Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Planet of the Apes

If I seemed crankier than usual lately, there's something that I really need to vent about.

Recently, I've been considering taking up boxing. Actually, I should say considering taking up parts of boxing- I don't really want to learn the part of boxing that involves getting punched, but I would like to learn how to throw a punch. I've not been in a fight in years and I don't plan to get in any fights. Alas though, we live in a town in which I spend a lot of time in public amongst angry, lanky men who are muttering to themselves. I don't know if North America is becoming meaner and more irate, or if it's just the environment in this town. But today was one of many days in which my walk included a mentally disturbed older male mumbling slurs at me for no apparent reason.

Civilization has always struck me as little more than a good hiding place. For all of our forced gentility and reason, I've never been in a public gathering that didn't seem to be seconds from turning into a lynch mob. Society functions until something threatens it and then it revolts, like a body fighting off an infection, until some sort of equilibrium returns. I prefer anonymity in all social situations.

It occurred to me recently that all of David Cronenberg's films, from Scanners to A History of Violence are about outsiders and how society handles outsiders. It might be due to mental illness in films like Spider, but I think the case could be made that the Cronenbergian outsiderness is always biological in origin. Cronenberg reminds us of Kafka because he literalizes outsiderness in nealy all of his films. Obviously, The Fly approaches a Cronenberg-Kafka hybrid.

I wonder what attracts me to stories about outsiders. Is it possible that all people feel alien on some level and so all outsider stories resonate with us? Is this the key to political difference as well- liberals defending outsiders and conservatives protecting society from them? We all share a biological secret- death- at odds with civilized life. And so perhaps, as Freud said, the key to culture is repression- the first word of culture being 'NO'.

And yet, as much as I would like to remain at an oblique angle to the world around me, the less I feel certain that I can do so. Recently, there was a bit of a controversy in our department over a poster that I put up in the grad student lounge last year. Without going into great detail about it, the poster was relatively inoffensive, yet struck some of the master's students as somehow homoerotic. It was a bit artsy and one of the dominant colors was pink, and anyway issues were raised by people who were unwilling to raise them with me. I have suggested before that some of our Master's students have no place being in grad school- well, I think this is a pretty good example of why.

Anyway, to make a long story short, nobody told me about their problems; they just trashed my poster. I'm not sure who did this because none of them have shared their issues with me and none of the others are willing to ''cause trouble'' by telling me who did this. To be honest, there are a number of the Master's students who are sullen, angry little shits and any one of about ten or twelve of them could have done this. I can't think of any way to respond that doesn't sound hostile, and so I plan to find the most blatantly homoerotic poster I can, frame it behind plexiglass, screw it to the wall, and include a note saying something like ''A gift for the MA students''. Other than that, I plan to forget it.

However, I also feel irritated at how, with I think increasing frequency, stupid people take to forcing their angry ill-informed opinions on the rest of us. The fact that you can't look at a poster that happens to include the color pink and a shirtless male without going into a gay panic is one thing, and your problem. But a graduate culture that now includes vandalism doesn't seem to be functional any more. And the fact that we have both a number of gay and lesbian PhD students and a number of quite vocally homo-hating Master's students (which I say in reference to a number of other incidents) makes me wonder how we continue on as a coherent department.

We have a group of angry MA students who respond to poor grades by yelling at the profs that they have ''disrespected'' them'', refuse to read the texts because ''reading is fucking gay'', and generally act like obnoxious loud mouthed assholes because they assume that the rest of us bookworms aren't willing to beat the living shit out of them. My attitude has always been to live and let live. But destroying my property crosses a line. Lastly, I'm irritated that I have to deal with such stupid shit in a graduate program in the first place. Our department makes a good deal of money by letting in every fuckwit who needs a Master's degree to teach High School phys ed, but at a real loss of quality.

When you take seminars with these kids, it becomes obvious pretty quickly that they're just not up to snuff. It's frankly uncomfortable. They just don't understand anything we discuss. Most of their comments amount to ''This book sucks- I didn't get it''- of course, it's never their fault. And then, when their tiny little brains just aren't up to the level of grad school work, instead of just dropping out, they go into these endless tirades about how all of the professors are ''douchebags'' and ''pompous'' and, yes Virginia, ''fucking gay''. The thing is I don't believe in solving these sorts of problems with speech codes, or grievance committees, or sharing our feelings in therapeutic sessions. I'd really just like to meet them on the playground. My first response to the poster affair was to post a letter inviting whoever trashed my poster to meet with me off campus and deal with this. However, I was informed that this would send a message to the professors that I myself am hostile. And of course, I'm also aware that, for all the tough-guy bravado, these kids did this in full awareness that I don't know who they are and can't find out who they are, and hence are basically cowards. I also suspect that they did it right before graduating.

So, I'll rise above it. But every time I'm walking down the sidewalk and some shirtless hick mutters obsenities at me, I wonder how long I can avoid the monsters that are being unleashed by the slow-motion breakdown of society. I've never said that I wanted to be an insider- to be accepted and ''celebrated'' by this society. I don't. But I do want people to leave me the fuck alone. And, if they don't, I'd like to be able to break their noses.


gregvw said...

Once you have admitted that this is a hopeless downward spiral for humanity and that you are powerless to stop it from becoming the world of Idiocracy, you can begin to address more useful questions, such as: If I am going to live another 50 years or so, how might I do it in a way that doesn't make me fucking livid and miserable? Trying to save people with (higher) education is a Sisyphian undertaking. Thermodynamics says that the minimum energy state is to call everything "fucking gay." A better use of your time is trying to get outside the blast radius, if that is even possible. Seriously, making and deploying subversive web memes will probably be more effective at affecting the way people think than any lecture or reading assignment. Not only that, but I do not believe the world of the brick and mortar university will actually persist until we are of retirement age.

Long story short: Get over here while it is still possible to do so.

Rufus said...

I think probably the experience of a university education will persist in a sort of simulated theme park version. Sort of like a package tour that offers the sensation of a college education without the personal investment. And with the universities supplying beer girls.

But, yeah, I agree that dwelling on these things is a waste of time and energy- expelling that rant was much like taking a needed laxative.

I hope to be on the continent by January of next year and to stay there for about 8 months. Moving there for good would be ideal, but we're still broke as of now.

Alumna said...

Interesting about the MA students in your program. I'm too much an optimist to think that it's indicative of a trend in all humanity. In fact, my mother recently sent me some pop-culture, BS article about stereotypes about my generation (Y) as workers. We were raised in lovey-dovey, child-centered homes, and so we expect superiors--professors or bosses--to coddle us and tell us how great we've done and to be "respectful" of our every whim.

Maybe it's because I'm just barely in Generation Y, but I can't relate to that. However, as much as I want to think it's hogwash, I see it in so many of the students in classes I T.A. So...hm. Interesting.

Holly said...

Universities here already have beer girls, but it seems like the academic expectations are still pretty high.

Why is it a problem for people to think you're feeling hostile, when you ARE feeling hostile? 'cause it kinda seems like letting the whole thing go sends a message that it's perfectly acceptable to damage property and be aggressive toward colleagues...

Not that I have a better idea. I think every third sentence out of my mouth pertains to what amazing and absolute shitstains people can be.

Interesting, though, that it sounds like some people know who it was, and are more concerned about the repercussions of ratting someone out, than the repercussions of your poster being trashed in the first place. People never think down the road, to when departmental vandalism has become part of the culture, and then eventually later, when people are getting jumped into their professional academic careers.

Holly said...

Speaking of... you might find this vaguely relevant, from the blog of writer John Scalzi, on the topic of the fad for outing homoerotic undercurrents in the liberal and fine arts:


Rufus said...

alumna- that is interesting. I've seen it in some students and not in others. My parents were definitely not the coddling types- although that might have been because we were a blue collar family.

Holly- What bugged me too was the professors that I spoke to who obviously didn't know anything about it, but who said things along the lines of 'Well, what can you do?' I thought to myself 'Stop letting in so many idiots.'

I loved the article too. I actually read it right after I posted the thing about the Fag Discourse and came to the same conclusions.