Monday, December 28, 2015
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Thursday, December 17, 2015
(4) Why does anyone produce racist images in consumer media messages? The answer to that is simple: they’re paid to do so. Now, the workers who create racist messages might or might not “believe in” the messages, but from the standpoint of capitalist production, their belief is not relevant. Only the valorization of capital advanced by the capitalist in the form of profit is relevant. From the standpoint of the capitalist, the content of the message is irrelevant as long as it is saleable and profitable. Those messages that generate more profit will be reproduced again and again as long as they are profitable. Whether this produces or reproduces a culture that suffers violence, hatred, fear, and dysfunction is also not relevant to the capitalist, except in so far as those sufferings can be treated as needs for which consumer objects can be produced for a profit.
It is important to emphasize that this does not explain the origin of racism (or of language). But I’m not sure discovering the origin of racism is important for dealing with racism. I am sure that dealing with racism will require dealing with profiteering from it.
Monday, December 14, 2015
And not to be gloomy and doomy about it, but the catastrophic end of capitalism doesn’t necessarily lead to communism. It could just be catastrophe.
Sunday, December 13, 2015
At great risk of self-poopifying, I would like to call attention to what I think is a sure sign of the decadence and depravity of consumer culture in our day and age—the cynical, meaning-destroying, emptying contextless repetition of iconic images. I hope to do more than complain, but to sketch an analysis of this capitalist spectacle.
Marilyn Monroe has been dead longer than I’ve been alive, and her image has continued, zombie-like, to roam among us. The image “Marilyn” is a reference without meaning, an icon of sex appeal that is by now rendered totally sexless. It merely indicates when and where one is supposed to respond according to an overdetermined habit of “belief.” That is, as a normal subject, the image “Marilyn” cues you to associate “sexuality” with some object. It operates like a sticky note, if you’ll pardon the expression, that labels an otherwise inert object with the message that you are supposed to believe is sexually charged and obtainable by purchase, contrary to all reality. “Marilyn” is obscene and prurient, an image of sexual death that normalizes the necrophilia of consuming behavior.
Furthermore, I am convinced that normal subjects know this and are capable of appropriate shame about it. As in the case of all our cultural addictions to obscenities, we consume “Marilyn” in guilt, and that guilt provides the excuse for continuing to use, continuing to consume.
In some ways a more curious case is the iconography of the film The Wizard of Oz. Reconfigured as it is here, as imagery in a computer game that functions as a non-gambling form of gambling, it means nothing. It does not actually refer to The Wizard of Oz—not to the film, not to the plot or characters in the film, not to the actors in the film. The “ruby slippers” are only the icon, without reference.
We generally expect cultural signifiers to signify, even if all they signify is the universal command to consume. As part of an advertisement for a game whose primary purpose is to expose users to more advertisement, these signifiers can barely be said to add value as a brand for consuming. These icons simply float, purposelessly and meaninglessly, in a nebula in which all images are juxtaposed without interacting or reacting. It is degree-zero of communication, as Baudrillard put it: the staging of an image that is a non-image because it is not an image of anything. Baudrillard called this the hyper-real, but this is because he was nostalgic for meaning, and such images can only appear as hyper-real in reference to a reality that they deny or destroy. They are hypo-real and hypo-realizing for experience. They defy any attempt to compose meaning.
What does it mean for us, or about us, that we spend so much time among these sepulchral artifacts?
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
To the extent that any of this is true, education as it is currently formulated can not benefit anyone. The only form of education that could, would be a thoroughly critical education, aiming not to contribute to the prevailing social order but to bring about its destruction. This critical education could not promise any individual a better life, because the destruction needed will be costly and painful, and the conclusion of the revolutionary period is in an unknowably distant future. Critical education could not promise any kind of advance in the power or wealth of individuals—on the contrary, it would lead them to be ill-suited to the labor routines and compliance demanded by every workplace. Critical education could promise pain and suffering. It could promise exposure to forms of thinking that are unrecognizable in bourgeois culture. It could promise exposure to severe disciplinary tactics and state violence.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Sunday, October 25, 2015
I'm uncertain I still believe that it's not my job to teach writing. For one thing, I've accepted at last that the implicit form-content dualism of that belief is untenable. Writing is not a container, and ideas are not pre-existing stuff to fill it.
On Thursday, I went on a bike ride after finishing grading 108 student papers, and thought about how to begin teaching something about writing to my students. I began by telling them that reading student papers causes me great pain, because I empathize with the pain I can see in their writing.
I then asked about their pain and anxiety about writing, and when I asked them what they do in response, the first answer in each class was, of course, procrastinate. They listed a number of other responses: they stress-eat, lose sleep, plagiarize, rush through, or give up. I asked how well those strategies work out.
It's hard for me to understand this, because I write all the time. I love constructing sentences and paragraphs. I delight in playing around with words. It's easy. It's easier for me to write than not to write. I struggle to refrain from writing. (That's not entirely true. Some days I can't write easily or well. I just don't have any words. When that happens, I don't push it. The next day, it's back.)
It's also perplexing because I believe most people I come across who have to write as part of what they're doing dislike or even dread writing. How--or more to the point, why--anyone who hates writing becomes a successful academic is beyond my comprehension.
Thursday, October 15, 2015
This seems like a contradiction, to some of us. The tenure-track faculty surely ought to be our natural allies. We do the same work, in the same institutions, with the same students. We share commitments to our fields of knowledge and to the social good of higher education.
Obviously, tenure-track faculty are benefited by the current institutional system. For many in the tenure-track, the current arrangement appears to be merit-based, rewarding the deserving and leaving the undeserving to their fate. I am not interested in that here, so I will simply assert that it is untrue, and that the faculty who believe this are wrong about their own merit, their merit relative to the contingent faculty, and the notion that the current system is merit-based.
It is more interesting to consider the tenure-track faculty who acknowledge that the current system is unfair to contingent faculty, is arbitrary to some degree in its distribution of rewards, and yet do not support contingent faculty activism or the usual institutional reforms contingent faculty advocate. I sometimes imagine that they view us as the monstrous creatures of evil genius, or as ghosts haunting them as a reminder of how fickle even their fates are. Few tenure-track faculty quietists would recognize themselves in my gothic fancies, I’m sure. They would explain their inaction with a wan smile and the admission that they are too busy with their own work and their own institutional struggles.
In fact, whether or not I’ve diagnosed their unconscious motivations, they typically are too busy. Most of the contingent faculty are too busy, as well—though more often with driving to another campus to teach two more classes, or to another job, to make ends meet.
Now let me see if I can recapitulate this. The primary goals of mainstream contingent faculty activists are to gain very much or all of what tenure-track faculty currently have in compensation, job security, and self-determination and professional status. What protects those privileges of tenure-track faculty right now? If I’m not mistaken, it is the current institutional system of power and distribution—the very same system of power and distribution to which mainstream contingent faculty activists want access. If this system is what guarantees unfairness, why should the goal be inclusion in it?
So it goes in reformism. (Cf. the same-sex marriage “rights” “victory” that has provided same-sex couples access to the discriminatory institution of state-sanctioned marriage. If marriage were not used as a way to discriminate regarding access to healthcare, survivor’s benefits, and access to other social goods—that is, if marriage were not an administrative means for allocating social goods to certain categories of approved-of lives—this would be a completely empty “victory.” As it stands, it’s certainly Pyrrhic.)
* "Contingent faculty" is a misnomer, one of many, for the faculty who work off the tenure track. It delights me that there is no proper name for us. "Contingent" is technically untrue in my case, under our Collective Bargaining Agreement, and is also vague. "Adjunct" is inappropriate and derogatory: non-tenure-track faculty are around 75% of college faculty in the US, and more than 50% are part-time employees at one or more institutions, so there is nothing "adjunct" (ancillary, additive, inessential) about our work. "Precarious" (a term more often used in Mexico and Québec) is nice. I like the little bit of homophony of "tenuous track," which I claim to have coined in around 2008 or so. My three-year appointments all contain the word "terminal," so we could be called the "terminal faculty."
In any case, although it is not a proper name for us, it is in common usage as an alternative to the obnoxious term "adjunct," so I'll adopt it here.
Wednesday, October 14, 2015
No doubt, it's the wrong target. No, I don't mean that the US has bombed the wrong brown people, although in large part that's true. And I don't meant that bombing brown people isn't solving the problem, although that's true too. I also don't mean that there's no moral justification for the policy, although that's abundantly clear.
I mean "Terror." Maybe we can't really commit war against "Terror." Plus, I don't know, but isn't war itself kind of terrifying? It's certainly terrible.
Terror is paralyzing. So - follow me here - it's not the people in terror who are turning into terrorists. It's more like people who have something wrong with their lives, and they can think of no other way to solve it but to lash out violently against the supposed perpetrators, in an atavistic and doomed attempt to kill their way out of their problems.
To target the right affect, what we need, I've realized at last, is this: a War on Malaise.
Thursday, October 01, 2015
Last Thursday was the Academic Freedom Forum that I organized. One of the primary goals of the event was to contribute to the intellectual life of the university at large, and to invite all members of the university to take part. By my count, 8 of my 108 students attended. I expect there are basically three reasons more of my students didn’t attend: because they weren’t interested, because they had a schedule conflict, or because they didn’t feel comfortable going.
Those who were uninterested may not have understood what the event was about, or why it would be relevant to their lives. They might also have not cared about the issue. I expect that some didn’t care because they don’t consider education to be about doing anything except attending classes and fulfilling requirements for graduation. What is the purpose of university education? How does that purpose relate to fulfilling graduation requirements? Is that purpose related to doing anything outside of fulfilling graduation requirements?
Those who had schedule conflicts may have had a class at the time of the event, but many had work or family obligations. It’s obviously impossible to schedule anything such that no one has any conflicting events. But scheduling is made more difficult by the many obligations most of our students confront daily. Many of those obligations should take precedence over engaging in the intellectual life of the university. What is the relative value of engaging in that intellectual life of the university compared to these other obligations?
Those who were uncomfortable about attending may feel alienated from the life of the university. That could be because of language or culture gaps: even the notion of “intellectual life” may make someone feel unwanted or uninvited. Others may have a health or mental health related reason. I know I often skip events on campus, even events I am interested in, because of anxiety. I know it’s not avoiding anxious situations is not a very positive response to anxiety, but after a long work day, with my energy reserves low, it’s sometimes too much of a burden to summon the fortitude to tough it out. Whose university is it? Whose intellectual life is it?
This is a complex issue. I usually think about it in simple terms, based on my own experience as an undergraduate student. My life as an undergraduate student was not similar to most here at Stan State. I come from a relatively privileged background, and my parents paid my tuition to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (tuition would have been a bit higher there, in constant dollars, than tuition here at Stan State now). I had a job, 20 hours a week, in the library, to pay for books and other expenses. I lived on campus. In addition to classes and work, I spent hours and hours every week, on campus, talking to my professors in their offices, reading in the library, and just prowling around the academic buildings, seeing what was going on. I went to some kind of university academic-related event about every other week—a public lecture by a visiting scholar, a film screening, a play, an art display, a poetry reading, you name it, I would go, especially if there was free food. None of this was for class, or for graduation requirements, or for credit, but just because I saw there were opportunities to do these things, and I wanted to do them. It mattered to me because I had an actively curious intellect, and because I wanted to be an active member of the university. Not only that, but I felt like the university was mine to explore and even exploit in those ways. My feeling was that faculty in their offices were fair game for me to go talk to, about anything at all; that the library was an open invitation to read anything at all about anything at all; and that the art studios, theaters, and architecture department were there for my own entertainment and stimulation. Nobody told me I wasn’t allowed in.
My way of approaching college life was unusual then, and would be even more unusual now. For one thing, my economic situation was very different from what a larger and larger majority of students face today. A lot has changed about the financing of so-called public higher education: fees are higher, and textbook costs are astronomically higher. A lot has changed about the economic conditions of everyday life, and about public funding for a great many human needs.
I imagine it is also the case that the culturally prevailing ideas about the value of higher education have changed. If it was unusual in my undergrad days for students to think of college as an intentional, transformative set of experiences, I think now it sounds almost goofy to suggest this. The cultural idea we have of higher education now emphasizes job preparation to such an extent, that it’s hard for many people to imagine it can do anything else.
The cultural role of higher education has changed also because the demographics of college student populations have changed. Back when I attended, UNCC had more than the usual number of “non-traditional” students—which means students who are not 18-22 years old, and who did not begin college immediately after high school and expect to complete college in four years. At Stan State today, most of our students are non-traditional students. On top of that, a huge majority are first-generation college students, many are immigrants, many more are the children of immigrants, and many do not primarily speak English (the de facto language of teaching on our campus).
When I take all that into consideration, I realize that my own experience of undergraduate education was incredibly privileged, but also that I took every last advantage of it that I could. That immeasurably enriched my education and my life. Because I know how full, rich, and happy the experience of participation in the intellectual life of the university was for me, I want that for everyone. This also indicates what I think university education is, what it is for, and what value it has.
But who is it for? Remember, I was privileged. I didn’t doubt where my next meal was coming from (not until grad school). I had the resources to take advantage of the university. I didn’t receive the message, not once, never ever ever, that university education was not for me.
What do you value about university education? What are you getting from it? What could you get from it? How?
If you did not attend the Academic Freedom Forum because you couldn’t afford to (i.e., your schedule made it impossible), because you weren’t interested, or because you were uncomfortable about coming, this is not your problem. It is a problem concerning the institution as a whole and all of our relations to it. It is a problem regarding our economic, cultural, and social statuses, and, yes, of classism, racism, sexism, prejudice against different ethnicities, against different linguistic groups. The university is not somehow outside of the society, and the social conflicts and problems in our society are reflected in everything that goes on in the university.
My question is what we can do to make university education as valuable to you as it can be, and as it should be?