I took a break from blogging for the last week or so, mostly because I felt a bit weary about this specific endeavor and the Internet more generally. Sometimes, you ask yourself, “What am I doing here?” and fail to come up with an answer.
I can say what I have been doing here until this moment. It seems to me that I have four main topics: 1. Personal life, 2. Academia/Education, 3. Art and Culture, and 4. Politics. Lately, I seem to be focused on the third, which is certainly more interesting to write about, although I find that most people have stronger opinions about the fourth.
In terms of (1) personal life, I consider things like recipes, personal anecdotes, and photos from Hamilton as spices that flavor the blog, and will continue including them. As for (2) academia, I’ve regularly ground my axe here. It is fascinating to watch the university, a cultural institution that grew out of the Church in North America, trying to remake itself along the lines of consumer capitalism. As someone who has more traditional ideas of education, it’s also disconcerting; but I’ve realized that banging that pot over and over gets a bit tiresome. Also, the decline of academia is hard to stop in a culture that doesn’t much worry about such things and, in general, believes that academics are out-of-touch elitists. Who really cares about grade inflation, for example?
So, the real mission becomes proselytizing for more enriching and elevating art and culture, outside of the university. Academics are often terrible at selling their interests to anyone else. We do what we do for a reason, which we fail to articulate. With a few exceptions (Margaret Soltan comes to mind) academic blogs are often as insular and boring as academics themselves; they tell you often about how dim undergrads can be and the minutiae of creating a syllabus, and very little about the intellectual thrill of studying humanity in all its permutations. Part of this derives from the fact that academics feel very uncomfortable talking about anything outside of their particular training for fear of looking like a pisher. If you are trained in 17th century English theatre, for instance, you avoid discussing Molière.
As might be painfully obvious, I have no such qualms, and indeed think there is a value in writing about cultural topics without extensive training, if only because you can thereby avoid writing like an academic! Ideally, I would like to write about art and cultural history in a sort of Auntie Mame/ Vanity Fair voice, and I want the discussion to be open to everyone. I’ll get to that in a minute, but I think it’s clear that topic 1 is good for a bit of spice, but relatively minor, and topic 2 has been absorbed completely by topic 3- art and culture.
Topic 4 is politics and it must be clear by now that I have little hope for politics. I live in Canada, a country in which our Prime Minister has explained shutting down Parliament in the middle of a session, in order to avoid a political scandal, by claiming in interviews that the press is blowing it all out of proportion and most Canadians really don’t care what their government does. So far, it looks like he’s wrong; however, many Canadians also believe that Canadians don’t care what their government does. The apathy is born from the fact that the government generally doesn’t accomplish very much.
As for America, their political culture is decadent and depraved. The government is now, as far as I can tell, incapable of doing anything, aside from waging wars, unsuccessfully. It’s amazing to drive through cities like Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo because they’re physically falling apart: they look old and decrepit, like parts of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, they have 10 percent or more of their people out of work, and their states are receiving stimulus money; and yet, they can’t manage to spend that money putting those people out of work repairing the bridges and roads and public buildings that are about to collapse!
And it’s like this with everything. If the US faces concrete problems, which it does, it will simply not be able to deal with them in the future. Part of this, of course, is the endemic corruption in the government, not to mention the powerful role of lobbyists and business interests. But part of it is a dominant mentality that politics is a sport, and so, if one party puts forth a pragmatic solution, the other party has to oppose them out of hand. The point is preventing the other team from gaining a point; as for the good of the country, screw that.
There’s an example of this in John Walsh’s autobiography. He explains how there used to be no national database of missing children. So, if a child was abducted in Florida and turned up in Ohio, the only way the cops in Florida would know is if the police in Ohio called every single police department in the country. Thus a bill was introduced to create a national database of missing children in the FBI, seemingly the most clear-cut good idea imaginable. The Republicans opposed it. Why? Because a Democrat proposed it. And both of the national parties do this with every single piece of legislation! It’s just a game.
What’s really staggering though is that this is how the American public understands governance! Rooting for one’s favorite team, to score a point against the opposing team, has shut out any sort of serious discussion about how the country might, collectively, solve serious problems. Even weirder, political bloggers seem increasingly to have no real ideas at all and a burning animus for anyone who doesn’t share their non-ideas! Democrats make no effort whatsoever to explain what it is they believe or why they believe it; tending instead to lazy, arrogant snark about Republicans, who for their part really do seem to lack a coherent governing philosophy! In turn, political blogs are getting pithier and meaner. So is the culture.
So, I have no hope for politics- but you might notice that it again leads us back to culture! After all, a society without a real culture will find itself, when facing serious problems, unable to reflect seriously on them and, instead, making non-arguments like, “I can’t vote for that guy! He doesn’t hunt or fish!” Art/Culture allow us to step back and think about “people” and “societies” more generally. The reason American political culture is so anemic is because American culture-as-such is so anemic.
Ultimately, we can’t get away from the fact that America is unique among countries in that essentially all of its culture comes from media companies. I can make fun of the CBC or “Canadian content” rules along with everyone else; however, what it means is that Canada has a few outlets left for art and culture that is not immediately “bankable”. In the US, all culture is a product, and therefore the real cultural elites are the accountants. Culture can train us to be thoughtful, creative, compassionate, and serious; or it can train us to be passive, shallow consumers. Ultimately, therefore, a democracy is only as good as its culture.
So, then, finally, what I want to write about is culture, in the “High Culture” sense that in North America means “Intro to Western Civ 101” courses, but in a style that is more lively and engaged than academic. I’m sick to death of the High/Low culture distinction. I want to write about The Aeneid the same way every other culture blog is currently writing about Avatar. I’m all for syncretism, though- let’s talk about all the great art from the beginning of time to the present! And because I see this as inherently intellectual and implicitly political, I don’t want to write about academia or politics.
And I want better digs! I love what we do here, but I’d like to do it on some sort of group site, such as True/Slant, that has more readers and where I can fuck off for a week, if I want, and not fear losing anybody’s attention. Also, given the direction I’d like to go (which would be totally in line with the art Holly posts here) I’d imagine that “Grad Student Madness” isn’t a great name anyway. I think what we do here is valuable and enjoyable- and fun- and so currently, I’m making a concerted effort to “sell” it to someone with a better, and more active site. Consequently, even gabbing about art for the sake of art eventually has to be marketed!