Tuesday, January 19, 2010

This Blog for Sale: Inquire Within

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!


The Pagan Temple said...

Don't feel bad about the political wrangling, Rufus. I did a post about Haiti, where I tried to explain the context behind the Haitian prayer Pat Robertson explained as a "pact with the devil". What it really was, and why he jumped to that conclusion.

Out of almost twenty comments, most of them were about which would be a better system for Haiti, socialism or capitalism.

The only comment that was actually about the post was this one person complaining that I wasn't hard enough on Robertson, even though I pretty much said he was an idiot.

I like to do other kinds of posts, but on the other hand, what policies are pursued and laws are passed, judges appointed, etc., can potentially effect peoples lives in profound ways for years down the road. That's why people get so worked up about it. They just feel really helpless to do anything else but scream and rant, and hope somebody somewhere pays attention.

I would personally advise against changing the name of your blog. I like it myself, in fact, I came across it by seeing where you linked to my blog once. I was intrigued by the name.

If you want to fix it up some more, maybe add something like-

From The Ivory Soapbox Of Mall University Comes-Grad Student Madness.

That's about as clever a title as I can come up with just off the top of my head

Rufus said...

Right, the socialism vs. communism debate goes on forever, even though it doesn't really relate to reality anymore.

I don't really care about the level of the political discussion- I just find it tiresome and a bit like the "fights" before pro wrestling matches. But, again, I think the US political system is totally dysfunctional at this point. The fact that I don't foresee much of anything being accomplished at this point is probably why I don't freak out.

Eh, I'll think about the Ivory Soapbox- it has a nice ring.

Rufus said...

Actually, for the record, what I'm thinking of is really more of a cross-posting thing than killing this blog off. So far, there are no takers. Ah well, always a bridesmaid...

Holly said...

The Ivory Soapbox DOES have a nice ring to it!

Rufus, I like the variety of stuff that turns up here. Don't post stuff you're bored with, post stuff you're excited about. Sure, it might be 5 years before something in politics is exciting, but that's OK. Maybe you'll get excited about comparative linguistics or something in the meantime. Nothing wrong with that.

Sometimes it seems like grad students are the last bastion of curiosity and world-engagement in the realm of the highly educated. As if when we're done with it being our jobs to learn stuff, we just kinda... stop. Dry up. I know there are exceptions, but from where I sit, they are indeed exceptions.

The Pagan Temple said...

Don't forget to include "Mall University" in the title. Of course there's always the point you're not always going to be a grad student, presumably. But as long as you keep a partial focus on higher education, I guess you can make the point that we will always be students in life, or at least we should be.

I actually agree with you about US politics being dysfunctional, but the problem is from the top down, not vice versa. Too many special interest groups speaking for too many people they don't really care about having too much sway over too many politicians, who approach any major problem with the attitude, "Well, let's just make another cabinet department and let them deal with it". Then they wonder why people get pissed off when things just keep getting worse so they try to fix things by just doing more of the same cap that made things worse, then people get more pissed off.

Which would seem counterproductive, until you trace it back to what seems to be the root cause, back to the special interests on both sides of the aisle. They are what actually sets the pace and monopolizes the debate. Average people are left with no alternative but to throw rocks or tea parties.

Rufus said...

I don't think the problem is bottom up at all. I totally agree that the system is dysfunctional due to the pacs and lobbyists and political game-playing. I just don't think it helps that most Americans don't know what they're talking about when it comes to politics and instead buy into the propaganda of one party or the other.

Actually, I totally understand why people go to the tea party events. I just wish they could come up with a good Plan B to replace the government plan A they hate. Let's be honest: "Stop doing anything!" is not a Plan B.

Rufus said...

Holly- it's funny you mention intellectual curiosity- one of my dissertation director's constant gripes is that I get easily sidetracked by irrelevant topics that interest me. As she put it, "Look, I understand your catholic tastes- I have catholic tastes. But we need to keep you on track!"

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