Friday, March 31, 2006

Apocalypse Watch

In SF, more rain than has ever been recorded.

In Baltimore, less rain than has ever been recorded.

The Pacific Ocean is becoming both warmer and more acidic because of its absorption of carbon dioxide.

At what point should people just start to go bat-shit crazy over this?


Business School

"Higher education's adoption of free-market ideology favored by the Right, advocating a much more businesslike approach to higher education, has led to corporate-style business management that pursues strategies which approach education as a vocational credentialing commodity for personal gain rather than a privilege benefiting the public weal."

"With grade inflation built into the brand, now nearly everyone and anyone can purchase faux marks of academic distinction, high grades, as part of the package on offer- and what brand could not build this amenity into its product line and remain competitive nowadays?"

-Brian Manhire, "Grade Inflation in Engineering Education at Ohio University", 2005


Child Porn

Here we go again!

Three teenaged girls have been arrested for making "child pornography" together.

In response, Myspace is removing 200,000 teenagers' profiles that contain risque pictures of themselves. Apparently, a lot of kids are luring themselves into the dark underworld of kiddie porn- no doubt, promising themselves great wealth and ferris wheel rides. Only to betray themselves and warp their fragile little minds.

When dirty old men look at these pictures, the pictures cause them to imagine themselves molesting little girls, which is just as illegal as imagining themselves robbing a bank, or imagining themselves murdering someone would be.

Is it any mystery that child-porn laws don't really work? That they could probably be removed altogether and molesters could still be prosecuted for... you know, molesting children?

Is it possible to even comment on this without offending people?


School lays

So, if porn is ubiquitous, should we be teaching these students how to critically interpret it? According to Time, many academics think so, including some at my own university.

"A small but growing number of scholars are probing the aesthetic, societal and philosophical properties of smut in academic departments ranging from literature to film, law to technology, anthropology to women's studies. Those specialists argue that graphic sexual imagery has become ubiquitous in society, so it's almost irresponsible not to teach young people how to deal with it."

It's hard to decide about this one. Are academics really required to help people accomodate themselves to living in the contemporary society? I know we're always told we are, but isn't that more of a therapeutic role than us eggheads should be taking on?

Most academics, however, say that they're not teaching students to live with porn. "I'm quite critical of pornography," Professor Mary Williams (UC Berkeley- pictured) says. "I'm not trying to teach people to accept the existence of it. As with any tradition of moving-image culture, we need to take it seriously. We need to try and come at it with some theoretical tools."

In other words, the poor kids come for porn and get Foucault!

And, they say that porn can challenge the student's assumptions.

Lindsey Reich, 21, a senior majoring in anthropology at N.Y.U., thought herself fairly progressive when she signed up for Professor Don Kulick's sexuality-and-gender course last year. Then he screened a film featuring the porn star Annie Sprinkle having sex with a transgendered man and another showing female ejaculation. To her surprise, Reich was shocked. "I realized I do have my biases about what is a man and what is a woman--I mean, I grew up in the Midwest--and it made me want to explore these stereotypes and get past them," she says. "Those films did that better than any academic book."

So, it can be an eye-opening experience, which is part of our job in academe.

I'm just not sure that porn's ubiquity makes it a necessary topic of academic research. Society couldn't care less about Plato... should that determine whether or not we teach the Republic? These kids come up in a porn ethos that is totally removed from the wisdom of parents, traditon or the arts. So, I think there is merit in teaching them to be critical of it.

I just wish we would also teach them about the universe of eros that has shrunk down to the pinhole of pornography, and why this diminishment is not a liberation as much as a warning signal from the species we are a part of.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Kant, Savages, and the Sublime

I'd like to post about something that I've seen again and again in our society- something that is starting to come into focus for me.

I posted previously about the strange response our students had to Giotto's painting The Lamentation when it was shown to them in class.

"The students were bored and annoyed.We ask them simply to look at some of the most beautiful works of art that have ever been created and they get irritated. They talk, or go to sleep, or leave.

Beauty does not speak to them; vulgarity does."

I noted their similar response to this statue, Laocoön and his sons- "The supreme artistry of this particular piece similarly annoyed them. It was also a tremendous waste of their time."

This year it was the first stanzas of Tennyson's poem Charge of the Light Brigade that provoked their annoyance. And this is what suddenly struck me as strange- they don't act tired or bored, which one might expect from kids in a lecture hall. Their response is more like knee-jerk annoyance. As soon as they see the slide of the beautiful object, they quite visibly respond with anger- it's like kryptonite to them. As soon as they heard the first words, and recognized that this was poetry, they expressed their frustration. These things don't just fail to speak to their sensibilities- they actually offend their sensibilities.

And I don't think it's just these kids. I see it in people my age- they spit out the words "elitist" or "pretentious" or "arrogant" any time they come into contact with art that isn't ironic and cynical. Kant saw this sort of angry response towards the sublime as characteristic of "savages". Modern academics tend to emphasize that his ideas about "savages" are as racist as that word implies. He's talking about most non-Western peoples here. Perversely, many academics now see 'the sublime' as a mere trope in a racist discourse, reflecting perhaps their spiritual isolation from any other understanding of it.

And yet, I think maybe this annoyance I see in my peers, is Western culture's ultimate revenge on the Enlightenment. Because, Kant was not only wrong about other cultures; he also never forsaw that we would produce our own savages. To be honest, his idea really has nothing to do with race and nationality, although his examples do. We can reject those and get our PC points, but it is worth returning to his core idea. This core idea is that the savage not only identifies himself with the trite, but actively rejects the elevating or sublime as offensive to his sensibilities. Right before she died, Susan Sontag said that mine is the first generation of western barbarians, and I think she was right.

So, I think that what should disturb us isn't that the people around us, young and old, seem to identify on such a personal level with the most callow pornography, songs about murdering black men, and banal celebrity. It's that they see anything more elevating, beautiful, or sublime, as deeply offensive to who they are as people.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Academic Freedom

"They want to gain hegemonic control over the universities, which have always been important in influencing the social and political atmosphere and which normally support pro-democracy rather than authoritarian forces."
-Abdollah Momeni, a student leader arrested in Iran.

The Ahmadinejad government is trying to crush dissent in the universities through various methods- replacing Deans with radical clerics, burrying the bodies of soldiers on campuses, sending in the police. You know, demanding "accountability".

Fundamental to the idea of a university is the idea that this is the one place that society allows for people to "hang back" and think things through for a living. Naturally, this is threatening to authoritarians of all sorts. However, I'm not sure that governments who try to force academics to adopt their political agendas are that far removed in spirit from department members within who do the same. (See also Columbia University)

Academic freedom includes the freedom for members of a society to think their way through that society's beliefs and even its existence, and choose to reject or accept them. And this includes the "academic society". In a very real sense, a critical education makes it impossible for one to commit to any political party or program in any serious way. However, healthy and democratic societies allow this because they realize that it is the same process by which they gain geniune legitimacy, and is actually the only way available to them in a democracy to do the same. People have to be able to choose otherwise in a democracy, and universities have to be open to considering all choices so that they don't become politicized "debate points" in an argument that will ultimately be decided by force.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Apocalypse Watch

So, of the really big and scary crises that are predicted in hushed whispers: namely global warming, hurricanes, economic collapse, peak oil, and bird flu: it seems that global warming is the most likely to come to pass. Or, more specifically, to be already happening.

Time leads this week with a cover story on global warming and the headline: "Be worried. Be very worried." I'm sure the producers of The Fly like the reference.

Is global warming here already? I'm not even dressed properly. The scientific community seems to think it's here. 85% of Americans seem to think so. As with everything else anymore, it's been politicized to death with one side blaming "Corporate America" and the other calling it all "shrill environmental alarmism". It's sad that matters of life so easily become points in a neverending argument. I guess the time of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter-Reformation wasn't much nicer. But, I'd sure like to know if global warming exists or not.

If it does, can we stop the process of global warming? Do we really want to? I suspect all of us have an unconscious bitterness towards a planet that will survive after we die. Maybe we'll be happier with jungle covering the earth. Would Chicago be nicer with tropical birds and tendrils of kudzu covering everything?


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Signifying nothing

Here's a cruel, but funny, critique of Eric Lott's book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual. Lott teaches English and American Studies at UVA, arguably the best public institution in the United States, and, by the sound of it, his book is as unreadable as a number of recent works in those fields. Jacoby's critique gets at many of my problems with many of the academic books that have come out in the past twenty years. For example:

1) They are needlessly radical. Lott "wants to carve out a space for radicals to the left of detestable "boomer liberals," who have seized the limelight and distorted politics." Why a lit prof is especially qualified to answer "What is to be done?" escapes me. Am I the only person who sees a book by a literature professor and wonders what they have to say about literature?

2) Because it is so partisan, it sheds dim light on literature, which aims to be universal. But, because it's so academic, it cannot really be widely political. "He tosses off phrases about "intersectionality" and "the praxis potential of antinormativity," but politics hardly enters this political book." Not rousing stuff, eh?

3) Even worse, it's snobbish about a near-cult of people who speak a language that is, perhaps, dying out anyway. "Consider Lott's criticism of Mark Crispin Miller's The Bush Dyslexicon, a collection and analysis of Bush's malapropisms. Miller's critique of Bush is apparently limited by his "own boomer investments" and his simple-minded theory of propaganda. "You don't have to be a media specialist," sniffs Professor Lott, "to recognize how crusty this apparatus seems in an age of post-Althusserian, post-poststructuralist, and post-Lacanian cultural studies." Yeah. You tell him.

4) It has a shopping list of the latest, hottest stuff in the realm of careerist academic fluff.
"Walter Benn Michaels's neopragmatist critiques of identity, Paul Gilroy's elaboration of a diasporic "black Atlantic," Lisa Lowe's postnationalist deconstruction of U.S. reliance on and political exclusion of Asian labor, Lauren Berlant's explorations of antinormative citizenship, the exchanges between Judith Butler and Nancy Fraser on the relations between queer recognition and economic redistribution, Robyn Wiegman's attention to the institutional half-life of women's studies and the limitations of so-called whiteness studies, Lisa Duggan's attempts to suggest alternative discourses to redescribe the state...."
Supplies are limited! Act now!

5) It is so unsure of itself after suffering so much theory poisoning, that it can only advocate pointless gestures in an obtuse way.
"The only acceptable political notion of the universal--and therefore of the organizational imperative--is that of the empty signifier, not a present, given, or essential fullness waiting for troops but an impossible ideal whose very emptiness and lack create a pluralized, difference-based competition on the part of various particularisms in a democratic social-symbolic field to assume the position of the universal organization."

Just what is an empty signifier you ask? From the sound of it, this book is.


Friday, March 24, 2006


I've been thinking today about Allan Bloom's discussion of the concept of "commitment" and how it develops an allure in-and-of-itself during times of intellectual crisis. His example was the strange allure that terrorists often have in late democracies. No doubt, he was thinking of groups like the Bader Meinhoff gang, but I wonder if we don't respond to current terrorists in a similar way. I think we tend to see them as being engaged in a political struggle, and I think this suggests that they're acting out of enlightened self-interest. But, then you read about a group like the Badr Corps death squads, who have been targeting gay men for assassination, and you remember that these people have more in common with Torquemada than the Red Shirts.

"Ammar, a young gay man of 27, was abducted and shot in back of the head in Baghdad by suspected Badr militias in January 2006. Haydar Faiek, aged 40, a transsexual Iraqi, was beaten and burned to death by Badr militias in the main street in the Al-Karada district of Baghdad in September 2005. Naffeh, aged 45, disappeared in August 2005. His family was informed that he was kidnapped by the Badr organization. His body was found in January 2006. He, too, had been subjected to an execution-style killing."

Shameful too is the US military response to this. Targeted gay men have been "met with indifference and derision," Doug Ireland reports. One gay Iraqi who is hiding five gay men in his home said that when he has approached American officials they have "laughed" and have refused to provide support.

But, of course, this is less shameful than targeting them for execution.

Something that troubles me about myself, frankly, is that I have to remind myself of that- the soldier's response feels more shameful somehow. As if the US should know better. But, why shouldn't other people know better than to target gay men for execution? Do I just assume that their religious beliefs are their business and cannot be argued with? Do I understand US soldiers better, feel them more akin to myself, and thus expect a higher standard of behavior? Am I so afraid of "cultural imperialism" that I can't admit that these death squads make me sick in a way that no US fundamentalist, not even Fred Phelps, has been able to? And why don't gay rights groups march en masse for gays and lesbians in the middle east? I dislike the US troops who laugh at the deaths of homosexuals, but I loathe the sort of people who cause them. Their commitment is to a projection of themselves and not to other human beings.

I hate their God and it hates me.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Monty Python and the FBI

Apparently, the FBI has been tracking the Raging Grannies,"an organization of aging activists whose chapters across the U.S. and Canada used sit-ins, songs and satire to protest the war."

They might not seem like a serious threat to you. But, some of us know where these sorts of groups lead...

Policeman: We have a lot of trouble with these oldies. Pension day's the worst - they go mad. As soon as they get their hands on their money they blow it all on milk, bread, tea, tin of meat for the cat.

Cinema Manager: Yes, well of course they come here for the two o'clock matinee, all the old bags out in there, especially if it's something like 'The Sound of Music'. We get seats ripped up, hearing aids broken, all that sort of thing.

Fourth Young Man: Oh well we sometimes feel we're to blame in some way for what our gran's become. I mean she used to be happy here until she, she started on the crochet.

Reporter: (off-screen) Crochet?

Fourth Young Man: Yeah. Now she can't do without it. Twenty balls of wool a day, sometimes. If she can't get the wool she gets violent. What can we do about it?


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Art Break 2006

And good for UW-Madison arts graduate student Tara Mathison who put on a humorous performance art piece titled “Spring Break Speedos 2006” to question the cultural significance of spring break. In the piece, young men in speedos posed in the same MTV Spring Break "sexy poses" we usually see from young women.

Mathison claims "the culture has been overtaken by “a high school mentality” and has turned some spring break traditions into an economic boom."

She's right. It's obscene how often my students get this shit shoved down their throats. Today, we came into the lecture hall to find postcards on every desk featuring a buxom slut in a bikini advertising a local bar. I exited the lecture hall to find, on every bulletin board in our building, a huge poster featuring a buxom slut in a bikini advertising Axe Body Spray. And this is a normal day. There really is this self-contained fantasy world that the kids live in. In the parental void, their guidance comes from the media-drome.

I'm not so sure I agree with Ms. Matheson on this, however... “Youth is kind of the elixir for our society: If you’re not thin and you’re not young or marketable in some way, you’re cast aside.”

Well, we do get by somehow... It's not easy, being cast into the wilderness... But, we find ways to fill our meagre little lives... I have my books and Ma has her stamp collection...

Anyway, good for her!


Not Getting With the Program

Since the taxpayers support torture, obviously they can expect some "accountability" from their government officials.

Lucky for them.

"The CIA’s top counter-terrorism official, Robert Grenier, was fired last week because he opposed detaining Al-Qaeda suspects in secret prisons abroad, sending them to other countries for interrogation and using forms of torture such as “water boarding”, intelligence sources have claimed."

Lost his job and kept your soul. Good for him.


Jesus wept

Well, I was wrong about Americans being opposed to torture...

"Is the American public apathetic about charges its government uses and sponsors torture in its fight against terrorism?

Not apathetic, according to surveys. Fact is, a majority of Americans actually approve of the use of torture under some circumstances. What’s more, according to one survey, Catholics approve of its use by a wider margin than the general public."

So long as the torturer doesn't masturbate.

Of course, eventually someone will tap into this national poverty of spirit and run on a pro-torture ticket.

"The only people the Democrats are willing to torture are the taxpayers! But Lt. Charles Graner is the candidate with real-world experience torturing actual rag-heads. Vote Graner- Or else!"

"Republicans say they support torture, but do they really? Hillary Clinton vows to support more torture, bloodier torture, and more emotionally satisfying torture. Elect Hillary and she'll even bring back crucifixions! Hillary: In Force We Trust!"


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What are Museums For?

This is just a brilliant essay really. That's probably why it won the Charles Douglas-Home Memorial Trust Award.

I love this paragraph, which gets at the death of culture in an era that aims at a sort of marketable multiculture... Feel free to replace the word "museum" with "university"!

"What I realise now, though, is that the problem isn’t the many different answers the museums industry is finding to answer this question. The problem is the question itself. To ask it is already to presuppose that a museum can only justify its existence in some form of utilitarian value; it implies that culture can be measured; that a museum can be submitted to cost benefit analysis; that it ought to be micromanaged by the state if, according to the political precepts of the moment, it is found wanting. But museums are above all this nonsense. At least they should be."



Who knows if this one is true, but it certainly is amusing. Also, it dovetails with my theory that a greater number of conservatives than liberals are wimps.

I also love the poetic irony in these opening three paragraphs...

"Remember the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints? Chances are he grew up to be a conservative.

At least, he did if he was one of 95 kids from the Berkeley area that social scientists have been tracking for the last 20 years. The confident, resilient, self-reliant kids mostly grew up to be liberals.

The study from the Journal of Research Into Personality isn't going to make the UC Berkeley professor who published it any friends on the right. Similar conclusions a few years ago from another academic saw him excoriated on right-wing blogs, and even led to a Congressional investigation into his research funding."

In other words: "We did NOT always run to the teacher with complaints!!" they screamed, running to Congress with complaints.


Saturday, March 18, 2006


Does anybody remember back in about 1992 when ultra PC college students would shut down the campus for teaching Western Civ courses? You'd see them on tv in their Team Dresch tee-shirts chanting "Hey-hey! Ho-Ho! Western Civ has got to go!" and you'd feel deeply embarassed, if you were me, because half of these junior philistines were the sort who would burn Shakespeare because he was white and male. Do you remember when people had nothing better to do than try to shut down Basic Instinct? Do you remember when Allan Bloom was talking about something tangible? Most of all, do you remember when "PC Nazi" actually meant something?

All that PC stuff is so retro now, thank God. The real anti-art and anti-culture forces these days are the Religiously Correct wackos- be they Muslim, Scientologist, or Christian... it seems that nobody who has a direct line to the metaphysical isn't getting regular calls these days telling them: "You know that tv show we don't like? Well, shut it down!"

The latest RC casualty is Missouri drama teacher Wendy De Vore.

"DeVore's students were to perform Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," a drama set during the 17th Century Salem witch trials.

But after a handful of Callaway Christian Church members complained about scenes in the fall musical "Grease" that showed teens smoking, drinking and kissing, Superintendent Mark Enderle told DeVore to find a more family-friendly substitute.

She chose Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a classic romantic comedy with its own dicey subject matter, including suicide, rape and losing one's virginity.

DeVore, 31, a six-year veteran teacher, said administrators told her that her annual contract might not be renewed." So, she quit.

Yep. Grease is considered Religiously Incorrect. And so is A Midsummer Night's Dream. Those plays aren't quite appropriate for five year-olds, or adults with the mentalities of five year-olds. In fact, that's pretty much the mental age we'd like you to stay at, if you don't mind. It's nicer to live in a country where everyone refuses to think at an adult level. Our culture is essentially based on the nursery school model, thank you very much.


V for Vacuous

Wow! This really is the era of the conniption fit, isn't it? I keep wondering if I should really blog every time some idiot is scared by art and shrieks like a howler monkey. It's certainly worth pushing for the Enlightenment against the conspiracy-mongers, superstitious freaks, and assorted wingnuts. But, are these people really worth sweating over?

Okay, I think this one is interesting, if only for what it says about these people's psychology.

They're now they're blowing a gasket over V for Vendetta, another comic book movie for a generation that hasn't the literacy to read a whole comic book, nor the patience to watch an adult movie. Apparently, the movie takes place in an alternate-history version of Britain in which the government has gone totalitarian and the heroes are fighting for their freedom. So, the heroes are terrorists against a totalitarian government. Now, I'm guessing that the film will include some swipes against the War on Terror to upset conservatives, and honestly, I'm a bit bored of the "they're coming for our freedoms!" argument too, especially because it often comes from people who personally will never do anything more transgressive than surfing for internet porn.

But, what's interesting is that the people who are freaking out about the movie are forced then to support a theoretical totalitarian state as being preferable to resistance to a theoretical totalitarian state. Bloganderthal Debbie Schlussel writes:

"Terrorists and terrorism are the heroes, the government fighting them and trying to keep us safe are the enemy."

Now, strangely enough, it becomes a sort of philosophical issue because we have to accept that the existence of a fascist totalitarian government is preferable to violence committed against that government. What's doubly strange about this is that the US is in Iraq having dismantled a totalitarian state, and a good justification of that is the argument that even the relative chaos of the current situation is preferable to life under a fascist totalitarianism.

The question is: Would it be better to live under a fascist totalitarianism if you knew that you might personally be kept safe, or allow terrorist violence against that state to be committed? The bloganderthals seem to want us to choose the former without even considering the latter.

So, a lot of people are taking the authoritarian argument- that "authority" must, above all, be respected at all times, and that any attack against that authority is, de facto, terrorism. So, even say in the Stalinist USSR, it would be illegitimate to attack authority, which existed solely to "keep us safe". And that's interesting.


Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hide the Children!

Do you suppose the Wall Street Journal has some sort of default button that they hit to insert the line: "Something is very wrong at our elite universities" at the beginning of editorials?

John Fund is the current tenderizer of this particular dead horse. He begins with the usual melodrama about Larry Summers and how Harvard ran him out on a rail because he was the last honest man in this town. (sniff, sniff) And then he tells us to be shocked (shocked!) that Yale has admitted Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former ambassador-at-large for the Taliban as a special student. Is it shocking? Well, only as much as something this silly can be shocking anymore. I'm supposing that he won't be taking any women's studies classes.

But, "something is very wrong at our elite universities"? Because they're teaching one student with a checkered past? That's really all it takes to cue the hysteria these days? Do you suspect that the WSJ is reaching here?


Black Sabbatical

Dr. Soltan has an interesting post on the sabbaticals that academics take in abundance. Her point is that sabbaticals are seen as a problem by the public because they waste public money and so often lead to shallow careerist tripe (although she's a bit more polite).

I find this paragraph beautiful:
"What makes it even more difficult to justify sabbaticals, it seems to me, is the obsolescence of the professor-as-intellectual, the professor as essentially a monkish pensive type. Traditionally, the professor was not a publications-generating, conference-organizing, grants-getting, newspaper-quote-issuing dervish. She was intended to do the world’s slow and careful thinking for it, and her primary function was to share the fruits of that thinking with students and colleagues within the walls of the university."

To do the world's slow and careful thinking for it...

I think these lines contain wishful thinking: "No one questions the need for contemplatives to sit atop mountains and reflect to no particular end. But everyone questions the need of non-reflective careerists to reflect." So, the public would have no problem subsidizing true contemplatives? I hear people say that from time to time. But, I'm unconvinced.

Nevertheless, I love the vision of the scholar as she who hangs back. Let's hope it can still be so.


Apocalypse Watch

Okay, so the doomsday fellow may well be wrong about economic collapse or peak oil...

But, apparently, he's right about the hurricanes.

"A rise in the world's sea surface temperatures was the primary contributor to the formation of stronger hurricanes since 1970, a new study reports.

While the question of what role, if any, humans have had in all this is still a matter of intense debate, most scientists agree that stronger storms are likely to be the norm in future hurricane seasons."

Apparently, the debate is no longer about whether or not global warming is happening, but about our role in it. Which is pretty helpful really. You know, we should probably be pinning it on cow farts instead of figuring out how to handle the change.

Ah well. We'll think of something. Probably not a good idea to live in Key West or New Orleans anymore.


Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Shit to Hit Fan: Film at 11

Holy crap! You thought I was depressing? Well, today Salon has an article about Kevin Phillips, the Nixon campaign worker who predicted in 1969 that Republicans would become a dominant force in American politics, and who is now arguing "that imperial overstretch, dependence on obsolete energy technologies, intolerant and irrational religious fervor, and crushing debt have led to the fall of previous great powers, and will likely lead to the fall of this one."

According to him, we're soon to face global warming, hurricanes, peak oil, economic collapse, theocratic stupidity, avian flu and increased war, likely all at once. The good news? With all of that going on, Paris Hilton will be completely forgotten! Life is about trade-offs, you see.

Do I think he's right? Well, doomsday scenarios usually presuppose that nothing will be done until it's too late, and thankfully, people do tend to wise up. So, he's probably only right about the global warming, hurricanes, and economic collapse. Isn't that reassuring?



More television ads for higher education:

"The unambiguous message: Higher education serves an important societal role by providing a knowledgeable work force capable of innovation."

So, that's good! The public loves an innovative work force. Hopefully, they'll not find out about those of us reading Plato on the clock. Now, here's an ad I would love to see:

"Reading Emily Dickinson will enrich your life, but never your bank account. On the other hand, you'll most likely never get paid to fall in love, walk in a park, eat ice cream, or recieve oral sex either. Are you complaining?"


Tonight at 11: Why Pepsi is so Delicious!

Thought that the local news would never stoop to product placements?

"There are more local news stations that are incorporating brands into news in innovative, cutting-edge (read: dishonest) ways," said Aaron Gordon, president of entertainment marketing firm Set Resources Inc. "The line, which has always been black and white in terms of what's news and what's commercials, is now being blurred." Media agency Initiative said it has been working on integrating advertising content into local news on behalf of several of its clients."

Tonight at 11: Diane Sawyer will have an exclusive interview with Mr Whipple about his crusade to keep people from squeezing the Charmin, and Tom Brokaw will answer that burning question: War in the Middle East- what effect will it have on your ability to get a scrumptuous McGriddle sandwich for breakfast?


Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Book Notes: Deeper Than Reason

This is a fascinating book by Jenefer Robinson that is rooted in the philosophy of emotion and aesthetics, but which deals with art history and cognitive and neurophysiology/psychology as well. I suspect it will be seen as a tour de force, and actually, I think it already is- it took me weeks to get a copy from the publisher because printings have continually sold out. To be honest, I think it is solid scholarship, not the last word on these subjects, but a new step in a fascinating direction.

In her first section, Robinson develops a theory of emotions in contrast to the more common cognitive theory of emotions- basically that our emotions are our cognitive appraisal of a situation in relation to our needs- so, happiness is based in a statement like "I am happy that _____." Robinson, in contrast, sees emotions "as processes, having at their core non-cognitive 'instinctive' appraisals, 'deeper than reason', which automatically induce physiological changes and action tendencies, and which then give way to cognitive monitoring of the situation." So, emotions are on the level of instincts and our later cognitive appraisals of our physiological state are a sort of stage two in experiencing emotions. Robinson's argument goes against much of recent philosophic thought on emotions, but is in line with the most recent neural-psychological thought on emotions.

A caveat here- I'm not entirely convinced by Robinson's emphasis on the adaptive qualities of affective appraisals. There's something that bugs me about psychological thought that tends towards explaining everything through evolutionary necessity. On one hand, it seems a bit simplistic and crude thinking- everyone thinks they understand Darwin, but how many do? Also, instincts tend to be overly romanticized- a certain "repression of our natural instincts" prevents us from raping each other, and thank goodness for that. Lastly, how does evolutionary theory explain how we get to more complex emotions, such as despair, that can lead to suicide, the seeming antithesis of evolutionary drives.

In her second section, she explains how her theory of emotions applies to novels, telling how to read certain novels in an emotional way. Next, she explains how to understand creation as a form of emotional expression, an interpretation that she rightfully associates with Romanticism. Lastly, she explains how to have an emotional experience with music, emphasizing that there are some pieces of music that must be listened to in an emotional way.

I do have some caveats here as well- it seems to me that the initial physiological cues may be similar when I hear that Debra Winger is going to die in Terms of Endearment as when I heard that my Aunt was dying of lymphoma. However, the affective processes seem to be objectively different, and if I read Robinson correctly, they seem to take place in different parts of the brain. So, how do we understand them as the same thing? Couldn't our response to art really be more like a mood than an affective response?

Qualms aside, this is a well thought through and provocative book that deserves any accolades it receives. Most importantly, Robinson reminds us of the value of our affective responses to art in shaping the way that we understand the world and ourselves. She concludes by stating that a person cannot be a complete human without art, after having given strong empirical proof of this fact throughout the study.


Friday, March 10, 2006

It kills people and burns down trees.

Also from Mike Hightower comes this animated "re-imagining" of Jeremy Levine's (period 3) extremely creative paper on El Nino, which, like all Spanish things, is dangerous.


Don't be Panic!

Here's a ridiculous animated movie that an old friend made of a horribly funny term paper about Cancer. According to Diet Food, it is the most dangerous step. And that is the fact.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

sample of my email

Just going through my email and I realized just how really bizarre most of my correspondance is! So, here is what I discuss with my friend "Bob" (not his real name, of course).

Email 1.
Rufus: A question has occurred to me when thinking about my own project, but I think it applies to yours as well: What do you take to be the ontological status of a possible world?

Email 2.
Bob: A light question to start the morning! First, I think that any ontology of a possible world would always have to be in process. Second, i tend to follow the Heideggerian path through this, that there is always being with your self as a condition of existence and being in the world. Jean Luc Nancy has been helpful on this- Being Singular Plural. I also subscribe to the never quite unfolding idea from Heidegger. That is the idea that we are never fully open to ourselves as unmediated being. I think this idea helps because it both closes off problematic ideas of "oneness" and opens up possibilites as the self relates to the world. These are tricky questions however and I don't feel very qualified to write about this sort of thing outside of history circles. More work is needed perhaps. How would you feel about a close reading of Being and Time over the summer? We would could read a small chunk each week and then just keep a running commentary over email. Thanks for making me think so early

Email 3.
Rufus: Okay, that's an interesting take on it. The topic came up because I was wondering how Said would deal with the question, and actually feeling like he didn't handle it very well. He states at a few places that he doesn't feel that there is a "real Orient", which is fine, but then why should we have a problem with Orientalism? With utopias, or Romantic ontologies, the problem becomes what relationship the possible world has with the "real world". And if we see ourselves as always living in a sort of possible future anyway, it seems very hard to tell what makes this possible future ontologically different from a "utopian" future. So, it's all dreadfully confusing. The difficulty with history is that, even though we talk about interdisciplinarity all the time, when you get to what seem like obvious "literary" or "philosophical" questions, people always ask "Yes, but what does this have to do with history?" It would be fun to read Being and Time! I've tried it before and suffered greatly, but I don't think it's impossible. Remind me when the summer comes.

Email 4.
Bob: Yeah, I guess I will need to take another look at Said on this. The distinction between possible and utopian futures is confusing. In Jacoby's book he makes two distinctions between iconoclastic utopian thinking and blueprint utopian thinking. The latter more likely to end in totalitarian nightmares and the former more likely to creatively inform more mainstream thinking. I guess all thinking contains at least a degree of utopianism. So maybe it is a question of degrees, but again this is very speculative.As for Said stating there is no real Orient- I guess he opposes the orientalism of the constructed orient. But if I see your point- then how could you respond to something that is not real. I think Said and others get around this by confronting the orient as "real" anyway. They take orientalism as something that has its own ontology in the world and needs to be counteracted. But then again this brings in the question of what is an authentic ontology in these situations and does utopianism simply cloud the issue.I'll stop here but yeah after the semseter and the exams we should get to Heidegger and I will reread Said.History is provincial but I think people get frightened of actually reading texts that might be difficult. Let's face it most history monographs, although interesting, are not that complex. I think as long as you can adequately historicize these issues then you cna argue against the critics. Sounds like you've been having fun with the Phil. class.Will you be around tomorrow for lunch?

Me: So, as you can see, we're insufferable! Ack! What can I say? Grad school ruins you, I say! RUINS!


Monday, March 06, 2006

Today's Quote

"Man is not civilized, aesthetically, until he has learned to value the semblance above the reality. It is indeed... in one sense the higher reality- the soul and life of things, what they are in themselves."
-Bernard Bosanquet

From Three Lectures on Aesthetic, a fascinating little book that I think was Bosanquet's only published study, and one I'd like to discuss here, if I ever have the time.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Professor Goodgrades

Okay, so once again (sorry), class can you give me the primary reason that university grades are so inflated?

Two words: Student Evaluations.

Very good. Now, pass it on.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Kind of Standing for Some Stuff

Okay, so this amuses me in a rather cruel way. I support the pro-Enlightenment side of the cartoon riot "clash of civilizations" crapola. Sorry. Theocrats make me itch. And free speech is fine with me. But, maybe we need to be a bit more committed, eh? Look at the first picture of people rioting against the Denmark in their minds that published dirty cartoons to defame the prophet. Do they look committed to you? A pretty high level of anger, right? Pretty much ready to die to prevent cartoons from proliferating. Now, look at the pro-Denmark, free speech, et cetera side of the fence...

Jeezus! Could they be more lukewarm?! They look like they're all thinking, "Boy! I hope this thing doesn't go too long! I've got pilates tonight!" Like they all want to be somewhere else. That's our whole attitude: "Western Civilization: We Kind of Stand for Some Stuff..." I imagine the woman with the sign is hoping The New Yorker will run an article on this huge protest, and the guy behind her is thinking: "I think this has something to do with Denmark, right? I hope I'm not at some gay thing..." and the yuppie to the far right (natch) is thinking "Dittos! Mega dittos! I'm calling Rush right away!" The older couple is just hoping there will be coffee for the crowd and the tall kid in the back is thinking, "Crap! There's no way I'm getting extra credit for this!"

What was the Warner Herzog line about grizzly bears? "I look at them and I only see a bored half-interest in food." That's us, isn't it? At the top of the globalized food chain with a bored half-interest in whatever it is that we hold dear.


Thursday, March 02, 2006


Today I sat here reading while my cat Lola sat in the window watching the snow fall for an hour and a half. It was just beautiful.


Goodbye to All of That

The Chronicle recently published a lovely, wrenching piece on giving up a tenured professorial job for greener pastures.

Jean Simon:
"For instance, one evening last semester, as I was driving home after teaching three classes and then meeting with students into the wee hours, I was amazed to hear Almost Metropolitan State's president proclaiming in his weekly radio address that, to keep up with the for-profit educational sector, professors needed to do a much better job of delivering product, not when it was 'convenient,' but whenever our 'customers' (formerly known as students) demanded it."

Rufus: I will never forget the lecturer who told us, during our TA training, that we should have quick and ready answers for the students because "how would you feel if you were at the information desk at a store and the person there couldn't help you?" That pretty much set the tone for my experience as TA actually.

"My president had just announced to the community at large that I was lazy and doing a bad job. What we needed was enhanced customer service with a side of more publications, please."

Rufus: How quickly these places have forgotten what a university once was!

"I had to pull my car off the road to shout expletives and bang my fists on the dashboard. Although I didn't realize it at the time, my roadside meltdown was the beginning of the end of my academic career."

I'm guessing this sort of constant brow-beating and "customer service" rhetoric is ending a lot of academic careers. If you're a smarty smartstein, like Dr. Simon clearly is, why would you ever stay in an institution that treats you this way?


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Nailed It

I recently guessed that no more than half of my students could read the texts we give them.

According to a recent report by the prestigous non-profit ACT, "just half of high school graduates are prepared to do the sort of reading of complex texts that is typically required in the first year of college or upon entering the work force. The testing service found that only 51 percent of the 1.2 million students who took the ACT in 2005 met its “college readiness” standard, and that students seem actually to be going backwards: More students are on track to do college-level reading in the 8th and 10 grades than are actually ready to do so by graduation time."

Can I call 'em or what?
Blame the high schools.
Well, and us for taking them and trying to ignore the problem.
Sorry for more depressing news.