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Archive for July 2006

oh, to be in england…

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…at the Huggies ® Big Scream showing of Atomised.

(via Infinite Thought)

Actually, there are days and nights when I’d give, well, a lot for just a day+night long vacation back in the realm of deracinated empty consumption society so dystopianized by Houellebecq. You know, soulless wanderings around expensive-land, jaded participation in the evermore banal pursuits of young professional types, creatives, in the sterile and homogenized big city. Today is one of those days. Teething, low-grade fever, an overheated birthday party, too hot to go for a proper walk, stuck in the house, nothing to do outside anyway.

Or, in other words, I’ll betcha those britmoms and britdads were exercising a bit of Certeavian differentially productive consumption at the Huggies screening, poaching on the unbearable emptiness of their yesterdays.

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July 29, 2006 at 10:11 pm

close reading

Ron Rosenbaum’s upset that the NY senators have failed to lead on gay marriage. (Behind the NY Observer’s paywall, unfortunately). Check out the mot juste triangulation that he sniffs out here:

So let’s look at little more closely at why New York’s liberal Senators are not taking a leadership position on this. Hillary Clinton’s extremely guarded statement on the subject can only be called classic Clintonism: She has limited herself to the somewhat cryptic formulation that “I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been: between a man and a woman.”

Cryptic because it could be taken as merely descriptive. As if, 100 years ago, someone had said that “voting is as voting has always been: something done by men” – not necessarily an endorsement of one-sex voting. Or is it meant to sound prescriptive, a dog whistle to potential red-state Presidential voters: Marriage should continue to be as it “has always been: between a man and a woman.”

It’s remarkable, isn’t it – with the Clintons, everything always seems to come down to the ambiguity of what “is” is. Here, is “is” an observation or an affirmation.

For another post, but not without relevance here: I cringe every time I come across a left / liberal blog with a snippet like “Proud member of the reality-based community” stapled beneath their title. For me, Clinton’s delphic talking point is a perverse or not so perverse instantiation of “reality-based” politics. But that’s for another day…

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July 28, 2006 at 10:02 pm


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(Cross-posted from Long Sunday)

Stanley Fish in the NY Times a few days ago:

All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

Sure, I suppose I agree. In practice even more than in theory. I certainly don’t "indoctrinate" in my classroom. But, on the other hand, I certainly do expose my students to the historical record, positions and representations taken with regard to and within the historical record, and in general a more sophisticated, probing way of viewing the world than the one they brought into the classroom, or so I at least hope. All of which is kosher under Fish’s rules, as everything is always up for argument and discussion, of course. I never, in arguments and discussion, take sides except for pedagogically productive purposes, a play acting of argument to move things along. 

But, I imagine, given the "ideas or topics" that I teach about, and the quality of my non-indoctrinary teaching, there’s a strong likelihood that the students emerge, on aggregate, further "left" than they entered the classroom. In fact, one might well make the argument that the non-indoctrinary approach that someone like me – or perhaps someone like Fish, who knows – takes is nothing more than a subtler, more efficient approach to political conversion – even indoctrination – than, say, the lame dork who shows Fahrenheit 9/11 to his physics class. What if I, in fact, have learned the hidden-in-plain-sight tactics of the mainstream media, constantly staging a debate that in fact is just a show trial, incessantly giving my students the illusion of autonomous participation, when in fact the game is rigged from the start?

It is tough to figure out what Fish would say to this, as he ignores the possibility that the free trade in ideas might itself be deployed in the service of ideological mystification. Is it simply a question of openness to the possibility that the students will truly find their own way? When I was a kid at Catholic school, I learned that the rhythm method was a permissible form of birth control family planning because it demonstrated an openness to pregnancy, whereas the Pill or condoms did not. Fuzzy logic, to be sure. Where does good old fashion coitus interruptus fall on the scale? The nuns didn’t go there, strangely enough.

Last semester, so effectively did I not-indoctinate my class that they found a book whose politics I find very intriguing indeed (William Morris’s News from Nowhere) entirely ridiculous. I couldn’t stop talking about utopia and the limits of fiction and they, almost as a one, took the position that Morris demonstrates through his fiction the absolute impossibility of anarchic socialism. I can’t help but think that they, following their teacher’s lead, underread the book… But perhaps that was just, for me, an acceptable risk, a write-off, in my grand campaign to have my beliefs metastasize through the student body… L’effet du réel, as it were…

In short, I think Fish too is underreading the situation. Or, perhaps, he’s writing in bad faith, fully aware that the free trade in ideas is not only a rhetorical trick, but is in fact the definitive rhetorical trick of our time. "We report, you decide," right? The piece would then be a brilliantly performative piece, engaging in the very tactic of manipulation-via-objectivity that it would be tacticly endorsing.  I wish it were the latter, but I suspect it’s the former. One might so easily imagine an entire army of leftist professors with Fish’s article in hand, bent on ideological domination of the student masses, all in agreement that the best approach is the one of least resistance. Stage debates, employ the silence and cunning of impersonality, shift the goalpost, and reap the ideological benefits in the end. This already, to my mind, is the case (but from a different ideological direction) in US economics departments, where reality itself is conservatively liberal and the price of admission is the acceptance of the status quo.

One other thing: I wonder what Fish would make of politically-polemical or at least engaged writing on the part of academics. Writing occupies such an ambiguous place in our work. The toughest part of my job for my father, who is distinctly not an academic, to understand is the fact that I need to write – that that is what, almost exclusively as I work at a research university, will earn me tenure. There is no way in but to write, and no way to stay but to write, but we are paid to teach. I have to write, but no one is required to read what I write. So where does this fit in his rulebook?

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July 27, 2006 at 11:53 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

child’s eyes

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And just as we can’t stop apologizing for ourselves, for our childishness, we also can’t stop talking about children. Over at Maxims & Reflections, a fantastic post that pushes us down the path toward why.

Here’s M&R:

In these deceptively simple pictures, Greenberg has captured something of the current emotional weather in middle-class America. Everybody feels bad. Everybody knows something is wrong. But no one knows enough in the way of facts to say just what is wrong and, if they did, they would have to admit staggering and horrific truths about how their lives are sustained and indeed how their children’s lives are threatened…

M&R also takes up the issue of the violence involved in making these photographs. Perhaps the passage from John Berger that I had on here recently might be a valuable gloss. Or, these images and this post a valuable gloss on the Berger.

. . . For the phtographer this means thinking of her or himself not so much as a reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed. The distinction is crucial.

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July 27, 2006 at 10:38 pm


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July 27, 2006 at 10:12 am

Posted in war

the obvious

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A recent uptick in the bloggers that I read apologizing for “stating the obvious.” We’re all doing it, including me. The problems of the world have become, over the past half-decade, so much less interesting, so resistant to nuance, so devoid of argumentative running room, the space to turn on a dime, to snap it over.

We find ourselves speaking like children. We can’t help ourselves – we wail and kick at the obvious. There is nothing complex left to say, no tests of our intelligence, our subtly intuitive sense of things.

And so I come with more obviousness tonight.

In certain ways, what is happening in Lebanon right now seems more upsetting than even the Iraq War was at the outset. I feel more hotly disturbed by it – and I can tell that others do as well – others who like me were extremely troubled by the occupation of Iraq to begin with.

And, to my eyes, the reason has to be something like this: to a significant extent, the rhetoric of justice and democracy, the warm euphemistic language that hid the cold blooded killing, when it came to Iraq and Afghanistan, or even a potential war with Iran, is slipping away. No one evoked a doctrine of proportionality when it came to the earlier conflicts; no one suggested that we were bombing these places in order to convince them of the error of their ways. Whatever was really afoot, the powerful still felt an obligation to lie. That obligation is now disappearing, very nearly gone, apparently.

There are a few half-hearted attempts, whose distance from reality is almost laughable. Condi Rice’s press-conference the other day almost made it sounds as though the Lebanese government itself had invited the Israelis to destroy Beirut, so intractable was their problem with Hezbollah. Just a reflex, I guess. But moments like these are exceptional: Israel doesn’t apologize, and makes little effort toward a justification for their actions couched in the language of civilization-seeding and general democratic benevolence. The US punditocracy has gobbled it up, this opportunity to push the bar a bit further in the direction of madness – scoffing and chuckling at the notion of a humanitarian crisis tonight, a few days ago labeling dead-children “sand bags.”

On the global scale, as my undergraduates love to remind me when we talk about such things, we are still at a relatively small and locally contained level of crisis at the moment. 400 or so deaths, though there are hundreds of thousands of refugees. But there is a qualitative development emerging out of – actually alongside of – this quantitative tally of dead.

They no longer feel that they need to lie to us. And we, sensing that there are ever fewer lies to parry, sink into a dreadful apprehension that the rolling-out of the obvious has only just begun.

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July 26, 2006 at 12:00 am

Posted in distraction, war


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Arthur Danto, “Whatever Happened to Beauty,” The Nation, March 30, 1992:

I wish that in preparing my own contribution I had remembered something the painted Brice Marden said in the course of an interview with his peer Pat Steir: “The idea of beauty can be offensive…. It doesn’t deal with issues; political issues or social issues. But an issue that it does deal with is harmony,” For I would then have realized the degree to which social and political issues are today framed in terms of disharmony, of strife and conflict and confrontation, when in truth the great political visions have been precisely of the harmonious society, and it would be difficult to think of a more exact criterion of political health than harmony. I might then have proposed that every beautiful work can be viewed as an allegory of political well-being, and disharmonious work as allegorical of social pathology.

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July 21, 2006 at 11:54 pm

Posted in aesthetics, simplicity