David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: June 2011 (page 2 of 2)

Christopher Lasch on Raising Children

Christopher Lasch was a confused and confusing cultural and political thinker, and The True and Only Heaven (1978) is not a good book, full of misappropriated intellectual ideas used in service of a fairly reductive and conservative attack on progressive thinking and cultural politics. (Albert Hirschman’s three reactionary tropes of perversity, futility, and jeopardy are on display throughout.) Lasch’s wide intellectual canvas, which incorporates Blumenberg and Löwith as well as Carlyle and Sorel, makes his simplistic agenda all the more regrettable.

But the introduction, which gives the personal background for how he came to such grouchy views, is rather touching and worth reading.

Like so many of those born in the Depression, my wife and I married early, with the intention of raising a large family. We were part of the postwar “retreat to domesticity,” as it is so glibly referred to today. No doubt we hoped to find some kind of shelter in the midst of general insecurity, but this formulation hardly does justice to our hopes and expectations, which included much more than refuge from the never-ending international emergency.

In a world dominated by suspicion and mistrust, a renewal of the capacity for loyalty and devotion had to begin, it seemed, at the most elementary level, with families and friends. My generation invested personal relations with an intensity they could hardly support, as it turned out; but our passionate interest in each other’s lives cannot very well be described as a form of emotional retreat. We tried to re-create in the circle of our friends the intensity of a common purpose, which could no longer be found in politics or the workplace.

We wanted our children to grow up in a kind of extended family, or at least with an abundance of “significant others.” A house full of people; a crowded table ranging across the generations; four-hand music at the piano; nonstop conversation and cooking; baseball games and swimming in the afternoon; long walks after dinner; a poker game or Diplomacy or charades in the evening, all these activities mixing children and adults— that was our idea of a well-ordered household and more specifically of a well-ordered education.

We had no great confidence in the schools; we knew that if our children were to acquire any of the things we set store by—joy in learning, eagerness for experience, the capacity for love and friendship—they would have to learn the better part of it at home. For that very reason, however, home was not to be thought of simply as the “nuclear family.” Its hospitality would have to extend far and wide, stretching its emotional resources to the limit.

Our failure to educate them for success was the one way in which we did not fail them—our one unambiguous success. Not that this was deliberate either; it was only gradually that it became clear to me that none of my own children, having been raised not for upward mobility but for honest work, could reasonably hope for any conventional kind of success.

The “best and brightest” were those who knew how to exploit institutions for their own advantage and to make exceptions for themselves instead of playing by the rules. Raw ambition counted more heavily, in the distribution of worldly rewards, than devoted service to a calling—an old story, perhaps, except that now it was complicated by the further consideration that most of the available jobs and careers did not inspire devoted service in the first place.

Diplomacy, really? That makes me smile.

And yet from this he drew the wrong lesson, blaming the failure of his children to integrate themselves into the world successfully (he says as much) on changing social mores, rather than on the “old story” he even cites above. He dismissively says:

Liberalism now meant sexual freedom, women’s rights, gay rights; denunciation of the family as the seat of all oppression; denunciation of “patriarchy”; denunciation of “working-class authoritarianism.”

Well, as someone who believes in some of the above, I can say that the sort of “extended family” he cites is not incompatible with them. But perhaps he saw his children rebelling and couldn’t distinguish the youthful urge to reject everything from the necessary push for social justice at the same time. It was probably something that was difficult to assess while it was going on. But it’s been 50 years and I think we can separate out what is and is not compatible with his happy vision above.

My Life in Books, The First Thirty Years

This is a meme of my own invention (as far as I know). [Update: Nope, Paul did it first. I may have subconsciously plagiarized him. Sorry Paul!] The books that had the greatest impact on me year by year. Obviously very subjective, and vexing for all sorts of different reasons. Not always the best books, not often the most helpful books, just those that occupied my mind more than others. The years are to my best recollection; I may have fudged some of them.

I’ve had to list a number of unbreakable ties, where I remember the influence of each book as being so dominant and the books as so incommensurable  that it was impossible to choose.

And there were a couple near-ties where I painfully excluded a runner-up. (Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, Wittgenstein, Lucretius, and Hegel’s Phenomenology all fell into this category.)

So, by age, from the beginning!

  1. Goodnight Moon
  2. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton
  3. What Do People Do All Day? (unabridged), Richard Scarry
  4. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
  5. The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Dr. Seuss
  6. Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Carl Barks
  7. The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
    The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster (tie)
  8. The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
  9. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater
  10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
    What is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan (tie)
  11. “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”, Robert Heinlein
  12. The Singing Detective (script and serial), Dennis Potter
  13. The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
  14. White Noise, Don DeLillo
  15. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
    Moby Dick, Herman Melville (tie)
  16. Ulysses, James Joyce
  17. Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
    Imaginary Magnitude, Stanislaw Lem (tie)
  18. The Tunnel, William H. Gass
  19. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  20. Lanark, Alasdair Gray
    Interstate; Frog; Gould; assorted short fiction, Stephen Dixon (tie)
  21. The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
  22. Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist
  23. The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai
  24. The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
    How It Is, Samuel Beckett (tie)
  25. The Waves, Virginia Woolf
    Epileptic, David B. (tie)
  26. The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
    Simultan, Ingeborg Bachmann (tie)
  27. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
  28. The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
    Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (tie)
  29. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  30. A House in the Country, Jose Donoso

I am sure there are many books that felt more significant at the time whose influence I have mostly forgotten because I failed to pursue the directions they signaled. My memories have persisted of those books that were close to the parts of me that remain with me now.

This is probably as good an autobiography as any. Anyone else want to try?

Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin

Barbara Comyns and Vladimir Sorokin have little in common besides a disturbingly comfortable acquaintance with the grotesque, but I have a review of each of them out in the new Quarterly Conversation. The Comyns book is a masterpiece and although I found it difficult to write about her because of her singular nature, I hope people will be encouraged to read her. Hannah Stoneham has much more on Comyns. As for Sorokin, the best introduction to his work is probably the movie he scripted: 4 (Chetyre).

(Special thanks to Ray Davis for introducing me to Comyns many years ago. Your efforts have not been in vain!)

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, by Barbara Comyns

Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.

That voice persists in the omniscient third-person in Who Was Changed, which was does not rely on biographical details and yet proceeds with exactly the same confidence. With utter smoothness, Comyns blends jarring and sudden narrative twists into what seems to be a naturalistic novel. Looking back after reading, the amount of time events seem to take is wholly at odds with the number of pages they occupy, in one direction or the other. Digressions and seemingly awkward phrases seamlessly fold into whole.

The plot itself is simple. In a small English village, Warwickshire, sometime in the 19th century, still water causes a case of ergot poisoning in some loafs of bread, and those who eat the bread change, die, or both.


Vladimir Sorokin: Meat and Clones

At first glance, Vladimir Sorokin may seem like nothing but a stylistic provocateur. I first heard of him in connection with Blue Lard, an as yet untranslated novel about clones that produce the titular lard (salo) as a byproduct of writing, which is then used for fuel. Salo is associated with an ethic stereotype of the Ukraine, mocked by Russians, while “blue” (голубой) is slang for “homosexual.” The book caused a stir because of passages like this:

Khrushchev unbuttoned his own pants and took out his long, uneven penis with its bumpy head, its shiny skin tattooed with a pentacle. The count spat in his palm, lubricated Stalin’s anus with his saliva, and, falling upon him from behind, started to thrust his penis softly into the leader. (tr. Lisa Zigel)

Sorokin’s agenda is clear: the demolition of sacred icons (Putin has endorsed a general movement to reestablish Stalin as the leader of a Russian golden age), blatant attempts to provoke, unerotic sexuality and an emphasis on the grotesque aspects of the flesh, and an hostile, inhuman view of the future. With Blue Lard the provocation was successful: the book was prosecuted as pornographic (the charges were dropped) and ceremonially tossed into a giant toilet by the pro-Putin youth movement Walking Together.

There is far more going on under the obscene, visceral surfaces of his books than the controversy would suggest, and his work has an urgency and gravity lacking in the more self-amused fictions of Tatyana Tolstaya and Victor Pelevin.


Franzen Again

The New York Times wouldn’t print Birdwatching is an Alternative to Love, but they did print a shorter response to Jonathan Franzen’s op-ed bemoaning the loss of love and pain in the modern world of gadgets:

Technology and Love

To the Editor:

I am puzzled by Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Liking Is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts” (Op-Ed, May 29).

I am significantly younger than Mr. Franzen and so experienced very little of the vibrant pre-technological world of love and pain he describes before the onslaught of the Internet.

In searching for archaeological evidence of this now-lost world, I expected older American literature to be chock-full of the Sturm und Drang whose loss he bemoans.

Yet in reading John Cheever and John Updike and Joseph Heller and Richard Yates and Raymond Carver and Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos and Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, I saw the same repressed, numbing malaise of “liking” Mr. Franzen bemoans, frequently portrayed in more acute terms than in any of Mr. Franzen’s novels.

Shouldn’t contemporary writing reflect a far more loveless and lifeless and superficial world than those books written before the age of the BlackBerry, when such distractions from love and pain were not available? It frightens me to think that techno-consumerism may not be the key nefarious influence at work, and that therefore bird-watching may not be the solution.

Brooklyn, June 1, 2011


And now back to the embargo on Franzen over here.

Notes on The Future of Academia

This started as a comment on a post over on New Savannah, where Bill Benzon was talking about cognitive science researcher Mark Changizi’s decision to leave academia. But I think it’s a red herring as far as the structural problems of academia go.

Changizi left because despite having tenure, the whole nature of grants is such that they do not allow for work on potentially paradigm-shifting ideas, because they have too great a chance for failure. He cites Vinay Deolalikar’s valiant but seemingly wrong proof that P=NP as an example of the sort of work that can only be done outside academia.

But I don’t think the Changizi incident reflects anything too new about academia. And I think when people talk about the problems in academia today vs the problems forty or fifty years ago, Changizi isn’t running up against anything new. Paradigm-shifting work has never gotten funding except when there was a clear military interest, in which case the floodgates (or cashgates) opened.

So when assessing academia, there are three interlinked but distinct factors here that vary independently by field:

  1. The Finance Factor: The ability to get funding for research in that field from anywhere other than a university.
  2. The Infrastructure Factor: The non-overhead resources (time, money, people, equipment) required for research in the field.
  3. The Prestige Factor: The field’s self-determined metric of success for research (influence, “impact,” prestige).

Literature, psychology, and computer science are affected in different ways by these factors. Even within a field, there are variances, which is why Deolalikar isn’t such a great example.

People like Deolalikar wander between academia and corporate research labs quite a bit, as there’s much closer coordination between them in the computer science world, the profit motive being far more obvious. Even beyond that, Deolalikar’s capital needs are very cheap: a living wage for himself, an office, etc. He didn’t need a “lab.”

Theoretical computer science issues like P=NP are akin to theoretical math, requiring little beyond pen and paper and a brain with very particular capacities.

On the other hand, applied computer science research can be tremendously expensive. So expensive that academia can’t even provide the infrastructure even with funding. If you want to analyze the entirety of the internet or examine database issues with petabytes of data, acquiring and processing meaningful that amount of meaningful data is just not within the reach of a university. This may change in the future with joint efforts, but I suspect that corporations will always have some edge because the financial motive is so present (unlike, say, with supercolliders).

The financial motive is not always so imminently present, even within computer science. For things like neuroscience and psychology, where the profits are clearly possible but harder to predict, grants come into play. If you need a lab and funding for it, there will be politics to getting it, period. Research labs spend thousands of person-hours filling out grant applications in order to convince the pursestring-holders (the government, frequently) that they’re doing the “right” thing.

Where the finance factor is high, things haven’t changed that much, even with increases in bureaucracy. High-cost research will continue to be done within institutions as long as there’s profit in it. It will always be somewhat conservative because people with money want results for their research.

Where the finance factor is low, the infrastructure factor is also frequently low, because there’s nowhere to get money for infrastructure other than the university, and the university is unlikely to fund much that can’t be funded by other sources.

The exception is if the prestige factor is high. If the top people in a field have a huge impact on the world around them, then the university will invest money simply because it will draw attention and (indirectly) more money to the university. Economists, political scientists, and even (in Europe) anthropologists and philosophers: they frequently possess enough prestige outside of academia that they will continue to draw people and money because they are part of the larger society. Jurgen Habermas and Michael Ignatieff, for example. And success in these fields is partly measured by that sort of outside prestige. How could it not be?

So where things have changed are in fields which lack external sources of funding and lack external prestige. Fields meeting these criteria:

  1. Funding Factor: Low
  2. Infrastructure Factor: Low
  3. Prestige Factor: Low

These are fields in which the measurement of a researcher’s success is determined near-exclusively by people within the field, and the researchers, even the top ones, have little pull outside of academia. Many of the traditional humanities meet these criteria today.

And these fields are in trouble in a way they were not fifty years ago, where they seemed to comfortably sustain themselves. But today, we see the demand for “impact” in the British university system:

Henceforth a significant part of the assessment of a researcher’s worth – and funding – will be decided according to the impact on society that his or her work is seen to have. The problem is that impact remains poorly defined; it isn’t clear how it will be measured, and the weighting given to it in the overall assessment has been plucked out of the air. It is a bad policy: it will damage research in the sciences and corrupt it in the humanities, as academics will have a strong financial incentive to become liars.

If no one really knows what impact is, it is at least clear what it isn’t: scholarship is seen as of no significance. What the government and Hefce are interested in is work that is useful, in a crudely defined way, for business or policy-making. The effect of impact will be to force researchers to focus even more than they do already on research that pays off – or can be made to appear as if it does – within the assessment cycle, rather than on fundamental work whose significance might take years, even decades, to be appreciated.

Iain Pears, LRB

This is a problem for the sciences as well, as it corporatizes the grant process and makes immediate results far more necessary. But it is a far, far greater problem for some of the humanities, which don’t really traffic in “results” of this sort. But when put it this way, it doesn’t exactly seem surprising. Isn’t the better question why this sort of reckoning hasn’t happened until now?

The changing economic situation is obviously a factor, but there’s a social one as well. The prestige factor used to be higher. The connections between the academic humanities and the rest of the world used to be stronger. But through some process, and I think that it is not a trivial or obvious one, some of the humanities turned hermetically inward and/or the world started ignoring them, and so their prestige diminished.

Fifty years ago, there were scholarly books put out by major presses (Harper, Penguin) that no non-academic publisher would touch today. Was there an audience for them outside of academia? I don’t have a strong sense. There certainly isn’t now. Pears is a bit too specific: money and politics are certainly high-prestige forms of impact, but what impact really seems to mean is any perceived societal value outside of academia.

Low-cost research will always continue to be done by enthusiasts. Michael Ventris made huge steps in deciphering Linear B, despite being a low-level architect with no credentials. But the “impact” business seems to be at trailing indicator rather than a leading one, signifying that the more disconnected humanities have been living on borrowed time for quite a while. And I don’t see how that will reverse without a larger shift in the relation of those fields to society at large.

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