Wednesday, April 27, 2011

higher education in crisis
Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard is in my pants!
(as we used to say in college)

Every day I read news of reductions in classes, students, faculty, and funding of some institution of public higher education. I mean every single goddamn day. This has to mean something.

The easy answer, which I propose is dead wrong, is that states have run dry, and higher education is a place where cuts can be made. One reason I think that's dead wrong is that budgets for those institutions have been cut even when the economy wasn't in recession.

I've got something else cooking, too, and it's more complex. There is an obvious crude economic argument for funding public higher education: it repays. Every dollar spent on the CSU comes back to the state five-fold. What does it mean when the state chooses not to fund public higher ed, even though the investment provides a 500% dividend?

It could mean that those who choose not to fund public higher education have simply decided to steal that return from the labor of people, by privatizing public universities and colleges and demanding increased tuition payments by students. The more students pay, and the less state revenues have to be invested, the more profitable to the state public higher education is.

(Note that this rationale is not only cynical and condoning kleptocracy, but also non sequitir, since it uses profitability as a criterion for decision-making about a non-profit, public good. I digress.)

There may be something to that interpretation, but during the last couple of years, I've become convinced that something weirder is happening, which I'm going to try to pursue. I think what's happening is a crisis in the legitimating narratives of higher education in general. That is, what's happening in public higher education is not only a reaction to recession (and, in fact, fundamentally isn't), and not only a form of class welfare (in fact, it is a form of class warfare, of the kleptocratic class against the working poor), but reflects a crisis in the legitimating protocols of education in general, and higher education in particular.

In short, my preferred hypothesis (I sound more like Baudrillard than Lyotard at this point, but either way, pants) is that our society has reached a stage in the postmodern condition in which we* no longer can or do sincerely believe in the metanarratives that legitimate education. We have an apparatus, an economic-political-cultural institution of higher education, but nobody* seriously believes it serves any grand purpose.

If I were to follow Lyotard, I would say that the legitimation of higher education is no longer on the basis of some notion of human progress or liberation, or of the good of the nation or state. Instead, the only legitimating narratives are the petit narratives of performativity and paralogy - "What have you done for me lately?" and "Are you following your own rules?"

But I think it may have gone further, because the crude economic justification for higher education would seem performative, and the self-legitimation of peer review would seem paralogical. (I'll probably talk this through at some point, so not to worry if they're unfamiliar terms.) I believe it goes further than public higher ed, too - it's education in general that has lost legitimacy.

Please keep reading! I promise I'll stop name-dropping and get to brass tacks!

* By "we" and "nobody" above, I mean to refer to a convenient, fictional social actor who represents a generalized ideological subjectivity. I think it's interesting that, while Lyotard's analysis of the postmodern condition is certainly brilliant, he puts the "incredulity toward metanarratives" in the passive voice, such that the notion that there have to be people whose consciousness involves this incredulity is totally elided. Lyotard was a clever dick.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

new homeland security alert system

The Department of Homeland Security (Abteilung der Heimatsicherheit in the original German) has adopted a new advisory system to replace the color codes. I'm not entirely thrilled, because the infantilization of US citizens implicit in the old system was its main appeal to me. That, and you could describe your day's outfit as "Elevated," which was fun.

I have a good idea for a replacement advisory system, but they haven't been returning my calls for some reason. (Though they did say my name would be added to a list they keep of special people!)

Here's the system I proposed:

Threat Level:

Oprah. Routine precautions. No travel restrictions.

Cher. Elevated precautions. Restricted travel for listed individuals; all air travelers subject to random searches. Ongoing patrols of major transportation infrastructure: bridges, tunnels, airports and railway stations.

Gaga. Severe. Known threat of imminent attack. Most air travel grounded. Restrictions on rail travel.

Busey. Attack currently in progress. Take extreme measures for security and safety: marshal law, total grounding of all foreign and domestic flights, transportation lockdown on all federal highways.

Sheen. No safe place anywhere. Kiss your kids goodbye.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

album of the day: Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

It's always precarious to write about music as expressing ideas. Especially in the case of a symphony, which is really just a series of notes, and especially in the case of Shostakovich's Fifth, which is not only just a series of notes, but a series of notes he wrote in an attempt to continue his composing career and not, you know, get executed by Stalin.

I forget exactly how I got hooked on Shostakovich. I suspect my friend Bob is to blame. The Fifth Symphony is the first piece I knew, and it was so compelling, I immediately went after all the Shostakovich I could.

I won't go into the details of the history of his composing it here. There's a good piece on it on Wikipedia.

This afternoon, I listened to the first two movements the symphony on the way home from campus, and could barely contain myself. I've continued it since then. I can't provide a perfectly rational basis for this claim, but I'm happy with it: this symphony is about the horror of power. The first movement, for instance, expresses the terrifying potential of power - political power, most of all - to make things happen, to cause things to occur. If I have to explain to you why this is a horrible power, you may already not be a good audience for the symphony. But if you have an inkling, give Shostakovich a listen, so he can explain to you just how horrible power can be.

After being terrified nearly to tears by the first movement (walking down Andre in Turlock, and passing a few fellow pedestrians who gave me very concerned looks), I hit the tragedy of the second movement. Officially, the second movement was a bit of fun, a comic interlude in an otherwise extraordinarily bleak symphony. Bullshit. The second movement takes a Russian folk theme, played in quiet, meek tones on woodwinds and pizzicato violins, and then refracts that theme as an appropriated melody blasted back at the folk by a militaristic march. Their theme expressing life and its sanctity and fragility is twisted into a monstrous anthem, presented back to them as though the people were expected to accept this as the authentic representation of their culture and lives. There's nothing silly or relieving about the comedy of it: it's the harshest satire. My boy Shostie could write some friggin satire.

There follows the third movement, quoting a suppressed - no, an overtly banned - traditional funeral dirge, and which apparently made the premiere audience weep. Nuff said. The fourth movement, in my opinion, expresses the triumph of power, the final obliteration of the life of the folk, as all the themes ultimately contribute to what I am sure in my soul is a mock-heroic climax. The tension Shostakovich achieves in the last phrases of the fourth movement, the clashing cymbals and blaring horns over the straining strings - that's the sound it might make when hope dies.

I mean, imagine you're a creative artist with a quirky sense of humor and a spirit of adventure, and that the work you are compelled to create is making people want to kill you and your friends. Imagine that after your last premiere, people started publishing reviews that said, basically, "yep, time to kill this motherfucker," and that at the same moment, your friends started disappearing. Then they come to you and say, "when's your next piece coming out? We're really interested!"

The awful genius of Shostakovich, in this symphony, was to give those people something they had to accept, even laud, and at the same time, express himself genuinely, and say something about, to, and for the people under this tyranny. Jesus, no wonder they wept!

In Mstislav Rostropovich's direction, this London Symphony recording does some amazing things, I should say. I am most familiar with an old Allegro classical cassette I bought in 1984, for fuck's sake, and that's my basic frame of reference for any other performance - as these things always go. Rostropovich's first movement is way goddamn scarier, and in fact one of scariest performances of classical music I've heard. (You may need to be in the mood, and may need to be familiar with the Fifth, to get this.) But it was the second movement that nailed me. Rostropovich leads the London gang to such a tender expression of the initial themes, and through such a miserable plundering of the same themes, that the connection between them is devastating.

I bought this on iTunes, and because of that, hadn't really regarded the cover art. Nice summation.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

still temporary after all these years

I was informed on Friday that I am not a finalist for the tenure-track position in my department. I have heard that I "deserve" a tenure-track position, as well. Just, you know, apparently not here.

This is very strange, given my 13 years of contributions to the department, the university, and my active records of scholarly achievement in academic philosophy. I am not a great scholar of the era by any means, and would never claim I was, nor that I aspire to be, but I also think that I'm impeccably qualified for tenure at Cow State Santa Claus.

Anyway, this is not a disappointment to me, because I had no expectation of being a finalist for the position, and certainly no expectation that I would get it. That's why my application's soundtrack included Cee Lo Green. (There's a history, a history which apparently became more common knowledge during the review of my application.)

Many folks know I'm a big Marxist. One of my favorite Groucho quips is that he would never join an organization that would have someone like him as a member. Being a member of the non-tenured majority is very much like that, and on the whole, it's the untenured majority I'd rather join.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

family budget the California way!

Since 90% of folks in the US live on a median income of $31,000, we all try to economize and live on a budget, but especially in these difficult economic times, it's critical. Perhaps, then, you'd like to follow these handy tips to family budgeting, based on the best practices in California.

1. Reduce household income

If two people in the household both work full-time, your wages may be so high as to create certain pressures to spend them. A simple solution we've used for years in California is to reduce revenues. One of the two of you should go part-time, or, better yet, quit, and don't look for work. If there is only one wage-earner in your household, an alternative would be to ask for a reduction in salary. Many bosses are happy to accommodate such requests.

2. Have lots of loud arguments in public about your finances

A lot of families already do this, and it's good that they do, because, like in the California legislature, those shouting matches demonstrate your commitment to principle. Nah, I'm kidding. They're really just spectacles of public humiliation used as part of a strategy to undermine your opponents. But the appalling display of illegitimacy and unfitness for decision-making create terrible uncertainty and anxiety, and that's sure to make people frightened about what decisions you will, eventually, make. In other words, it can be useful to make your kids shut up.

3. Max out your credit cards

Buying on credit is a great state tradition. In fact, California routinely takes out emergency loans when our annual budget squabble threatens to shut down the entire state government and a large portion of the state's economy in general. Using every bit of your line of credit is a great way to show your credit card company that you're serious about consuming, and need and want even more debt.

4. Base your budget on as much financial information as you can find

Budgetary decisions that are pragmatic and realistic depend on the quality of the information used in making them. California bases its state agencies' budgets on assumptions about what state revenues will be, and what the agencies need to perform their services. Then we tear that up and write random numbers down on sticky notes, then sticking them on an organizational chart of state agencies.

You could do the same! Here are some numbers you can use: $13, $490, $3.98, $12,872, $i. Now, here are some budget categories you can use: turkey feed, boxes of rocks, cable tv, alimony, booze.

To demonstrate how this works, I've just gone through the California budgeting process using the above information - the best available to us as of this writing. For next year, my plan is as follows:

Expense category Amount
turkey feed$12,872
boxes of rocks$3.98
cable tv$i
alimony $13

Now that my spending plan is in place, all I have to do is go have a screaming match with my mate, use my Visa to buy $6000 worth of plastic forks, and quit my job, and I'll be ready for the next fiscal year.

Friday, April 08, 2011

happy happy

Now that the official deadline has passed for the state to hold a special election to keep some taxes in place, and the state senate has started holding hearings on a cuts-only deficit reduction that would lead to massive layoffs of faculty and staff and huge increases in tuition for students, I'm headed to the CFA Assembly this weekend. Good timing.

I decided last night that I would practice Strategic Happy-Making™. This is a series of actions one takes in order to attempt to impose a cheerier mood. Counter-insurgency against doom, you might say. Attitude regime change. Whistling in the dark.

In any event, since the Assembly is in San Francisco, John Phillips' "San Francisco" was going through my mind. And although I may not wear some flowers in my hair (though I've been known to), I will definitely be wearing flowers on my shirt. I'm going to be decked out in bright yellow, green, and blue for the Assembly, the Faculty Rights workshop, and the Lecturer Council meeting. Perhaps someone will ask.

I should consider wearing flowers in my hair very seriously for the election, because I'm running again to be on the Contract Development and Bargaining Strategies Committee, and I figure the flowers would encourage people to vote for me.

Sometimes this kind of dopey effort works for me. Some fair percentage of being happy is convincing yourself to be happy.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

on meaning

Over the last couple of weeks, a series of questions have been on my mind. In fact, I keep waking up thinking about them, as though I had been wondering about them in my sleep. I think these are really fundamental philosophical questions, and the way I'm thinking about them strikes me as odd.

Let me say what I think is obvious about meaning. Our brains have evolved in a way that makes our conscious lives lives of meaning rather than non-meaning. I don't know if only human brains have evolved this way; I speculate that we're not alone in having meaningful worlds. Meaning is at least correlative to an evolved trait that has not caused us to die out yet. Perhaps meaning does something for us that is advantageous - this seems overwhelmingly likely, in fact.

There are neurological, psychological, biological, and anthropological ways to ask about meaning. The philosophical way to ask is to consider the meaning of meaning, which is what I think Merleau-Ponty was doing in The Visible and the Invisible, to name one.

So, here goes a first attempt to get at it.

Why and how is there meaning? By meaning, I mean (provisionally) a phenomenon of consciousness whereby experiences and the world are intended as such. Meaning takes place when a consciousness intends something. There's a wide range of different ways that happens - I'd guess an indefinitely large range of ways. I don't want to get into that right now, but I'll give a couple examples to try to clarify what I mean by meaning. (There'll be a certain degree of re-hashing of Husserlian phenomenology here.)


(1) I'm looking at a used-up AA battery lying on my work table. In looking at it, its presence there and what it is are evident and actual contents, we might say, of my conscious awareness. My looking at it, and my describing it, or considering it actively, are the forms of meaning taking place. That is to say, if my eyes were to glance over and past it with only the barest recognition - "black and copper short tubular object" - then that would be the meaning of the experience, or what my consciousness intended at the moment. As it happens, I did not merely glance over it, but noticed it was a AA, remembered it to be a dead battery, and so forth - and so those attributes were part of the meaning of my looking and intending.

(2) Having looked at and described the battery, I'm now thinking about what the battery does. That is, what I mean in intending the battery has shifted from a more perceptual to a more pragmatic dimension. A battery provides electric power to some device, most often electronic. This may have been used in a guitar pickup or a remote control. The potential of a still-good battery, and the lack of potential of a dead one, to provide power, is partly what I intend when I intend battery.

(3) Now I'm shifting my attention to a symbolic dimension. Dead batteries make me feel slightly sad and guilty, because I see electric generation and use, especially in the form of the typical chemical disposable battery, as a bad business, environmentally speaking. The dead battery represents our unsustainable lives of excess, so even though I probably enjoyed using the device the battery had been powering, now I wonder if it was worth it.

I take examples to show that meaning really does take place, and if you understand what I meant - what battery meant in each of the three ways I described it - then meaning is something that is shared. Other people experience meaning, and we can communicate meaning to one another. (Not perfectly, which would after all be very boring, but nonetheless with tremendous acuity.)

Now, why and how does any of that happen? (A corollary question I want to get to is: does it only happen for human beings?) Why is there meaning, as distinct from just behaving? "Just behaving" would mean perceiving and responding to things without intending them as such. We do that too: yanking my hand away from scalding water happens faster than meaning, and even if I go back, as it were, and intend hot water, my initial movement is more like behaving than meaning.

A few related questions have been popping up for me recently. How are meaning, perception, expression, ideation, and imagination related? What does meaning do for us? What's the relationship between meaning and truth, or between meaning and belief? Do cats have meaningful worlds? Do cats have truths or beliefs?