Okay, so I've done a few too many griping posts lately for my tastes. Therefore, I'm going to put myself on a diet. I'm going to try to post about positive things for the next 20 posts- or, at least, not post "Look at these stupid people! Aren't they stupid?" sorts of things. Can I do it? I doubt it. But it's worth a shot.
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
Zoologist Mike Dunford argues that "Reality Matters" after stumbling through the unintentional self-parody that is Conservapedia- whose ad-line could probably be something like "Reality- the way you want it!" I thought Conservapedia was a joke, but apparently not- it's run by Phyllis Schlafly's kid, and is designed for homeschoolers who want to teach their children the valuable lesson that truth is something that anyone can change by arguing about it. It also solves the problem of Wikipedia's disturbingly high bullshit content by offering more bullshit, but geared towards a specific audience. It's pretty ridiculous overall- spelling "favour" with the u is a sign of liberal bias, kangaroos originated in the garden of eden, etc. etc.- but you feel sort of guilty for laughing at it. After all, these are people who, years ago, came to a fork in the road and decided to take the less-traveled path marked "Stupid".
Tuesday, February 27, 2007
This City Journal article, on past political fanatics is simultaneously fascinating and intellectually lazy. Apparently, Verso is publishing the political manifestos of past extremists, starting with Maxmilien Robespierre and Mao Zedong. This sounds fairly interesting, even though they're not printing anything new here. And, of course, people will read these books as cautionary tales, and rightfully so. John Kekes, who here reviews the books and grinds some axes, would likely agree.
The article first takes the time to mock the introductions by Slavoj Žižek- no problem there really. I find that Žižek has some interesting ideas, but rarely follows through on them, instead jumping from one idea to another like an ADD grasshopper. Also he seems to be a bit credulous, buying into both Hegel and Freud with little trouble! The reviewer, John Kekes's, main problem is that it's really hard to understand what Slavoj Žižek is saying, which is also true, although you know, figuring that out is the job of a reviewer. He also ends his critique with this jem: "Žižek’s matchless prose is a fitting introduction to these abhorrent volumes." Which I suppose implies that: a) Žižek's lousy prose is somehow consonant with political tyranny in ways that we, the readers, might not understand, and he doesn't have to explain, and B) There's something abhorrent about re-publishing these books, which is patently ridiculous.
But it gets better from there. Next, Kekes details the various crimes of Robespierre and Mao, which were, of course, horrible. He tells us: "Robespierre and Mao sought ideological purity, and they had a cold impersonal hatred of those whom they suspected of not sharing their crazed theories. This hatred brought them to murder people indiscriminately, not for what they did but for what they were." Again, no problems here.
Now we get into "ideology": "Their ideologies dictated the only way to reach that lofty goal; those who disagreed with their ideologies became enemies of mankind, deserving only extermination... Robespierre’s ideology derived from Rousseau, Mao’s from Marx. They borrowed what they could from these thinkers, treated their derivative beliefs as incontestable truths, never questioned themselves, and ignored readily available criticisms. Robespierre and Mao were monsters, but they exacerbated their monstrosity by sophistical self-righteousness."
And is that really "ideology"? I have major problems with the concept of ideology (worth noting that it's a Marxist concept) anyway; it is often treated as a sort of mind-control ray- read the wrong book, uncritically, and you too could be controlled by ideology! But here it doesn't even seem appropriate. Robespierre's reading of Rousseau is very creative, to say the least. Mao's reading of Marx is perhaps less so, but again he used Marxist ideas largely as a pretense for power. In other words, Mao and Robespierre were certainly rigid and dogmatic, but I'm not sure that they were driven by their blind devotion to ideology as much as paranoia and craving for political power. And Kekes doesn't even explain how it's possible that they both selectively "borrowed what they could from these thinkers" (implying that they left a lot out), while they blindly "treated their derivative beliefs as incontestable truths". The implication is that Robespierre and Mao would have been less psychotic if they had either read the right books, or read the wrong ones more critically. But, aspiring tyrants can seemingly turn anything to their ends.
"In view of the past, present, and no doubt future horrors that ideologues will inflict on the world, it’s important to understand their mentality. What are they thinking when they order the killing of untold numbers of innocents? Don’t they see the bodies? Are they devoid of all feeling for human suffering? The answer is that they view the facts through the grotesquely distorting prism of ideology." (Cue the theremin!)
Well, and they were also likely psychotics. My problem with Kekes isn't that he's criticizing rigid adherence to Belief Systems- something that I've criticized as well- it's that he's suggesting that 'ideology' can be blamed for the actions of guilty individuals. To wit: these people acted in a way that was inhuman because they were warped by ideology. The fact that it's really hard for the average, mentally-stable person to go from reading the incoherent, sappy, weepy writings of Rousseau to hanging people from lamp-posts doesn't seem relevant here. The guilty party is 'ideology', not the sort of people that use other people's ideas as an excuse to act out their psychotic dreams.
Kekes: "They can believe such travesties because their ideologies offer a misguided explanation of why the world is as it is, rather than as it ought to be. Often, as everyone knows, we fail to get what we deserve; good people come to bad ends, and bad ones die in comfort. Justice doesn’t reliably prevail; reason doesn’t always guide key decisions; and even the best-laid plans may fail, thanks to stupidity, indifference, and selfishness. Ideologies explain why this happens and, more important, they promise that human life can escape these defects."
Well, yes, and democracy will flourish in Iraq any day now.
"If ideologues were reflective, they would realize that bad people are what causes bad political arrangements. Ideologies rest on the mistaken assumption that changing political arrangements will change people. But human nature remains what it always was; only the ways it expresses itself change."
I'm also really skeptical about "human nature", and it's worth noting that ideologues tend not to be skeptical about human nature. Certainly Rousseau wasn't- if anything, he was arguing that attempts to remake people had made them miserable and artificial by going against their inherent nature- and actually it's hard to argue that the French revolutionaries were trying to remake human nature through political arrangements either- if anything, they were trying to remake political arrangements to correspond to what they saw as human nature, as expressed through the General Will. In the radical phase, they were pursuing the dream of making people more "natural", but that's not the same thing as Kekes talks about.
Now, Rousseau definitely took a sunny view of human beings. His argument, perhaps, could be boiled down to: There are no bad people by nature, but society makes people bad. Which implies that society doesn't consist of people, I suppose. But is the answer to assume that some people are bad by nature and there's nothing that can be done about that?
Moreover, Kekes could stand to apply that claim about "the ways it expresses itself" to 'ideolgies'. In other words, instead of it being the case that the mind-control ray of Rousseau or Marx makes people inhuman, it seems to me that these 'ideologues' had some pretty shitty programs of their own and misapplied certain ideas as a way to justify them.
Certainly, I'm just as skeptical of programs to "remake" people, or even to improve society in any significant way. But, I don't think that authoritarian tyrants are motivated by a misguided idealism about human nature so much as bullying intolerance and a simple desire to enforce their own will and retain as much power as possible. In other words, I don't buy their line about being dreamers at heart, and Kekes shouldn't either.
But, Kekes is basically using these thinkers as a stick to beat "leftists" with. In other words, we're returning to that tired old cliche: The problem with liberals is that they don't believe that there are bad people. And maybe there's a point here- right-wingers tend to see society as unsafe, and left-wingers see it as unjust, and both have programs that work from those key points.
"Contemporary radical leftists thus have a choice. They can persist in searching for a better ideology. Or they can accept that the English-speaking and Scandinavian democracies are the envy of the world for good reason: by a slow process of trial and error they have arrived at a political system that is realistic about human nature and provides stability, high living standards, freedom, and justice. This system has many defects, but it’s still better than any past or present alternative. Reason dictates the clear choice, but it is not clear that radical leftists will make it. And the books in Verso’s “Revolutions” series, resurrecting fanatical delusions, will not help them give up their search for a nonexistent road to an unreachable goal."
Wow- just two choices, eh? Nothing rigid about that thinking. This paragraph is startlingly close-minded for an article encouraging openmindedness. We can either be Pangloss or Pol Pot! If we decide that this isn't the best of all possible worlds, we take the first step towards tyranny? It's bizarre in a way too because a lot of conservative ideas- such as well, Judeo-Christian morality, grow from the idea that human nature can be improved. Isn't the 'decline in tradtional morality' that we hear about so often really a decline in the idea that people are sinful, but can be made ethical through moral education? And, on the other hand, isn't the idea that "some people are just bad and we have to take precautions against them" often a justification for authoritarianism?
And when you look back at the last two centuries, you see a lot of authoritarian regimes on the left and the right, which honestly weren't a lot different from each other. All of them had a single strong leader working through functionaries. All of them had parallel structures of organization to facilitate the leader while preventing any of his subordinates from gaining power. All of them worked from the belief that the Nation is constantly being "existentially threatened" often by the most banal things imaginable. And all of them, instead of taking a very Rousseanian sunny view of human nature, tended to take a very bleak and cynical view of human beings, essentially believing that they have to be kept in line at all times or they might read a Mickey Mouse comic and become an enemy of the state!
To be honest, I fear the same sort of state that Kekes does. And I see that world as just as likely to come from the left as the right. There have been plenty of left-wing authoritarians. But I feel that being "reflexive" about ideology shouldn't necessitate being unreflexive about the status quo!
Saturday, February 24, 2007
There's a new biography of Alexis de Tocqueville out. I like Tocqueville; his shrewd writing cut paths through the miasma of revolution and general chaos of the early 1800s political scene. What we sometimes call the Tocqueville Thesis: basically, that the French Old Regime was working to reform a hopelessly archaic and inefficient system but, sadly, wasn't quick enough to beat the Revolution, which finished the job of centralization and reform that the monarchy began: still seems to me to be the most plausible explanation of the French Revolution. Of course, I consider him to have been more of a journalist than a political theorist.
Dolce & Gabbana is pulling the ad to the left from Spain after complaints that it encourages violence against women. In a cheeky response printed in La Vanguardia, D&G claims that Spain is "a bit behind the times" and just doesn't get art when they see it. Maybe it's just because I've seen dozens of D&G ads and I'm used to their weirdly stylized and theatrical tone, but this one just doesn't strike me as that offensive. It seems to take place in the same dreamily erotic world that all of their ads inhabit. I can see where people could take offense. But, from the other perspective, it's really hard to see this as a realistic depiction of anything, even rape. There's something very ambiguous and strange about this ad. If you take it as a transmission from that surrealistic and erotic zone of all the D&G ads, it's actually pretty hot. But, maybe that's just my take on it.
Friday, February 23, 2007
Okay, so she didn't realize that her novels weren't the knockouts that her essays were, and she certainly could have stood to let her oft-whispered-about sense of humor shine through in her writing. But it's hard not to miss Susan Sontag. A new collection is out, containing this sage advice for writers:
“Not to have opinions but to tell the truth.”
“To depict the realities: the foul realities, the realities of rapture.”
“Serious writers, creators of literature, shouldn’t just express themselves differently from the hegemonic discourse of the mass media. They should be in opposition to the communal drone of the newscast and the talk show.”
This is good to know- by posting a blog, I'm not just killing time; apparently I'm also taking part in the most significant cultural revolution since rock'n'roll. Wowee! At least, according to New York Magazine I am- although I'm still guessing that there are magazines from the 1970s that have articles like "CB Radios- How They are Changing the Very World in Which We Live". So, the good news is that I'm changing the world. The bad news? The rest of the revolutionary avant-garde are borderline-retarded teenagers posting videos of themselves lip synching to Mariah Carey songs on YouTube. So, it's just like the birth of rock'n'roll, but really, really stupid.
Of course, the interesting thing (for me) about everything being online, having security cameras everywhere, and kids growing up thinking that privacy is an illusion, is that, strangely enough, it creates a sort of "lost world". The sacred world of secret places takes on a certain mystique that it perhaps hasn't had since we were living in huts. One day people will whisper of the "off-line" in hushed tones, wondering if such a thing could really exist. There is an entirely different jungle to explore- that of complete anonymity and physical response in the material world. One day the smell of onions cooking will be quasi-mystical.
Thursday, February 22, 2007
Anyway, the last three days have been spent with our friend the Inpatient in a Northern Ontario Hospital's Oncology Ward. His prognosis has been downgraded since he first got diagnosed with leukemia. However, it isn't as bad as we had heard. For some reason, we were told that he had two years left to live at best, but he's actually got a 40% chance of beating the disease altogether.
A lot of what he does is waiting- it's really what the rest of us are doing as well. His sisters are being tested to see if they're good matches for a bone marrow transplant. If so, his odds of survival increase dramatically. Each sister has a 25% chance of being a match, and there are four sisters, so he apparently has a 2/3rds chance of finding a donor. If none of them is a match, they have to start searching the bone marrow registry, where the chances are a lot worse. This is a lot like the lottery, but more nerve wracking.
Our friend is doing well overall and handling things a lot better than I would. We're praying for him, but I don't really believe in God, so who knows who's receiving my prayers!
In the last post I referenced the overly-macho young men in every strip mall town I've ever been to. I actually spotted them here yesterday- or more accurately, overheard them talking very loudly in the hospital cafeteria about snowboarding and fucking in those exaggeratedly deep liquor and testosterone voices that they all inevitably have. Anyway, I was corrected by our friend the Inpatient, who informed us that all of the male nurses at the hospital are exaggeratedly macho. And, sure enough, every one of them that we saw after that looked like they just got out of the gym on their way to the Harley Davidson dealership. So, apparently overcompensation is alive and well in Northern Ontario.
As Greg pointed out below, most towns in America look nearly identical- and actually that should read "North America" because they look the same in Canada as well. You start out with the basic batch of houses, usually built right after World War II- those are considered the "old" houses in North America. (Except for in places like Iowa, where you can still find older houses.) Anyway, upon that basic canvas you add a cluster of newer townhouses, apartments, condos, etc. And then you lace the major roads with the box chain stores.
Nobody ever cries out for these stores. I've never heard anyone say "You know what this town needs? A Wendy's!" But, they eventually come. Maybe someone dreams of them and they appear the next day. In some towns, people actually resist their growth. But, I think most people are like my father and see something snobbish in that. My Dad thinks that McDonald's gets a bum rap!
Anyway, here we have seen the regular suspects: Sears, Wal-Mart, Boston Pizza, Wendy's, McDonald's, three Staples, one Chapters (for the non-Canadians, Chapters is virtually identical to Borders Books), and a huge array of motels and hotels. It's strange to me that these stores, by opening up possibilities, seem to limit actualities- all the towns look the same! Even stranger is the fact that there are a limited number of types that you see in every town. Already I've spotted a handful of yuppies, the "old timers" who seem permanently embittered, three 25 year old insufferable white girls, the excessively macho guy who has three topics of conversation (sports, fucking, and those damn minorities), the middle aged woman who thinks that society needs to spend more time in Church, the pop-punks, and a number of "minorities"- in this case natives- haunting the scene like silent wraiths. (God, I sound like Holden Caufield!)
Anyway, consumerism seems to discipline these societies- shape them somehow. Consumerism and mass politics both open up possibilities as a method of limiting actualities- of instilling discipline. Traditional religions, on the contrary, rely on that method of discipline that limits possibilities in order to expand actuality. I don't really know if we're better off, or more free, in the New Regime than we were in the Old Regime.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Well, there's a New Yorker cartoon in here somewhere!- Claire and I flew twenty hours north to be with our friend in the hospital and the town we're in looks exactly like Southern Ontario: the same strip malls, asphalt oceans, theme restaurants, and car dealerships. In the New Yorker cartoon version of this, the husband looks over to his wife and says "We need to get away from all of this!" and they fly away on vacation to an identical town. Of course, the real punchline is at our expense because this place looks just like where we live, and yet Claire and I keep saying to each other "Man, how can people live here?!"
Monday, February 19, 2007
Must be the heat- a Senate committee in Arizona has approved a bill that would ban professors at public universities from a number of things, including:
1. Endorsing, supporting or opposing any candidate for local, state or national office.
2. Endorsing, supporting or opposing any pending legislation, regulation or rule under consideration by local, state or federal agencies.
3. Advocating “one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy.”
If they violated the law, professors would either be suspended, fired, or possibly have to pay a $500 fine. This would be a big problem for me, of course, because a major part of my classroom routine involves screaming "Say you love Chairman Mao!" at my students until they start crying. It's good news for cheesy right wing novelty bands though.
Anyway, the article's not really fair towards David Horowitz who tends to overstate his case, but really hasn't pushed for anything like this. And they should probably point out that a law fining professors for stating their opinions probably won't survive anywhere in the country. So, you know, it's sort of a non-story. But who knows? I really don't think there should be public universities for just this reason- why should the state have a say in what people think?
Saturday, February 17, 2007
The Bokor Palace, inaugurated in 1925 by the French administrators in Indochina- long abandoned to the jungles; now part of a sprawling mausoleum of modernism across Vietnam. Here the crisp cool lines of Apollonian rationalism succumb to the anarchy of horticultural diversity. Living things run riot. But the dream of Modernism was stillborn anyway, doomed a century before its arrival. If the philosophes tended to their gardens, the Romantics allowed their gardens to grow wild and choke out all evidence of human planning. Vienna similarly ran wild, from the central planning of the liberal democrats, to the irreason of the fin de siecle, to the populist psychopathology of the brown shirts. The Fascists took Dostoevsky's complaint about the inhumanity of 2+2=4 as a political program. The Communists made Nietzsche's slave morality into state policy. We keep repeating the nineteenth century- it's like a bad rerun. Even when we think that we've been severed from the past like a snipped umbilical cord, we're just repeating an argument from that dreadful century. Modernism was born outdated and quaint and because of its optimism seems more futuristic as the years go by.
We keep repeating the same conflict- we want to be a little bit free in a well-ordered universe. But it's not possible. We're already horribly free and can't conceive of it. Kant's argument: The mind orders the chaos of perception into a model of reality- but only a model, and all models are imperfect and prescribed. This is the architectural illustration of that. I live in a city in which the ruins of modernism compete with the ruins of industrialism- all monuments to the dead dream of a well-ordered universe.
Here's something else exciting: researchers have developed a bionic eye for the blind. So far it's a bit crude, but very promising:
“They can differentiate between a cup, a plate and a knife. They can see motion. They can avoid stumbling around into large objects. That is just with 16 electrodes, and we’re now going up to 60. The models suggest 1,000 will be enough for face recognition, and we hope to get there in five to seven years.”
I have to say that I find things like this to be amazing. Robert Wilson used to write these lists of trends that scared him and trends that gave him hope- recently there have been many medical advances that give me hope.
Good news for lovers of weird cinema- Frank Henenlotter has a new film coming out after about fifteen years of semi-retirement. Henenlotter's films are schlocky but also singular. He's a true original and has made such oddities as Basket Case, the story of a disturbed young man who keeps his deformed Siamese twin brother in a basket while hunting down the doctors who separated them, Brain Damage, the story of a young man with a talking parasite living on his back that injects hallucinogens into his brain and uses him to supply the parasite with brains, and Frankenhooker, which is pretty self-explanatory really.
Anyway, Henenlotter's newest film is called Bad Biology, and this is the description: "A twisted tale of love and weirdness. Driven by biological excess, a young man and woman search for sexual fulfillment, unaware of each other's existence. Unfortunately, they eventually meet, and the bonding of these two very unusual human beings ends in an explosive and ultimately over-the-top sexual experience, resulting in a truly godawful love story..."
Can you lose with a plot like that? The film is currently being edited.
Friday, February 16, 2007
Just when the states have started sorting out whether or not they accept the theory of evolution, Texas representative Warren Chisum dummies up the debate a bit (and I seriously love that phrase now that I know it) by sending out a memo (written by some other wingnut) arguing that evolutionary theory is a centuries old Jewish conspiracy that derives from the Kabbala, is fostered by Hollywood (of course), and successfully argued against by a website that, incidentally, argues that the Earth is the center of the universe! Chisum apparently authored the 2005 proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and, from the sound of it, will be proposing one mandating tin-foil hats any day now.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
Sadly though, in states where evolution has been outlawed, state citizens will be required to begin walking on all fours immediately, if they aren't already.
The mall in Utah where a teenager shot and killed four people two nights ago reopened for business this morning, after having been closed for a day. Wow. I'm glad nobody thought it would be ghoulish to reopen so soon. I think Bath & Body Works has been through enough as it is, right? I mean, the GAP employees have probably been staring into the inky darkling void of nonexistence, for the last day or so, and have come out the other side. Right?
When Claire and I settled in for a long Winter's nap last night, we were fairly certain that we would wake up to a town that had begun to pull back the blanket of snow that fell yesterday and sacrifice some of the gentle beauty of the untouched snow drifts. We were anticipating muddy streets and melting slush. Boy, were we wrong!
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
(Note: Work in Progress)
(Note: Probably too boring for anyone but myself to read.)
1. David Landes's study of "International finance and economic imperialism in Egypt" is based on the letters between the international financier Alfred André and Eduard Dervieu, private banker to the viceroy of Egypt which cover the decade 1858 to 1868. They deal with the world of merchant banking, a tricky business based in international exchange and commercial credit and grounded in the personal relationships of teams of bankers. Groups of financiers tended to be closely tied by marriages or by religion; Calvinist and Jewish bankers were most common. Even more significant was the essential pragmatism of the financial profession.
A few developments tended to undermine these personal banking networks. For example, investment banking required larger and more heterogeneous syndicates. The Rotschilds actually split on the question of financing railroad construction, which was seen as a risky investment. In fact, railroad investment in the 1840s was the field's greatest challenge and its greatest triumph. In the end, merchant bankers were defined by their caution, thrift, and integrity. They tended to be the guardians of conservatism. "Above all, (merchant banking) was eminently sensible." (45)
2. In the 1850s, an even greater challenge arose: the finance company- a joint-stock corporation with greater capital and resources than the old private banks. It came later to England than to the continent. However, note that in the 1850s English investment was shifting away from the New World towards the East, particularly India. The American Civil War is important for this story because it forced Europe to turn to India and Egypt for cotton. The Orient needed loans and finance companies rushed in looking for high interest rates. Between 1863-1865 fifty new banks were founded in Britain alone. In 1856, following the Crimean War, a London group created the Ottoman Bank in Constantinople. By 1861, Turkish finances had totally collapsed and the Ottoman Bank had become the mainstay of the treasury. In 1863, they were replaced by the Anglo-French Imperial Ottoman. Banks rushed into the Levant to capitalize on the 12-20% interest rates!
3. By 1862, Lancashire was in agony due to the cotton shortage. (70) India filled the gap, but Indian peasants (ryots) were stubborn and its cotton of poor quality. Mohammad Ali saw an opportunity and turned Egypt into "a huge government farm." Many Egyptian peasants (fellahs) left the land instead of becoming serfs. His son Said opened the Egyptian cotton market by allowing foreign merchants to trade directly with the fellahin. "The absorption of Egypt into the sphere of European political and economic rivalries was inevitable in the aggressive, expanding character of Western technology and business." (80) The steam ship, and then the telegraph, and then the railroad came to Egypt. Alexandria was where the money was and all sorts flocked there. Especially Westerners who were used to the privilege of capitulations in the Levant. In Egypt, it was a "spoiler's field day" with countless European litigants bleeding the Pasha dry. Extra-territoriality was inherently tense. Consuls abused their privilege often, and Egyptian government was overly personal- the best concessions went to the Viceroy's personal friends. One of the opportunists who took advantage of Said's essential frivolity was Eduard Dervieu.
4. Dervieu came from a bourgeois family of tailors from Condrieu, but struck out on his own in the economic world of Marseilles, France's entry point into the Mediterranean. He cultivated connections to the Egyptian court and was in a good position as they fell prey to growing debt. For reasons that still aren't clear, the floating Egyptian debt reached £7 million by 1860. The Bank of Egypt was severely mismanaged by the house of Oppenheim and Nephew. Incredibly, Oppenheim was able to get a loan from Alfred André. Meanwhile, Dervieu was prospering nicely in this environment of easy credit and floating debt. André's house was of the conservative French Haute Banque- he wouldn't have done well in Alexandria, but was willing to loan money to Dervieu, who was well on his way to becoming the royal banker. Dervieu was an opportunist, but he was also too promising a client to turn down.
I had planned to be doing a lot of work at the university today, but woke up to a snow squall. I tried to make the normally 1 and 1/2 hour drive in the snow squall, since that's just what people here do. After one hour in which I covered nearly 10 km. on the highway, I decided to turn around and come home. I'm going to sit in my room and read. I'll try to post some pictures of it later. We got about a foot overnight and it's still coming down. It happens every year for a few months, but it's always awe-inspiring.
Monday, February 12, 2007
Today I heard an account of perhaps the best/worst student excuse ever:
"I told my college to dummy up their courses, but they wouldn't listen to me!"
This was from a fellow who called the department and then lost his temper with our secretary, who is incidentally one of the nicest people I know. This is her account of the call:
Student: I would like to apply for the graduate program. What do I need to get in?
Her: Okay, you need to send a copy of your transcripts, two letters of recommendation, GRE scores, a 3.0 GPA overall-
Student: A 3.0?! You're telling me that I won't be allowed in because I have a 2.0?!
(This was apparently said in the indignant voice of someone experiencing real discrimination)
Her: Well, they look at a lot of things when you apply. You might still be able to get in.
Student: Why doesn't it say on your website that I need a 3.0? (It does.)
Her: I'll have to check and see. I think it does.
Student: This is stupid! I told the college that they need to dummy up their courses, but they wouldn't listen to me! Now I can't get a PhD?! Damn!
Incidentally, I live in the angriest part of America, so I can totally believe that this conversation took place. What I love though is the idea that he went to the administration at his university and said: "It's not fair! I'm stupid! Can't you make these courses dumber?! Damn!"
Saturday, February 10, 2007
Quite a few articles lately about "wars on science". I'm not entirely sure why one would want to go to war against science. Didn't these people watch Godzilla? What I think they're referring to is certain groups' wars against empirically measured reality, which could also be called cognitive dissonance. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Anyway, first we have Josef Stalin Vs. Science.
The Fight: Stalin during his lifetime was able to ban in Russia certain scientific ideas that contradicted Marxist ideology and promote officially accepted scientific ideas that were actually psuedo-science. In fact, Soviet citizens were required to believe that the laws of nature corresponded to Marxist orthodoxy.
The Winner: Stalin won the battle, but lost the war. Nobody accepts Lysenko these days.
Next we have Various Humanities Professors Vs. Science.
The Fight: Inspired by certain Gallic philosophers, particuarly Foucault, various academics of the 80s and 90s argued that "science" (always with the scare quotes) doesn't reflect reality as much as serve as a pretense for power. Mengele became the typical "scientist" according to this view.
The Winner: Alan Sokol. By getting a satire of theory published in Social Text, a journal of literary theory, Sokol pulled off a classic prank and forced many academics to reconsider their attitude towards science. And science has survived- in fact, they tend to have better campus facilities than the humanities. Bastards.
Lastly, we have Republicans Vs. Science.
The Fight: Oddly enough, Republicans have taken Foucault at his word and decided that to the victor goes reality. Arguing that empirical reality is a matter of opinion, Republicans have waged a valient struggle against the theory of evolution, the geological record, and global temperature change- or at least against acknowledgement of such.
The Winner: Too soon to tell. The reality-based community seems to be on the ropes, frankly. But they've also turned many scientists to the left who had previously been rather conservative. And, ultimately, it's the scientists who have the lasers.
1. A manuscript, typically of papyrus or parchment, that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible.
2. An object, place, or area that reflects its history: "The palimpsest of a rather undifferentiated but massively unjust past thus came to stand as a polar opposite to everything the Revolutionaries thought about the task they had in hand." (Colin Jones).
Two nights ago I attended the previously mentioned Blog-a-licious event in downtown Toronto. Good fun was had by all and the readings were very entertaining, although I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by the hors d'oeuvre; I mean, given that it was a food-related event, I was expecting something a bit more gourmet than the cocktail weenies and bits of cheese they served. Of course, beggers can't be choosers, and it was free after all so I really can't complain! It's just hard to listen to people describing exquisite food in sparkling prose after having eaten three cocktail weenies and a chunk of orange cheese!
Anyway, the event was held at This 'Aint the Rosedale Library, the best bookstore in Toronto and in the running for Best Worldwide. This isn't just my opinion either- the Guardian recently named them one of the best bookstores in the world, a plug that seems to have helped business for them more than mine probably will! Anyway, the place is a treasure because it's one of those rare bookstores that is heavily involved in the city's literary scene. They have readings, and book launches, and art shows, and events like this all of the time, and I've never seen one that wasn't free. Also the store runs various courses about writing and writers, including the Beats for Beginners class, and even makes sure to hire people who are involved in the local literary scene. It's quite normal to buy a book there and be rung up by a local poet or artist. In fact, I bought a fashion magazine and a copy of Erik Davis's Techgnosis from one of the owners whose artworks are all over the building!
It was nice to return to Toronto from the cultural dead zone of Hamilton. I've missed having things to do aside from walking to the video store every night. Hamilton is more relaxing than Toronto. I don't miss the yuppies, film crews, skyrocketing rents and crowds of Toronto at all. But the cultural delights of Hamilton- both Ronnie's Sports Bar and the store Blades & Things (R.I.P.)- can't really compare to the multicultural stew of Toronto.
One thing I had forgotten was the singular experience of driving in Toronto, which is a bit like navigating a sailboat through an asteroid belt. It's perhaps not possible to explain in the English lanuage how bad the drivers of Toronto are, but I'll try. It's a bit like fencing: Toronto drivers don't switch lanes so much as joust and parry with their cars. While a Manhattan driver will get out their aggression by honking and yelling obscenities at everyone within earshot, the Toronto driver, being Canadian, will very politely attempt to murder you. After having narrowly avoided a QEW driver, who I think wanted to rape my car with his car, I pulled into the city and quickly found a parking spot. One advantage that Toronto has over most big cities is that parking is plentiful. To the victor goes the spoils I suppose.
Anyway, after parking and browsing the bookstore, I wandered upstairs to find a seat. The upstairs area is nicely decorated and warm and seems like the sort of place that would host a fringe religious service. I've been to a few events here and taken one of the courses, and I'm always impressed at how friendly the crowds are. There's nothing snooty about these events. Part of this is due to Charlie Huisken, a genuinely likeable man who usually serves as MC. Charlie moved up to Toronto some decades ago and opened the bookstore over 25 years ago. He's very involved with these events and seemingly knows everything about Canadian literature and the American beats.
This evening he introduced the writers Farzana Doctor and Marusya Bociurkiw who both read. It was interesting to me how much their writing had in common- both were stories that focused on family ties and traditions and how to balance these things with existence as a politically engaged lesbian. They were both postmodern and traditional, cynical and sentimental, witty and serious. Like the best writing, and the best food dishes, they blended the best tastes and spices together without letting any flavor becoming overpowering.
Watching an author read from their work serves as a reminder that writing originally evolved from spoken language, and not vice-versa. There are various inflections, pauses, facial expressions, body language, and imitations that cannot be recreated on paper. Every humorist knows that the jokes that work on paper seldom work live and the best spoken jokes rarely translate well to print. And expert flirters know that the most innocuous words can be made very lewd with the right inflection and posture.
There's something more interactive about live readings too. Authors will often speed up if the crowd is lethargic or slow down for them to hear all of the punchlines if they are responding well. I enjoy listening to a room full of people sighing at an interesting thought or laughing at a well-delivered joke. And the stories were all easy to relate to; we might not all be lesbians from foreign nations, but we all have to deal with family. It occured to me that this is a challenge for everyone and that it has its rewards. Every generation wrestles with the one that came before it and is somewhat unique, but still carries on countless traditions. Many of these traditions have to do with food, so the theme worked well.
It was also interesting to hear blogging read in public. There's something quite solitary about blogging and it's easy to forget that many people do this to be heard. I honestly prefer live readings quite a bit. However, it's interesting to think that this could be literature too.
Thursday, February 08, 2007
Sonny Bono speaks against pot
Sonny Bono speaks out against pot, clearly after having smoked pot.
For some perverse reason, student apathy generally amuses me. Our university newspaper constantly runs editorials with titles like: "Why worry about global warming? It's too late now!" or my personal favorite: "Freedom of Speech Does Not Apply to People Who Offend Religion!" Anyway, the newspaper of the University of Georgia has to take the cake with this editorial, in which they argue that the university should stop worrying about educating athletes, since we all know that athletes are stupid. Of course, by the same logic, there really shouldn't be a university for people from Georgia... I'm kidding!
Anyway, the Southern Methodist University is planning on building the Bush library as well as hosting a think tank dedicated to the wit and wisdom of George W. Bush, or something like that. You laugh, but to be fair, I think President Bush is probably ruling at an 8th grade level by now. Anyway, some people worry that a Bush think tank, answering only to the Bush foundation, might not have intellectual independence. But, SMU President Gerald Turner assures them, "These fears are really unfounded and deeply upsetting to Our Dear Leader. Guards! Take them away!"
Lastly, I make it a rule not to post dumb student emails or dumb student essays here, as funny as they might be, because I would have found it mortifying at 18 to find my email posted to the web. That said, I'm really not above laughing at the dumb emails that other people get.
Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Indiana State University is trying to streamline its number of programs from 210 to 150, no doubt to free up more money for football. So they're doing away with the programs that are less popular with the consumers- including such trifles as philosophy and physics. Students can still take physics classes; they just can't major in physics or philosophy.
My guess is that they'll slowly kill off the philosophy department altogether. I can't imagine that they're going to do any more hiring without philosophy majors or grad students to teach. In a few years from now, Indiana will do away with whatever required course it is that they have philosophy profs teach and that will be that. They'll just wait until the old timers retire and the junior faculty find better jobs elsewhere. Physics professors might last a bit longer, but let's not hold our breath.
Academic standards are determined by popularity in the marketplace. Now the university lets the public define it. One of the typically anti-academic message board posters argues: "colleges exist for students", and clearly students are the ones deciding what constitutes a university education in America these days. Once upon a time, universities knew what constituted a university education and therefore preserved a core curriculum. Back then, if a student wanted business training, they went to a vocational school.
Increasingly, however, the core curriculum is seen as an outdated hassle; the students don't like it, and the professors don't seem to know what it is! So, students are convinced that a core curriculum must be arrogant egghead bullshit and hipper-than-thou junior faculty are convinced that it's elitist conservative bullshit. At Mall University, we had to fight the administration to keep the requirement that students take a History course, and the Philosophy requirement has been dropped. Why would a college educated person need to learn about History or Philosophy anyway? That's what the Internet is for! The market rules, and what the public wants is a vocational education that is euphemistically called a university education. They don't want to waste their time with things that won't make them money, and see the idea of education as elevating or personally transformative to be quaint at best, and an insult at worst. Personal development? That's what shopping is for!
I see a weird tendency lately to produce less and less educated people who have a very strong belief that they are more highly educated. The consumer society needs to be flattered. We come up with Orwellian terms like "Information literacy"- that literacy possessed by actual illiterates who can download MP3s- in order to keep up the pretense that we are as intelligent as we'll ever need to be. We coin words like "emotional intelligence" so people with low-IQ won't feel unintelligent. Every instructor in America is familiar with the student who does very little work, but who is convinced that they are an 'overachiever'. I meet people my age who haven't read a book in years and who hardly pay attention to the world around them, who strongly believe that they're sophisticated because they've bought a high-definition television! At Mall University, we've started getting Master's students who feel that being expected to read the texts every week is an unfair imposition. Okay, they're lazy shits- but when you define your success as an institution on how many people you have in how many seats, it's just bad business to flunk out the lazy shits.
Besides, they pay the bills. A vocational education that is mislabelled a university education makes perfect sense. The public doesn't really want to do the work involved in recieving a university education, and besides, some of them simply can't do the work involved. But, hell, even stating that fact sounds elitist in some way- it's unfair. Why can't we learn, or not learn, whatever makes us happy and pay educated people to tell us that we too are college-educated? Why do those egghead assholes get to have a college degree and we don't? Who do they think they are?
To be honest, I'm tired of this fight. Let the state universities cut their own guts out- what do I care? Let them cut the humanities requirements, the more difficult science programs, and anything that isn't geared towards preparing tomorrow's middle managers for middle management. This is where they've been going for some time now- hell, people were worried about this back in the 50s when your first two years of college were required core classes! I just would prefer if they stopped lying- call themselves "______ State Vocational School and Sports Program". Stop pretending to be universities.
Am I overreacting? Probably so, but I'm willing to bet dollars to donuts that Indiana State University is not considering cutting Communications or Business Management! On the other hand, I'm also willing to bet that I'm not the only grad student who has no intention of ever applying for a position at Indiana State University.
The sun seems to have returned to the Southernmost part of the Great White North... or, at least, the sky has lost its grey cataract for a while. It's still extremely cold- when I leaned out the front door to toss a bottle in the recycling bin yesterday my hand stuck to the inner doorknob!
I'm back to reading and seem to be a bit happier lately. Admittedly, we're going through a lot of unhappy shit with Claire's best friend in the hospital, so "a bit happier" is pretty much better than the "wrist-slashing" phase, but worse than the "beach party" phase.
Of course, part of it is that my wife is going through some Fucking Awful Shit with her best friend in the hospital. His prognosis getting steadily worse, and he's going through some Fucking Awful Movie-of-the-Week Shit. So, I'm focusing on her mental state as much as I can and we're both getting ready to fly 20 hours north to be with him in the hospital.
So it's been a bit of a reality check for me. As bad as my problems at Mall University can seem, they're pretty much nothing compared to lukemia. Of course, that's the modern condition, isn't it? You worry about your trivial problems, and then you realize how trivial and banal they are, and then you worry about that!
Lindsay Waters wants to start a revolution in reading that focuses on slow reading and rereading of texts instead of primary education that rushes through to some idea of competency or literary studies that reduce texts to their social context. He thinks we need to slow down, which is probably good advice in all areas of culture.
"All that pseudoradicalism achieved full flower in the New Historicism, with its reduction of the text to historical backdrop, the default position for anyone who has wanted to leave the passion of the 1960s behind and replace it with revolution in the head.
There is something similar between a reading method that focuses primarily on the bottom-line meaning of a story in a novel and the economic emphasis on the bottom line that makes automobile manufacturers speed up assembly lines."
A certain discomfort with leisurely pleasure?
Sunday, February 04, 2007
University Diaries links to this story about a kindhearted Spanish teacher who inspired her relatively advantaged university students through her simple ways and fácil As. In fact, she had a rush of football players who sought her out after hearing about her inspiring teaching method. I love this line:
"You come to my class and work, and I see you want to learn, I'll give you an A. I see some lazy ass, coming late all the time, acting like he doesn't care, I won't give him an A. I'll give him a B."
So "above average" but not "excellent"? Muy bueno!
Of course, you can imagine how difficult super-teachers like this make it for us total assholes who give grades based on whether or not the student learned what they were supposed to learn, and not if they seem like they really want to learn, or if they're really nice, or if they sure do like us. We're pretty much the party poopers of higher ed.
But, like I've said before, the common element in all of these newspaper stories is the adult who wants the kids to think she's cool. And so my second favorite quote:
"The most important thing in learning is that everyone likes the teacher," she said.
Well, I'm not entirely sure that I understand their wording; however, the Recipes for Trouble Blog offers "A world of food stories, culinary memories, and ingredients queerly political". Basically, I'm not sure what clause is "queerly political" here: is it the ingredients? Or the entire world? Or maybe the three clauses but not the world? I get that they wanted to work the political aspect in there and winkingly reference the queer aspect. But it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, so to speak.
Anyway, that aside, I think it's pretty cool that they're having a big social event to launch the blog. If you're in Toronto and can brave the supposedly emergency weather (come on! It's only minus 11!), you should stop by this thing. I'll try to make it myself. Incidentally, This Ain't the Rosedale Library is also a Toronto treasure.
Launch of RECIPES FOR TROUBLE Food Blog
Featuring food-themed readings from work byMarusya Bociurkiw……with special guest Farzana Doctor…
At This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, 483 Church Street, upstairs Thursday February 8, 8p.m.
People are arguing about whether or not the College of William & Mary should keep its big brass cross in the Wren Chapel, which used to be the main building of the college back in the 1700s, and is still the oldest original university building in the United States (even though, honestly, there are probably only three original bricks in the thing!). The university is unique in that large sections of it are treated as public museums and toured along with the rest of Colonial Williamsburg.
Some want the cross to go and others want it to stay. To be honest, I see the merits of both positions; probably a bad stance for blogging!
Anyway, it seems to me that the debate is over the relative merits of religious diversity and collective history. If you see the Wren building as a historical space, it's important to keep the cross. If you see it as a public space, it's important to make it open to all faiths.
On the one hand, I do tend to see the building as a historical space and am quite skeptical about the increasing public use, and ultimately distortion, of history. So, I'm fine with the cross.
Also, I graduated from William & Mary, and to be honest, it never bugged my heathen athiest self when I was there. Students don't spend a lot of time in the Wren building. It's treated as a museum, or a chapel, and rarely used for classes. And there's something reassuring about how old fashioned William & Mary still is. I found the W&M emphasis on traditions, no matter how silly, to be quite charming really. It's about the closest you can get to a classic English university in American university life. What was preferable about W&M to Mall University was that W&M has a core idea of what a university is, and they stick to it with dogged self-assurance. I'm quite skeptical of the increasing tendency of universities, public or private, to let the public at large make their decisions for them. Culture needs elites- and a cultural institution like a university needs to be able to tell the public: "You don't know as much as we do, so shut-up!" It's particuarly strange to let the public at large decide what history will be remembered and what will be forgotten. But, more than this, William & Mary is one of the world's leading liberal arts universities, and a big reason for that is that they don't see the University-as-such as something that can be shaped by public opinion.
On the other hand, the Wren Building can be seen as a public space already. Some people really do use the building as a place to go and think. Some people get married there, and some people pray there, and I understand that some members of other faiths want to be able to pray there without seeing a big cross. And there are plenty of people who would argue that Thomas Jefferson, an alumni of the school, probably would have prefered that public spaces remain religiously neutral. Besides, the school will allow the cross to be used for appropriate religious services in the building. And, once again, people are probably getting riled up about nothing. I've read articles by conservatives who see this as another step in our cultural decline, and eventual conquest by the Mongols, and it's hard to keep my eyes from rolling. It is supposed to be a public space, after all. And the public does fund the college, although if you know about Virginia public education, you know that they don't give a hell of a lot.
The most logical solution would be to make the Wren Chapel an independent museum, separate from the university, and therefore not publically funded. Treat it as a historical building and not as a university building. Again, this is pretty much how it's used anyway. Also, the cross is already removed when people ask for it to be, which makes this issue even less pressing than it already is.
Ultimately, however, I don't think it's a big deal that they're removing the cross. I'd like to see W&M stay separate from public pressures, frankly, but it could be worse. Mall University, with it's de facto grade inflation and weekly entertainment events, is much, much worse. Compared to that, the loss of a cross isn't worth a toss.
Update: The more I think about it, the less I think this matters anyway. Previously, they had the cross out, but were willing to remove it if people requested that they do so. Therefore, it really shouldn't have upset the non-Christians too much. Now, they don't have it out, but will bring it out for appropriate religious ceremonies. So it really shouldn't upset the Christians too much. In other words, it was much ado about nothing before, and it's much ado about nothing now.
Here's a word that still trips me up from time to time:
Or. Its first meaning is "gold"- that's pretty easy to remember.
Its second meaning is "However". So often you'll see sentences that begin something like:
"Or, Louis XV.... " It's pretty easy to mistake this for the English "or".
At least, it is for me.
Why do most adults prefer the color blue? Why is black always popular in fashion? Why is red the 'fuck me' color? Why are there so few good yellow outfits? The Museum at FIT's current exhibition, entitled She's Like a Rainbow: Colors in Fashion, explores all of these questions and more. The exhibit is on view through May 5th at the Museum of the Fashion Institute of Technology on the southwest corner of Seventh Avenue at 27th Street in Manhattan.
Saturday, February 03, 2007
Yoshitomo Nara is a Tokoyo-based artists whose works have been exhibited all over the world. He creates pop art sculptures and paintings, usually of children, often with weapons. Most of his work draws from the concept of kawaii (cuteness) common in Japanese pop art. However, his subject is usually the same angry little girl, often armed.
Friday, February 02, 2007
From the Apparently I'm in the wrong line of work dep't.
"Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)."
Meanwhile, those of us researching history have to scramble for funding. So, come on Exxon! I'm willing to study "the history of oil-based gifts to mankind"! Or how about this one: "Polar Bears: A History of Nature's Worthless Bastards"? Just throw me some money, huh?
Update: The AEI says the Guardian story is entirely unfair. It might be. If they're really trying to create a discussion on the issue, I can't see how that can be bad for the people warning about global warming, frankly.
Thursday, February 01, 2007
I have to admit something- I hate shopping malls. I hate being in them, trying to navigate their endless halls, being politely harassed by their kindly staff; I hate how personalized the experience is, how pseudo-therapeutic. I hate the music they play there and the way that everything assaults you pleasantly- like being beaten with a feather pillow. Most of all, I think I hate the feeling I get when I'm in a shopping mall that there are Mall People who are totally in their element there. I get the feeling that this is there public square and I don't belong. I fear that the Mall People will single me out with and chant Auslander! while pelting me with cups of Orange Julius until I run off screaming.
Claire can attest that I'm pretty much a miserable sod whenever we have to go to the Mall. I try to hide it but I'm never successful. The place gives me the creeps- it is fueled by fads, but denies any trace of the passage of time. There is no time in the mall; no history or death. It is a place that denies any sort of weight. I think that's what creeps me out the most about the mall; I hate its defensive triviality; I can't stand when I'm depressed and someone tells me "Well, you ought to go buy yourself something!" I hate that this is supposed to be my release in life.
Also, it seems to have changed somehow. The Mall descends not so much from the old department stores as from the European arcades of the nineteenth century. But we didn't really get malls in America until the 1970s. The characters in George Romero's vicious satire "Dawn of the Dead" (1977) aren't sure what the Mall is when they first see it. By the 1980s, mall rats were commonplace. Watch "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" next. But also notice how the mall crawlers used to be mainly teenagers. Indeed, teenagers still socialize at the mall. However, it seems to have been taken over by adults in some way. I remember parents and older relatives going to the mall three or four times a year. People my age, who came up thinking the mall was the happiest place on earth, seem to go there three or four times a week.
Everything else seems to resemble the mall too. Ballard writes of people "who looked like they were shopping whatever they were doing." It's that sort of weird somnambulist disinterest that you see in people nowadays- as if the world around them is both minimized by their world view and vaguely irritating to them. Often, when I'm in public places, I feel like a bit of furniture that is in the way, or a senile old person who has wandered onto a movie set where I'm not wanted. But I think they're that way with everyone.
In Claire's profession, they speak of "mental health consumers"; in mine, administrators speak of "consumers of education". A sort of numb self-absorbed shopper is the ideal in the same way that the citizen used to be the ideal. But consumption is based on the gratification of desires, while democracy is based on the denial of desires for the greater good. Eventually, someone will offer the shoppers the sort of totalitarianism they crave- Ikea meets state control. Eventually, the model will be something like a nursing home/ day spa. The denial of history and death will become state policy.
If you espouse Enlightenment ideas of free will and intellectual self-determination, the fundamentalists will call you an "Enlightenment Fundamentalist" and the totalitarians will call you an "Enlightenment totalitarian"; 'twas always thus. But how to explain the perverse nature of those otherwise intelligent people who will claim that those children of the Enlightenment who call on people to stop burning their wives, for example, are somehow as cruel and brutal as the people who are actually burning their wives? Pascal Bruckner takes on the so-called "multiculturalism" that encourages polite silence in the face of oppression and finds it to be as flimsy and quiescent as it seems. Alas, consumer culture sees everything in terms of equally therapeutic and meaningless choices.