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Archive for October 2009

how many faces can you fit on the face of a single coin?

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Ah! Now I remember what made them laugh during the lecture yesterday. I was teaching in the Anatomy Building (we don’t have that sort of lecture space in the department, so we end up borrowing from the sciences…) and, in addition to pattering on about the vicissitudes of doing English,  I was at one point telling them about paragraphs, how they should recuperate what came in the paragraph before and move things a step forward at the same time. I drew a little picture of Janus on the board as an illustration. And then labelled it, for the benefit of the anatomists who’d be using the room after me, Accurate rendering of the human head, courtesy of your friends in the English department. Defund us now.

Relatedly, and for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking a bit about personae, not Pound’s but ours. Specifically, how many of them we can have and how many of them we should have. By persona I suppose I mean nothing more than a fictional version of ourselves that we live up to, disappointingly underperform, sync with in spots, or trade for another as the case may be.

But here’s the real question: When one grows tired of donning the mask that comes along with a particularly arduous role – and how many persona parts are truly easy to play, in the end? – one can either look around for another to wear or one can imagine, or even anticipate, quitting the mask-and-part show altogether. The latter seems preferable, less Sisyphusian, but is hard to manage without subtler, more translucent, but nevertheless just as determinant personae slipping in the back door. So… tired, say, of the oscillation between roguish rambler and upright alpha, one wants to abandon the game altogether, one decides “no more.” But then all the souless robots and assembly-line labourers of art and autistic and desensitized angels start swimming up from below.

In short, to have two or more is hard. One might even be harder. Zero is a beautiful thought but probably impossible. Especially once you’ve gotten even a wee bit meta about the whole issue.

It’s interesting to think that modernism, in its negotiations with the concept of impersonality, grappled with this question all the time. Often, impersonality meant the serial adoption of personae, the preparing of faces to meet the faces that you meet. Impersonality as impersonation, in other words. The Flaubertian fantasy takes a turn at Robert Browning, as the dramatic monologue becomes a holding pen where you can keep the romantic impulse and stay unmucked yourself. But always in the corner of the period’s vision there is another, more profound impersonality, the degree zero of unmasked empty subjectivity, Mrs Ramsay’s wedge-shaped core of darkness.

This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it. They could not stop it, she thought, exulting. There was freedom, there was peace, there was, most welcome of all, a summoning together, a resting on a platform of stability. Not as oneself did one find rest ever, in her experience (she accomplished here something dexterous with her needles) but as a wedge of darkness. Losing personality, one lost the fret, the hurry, the stir; and there rose to her lips always some exclamation of triumph over life when things came together in this peace, this rest, this eternity…

She gets there, of course, but she only gets there in the way that we all do in the end.

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October 13, 2009 at 7:45 am

an ma thesis for somebody

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Dammit! Not only am I suffering from the taped-tv contingency-failure issue described in my previous post, but even worse: there are so many ways that I am notified about just about everything that happens in the world, that it is almost impossible to keep myself in the dark about the Yankees score until I have time to watch my recorded telecast.

A few days ago, it was my iGoogle homepage with its NYT feed. This morning, things went to hell even faster. Rolled over to check my iPhone’s inboxes, and there was the NYT alert. I’m not sure it’s even worth trying to do what I am trying to do.

With distance increases also the banalizing reach of the twittering infrosources, systematically worming through the world and its information to turn any remaining shreds of romance to into a mere final score.

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October 12, 2009 at 7:35 am

Posted in sports, Television

teaching writing, remembering teaching writing

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Writing a lecture on “essay writing” in the off-minutes today. Will deliver it to the first-years on Monday. In America, I never “wrote lectures,” as I played everything, no matter how large, as a seminar. Here, you’re at a podium and the students won’t talk back, even if asked to. And so you write lectures. It feels strangely old-fashioned. The upside is, I suppose, that there’s a chance that the work that I’m doing today will last me for the remainder of my career, some thirty-two or so years if I stay at my place (and I might!) and they don’t get rid of manditory retirement (which they shouldn’t!)

Writing this takes me back to my year teaching first-year writing (too posh, the place where I was, for “composition.”) I sat through an endless week of summer sessions on how to teach writing; I was surly; I learned an incredible amount. More than half of what I know about the teaching end of teaching English I learned during this period. It was a big time for me. I got my first job, conceived my first child, came to terms (well, sort of) with leaving Brooklyn, the only place I’ve ever unambiguously loved.

I drove to work from Brooklyn, my little blue VW Jetta Wagon, two or three days a week. It was a half time job with half time pay – still more money than I’d ever made in my life. I had an office in a building that wasn’t the English department, and a primo parking spot in a primo lot. I listened to NPR, day after day, while making that commute. Brian Lehrer. Strangely, I never thought to stay late, extend my stay at the university. Life, from my perspective now, seemed incredibly uncomplicated. I picture fast, clean roads, the view from the bridges that I’d cross on the way there and on the way back. Easy conversations with friends who’d hitch a ride back to the city with me when they were out at the university too. At night, I’d type away at my dissertation, which needed to get done.

At the end, we had the baby, who lived for five weeks in the city of her birth, and then we left. They were filming an ad for Nike on the stoop of the brownstone across the street the day the moving trucks came.

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October 10, 2009 at 8:53 pm

Posted in academia, brooklyn

in the boxes

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Owen has written a brilliant response to much of what I’ve been saying lately, and I’ve responded in turn. Just thought I’d let you know, in case you’re not frantically checking the comment boxes. This is the sort of discussion, I think, we ought to be having…

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October 10, 2009 at 9:06 am

Posted in dysphoria

last call on militant dysphoria

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OK. Last time around for this I think. I’ve pretty much said my peace, but since I keep getting (to a degree, fairly) accused of painting Militant Dysphoria with too broad a brush, I’ll comment on Mark’s new post and that will likely be the end of that for awhile.

Mark keeps writing this stuff, and I’m not sure whether it’s more just to describe the results as getting no nearer to the issue that he needs to address or whether it’d be better to say that he keeps slipping ever further away. At any rate, this is perhaps the fullest description of Militant Dysphoria that we’ve had yet – and it is still terminally self-contradictory and evasive just when the payoff should come.

The post describes MD as a process. First you fall into dysphoria, then you get out – while still retaining, as Mark says, “a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields.” So what are these “glacial insights”? Mark describes Dysphoria in the following way:

Dysphoria […] involves both a disdain for play-acting and an inability to achieve any distance, particularly in relation to oneself. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the distance between the dejected subject and the rituals of the symbolic order is so total that it is no longer liveable. The depressive experiences himself as walled off from the lifeworld, so that his own frozen inner life – or inner death – overwhelms everything; at the same time, he experiences himself as evacuated, totally denuded, a shell: there is nothing except the inside, but the inside is empty. For the depressive, the habits of the former lifeworld now seem to be, precisely, a mode of play-acting, a series of pantomime gestures (“a circus complete with all fools”), which they are both no longer capable of performing and which they no longer wish to perform – there’s no point, everything is a sham.

So subjective emptying meets an emptying of the extra-subjective, the world beyond the self. He goes on say, looping through a Joy Division / Morrissey comparison that comes down on the side of the former as true bearers of dysphoric melancholy:

No amelioration is possible, that’s the point – and that’s why depression is not mere sadness, not a “mood” that will lift, but an ontological conviction. (Perhaps it is only on “Disorder” – “I’ve been waiting for a guide to come and take me by the hand” – that there is any hint of a redeeming Other, but even here the hope, such as it is, seems faint, or perhaps already abandoned: Like a fool, I’ve been waiting…. but the redeemer will never come. Depression is a “world”, not only because it colours all experience – or rather removes all colour, reducing everything to the stark black and white of the Unknown Pleasures cover (black and white thinking is a hallmark of the depressive condition) – but also because it lacks any limits. Depression is experienced not as depression, as some “illness” susceptible to treatment, but as the Truth. Given this, no-one else could help the depressive; or at least, that is how it looks from the Cold World. Others are impotent, puppets of a pitiless fatality that makes agency an illusion (an illusion to to which they, insofar as they are not themselves depressed, are victims): they are either unreachable (“Candidate”), betrayers (“Means To An End”), or else themselves betrayed (“Shadowplay”).

Via depression / dysphoria / melancholia (the terms are used rather interchangeably in the post), we come to grips with the coldness of the cold world, a seemigly terminal comfirmation of the unconditional worthlessness of ourselves and the horror of the world.

Fair enough. I’ve only been a bit depressed – or perhaps may intermittantly be depressed – and the description seems accurate. I’ve never had a problem with the identification of the dysphoric that has gone around here, the registration that it is in fact highly prevalent in certain rungs and strata of our world, or even the characterizations of it that Mark (and others) provide. But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom. So right at this point, with this post as with all of the previous iterations of the notion of Militant Dysphoria, this is where we are primed to hear the turn, the argument, the unlikely but persuasive claim.

But of course this is where Mark’s post, again as with all previous descriptions of MD, falls flat. The attempt to render dyphoria somehow militant, or to derive a form of militancy out of dysphoria, once again takes a merely gesture shape. Here is what he says:

So much for dysphoria, but what of militancy? Here, perhaps, I can introduce a personal note. I’ve passed through the Cold World a few times, and I can say – I hope without melodrama – that I’m lucky to have survived it. Yet emergence from the “deserts and wastelands” has never meant a happy reinsertion back into the cheer and security of the lifeworld. A spell in the Cold World necessariy involves a subjective destitution, and what then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes. Both Nick and Nathan highlighted the way in which an interruption of habit and the habituated was a precondition for militancy; this was certainly how things worked in my case, in which serious depression was replaced by political anger. Yet the Cold World is not just some preparation for militancy: it is important to retain a certain fidelity with the glacial insights that the hard soil of the Cold World yields. When Dominic spoke last week, his account of dysphoria – that is prompted by a loss that projects the sufferer out of their set of symbolic attachments – sounded like Freud’s discussion of melancholia; but it also reminded me of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. Perhaps – and here again the notion of “militant dysphoria” seems especially urgent just now – militant dysphoria could provide a leftist alternative to the shock doctrine, which violently deprives populations of their symbolic co-ordinates as a preparation for imposing a neoliberal narrative on their shattered nervous systems. At a time when capitalism itself has been denuded of its symbolic embedding – when it has itself been plunged into a dysphoric condition – the time is right for new narratives to be developed and propagated.

The turn to personal experience isn’t itself a bad thing here, except that it allows Mark to draw a veil in front of the actual path toward politicization that leads out of (or is the end of, it’s unclear) the valley of dysphoria. Something interrupts, so say Nick and Nathan, but Mark isn’t going to tell us how he was interrupted out of the habit of depression. Dysphoria doesn’t seem to be a preparation for militancy, except of course it is when we’re talking Militant Dysphoria – things start to get quite confused. Then there’s a reference to Klein, and the “shock doctrine,” but how MD helps us to imagine anythign but the process run in reverse, from equipoise toward inturned, nihilistic depression, is left unsaid. Other than the fact that an episode of dysphoria, once experienced, will leave us permanently a bit dysphoric (and remember – that’s already been established that as a sort of nihilitic inwardness, apolitical but not pre-political), we’re not given much. What we have is something like this:

We must start from the recognition that things are truly bleak. And then something must happen to make us grab on to something else, something like politics, without forgetting that the world is truly bleak. Despite the fact that that we’ve learned that world, at essence, is truly and utterly bleak, we must embrace politics as a solution to this, as unlikely as it sounds. We will never forget that the world is truly and finally bleak, but somehow we will struggle to make it better anyway. Our knowledge of the terminal bleakness of the world will show us how to make it better.

In short, the paragraph of the militancy of the dysphoric does nothing more than wave its hands toward militancy – it does not show how it might happen, or even how it might be encouraged to happen. “[W]hat then matters is how things are reconstructed once the permafrost recedes…” But how things are reconstructed is exactly what we want to know, and it’s just what Mark isn’t going to – and perhaps can’t – tell us. Beyond this, all we have is an impressionistic description of dysphoric depression, a hint that sometimes it somehow transmutes , maybe of its own accord, and nothing more. We have no argument, and we sure as hell don’t have a politics.

Militant dysphoria, the way Mark describes it, seems to be a case of something that we might call the solipsistic fallacy. And it is no wonder that such a solipsistic fallacy would take depression as its privileged subjective condition. Depression, after all, is a psychopathology that convinces its sufferer that everything – in a bleak way, of course – revolves around him or her. For some reason Mark selectively ignores just what he keeps saying about depressive dysphoria – that it encourages a form of narcissistic misanthropy – only to suggest that we remember all the other parts (which were what exactly? what characterized the coldness of the cold world in this model other than withdrawal?) as we formulate our future politics and political narratives.

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October 9, 2009 at 12:07 am

Posted in dysphoria

immediacy lost

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Not the same, watching the Yankees playoff games on my DVR the evening after. I used to be able to stay up late for things like the Canadian Olympic hockey team playing on the other end of the world, but that period is long gone now and for reasons age and child and work-related. Sports sometimes seem to be the only source of contingency left, certainly the only form left on television. Knowing that I can fastforward, and actually fastforwarding so as to turn the 4 hour plus contests into something I can watch in an hour-and-a-half, takes about 70 percent of the fun out of it. But letting in play out long form, with commercial breaks, seems a bit insane.

Following from and sadder than that, what a development it is to make a decision between downloaded Mad Men and DVR’d Yankees-in-the-playoffs. Obviously I went with the latter, and will save the former for another night. But how unimaginable twenty months ago. Ah BST! Ah five hours earlier!

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October 8, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Posted in teevee

never trust anyone over 30

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A parable inspired by a story that just keeps getting told because it just keeps happening.

Tenured professor gets stirred up, feels his moment in the sun of history is upon him, and leads his students up on the barricades, departmental or university-wide. Things are heady for a bit, and then, as is wont to happen, less heady. And then the inevitable reaction comes, the blowback that always occurs occurs. Said tenured professor is immune, because said professor is, yes, tenured. But the junior staff and grad students that followed him up there, well, they are not. They learn new lessons, lessons on the meaning of words like “blacklist” and “Barnes and Noble.” The tenured professor, when he has time in the evenings, writes letters of deep appreciation and support to his students, now ex-students and under-employed, thanking them for their service to the Cause. Perhaps he even facebook friends them, because he is just that sort of guy.

Students listen to their teachers. Why wouldn’t they? There is nothing worse than the look that you get from people younger than you are and who look up to you when you let a Cause down. Sometimes you do it out of self-interest, but mostly you see what is coming up the pike, slightly more clearly than they do as you’ve been around the block a few times, have heard all the stories about how these things go, and worry about their welfare, spending all that they have and are on a fight that won’t be won.

I’ve been there, and have made the right decisions at the right times. Thank Christ for that. I’m there to help them stay in the business, not usher them out of it in a blaze of hypocritical glory. Just saying.

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October 7, 2009 at 11:53 pm

Posted in academia