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Archive for December 2009

judt on social democracy

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Tony Judt’s “What Is Living and What is Dead in Social Democracy,” a talk given at NYU and printed in the NYRB, is worth taking a look at for the clarity of its diagnosis and the ultimate argument, which I take to come in these late paragraphs:

If social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear. Rather than seeking to restore a language of optimistic progress, we should begin by reacquainting ourselves with the recent past. The first task of radical dissenters today is to remind their audience of the achievements of the twentieth century, along with the likely consequences of our heedless rush to dismantle them.

The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve. It is the right that has inherited the ambitious modernist urge to destroy and innovate in the name of a universal project. Social democrats, characteristically modest in style and ambition, need to speak more assertively of past gains. The rise of the social service state, the century-long construction of a public sector whose goods and services illustrate and promote our collective identity and common purposes, the institution of welfare as a matter of right and its provision as a social duty: these were no mean accomplishments.

We all, I think, understand what Judt’s getting at with this argument in favour of conservative, “anti-modernist” social democracy, given the tenor of the neo-liberal and neo-conservative approaches with which we’ve been long familiar. (Remember the “reality-based community” stuff back from the beginning of the war?) But on the other hand, Judt’s suggestion seems to contradict his criticism, earlier in the paper, of social democratic parties for their defensiveness, the fact that they’ve long since had “nothing distinctive to offer.” Still, worth taking a look at…

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December 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Posted in crisis, socialism

Happy Xmas! (Past Is Over) / handke’s weight of the world

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From Peter Handke’s The Weight of the World:

A fine thing: suddenly to forget about one’s history, one’s past, to stop feeling that one’s present happiness is endangered by what one used to be, as a child, as an adolescent, etc.

That is to say, forget the novelization of life. A special peril for literary types, those invested in the novel as a form, whose mental architecture has been rebuilt in the shape of that genre. So what instead?

Do one thing after another as lucidly as possible: smell the bread, smell the schnapps, fold the paper – therein lies salvation.

One thinks first concentration. But it’s not just that, or perhaps not that at all. The lucidity seems to come in fact from relaxation, the escape from a special sort of self-tied knot:

That woman was walking so elegantly, and now, all of a sudden her gait is slovenly, lewd, and vulgar; she’s visibly relieved

These are the opposite of Joyce’s epiphanies. Can you feel the tension in this one despite the tiny form? The turn in regard? The pivot in his consideration across the and now?

Massive changes are afoot chez AWP, and AWP is looking at books, such as Handke’s,  for advice on how to manage it. And I don’t mean the blog. You should hear the kitchen table conversations. Lord. Handke is coming with on the big trip, despite the fact there are Other Things To Do.

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December 25, 2009 at 1:58 am

Posted in handke

Happy Xmas! (Party Is Over)

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Just heard back from my favorite secretary at the place where I did my Ph.D. No party this year at MLA “due to recent budgetary modifications.” Yeeouch. Was always my favorite part of the whole thing. And if they’re feeling it badly enough at that place to do things like that, fin du monde elsewhere folks.

I’d try to organize my own in my capacious (but unfunded) room at the Crowne Plaza but it’s so damn difficult to buy booze to take away in pseudo-medieval Philadelphia that it wouldn’t be worth the bother. Literally, it’s basically a matter of walking down the street with pitchers of Yuengling filled from a tap etc. The Marriott bar it is then…

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December 24, 2009 at 12:40 am

Posted in academia

Happy Xmas! (Higher Ed Is Over)

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From the Times (UK) this morning:

Universities will have to make severe cuts after Lord Mandelson abruptly slashed teaching budgets by millions of pounds yesterday.

Departments are expected to close, degree courses will be scrapped and students will have to pay higher fees.

[…]

The Business Secretary said that universities should move from the three-year, full-time undergraduate degree model towards a “wider variety of provision”, such as foundation and fast-track degrees. They will be encouraged to focus more on the skills and knowledge demanded by employers rather than on academia for its own sake. Those that disobeyed the Government by taking on too many students this autumn will be penalised in next year’s grants at a rate of £3,700 per extra full-time student.

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December 23, 2009 at 11:45 am

Posted in academia

reality hunger’s performative contradiction

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One of the only good things to happen to me over the last ten days was to happen upon a discarded review copy of David Shields’s forthcoming Reality Hunger near the office recycling bin. I want to review it myself, and will try to sort that out in the next few days, so I’m not going to say everything I have to say on here and right now. I can’t understand the breathless blurbage it’s received. I know what blurbs are and aren’t, believe me believe me, but still. I should have a chance to ask one of the Major Blurbbers what he was thinking at an Xmas party in a couple of hours. We’ll see.

Just for now: one of the things that Shields does in this book is copy other people’s stuff seamlessly into the book without attribution. Well, almost without attribution. There’s an appendix that starts as follows:

This book contains hundreds of quotations that go unacknowledged in the body of the text. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs took for granted and that we have lost. Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.

A major focus of Reality Hunger is appropriation and plagiarism and what these terms mean. I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism but being told it can’t be published because it might harm thee publishing industry.

However, Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations; the list follows (except, of course, for any sources I couldn’t find or forgot along the way).

If you would like to restore this book to the form in which I intended it to be read, simply grab a sharp pair of scissors or a razor blade or box cutter and remove pages xxx-xxx by cutting along the dotted line.

Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do – all of us – though not all of us know it yet. Reality cannot be copyrighted.

Stop; don’t read any farther.

Lovely – lots of us agree in principle with all of that. But if reality cannot be copyrighted, Reality Hunger still can be… and is. Right at the front of the book, there it is: Copyright © David Shields, 2010. In this day and age when all sorts of alternative models like creative commons and copyleft are in practice along with alternative means of distribution, it does seem like Shields’s offering is skewed from the start by this rather glaring performative contradiction. Technically, even in copying the above into my post, I am breaking the injunction at the front of the review copy not to “reproduce before publication of the finished book” any of its contents. I’m slightly tempted to start a blog where I post the book as a whole, one of its numbered entries a day. Hmmm…. I’m going to wait by the phone for those Random House lawyers to call.

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December 20, 2009 at 1:27 pm

mark fisher’s capitalist realism

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Ah insomnia! A little worried that I’ve found the problem of my early-middle age. Anyway, was up from 4 AM this morning and decided to spend the wee small hours reading Mark Fisher’s new Capitalist Realism, which I’ve finished, and which is quite a good read. (And quick! I made it through in about 2.5 hours while also answering blog responses, writing a couple of emails, and making and drinking 1.5 pots of coffee…)

One thing that occurred to me while reading it is just how British Mark’s examples and ultimately his arguments are. Obviously this isn’t a problem! But from an American perspective, or at least to this American, what Capitalist Realism is really about at center, given its preoccupations, is not really capitalist ideology and atmospherics in general so much as a specific (and specifically British) set of phenomena having to do with the lingering bits of British socialism, the remnant bits of the welfare state. The book focuses on the experiences of those who work for or use a set of public resources – further education colleges and state-funded universities, NHS-provisioned psychological care, the BBC, etc. I can’t actually think of a single example of non-public business mentioned in the book. (He talks a bit about call centers – but in the UK these are often attached to public organizations like the NHS too…)

It’s not even the standard story about privatization that Mark is ultimately telling here, though it’s a related story. Rather, Capitalist Realism is ultimately focused on something else – the ways that public institutions that haven’t and likely won’t be privatized have been forced (have been forced to) to participate in simulated markets, where a rigorous regime of testing on a set of metrics replaces the invisible hand of the market. It’s a governmental gambit driven at once by a desire to reduce funding across the board and to convince voters that they are taking the efficacy of public institutions very seriously. Since it couldn’t / can’t actually expose some public institutions to market forces through opening competition or privatization, New Labour established (and continues to establish) pseudo-markets, fake market-like games, for public institutions to compete in in order to obtain funding.

The Research Assessment Exercise (now, the Research Excellence Framework) is the face of this that I’m most familiar with, as it’s the pseudo-market in place for higher education in the UK. The short version of the process is that academic departments collect and submit “research inputs” from their staff – three or four “inputs” from each lecturer including essays, books, editions or whatever the equivalents are discipline to discipline. These will be assessed according to a variety of metrics by a board, who will rate the inputs and, when the results are aggregated, departments as wholes. Funding will be distributed (according to a complex formula) to universities based on the results. Entities like the NHS have their own versions of this sort of exercise. And further, it’s easy to see how the dominance of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in the NHS’s mental health provision has everything to do with its cost-effective and goal-oriented nature.

Having benchmarks and metrics to measure the effectiveness isn’t, to my mind, a strictly bad thing in principle. It’s not a terrible idea for state-funded agencies to be required to demonstrate that they are in fact working correctly. The oldest problem of socialist economic organization is how to provoke productivity and promote efficiency once work has been shielded from the imperatives of the market. But on the other hand, while the rules of market participation are quite clear cut (make a lot of money, one way or another), the very pseudo-ness of this sort of exercise allows the bureaucrats and politicians involved in its development wide latitude to accomplish nefarious ends – and to accomplish them with all of the trappings of semi-scientism and “definitive” league tables.

For instance, while it’s still a bit early to tell exactly what metrics will be employed in this current round of the REF. This is a big problem to start with – we’ve all already been playing a game whose rules still haven’t been formulated two years into the match… But what’s worse is that there’s a good chance that the rules will be skewed to favor varieties of research that humanities academics simply don’t produce.  I won’t go into the details here – I swim in this stuff all day and night, and simply can’t go through it again. If you’re really interested check out Stefan Collini’s excellent piece in a recent TLS, describes the problematic situation for the humanities very vividly.

At any rate, to an American, or at least this American, Capitalist Realism is as much a book about the adaptation of the UK’s lingering socialist structures – public education facilities, public health care provisioners, public broadcasters – not so much to capitalism per se, but to the simulation of capitalism that defines New Labour’s approach to public services. Since Americans barely have any of these structures even to worry about – little public health care, public education is mostly administered on the local or state level, PBS and NPR aren’t large enough to matter in the way that the BBC does – there’s only been a small amount of pseudo-market gaming. (Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act was a step in the direction of “standards-based education reform” on a federal level). And while some of the structures that Mark describes can be found in the private sphere, the self-assessment and self-monitoring that he focuses on really are, to my mind, most prevalent in the British public sphere, a framework of holdover socialist public organization constantly being tampered with by a state whose priorities lies elsewhere.

And this fact has important ramifications for the assessment of the overall argument of Capital Realism. On the final pages of the book, when Mark addresses the question “What is to be done?,” one of his primary suggestions is that the left focus on the reduction of bureaucracy – a suggestion that certainly seems to correspond with the evidence and analysis that he provides throughout. Still, and given what I’ve said above, it is a suggestion that is not without a significant amount of danger. For while we would all like to do less of this maddening bureaucratic work, and while much of this bureaucratic work is aimed ultimately at the cynical reduction of public service in the name of efficiency, there are more pernicious (and more likely) paths to the reduction of bureaucracy than leftist agitation and refunding. I know I’ve focused disproportionately on education in this post, but just one more time: I’m sure, for instance, that the for-profit University of Phoenix in the USA would love to give the Tories a hand at straightening out the UK further and higher education systems and their reams of paperwork once they get in office… Or, as will likely be the case, the Conservative government (or pre-emptive Labour) can allow universities to set their own student fees, which will let “students decide” with their increasingly empty wallets and increasingly large student loans how the funds are apportioned rather than a board of bureaucrats monitoring the self-monitoring of the academics.

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December 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm