Monday, March 26, 2012

the day I stopped being a psychology major

I started my college career as a psych major (or, as I usually like to put it, suffering the delusion that I was going to be a psych major). I was also in the university honors program, which was articulated through departments. A student in the program would take a few general ed courses, but the rest of the honors courses were within the major.

My first honors psych class was called History and Systems of Psychology. The textbook was decent, though heavily biased in favor of behaviorists. The class was taught by a professor nearing retirement, who lectured to us for 48 of the 50 minutes in each session from yellowed notes, punctuated only by his coughing tic. He would then ask if there were any questions. I always had questions, but after the first two or three, he did his best to avoid calling on me.

A handful of times we had what the professor called class discussions, usually of about 20 minutes. But the honors psych students seemed incapable or uninterested in discussing the history or systems of psychology. They would find a relevant item from class notes and repeat it. When I tried to raise critical questions during a class discussion, the professor told me that we weren't there to criticize, but to learn, the history and systems of psychology.

We spent weeks on Wundt, and then two class sessions on psychoanalysis, a "system" of psychology the textbook essentially dismissed as superstitious claptrap that only delayed psychology becoming a genuine science. I had been reading Freud since my sophomore year of high school, and was trying to read Jung, and I found this blanket rejection of Freud ridiculous. Text and professor were eager to move on to the real scientific psychologists, and given loving emphasis were the behaviorists Watson and Skinner. I tried to suggest that the argument legitimating the scientific status of behaviorism was circular, but was told that it's real psychology because it can do things (which psychoanalysis, by extension, cannot) - make people stop smoking, or fight the urge to suck their thumbs in important business meetings.

After the long chapter on Watson, the continued frustration with the honors psych students acting like sheep and with the professor expressly precluding critical discussion, I decided I needed to do something. We were just getting started on Skinner when I made my move.

I drove the 45 minutes across town to my parents' house, and dug out my sister's old scuba fins and snorkel. That morning before class, I stuffed them as well as I could into my backpack (the fins stuck out of the top), and walked from my dorm to the classroom, making sure I would be a couple minutes late. In the hallway, I ran into the only other student in the class who seemed to be interested in discussing the history of psychology (a psych major, who turned out to be kinda crazy), and told her I was going to shake things up. She went inside and found her usual seat.

Meanwhile, I geared up. Shoes off, swim fins on. Mirrored sunglasses. Backpack strapped to my chest. Snorkel.

In this getup, I whisked open the door and flapped across the room to my usual seat, just in front of the crazy psych major, along the windows. As I collapsed into it and got out my textbook, the professor said, suppressing a tremendous rage, "That's alright, no one noticed you coming in."

He went back to his notes and tics, and lectured on Skinner. I paid attention, but managed to glance around the room at all the psych majors, staring straight ahead at the prof, blind to my existence. Halfway through class, in mid-sentence, the professor suddenly addressed me, saying that I was to remain after class to discuss my "idiotic stunt."

I got you, man, I thought. You may be a committed apologist for behaviorism, but you're a lousy behaviorist. You fell for it. You gave me attention, while denying that you were giving it. And as we all know about denial...

He got through about 40 minutes, but then gave up. He couldn't concentrate. The class left, and I stayed behind, and I explained myself. I told him I did what I did to protest the total lack of meaningful discussion in the class, to try to shake up the psych zombies - make that honors psych zombies. I even waited until we got to Skinner, to protest the obvious bias in the book, and to do something that I thought would be poorly explained by behaviorism.

I can't remember what he said. I don't think he punished me, except that he gave me a B for a final grade after all the A work I'd done.

After class, I walked over to the psychology department and met with the department chair. I told him what happened in class - well, some of it. I told him about the zombies' reaction. And I told him I was dropping the major.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I am an advertisement for myself

Every spring I teach a course I designed, called, unwieldly enough, Human Interests and the Power of Information. It is half philosophy of technology, half post-structuralist critique of contemporary media and techno-science, and half political and sociological investigation of everyday life in the siliconized world.

Every spring when I teach it, I have a different emphasis. This year I thought I was going more in the direction of the techno-science and knowledge discourses business, but after reading Baudrillard yesterday to prep for class today, I just had to write some stuff about it. This is part one.

In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard makes several pronouncements about media, the most provocative of which may be that media implode meaning and the social, and simulate sociality through the constitution of the masses. That is, instead of a social life characterized by exchange, mediated lives take place among an amorphous mass culture. I believe Baudrillard takes many cues from Marshall McLuhan throughout this phase of his work, and this particular claim can be illuminated in reference to McLuhan’s view that advertising homogenizes society (in pursuit of the goal of coordinating and maximizing consumption). A homogenized society is, for Baudrillard, not a society at all, but “the masses,” and the consumption he claims the masses do is not prompted by advertising, it is the consumption of advertising itself.

This latter is obviously true: the “brand benefit” of most consumer products, especially of mass quality, is the brand image itself. It’s what makes Levi’s Levi’s, an iPhone an iPhone. (Apple is the most valuable corporation in the world, and one of the most highly groomed, protected, and prized brands.) How this destroys meaning and the social is less clear, at least at first.

On one level, Baudrillard could be saying something like this. Since what we consume is the advertising, what we spend our social lives on is the exchange of signs “branded” by advertising. Social life among “the masses” as constituted by media, is characterized by an exchange of asyntactic messages, signs that have been branded, and the sameness of all those messages means that they cannot mean anything. None of us has anything to say, except for what our branded, consuming existences provide for us to say, which is to say, the endless repetition of media messages.

Meanwhile, and borrowing a bit from McLuhan again, as well as the history of audience research going back to Lazarsfeld in the 1920s, the brand images and advertisements themselves are adjusted for maximum impact through market research, focus groups, and so forth. There’s a continuous feedback loop from the advertiser to the target of the ads and back to the advertiser.

If one were to look at this without considering the human activity of exchanging signs, where we would be the conduits through which the signs are exchanged, rather than living creatures with the capacity to communicate (an assumption that fits rather well with Baudrillard’s notion of the destruction of meaning and sociality), then the exchange of signs takes place as follows:


This suggests that we could characterize the activities of each node in the system of linguistic exchange formed by this circuitry as follows:


Meaning - linguistic, narrative meaning - is swallowed up by the ultimate form of media, the form of advertising, which is ubiquitous. Every term in the lexicon has been unhinged from any sort of referential or representational meaning by the reshuffling of the signifier deck by advertising. We can't speak of anything - love, art, truth, iced tea, war - without speaking in the terms of advertising.

Practically everyone who reads Baudrillard claims he's being hyperbolic on these points. I'm not so sure. If language is the foundation of meaning, and if language is irrevocably and always already altered by advertising, then the basic concept we each have of love, art, etc., and the basic ways we utter love, art, etc., are in advertising language. (It's important to keep in mind Baudrillard's insistence that it's the form of advertising, not what we take to be advertising, that matters.) Advertising speaks to us about who we are (constituted consumers), and gives us the terms to address one another as who we are (constituted consumers).

Thus, the "catastrophe of meaning" which leaves the masses in a state of "stupor," of "fascination."

Not content with that, Baudrillard drops a mention of computer language into this analysis, claiming that it will liquidate advertising and displace it. (The book was published in French in 1981.) What I want to do is see what a Baudrillardian interpretation of contemporary silicon technology would look like. Now that we have mobile bodies targeted by and targeting everything at once, in what sense is advertising obsolescent?

Monday, March 12, 2012

the end of the world - Santorumaggedon

As we have seen, the Republican Presidential Nomination campaign is all about which candidate will win the hearts, minds, and votes of those who believe that the United States is a nation founded on the Book of Revelation, the Christian document called the Constitution, capitalism, and guns. If they are right, the most apocalyptically-inclined candidate should win, and not only that, but that nomination should bring down upon us a hell-storm.

(Nota bene: The Republican convention is in August, the eighth month. It cannot be a coincidence that in Chapter 8 of Revelations, the seventh seal is broken. Yeah, no kidding!)

There can be no doubt that the most fervently evangelizing of the candidates is Rick Santorum, so it is clear that the closer he comes to the nomination, the closer we all come to the Final Judgment, the Ultimate Ultimate Fighting Championship of The Lord, the Last, Really, Really, Last Call of the End of All Times, as expounded upon in clear and concise detail in Revelation and other books and signs.

At present, Mitt ("OMG President Mittens!") Romney has 454 delegates; Rick Santorum has 217, Newt Gingrich has 107, and Ron Paul has 47. That means, as you are no doubt aware, that we are a mere 927 delegates away from Santorumageddon.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name was written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.
  - Revelation 2:17

Should Rick Santorum overcometh Mitt Romney, clearly that would mean that the GOP had been given a white stone, since, as anyone can see, Santorum is white, and probably made of some kind of stone, and that new name will be written upon him: Republican Nominee. And lo, the reign of Santorum will be upon us all.

Book it. Either when Romney concedes, as he eventually must, because he's a loser nobody likes, not even the Republican Party establishment, or when Santorum wins the nomination at the Republican Convention in August, that'll be lights out.

Monday, March 05, 2012

the end of the world - 6 March

And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
 --Revelation 6:3

Super Tuesday is always regarded as Apocalyptic, especially by the non-incumbent party, so it's appropriate to interpret the day, in terms of both its political and doom implications, from that standpoint. What we need to interpret is this text regarding the "second seal" and the "second beast."

There can be no doubt that these refer, this year, to the Republican nomination campaign. That is to say, the Republican Party positions itself as the party of God, Christianity, Righteousness, and the End of Days. (Exhibit A: The Republican Party has declared itself, for more than 30 years, to be the Party of God, Faith, Divine Dispensation, Morality, etc.) The "second seal" and the "second beast" must, therefore, refer to GOP Presidential candidates.

There can be only two, at this point: Mitt (aka "Mittens," aka NOT the Massachusetts native son) Romney, and Rick (don't even get me started) Santorum. Since Santorum still trails Romney, we must conclude that Santorum is "the second beast," right? So any win by Santorum during Super Tuesday is obviously another step closer to Armageddon, right?

This is getting so confusing. I wish the Republicans would work this out, so those of us trying to provide instructive guidance about the end of the world could have something like the truth to work with.

Sunday, March 04, 2012


Tonight I made some food.

I cut two chicken breasts in half, pounded them flat, seasoned them, and added a slice of prosciutto and thin slices of fontina to them.

I dredged the chicken breasts in flour, sautéed them, and stuck them in a warm oven while I made a pan sauce with white wine, lemon juice, triple sec, sautéed mushrooms, and demi-glace. Later, I added tarragon and parsley to that.

Meanwhile, I was cooking Swiss chard...

and potatoes with diced prosciutto and shallot.

The final result looked a little like this:

Meanwhile, Valentine gave me this look:


Friday, March 02, 2012

academic freedom, academic repression, academic license

I'm in a faculty reading group this semester, reading an anthology called Academic Repression. A recurring theme in the book's chapters, each written by an aggrieved (or repressed) academic, is a recounting of the various ways that the academic establishment systematically rules out certain discourses - namely, progressive, critical discourses.

Several authors note that the tenure process is used to eliminate probationary faculty who dare to challenge the status quo, either in academia or in US culture or foreign policy. They express horror, I would call it, at the profoundly conservative leanings of the academic elite and the ham-fisted interventions of boards of trustees, government officials, and so on. Tenure, it seems, is granted only to those who obey the rules, follow the script, don't make noise, and behave themselves.

My reaction, chapter after chapter, is, "have you been involved in US academia at all, in the last 30 years? Did you not notice this before you became an assistant professor?"

I'm not suggesting there isn't systematic repression, because there certainly is. Notably, those complaining of it are generally from more elite, research-oriented institutions, where research doesn't matter, it's the determination in the last instance of a person's worth. Period. What this means is that research-intensive institutions have more of a vested interest in, and do more to discipline, the work of their faculty. After all, they are more dependent on reputation, large quantities of research dollars and foundation grants, then smaller, less elite, teaching institutions.

Again, I want to ask these authors, "did you know anything about this institution before accepting a position there? Like, where the money was coming from?"

They complain of a lack of academic freedom. I have little doubt that they are correct. I just think it's strange, and either naïve or disingenuous, to expect it in those institutions.

In contrast to elite research institutions whose hierarchy systematically preclude academic freedom, at teaching institutions, there also isn't academic freedom, but for entirely different reasons. Continuous, deliberate underfunding of public, comprehensive teaching universities limits the scope of academic discussion, and the desperation of junior faculty at these institutions to save their jobs leads them to quiescent compliance with any requirement - stated or implied - for tenure.

I am inclined to say there is no academic freedom in colleges or universities in the United States. This statement might lead a reader to the legitimate question: why am I not about to be fired, and why am I not afraid to say things like this?

The answer is that, although I don't have any more academic freedom than anyone else, what I have is a form of academic license. Simply put: I don't matter to the academic establishment, the power elite, the board of trustees, or anyone else. Nobody is paying me any attention. Nobody knows what I do in my classes except for the students in them, and the few students who care about what I do in my classes are overwhelmingly favorable to the material and ideas I expose them to, and the rest don't pay attention, either.

I could never get away with this if I was at a research institution. I'd have to toe the line. I'd have to publish, or perish, which means I would have to produce large bulks of the scholarly drivel that all the other academic philosophers in high-powered philosophy departments in the US have to produce (and produce all too happily). Ahh, but if I succeeded in that enterprise, I'd have tenure!

I don't think I'm being cynical. The authors in Academic Repression testify to this, ad nauseam. Let's say I'm glad I'm not one of them.