Harvard's endowment, bonuses which have reached $30 million for each of two managers for one year, and which are based on performance benchmarks which some other professionals regard as ridiculously easy to beat."

An actual Harvard grad student complains: "What upset me the most was the wholesale demolition of Hilles Library, a beautiful library built for Radcliffe students during the 60s (when they were not permitted to use the Harvard libraries). Any small liberal arts college would be lucky to have such a library, which had a terrific collection of serials and wonderfully dedicated librarians. And of course the main book collections took more than a century to build. Larry's administration decided it was "wasted space" and has donated the collections to a university in China."

Then, there was the Arts & Sciences Dean William Kirby who got so sick of Summers's nonsense that he resigned. Read that article and imagine if you might resign your boss pulled the sort of crap that Summers did.

On his similarly arrogant decision to put the great Cornell West in his place, Margaret Soltan writes: "West is an actual intellectual, or was for enough years that I've learned a lot reading some of his essays in philosophy, etc. I think Summers misplayed that one. West has done some trivial things lately, but he has a solid history of scholarship."

So, yeah, PC run amok. Sure.


Monday, February 20, 2006

First they came for the idiots...

Once great historian turned Holocaust denying creep David Irving has been arrested and sentenced to three years in Austrian jail for claiming the Holocaust was a myth.

As much as I'd like to be a smart-ass and say that it's just a myth that he is in jail... it's still very disturbing to someone who grew up in a country where people are allowed, nay encouraged, to say stupid things, to see someone be jailed for saying something stupid. It's bad for everyone, in fact, aside from Holocaust deniers who need a martyr.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Blogging Quote

"And that, in the end, is the dismal fate of blogging: it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence. No Modern Library edition of the great polemicists of the blogosphere to yellow on the shelf; nothing but a virtual tomb for a billion posts - a choric song of the word-weary bloggers, forlorn mariners forever posting on the slumberless seas of news."
-Trevor Butterworth

The article is Here

It's a nice antidote for those of us who have gotten tired of hearing bloggers talk about how blogging is "revolutionizing" all of the things that they are, in actuality, making trite.


Today's Quote

"Now, I feel that there is too little idealism also in contemporary culture. At the elite schools, it seems that the faculties go out of their way to inject their best students with a kind of nihilistic irony about life, a constant pose of supercilious critique of great literature and art and of the great traditional values of patriotism and so on... I think it is the obligation of teachers to help students to think in the loftiest ideals, to think of the highest achievements in the whole history of humanity."
-Camille Paglia


Saturday, February 18, 2006

Lowering Arizona

One last thing about Arizona...

It's easy to poke fun at philistine politicians and blue-nosey students. But, I should also point out that these sorts of controversies are exactly what happens when you decide that it's more important that students leave your universities as satisfied customers than as close readers.


Today's Quote

One that seems appropriate for that offended student in Arizona...

"And if thine eye offends thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire."
-Matthew 18:8-9



I think the reason I bitch so much about the Internet, aside from seeing the effects that it seems to have had on literacy, is that I myself spend entirely too much time on here. When I log on to read my email, it seems like I'm on-line for the next two hours. I've tried various things to make myself more of a lean, mean, studying machine. But, my self-control is terrible. What's even stranger is that I have little interest in video games, cell phones, television or even most movies. But, this flickering box gets to me. I hate it. Am I the only one that has this problem?


Sleepless in Quang Nam

The Machinist featured a character who hadn't slept for a year. I wondered if this is possible, considering how you'll occasionally hear of some dedicated worker dropping dead after not sleeping for a week. Apparently, yes. The Vietnamese farmer Thai Ngoc has not slept since 1973! He's still healthy, aside from some liver problems. No word as to if he's been growing cocoa.


The Shit Storm

The state of Arizona is considering a bill allowing university students to refuse to read any books that offend their preconcieved notions about the world. The "Bill for the Defense of Willful Ignorance" will once and for all close off American minds to hostile invaders, such as literature that “conflicts with the student’s beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion.” Whew! Well, that's good. One problem with today's college students is that they're reading too much!

One Arizona student, an Eric Cartman, had this to say: "Oh! They have warped my fragile little mind!"

The student who started all of this was offended because his Lit professor assigned him Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, a fairly well-recieved take on alienation and dysfunctionality in 1970s suburbia. The problem is that the book ends with a wife swapping "key party" that "brings the action to a chaotic climax as an apocalyptic winter storm culminates in physical tragedy to match the emotional damage in the small community." This warped the child's fragile little mind, and so he went to his congressman apparently.

For his part, David Horowitz opposes the measure. “It doesn’t respect the authority of the professor in the classroom,” he said. “This authority does not include the right to indoctrinate students or deny them access to texts with points of view that differ from the professor’s. But it does include the right to assign texts that make students feel uncomfortable.”

Another big problem we have in universities is hordes of kids clammoring for books, which their teachers deny them access to, Soup Nazi-style. "No reading for you!" But, at any rate, good for Horowitz for opposing this.

It's just sad how uncomfortable books do make students, and their parents, and their local politicians. You'll notice that, as less and less people are able to read anymore, books seem more and more frightening to them- like cameras do to tribespeople in the jungle. They're dark and troubling, and can steal your soul away, beckoning you to a shadowy and internal cognitive world. Better to stay safe, and ward them off with the I-pod and cell phone. Ooonga-bunga!


Friday, February 17, 2006

Today's Quote

"A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross..."
-William Shakespeare,
The Merchant of Venice (Act II, scene vii)


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Breaking Horizons of Perspective

I have this desire to found an academic conference entitled "Impermeable Barriers" or "Ending Discussion" or "Nothing New" because every single conference I get an email for is titled something like:

Breaking Barriers
Broadening Horizons
Fresh Perspectives.

Yeesh! They must know how terrifyingly banal these sound. Like infomercials or adverts for disinfectants. All I can imagine is some young junior professor gassing on about "constructions of images in Victorian society" while showing Powerpoint presentations. And then I reach for my revolver. Before I retire, I will found an annual history conference entitled "Same Old Crap".


Cave Art

Most paleolithic cave art was made by teenagers, not shamans. This according to archaeologists who noted as evidence the large breasted women in much cave art as well as repeated references to whether or not Metallica rules.


Protecting Toothopolis

After a long standoff with all dentists worldwide, I finally gave in today and had my teeth inspected. The last time I went to the dentist, and I know this is horrible, was in 1994.

Yes, I know. I know.

The thing is, I never could visit the dentist before working at the university because I never had either insurance or money before. When I got insurance, it still took some time for me to get the nerve up to go and get the inevitably bad news. I was literally shaking when I went in.

So, they sat me in the space capsule and took X-rays of my teeth while I fidgeted and muttered. The final outcome... one tooth has to get pulled, and the others are all fine.

The bad news is that I have "severe bone loss" under my gums, which is as bad as that sounds. Yuck. So, I have to go get scraped under my gums, which sounds like something from a Kafka story. But, theoretically, I will not lose my teeth. So, that's nice.


Today's Quote

“Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion.”
-David Cronenberg

(seemed fitting today)


Scrawl a Message, Go to Jail.

Frankly, the idea of glorifying or celebrating terrorism makes me sick to my stomach.

But, so does this:
"Tony Blair promised last night that the police and courts would take action in future against demonstrators who carried placards praising terrorism and calling for more suicide bombings.
After seeing off another revolt by Labour MPs and securing backing for a new offence of glorifying terrorism, he said the Government had won the argument for tougher anti-terrorist laws."

Tony Blair makes his point during the debate on anti- terror laws yesterday
The new law, which has still to be approved by the Lords, would send "a clear signal" that those who incited acts of terrorism or glorified terrorism would be prosecuted."

Sounds acceptable, right? Why not prosecute people who "incite" terrorism? But, how do we define this? And how in the world do we define "glorifying terrorism"? Wouldn't half of Bruce Willis's films be illegal. And then the article goes on to say this:

""The law that we passed today will allow us to take far stronger action against people who don't just directly engage in terrorism but indirectly incite it," he said."

"Indirectly incite it"? Again, I know what placards he speaks of, and they made me ill as well. But, again, a free and open society cannot criminalize speech simply because it makes us ill.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Boys Vs Girls

Girls rule the schools apparently. Most American colleges are now "dominated" by young women, a "problem" that I find considerably less troubling than the fact that most colleges are also dominated by illiterates. But, that's just me.

Anyway, the fact is that more girls than boys go to college, they're more likely to graduate, and when they apply, they tend to be better applicants. What to do? What to do?

Well, some colleges are apparently giving male applicants a little bump up in the admissions process; what generally gets called affirmative action. Somehow, I'm not imagining the usual critics of affirmative action will be bitching about this on Fox News tonight.

This is likely as misguided an idea as the old affirmative action was. Actually, I'm starting to believe that no good ever came from a committee. See, the problem isn't that boys are less likely to be college-bound- it's that they're less likely to be college-worthy. Or, more interestingly, it's that they seem to get drilled into their heads from a young age that any sort of intellectual endeavor is "gay". Of course, in my encounters, they also don't seem to be too terribly worried about whether or not they do get educated, which is also interesting.

As a society, we seem to have lost the idea that education means anything. The idea of the cultivated bachelor seems lost in the 19th century somewhere. What boys need isn't affirmative action; it's an affirmation of intellectualism.


When Cartoons are Outlawed, Only Outlaws will be Cartoons

First off, I have to say that I wonder if I'm horrible for being amused by all the headlines that read things like "Four Hurt in Cartoon Riot"... Perhaps the funniest headline is here.

Secondly, what exactly is the reason that Christians don't riot over South Park, but Muslims riot over cartoons? Your particuarly mentally-deranged Christians will shoot an abortion provider on occasion, but most of them seem to have gotten all the running amok out of their system with the Crusades.

Of course, a part of this is the nationality in question. Muslim Americans aren't rioting, and perhaps, if they lived in a theocracy, Christians would be a lot more emboldened. Actually, early modern Europe was pretty damned theocratic and, again, we did have the Crusades and Inquisition.

Thank God for the Enlightenment.

And thank God for the Enlightenment values of rational inquiry, skepticism and a secular public sphere. How much better this world is for having made the journey from the Peace of Westphalia through Voltaire and Rousseau! Have you ever looked into how many changes the world went through in just the 1770s? It's really quite astounding.

So, of course, we need to preserve those values. Free speech is non-negotiable in a free society.

The Economist:
"Freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining freedom of liberal societies. When such a freedom comes under threat of violence, the job of governments should be to defend it without reservation."

Right. Which is why it's depressing to see our own government using this as an excuse to score some brownie points with the theocrats and flip the bird at Y'urp. Frankly, I'm not at all convinced though that people like Rove and Cheney see a free and open press as a good thing for a democratic society to have anyway. Maybe they want the religious fanatics to shut down that damned "MSM" once and for all.

Andrew Sullivan:
"The withholding of truth has, of course, been one of the recurring themes of this war. We were not allowed to see the video deaths of those who jumped out of the World Trade Center. We were not allowed to see the coffins of soldiers arriving back in the US. We are still not allowed to see the most revealing photographs of what really happened at Abu Ghraib (the legal case is still tied up in appeals). We were not allowed to see the beheading of Nick Berg. And now we are not allowed to see . . . cartoons. Cartoons! The very things newspapers are designed in part to publish."

It's hard to ask newspapers to risk their journalists lives, but wouldn't most journalists be willing to take some risk to defend a free press?

And, the left is depressing as well. Why aren't we leading the pro-cartoon marches? Jesus, it would be funny to see people in oversized Mickey Mouse costumes marching down the street! For the love of all that is decent, and indecent, it is the responsibility of the left to defend a free and secular public sphere. The theocrats hate us anyway because we're so big on gays. So, let's stand up for the things that we've always believed in, such as free speech, a secular public arena, and yes, the right of artists to be sacreligious! How can we defend Piss Christ (which honestly should have been called Shitty Art) and not march in the street for cartoonists? Let's party!

Lastly, the right wing bloganderthals are also just too precious for words. Please, please, please, defend to your dying breath our right to offend Muslims after crying for two months that the sixteen year old at Wal-Mart didn't say "Merry Christmas!" to you! Please begin to defend a free press right about now! That's darling!

Thank God I'm not a Democrat, Republican, journalist, Muslim, Christian or theist.

Thank God I'm not a believer.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Responding to David Horowitz

David Horowitz:
"If you were to read my book you would see that I agree with you and that your standard is exactly (word for word) the point of view I take in the book. The 101 professors profiled are dangerous to the academic enterprise: the disinterested pursuit of knowledge."

First off, my reading your book isn't nearly as theoretical as that wording implies. I've read at least half of your books, and will read this one when I get a copy of it.

Secondly Mr. Horowitz, yes, you indeed make many of the same points that I do here on a fairly regular basis. And yes, I can believe you that we both see the disinterested persuit of knowledge to be the goal of education.

What bothers me is that you frequently return to these three points:

1) There are thousands of liberal professors in higher ed, which is undoubtedly true. Then,
2) Some of them are wack-jobs like Ward Churchill, and so...
3) The universities are overrun by leftists who are trying to indoctrinate our young people.

Maybe this is not your argument in this book. Maybe you just state those three things and don't explicitly state a causal connection. But, it certainly is the implication in the mailings that I get from you, and I'm guessing it is in the mailings that other people get from you. Now someone like myself who is probably further to the left than you, although probably more culturally conservative than most liberals (in that I believe we have a higher culture that professors should be the stewards and protectors of), and who spouts my liberal noise here, but who frankly finds the idea of telling my students my political views to be as repugnant and inappropriate as say, talking to them about wife swapping- where am I in your argument? Am I a few sentences in the middle to make it clear that you're not talking about all liberal educators? Am I an entire chapter?

Am I wrong in reading that you think that liberals are somehow more likely to proselytize than conservatives are? Seriously, I'm asking.

And people like myself, who you're probably right, do share a lot of your opinions, do you think that maybe your overheated rhetoric might turn us off to your arguments?

Does this sound like you want to have a discussion, or like Geraldo Rivera?
"These are just a few of the most notorious radicals indoctrinating our young people today. Sadly, they’re not the exception at our schools -- they’re the mainstream! They’re just a sample of the 101 professors we’ve researched and exposed in The Professors... and they’re just the tip of the iceberg."

Me: My point again is that they aren't even close to being the mainstream at the three institutions of higher education that I've attended.

"Imagine just for a moment being a conservative student and having to sit in a class taught by any one of the professors I’ve mentioned. Difficult? Stressful? All of that and more, and that’s simply not what a college education is about."

Me: And not difficult for a liberal student? And why exactly is encountering people whose opinions differ radically from your own, while annoying in a classroom, so antithetical to higher ed?

"Yet the 101 professors highlighted in my book are representative of thousands of radical leftists who spew a violent anti-Americanism, preach anti-Semitism, and cheer on the killing of American soldiers and civilians! And they’re living off taxpayer dollars and tuition fees as they indoctrinate our future leaders."

This doesn't sound the slightest bit exaggerated to you? You really can't see why this sounds hysterical to me? About as hysterical as the "Bush lied and everybody died!" crowd, to be honest. Maybe I've been really lucky in not encountering it, or maybe my liberal indoctrination makes me blind to it, but I think I'd remember anti-America 101.

You're right that there is a problem of some sort. And perhaps we only differ in the extent of the problem. But, this sort of rhetoric does not convince me in the slightest that you are persuing an intellectual discussion of the topic so much as hyping your own organization and publications.

So, if you ever want to hear from a liberal educator who indeed finds the ideologues repugnant, and who thinks that most educators would agree... let me know.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Dangerous profs (Sigh, yes this dead horse)

Today Inside Higher Education worries about David Horowitz and his list of the 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America. The point in the article seems to be that academics really aren't so scary or dangerous. Sadly, most of them are about as dangerous as your local stamp collector. But, the fantasy of the quiet unassuming egghead planning great destruction is just too delicious to ignore. Paging Dr. Lecter...

But, the approach this article takes is simply misguided. IHE should make some statement on Horowitz and just move on. They do these articles every other week. Me thinks they doth protest too much, and probably this is because there's some truth to Horowitz's claims. There really are people in academe who have wasted their best years stumping for some radical political cause when they could have been taking part in the disinterested persuit of truth that the rest of us at least attempt every day. The problem with both these professors and people like David Horowitz is that they fundamentally believe the disinterested persuit of truth is impossible.

Horowitz's argument seems to be that (A) academe is filled with lefties, and so (B) a leftist can't be trusted teach a course about anything without tubthumping for their lefty politics. But, this doesn't follow any more than it follows to argue that you can't hire a Catholic to teach a course because they would preach the Catholic interpretation of the gospels as soon as they walked in the classroom. Most academic research has nothing to do with politics- and shouldn't- but the ideologue/pedagogue believes that this is just a naive charade, and Horowitz agrees, whether he wants to or not. Essentially, the tubthumper argues that "everything is political", and Horowitz argues that "everything, for the leftist, is political".

But, they're both dead wrong in regards to the actual academic experience of the rest of us. So, perhaps IHE should start denouncing both the ideologues (and there are nowhere near as many of them as Horowitz claims. "Thousands"? Please!) and Horowitz's hysterical bullshit with the same vehemence and then move on. Because, honestly, this is beneath the academy. And, it's also getting boring for those of us who think that there's more to life and the persuit of knowledge than who voted for who.

P.S.: The messages attached to the article are especially funny. The D'Ho/ J-Lo discussion is one of the dumbest things I've seen in months. So, that adds a certain entertainment value to it.


Quote for Today

"L'émotion a remplacé les idéologies pour donner un sens à la vie. C'est ainsi que Bush et Blair dirigent. Et cela peut conduire à une folie délibérée."
-J.G. Ballard, in Le Figaro

(approximately: Emotion has replaced ideology in giving meaning to life. This is what Bush and Blair govern. And that perhaps they direct to a deliberate madness.)


Professionalization will kill me

There are two major aspects to a graduate school education in my opinion: inquiry and professionalization. For some reason that frankly escapes me, most people who excell at the first seem to fail at the second and most people who excell at the second aren't too terribly hot at the first. For instance, there are plenty of academics whose inquiry tends to be in the direction of whatever the academy currently finds interesting, and plenty of us who could happily study things that nobody else could possibly care about, for the rest of our lives.

I tend to excell at inquiry, in that I have a million questions about nearly everything, and can, on occasion, find unique answers to them. More often than not, I find more questions than answers. But, that is okay with me because I have a lot of curiosity (again defined as the active intellectual persuit of novelty) and don't really mind if a project takes me the next three decades to finish. Of course, this attitude is extremely unprofessional, because an academic is expected to produce quality work and, well, finish things and act like they want a freaking job.

I think I hate everything that goes along with that, or at least, almost everything. I hate conferences, especially ones that I'm supposed to give papers at. But, I am generally not too fond of ones where I don't give papers. Actually, I hate the whole idea of conferences, which seems to be that it's mildly entertaining to watch desperate people compete with each other for attention- sort of like the Gong Show or back alley boxing for intellectuals. With wife-swapping thrown in. I hate department meetings, although honestly, everyone in the world hates department meetings. I hate the idea of submitting papers to journals, an experience I find strangely akin to taking out a personals ad in a strange city for a bizarre sexual fetish. I hate the whole "cognition-by-committee" aspect of academia- thinking should be solitary. In general, I hate all aspects of professionalization, which feels to me like an affront to intellectual activity. I realize that my attitude here is pretty much ludicrous.

A lot of times, I see myself not lasting too long in this world. It's ridiculously cutthroat and petty at times, and entirely too banal and nicey-nice at others. I'm curmudgeonly, and cranky. I'm friendly at some times, and yet can be impatient and isolated at most times. The only reason that I have any hope about remaining in academia is the fact that so many of my professors are exactly the same way.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

More Noir! Less Rouge!

Here's the list of educational programs that the "education President" is now pushing to cut or kill off entirely:

Educational technology state grants, $272 million

Even Start, $99 million

High school programs terminations:
Vocational education state grants, $1,182 million

Vocational education national programs, $9 million

Upward Bound, $311 million

GEAR UP, $303 million

Talent search, $145 million

Tech prep state grants, $105 million

Smaller learning communities, $94 million

Safe and Drug-Free Schools state grants, $347 million

Elementary and secondary education program terminations:
Parental information and resource centers, $40 million

Arts in education, $35 million

Elementary and secondary school counseling, $35 million

Alcohol abuse reduction, $32 million

Civic education, $29 million

National Writing Project, $22 million

Star Schools, $15 million

School leadership,$15 million

Ready to Teach, $11 million

Javits gifted and talented education, $10 million

Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, $9 million

Comprehensive school reform, $8 million

Dropout prevention program, $5 million

Mental Health integration in schools, $5 million

Women's Educational Equity, $3 million

Academies for American History and Civics, $2 million

Close-Up fellowships, $1 million

Foundations for Learning, $1 million

Excellence in Economic Education, $1 million

Higher Education Programs:
Education demos for students with disabilities, $7 million

Underground Railroad Program, $2 million

State grants for incarcerated youth offenders, $23 million

Postsecondary Student Financial Assistance Programs:
Perkins Loan cancellations, $65 million

Leveraging educational assistance programs, $65 million

Byrd Scholarships, $41 million

Thurgood Marshall Legal Educational opportunity, $3 million

B.J. Stupak Olympic scholarships, $1 million

_Vocational rehabilitation programs:
Supported employment, $30 million

Projects with industry, $20 million

Recreational programs, $3 million

Migrant and seasonal farmworkers,$2 million

Teacher Quality Enhancement, $60 million

Total $3,468 million

In fact, the amount he wants to cut from education is more than he wants to cut in any other area of public spending, although Health and Human Services, naturally, is also being cut back seriously.

So, do I think the public will be upset by all of this? Puh-lease! It's not like he's closing malls or something!


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Dissertation stuff

But, one great thing going on is that my dissertation topic is beginning to come into focus a bit. It's extremely difficult to get the topic nailed down and the "problematic" defined because I haven't been to the archives at all, so I don't know what's there to research; but, in order to get there, I have to know what it is I'm hoping to find there and apply for grants. Is that confusing? Well, it is for me too.

But, I've got an idea of the dates (1815-1850) the country (France, of course) and the general body of primary documents (French romantic authors' voyage narratives). I knew who I wanted to write about, basically, but I was having trouble narrowing down the documents. So, I'm going to be spending a lot of time on Gallica looking around. But, this project is getting much more exciting for me.


Tuning Out

I think I'm getting a lot better at dealing with students. Usually, I teach to the 70% of them that aren't necessarily understanding everything in the lectures and are generally panicking about the class. I do have the occasional students who are so smart that they need no help at all. I try to be nice to them and otherwise let them be.

What's made the difference this semester is that I've been trying to help out the students who are struggling, but generally ignoring the ones who are ill-tempered and annoying. You see, I'm teaching the recitation for a "general education" requirement, which means that every student who goes through the school has to take the class. Plenty of them hate that. But, the ones who hate having to take the class really hate having to come to the recitation on top of it. In a sense, they're probably right. The school tacks this nonsensical recitation on to the class to try to boost the students' grades. Does it help? Who knows. Actually, I have my doubts.

But, where the students are wrong is in thinking that I have anything to do with this brilliant idea to have them sit through recitations as well as lectures. Honestly, I could care less if they show up. Alas, my job is to take roll and grade accordingly, and so I do not question why...

In my third recitation I have three young men who are angry that they have to be there, and who make their point by not taking out their books, crossing their arms and glaring at me.

I'm 31 years old. This is stupid. I ignore them completely.

The thing is, I have to give them a "class participation" grade which is 20% of their grade. So, basically, they're failing that, and seem not to have figured out that yet. I can't see any reason to believe that they would come to recitation to get absolutely no credit, but to make some stand against a TA who couldn't give a shit one way or the other that they're unhappy about this. So, probably they think that I give them some grade just for showing up. But, of course not. This is college. In a way, I feel like I should tell them, but the syllabus tells them this, and I told them this at the beginning of the class. So, what's the point?

I have no idea why people come to University with such contempt for the very idea that they should ever read a book, or listen to a lecture, or think. But, I'm starting to see it as their problem and not mine.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

Customer Assessment Cards

Can we really escape being asked to assess each other anymore? A new sort of obsequiousness seems to have settled into all areas of business.
"Have we helped you today?"
"Rate our service!"
"How was your visit?"

Micromanagement becomes democratized and diffused. We are all bureaucrats now- all supervisors in an era of... what exactly?

Not surveillance really. The more that surveillance gets diffused, the more it is diminished. Bentham was wrong, as was Foucault- the Panopticon is the jail cell. We fix our gaze and then it fixes us. Can you imagine anything more miserably debilitating than sitting in a room watching hour after hour of surveillance video?

Marshall McLuhann said that all technologies come to serve the opposite purpose of that for which they were invented. And so it is with the Customer Assessment Cards. By treating the employee as if they're open to constant scrutiny, you alienate them from their labor and make their every action unnatural and forced. By turning customers into invisible prosecutors, you alienate the employee from the public and foster resentment. By removing the customer from face-to-face interactions, you alienate them from the environment altogether. The medium quarantines thought.

Perhaps this is "accountability"- can we call this the "Gotcha!" era? We're asked to report bad drivers to some 1-800 Torquemada. We're asked to critique almost every employee we encounter. My students are asked to assess my teaching, suggesting, I suppose, that I'm their employee rather than an authority figure. Entire websites are devoted to tearing down the most insignificant of public figures. At times, actually most of the time, the blogosphere resembles nothing so much as a group of grown men and women who desperately want to be at the front of a mob screaming "Gotcha!" at some poor individual, preferably one who's crying.

But, if everyone is accountable, is anyone? Ever notice how customer service seems to have worsened since they got those cards? Does education actually improve when the most educated people at a university have to meet the demands of the least educated? Would anyone in their right mind want to be a public figure when every move they make will be pilloried? Doesn't much of this "accountability" really consist of shifting the blame?

Maybe the "Gotcha!" era is really just the result of diminished expectations. Bloggers might be people who no longer hope to be successful, but aim at "taking down" the more successful. Maybe our problems cannot be solved, but blame can still be laid. It's all the fault of "liberals", "neocons", "ideological teachers", "terrorist sympathizers", "Christian fundamentalists", "George W. Bush", or "customer service". What does it say when our highest cultural aspiration is to diminish one another? What does it say when "success" is defined as being unaccountable? Where does all this ill-will come from, and how will we ever evolve, or develop, or grow? Most importantly, what do all those assessment cards say about us as people?


Ridiculously large catfish

In Thailand, these two men caught this nine-foot long catfish, which is roughly as big as a grizzly bear. The man on the left is the man in that old saying who was taught to fish and who will now eat for the rest of his life.


Houston, we have a bureaucratic problem

An interesting story for those of us children of the Enlightenment- NASA keeps getting pressured by the administration to stop being so damned scientific.

Last week, NASA's top climate scientist complained that the space agency's public-affairs office was trying to silence his statements on global warming...

In October... George Deutsch, a presidential appointee in NASA headquarters, told a Web designer working for the agency to add the word "theory" after every mention of the Big Bang.

Repeatedly that year, public-affairs directors at all of NASA's science centers were admonished by White House appointees at headquarters to focus all attention on Mr. Bush's January 2004 "vision" for returning to the Moon and eventually traveling to Mars.

Lastly, from now on, whenever a shuttle takes off, the announcer is to scream "YES! Jesus is very happy with US!"


Cartoon Blues

More rioting in Beiruit and Syria:
"Muslim rage over caricatures of the prophet Muhammad grew increasingly violent Sunday as thousands of rampaging protesters — undaunted by tear gas and water cannons — torched the Danish mission and ransacked a Christian neighborhood."

Why can't people make distinctions anymore? How do you equate a Christian missionary service, or Christianity in general, with a newspaper in another country? What has happened to nuance?

Here's one bit of good news:
"Muslim clerics denounced the violence, with some wading into the mobs trying to stop them."

Yes, yes- More of that!


Locked in the Cell

Soon the subways will be wired to allow people to talk on their cell phones while riding. Before long, we will all be like Marie Antoinette- going through life cocooned in a small circle of friends, without making contact with anyone outside of that circle. Those ads in which the cell phone companies promise to "bring people together" are starting to sound like an ironic fuck you.


Guilty Before the Other

Here's a nice article that describes the intellectual relationships between Heidegger, Sartre and Levinas. Best of all, it lays out what Levinas was arguing much better than I did.

For Levinas, ethics derives from the claims of the Other, or l'Autrui. The centerpiece of his mature thought is the idea of the "face of the Other." In Levinas's view the face of the Other confronts us with an "infinite" moral claim, one that is anterior to all theoretical or intellectual judgments. He uses a series of dramatic metaphors--he frequently speaks of the Other's "nakedness" and "destitution"--to drive home the point that he or she stands totally at our mercy. To dramatize that our debt to the Other is essentially unsatisfiable, Levinas frequently cites an unsettling maxim from The Brothers Karamazov: "Each of us is guilty before the other for everything, and I more than any." Since, given our intrinsic limitations as finite beings, we can never entirely satisfy the Other's claims, at issue is a relationship of "infinity," or "transcendence." Theoretical reason, conversely, aims at a type of totalizing comprehension, or "closure," that Levinas belittles as "totality." It is incurably egocentric and proceeds by reducing the Other to Sameness--in Levinas's idiom, "ipseity." Thus the animating opposition of his 1961 masterwork: "Totality" versus "Infinity."

The article also gets at the questions that Heidegger's repellent Nazism forced on his intellectual heirs, as well as hinting at some of the problems I have with "poststructuralism". One of my major problems with Foucault is that he doesn't allow room for any sort of non-alienated social interactions, and so, even if we buy his critique of Enlightenment modernity (which I really don't), there's nothing we can possibly do about it. Human activities are corrupting as such. The article explains this better though:

By the 1980s the structuralist wave had fallen upon hard times. The structuralists and their "poststructural" philosophical heirs, Foucault and Derrida, had wagered everything on a withering critique of "humanism," by which they meant any theory that placed "man" at its center. In The Order of Things Foucault famously prophesied that "man" would soon be effaced like a drawing in the sand at the edge of the sea. The clear implication was that in the aftermath of man's disappearance, we would be much better off. Yet during the 1970s and '80s French intellectuals, disillusioned with communism and beguiled by Eastern European dissidence, had rediscovered "human rights." At this point it became impossible to square the circle: One could not pose as a detractor of "humanism" and simultaneously sing the praises of "the rights of man."


Friday, February 03, 2006

Sublime Meme

I'd like to start a "meme"

I have no idea who reads this anymore, but I'd like to hear what people think of as the sublime.

In aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublimis (exalted)) is the quality of transcendent greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual or artistic. The term especially references a greatness with which nothing else can be compared and which is beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.

I would like to hear your examples of the sublime.

For me, it's the eerie glow of the backyard at 1 am under a cover of newly fallen snow.


Of course

With the "arab street" getting worked up over some Danish newspaper's editorial Cartoons/blatant PR stunt, and sales of Legos falling in Saudi Arabia, the US government has been forced to choose between siding with religious fanaticism or a free press.

No points for guessing which one they chose.


What we do is sacred

Sacrifice- a pagan idea that the gods one reveres must be killed, cut up, and ritually shared with others- which survives today in publishing.

Of course, if we take sacred to mean secret, that is hidden, confined and protected, then the projects of the theorists and the evangelical Christians are identical- to decry the death of that which is hidden in an age that has a Calvinist distrust of the hidden- the death of privacy is the death of sacralism. (Max Weber was right- but it's even worse than he expected!) A time of total surveliance in which everything private is made public, and thereby profaned. How did we get so far from being really free? Will we have to abandon every aspect of consensus reality before they will let us out of the underground mole-tunnels beneath the obelisk and into the sacred amusement parks?

Then, let us begin. Repeat after me:

"I am freer than even I realize."

Why not Mithra for a diety, or the diety within our flesh, instead of bleeding martyrs? Why not erotic idolatry?

"Man faces mystery. He stands in a little circle of light and tries to penetrate beyond."
-Emma Hawkridge

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.


Michel Houellebecq

Here's a great article about Michel Houellebecq, the latest in a long line of late decadent French authors who are equally profane, exhausted, gloomy and reactionary. Houellebecq is also a painfully boring author who tries to fob off his own lack of much appreciable writing talent as an attack on the world. But, I love this section of the article, which captures the one insight worth reading his books for, available in all of them:

"All Houellebecq’s books have the same theoretical underpinning: a modest extension of the argument of the Communist Manifesto, proposing that what we call sexual freedom is in fact the last stage in the free market’s resolution of personal wealth into exchange value. This is laid out in the section of his first novel that explains its ironically grandiose title (Extension du domaine de la lutte (1994):

Just like unrestrained economic liberalism, and for similar reasons, sexual liberalism produces phenomena of absolute pauperisation. Some men make love every day; others five or six times in their life, or never. Some make love with dozens of women; others with none. It’s what’s known as ‘the law of the market’. In an economic system where unfair dismissal is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their place. In a sexual system where adultery is prohibited, every person more or less manages to find their bed mate. In a totally liberal economic system, certain people accumulate considerable fortunes; others stagnate in unemployment in misery. In a totally liberal sexual system, certain people have a varied and exciting erotic life; others are reduced to masturbation and solitude. Economic liberalism is an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society. Sexual liberalism is likewise an extension of the domain of the struggle, its extension to all ages and all classes of society.

(As both advertisers and teenage girls know, the fear of being "loveless" is a great means of social control. What are Houellebeqc's answers to this?)

"His later novels explore various solutions: in Atomised, the naturist resort at Cap d’Agde is described as a ‘sexual social democracy’, in which French, German and Scandinavian couples swap partners and share their love with lonely single men, in an atmosphere of ‘discipline and respect for the social contract’. In Platform, sex tourism is proposed as a radical free-market solution, allowing sexual paupers to achieve the same consumer satisfaction they have at Monoprix: rich but ugly Westerners and the poor but handsome of the Third World share resources."

See what I mean? He makes a good point about social conditions and then comes up with a totally banal answer to it. If you can't beat the exploiters, become an exploiter. If you're poor, the first world gets to fuck you. Yawn- we've heard that one before.

As for swingers clubs and sex tourism, they play off the same fear of ourselves as did the old morality. Fear of love, fear of death, fear of change, fear of loss- all turned compulsive instead of being embraced and integrated into a complete psyche. Besides, it's a false choice you know: between gloomy chastity and compulsive rutting: between being a miser of the flesh or a miser of love. It's based on the same false-split between the spirit and body (you only get one, not the other!), and this is why our Puritans so often come to us as libertines.


Now we know who's afraid of Opera

Parents in Bennett, Colorado are upset that an elementary school teacher has shown an instructional video (ironically enough entitled: "Who's Afraid of Opera?") that introduces children to opera because it includes scenes from Faust. The Faust legend has, of course, traditionally been seen as a morally instructive cautionary tale about the dangers of pride and intellectual overreaching, and incidentally, has become an interesting commentary on ethically-empty science.

The parents are upset because the opera includes Satan as the villain.

"Any adult with common sense would not think that video was appropriate for a young person to see. I'm not sure it's appropriate for a high school student," Robby Warner said after two of her children saw the video.

Another parent, Casey Goodwin, said, "I think it glorifies Satan in some way."

Okay, so of course, these parents are some of the dumbest people on earth and they've won another battle in the war to prevent their children from growing up any less stupid than they are. Yes, yes, another win for the Conspiracy of the Stupid. We know that.

What I wonder is what people like Roger Kimball, who consistently argue (sometimes convincingly, sometimes not) that educators have destroyed culture by pushing their radical leftist ideas, think when they read things like this. Do they continue to encourage the same knee-jerk virulent distrust of educators that they have for years now, knowing that a teacher who tries to teach children about the opera Faust is a gem? Do they pretend that, yes, Faust is a "devil-worshipping opera" and cater to the ignorant? Or, do they actually stand up for an educator, knowing that they are defending the target of their ongoing critique against the slings and arrows of people who support that critique? Do they even see the connection between their encouragement of thoughtless hostility towards educators and that hostility in the real world?


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Definitional 2

Empathy- the art of mistaking a passing stranger for the human race entire.



Sacrifice- a pagan idea that the gods one reveres must be killed, cut up, and ritually shared with others- which survives today in publishing.


Our Sleep Will be Troubled

Some old predictions...

"Our sleep will be troubled. We'll have to "sacrifice a few freedoms" to protect Freedom. We'll have to fear & hate. But within a few weeks or months we will have buried even the fear & hate, rather we will have transformed all that emotion to the Image, to the Evil Eye of the media, our externalized unconscious. We'll have sitcoms again and gangster rap and arguments about our right to download it all for free into our home computers. We'll get those airplanes flying, once again polluting "our" skies with noise & carcinogens. We'll overcome our shame. And that will constitute our revenge. That will be our meaning. Our morality."

-Peter Lambourn Wilson, September 14, 2001.


Thought for Today

"I think it's a very liberating experience to realize how little you really know and how much of the time you're just guessing. For one thing, it makes foregiveness easier, and believe me, life without forgiveness isn't worth living."
-Robert Anton Wilson


AAUP Does Good

Perhaps stating the obvious in IHE:
"Boycotts of academic institutions are antithetical to academic freedom and should not be used as a means of protest, according to a new policy being adopted by the American Association of University Professors."

Unfortunately, it's not so obvious to people who cannot distinguish between the actions of a government and the scholarship of universities which happen to reside under that government.

"The policy follows considerable controversy in the last year over a boycott declared by Britain’s main faculty union against two Israeli universities."

Apparently, the strange creeping disease that causes flattening of thought and that makes one unable to make even the most basic distinctions, readings of nuance, or acts of decency, when dealing with Jewish people is a problem within the university as well as outside. It's good to see the AAUP is trying to inoculate against it.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Cartoon Row 2

Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs of Staff have decided that they have nothing better to do than write to the Washington Post and bitch about this cartoon. Not because it's criticizing Rumsfeld mind you (no, of course not), but because "we believe you owe the men and women and their families who so selflessly serve our country the decency to not make light of their tremendous physical sacrifices."

Signed: People who don't get the fucking point that a cartoon is making even when it's right in front of their noses and they get paid very well to analyze data all day.


Cartoon Row 1

Okay, so the wannabe theocrats are rioting throughout the Middle East over these cartoons which were published in a Danish newspaper. Apparently, they want Denmark to take some responsibility here, and curtail that pesky free press. Apologies have been made. Danish products have been boycotted in countries that don't buy Danish goods anyway. Delegates from a number of nations have appealed to Denmark to hold someone accountable. Etc. One would hope that they never watch South Park...
Seven newspapers throughout Europe have run the cartoons to show solidarity and support for a beleaguered comrade as well as for free speech in general. And so have a number of bloggers who support free speech, even if it offends...


E.M. Cioran

Ah, so it comes out that E.M. Cioran was a pro-Nazi anti-Semite in his youth! Why do I fear that people who have never read Cioran will suddenly know who he was and hold him up as proof that intellectuals just can't be trusted?

Cioran's work is almost entirely a collections of aphorisms and paragraphs that are so bleak and despairing that you're almost disappointed to discover that he never committed suicide. The anti-semitic revelation isn't exactly a revelation though. His 1936 book The Transfiguration of Romania was strongly pro-fascist and anti-Jew. And, unlike Heidegger, Cioran owned up to his past and actually dealt with it later in life. Well... or sort of...

From the Chronicle of Higher Ed:
"I used to feel an inferiority complex that bordered on madness... ," Cioran confessed at one point about his analysis of Jews in Romania's Transformation. "It is impossible not to see in these pages a secret passion for the Jews." Elsewhere he blamed the book on "delirium," echoing Nietzsche that "we are the victims of our temperaments." In 1946 he wrote that he had become "immune to any belief." (his biographer) Petreu sees his first Parisian book — A Short History of Decay (1949) as a sideways apology.

I'm guessing he wasn't the only ex-Nazi sympathizer to consider himself "immune to any belief" later in life. A Short History of Decay is a fascinating book, but I'm not sure I see the sideways apology there.

In some ways, I'm unsurprised by Cioran's early fascination with Nazism. To quote again: "Hostile to Enlightenment reason, intolerant of tolerance, morose about the decline of European civilization, a decadent with an amoral slant on life, Cioran combined the idiosyncratic qualities and paradoxical prose outsiders often seek in bringing a French intellectual to international fame." This is an accurate description of Cioran's work, and again, it's not terribly shocking to see fascism, that non-belief for people who can believe in nothing, appealing to the young Cioran. It's tragic. But, again, there's something in that post-Enlightenment gloom that seems particuarly vulnerable to the lure of fascism.