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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: education (page 2 of 4)

Alexander Herzen’s Father

For people he had an open, undisguised contempt–for everyone. Never under any circumstances did he count upon anybody, and I do not remember that he ever applied to any one with any considerable request. He himself did nothing for any one. In his relations with outsiders he demanded one thing only, the observance of the proprieties; les apparences, les convenances made up the whole of his moral religion. He was ready to forgive much, or rather to overlook it, but breaches of good form and good manners put him beside himself, and in such case he was without any tolerance, without the slightest indulgence or compassion. I was rebellious so long against this injustice that at last I understood it. He was convinced beforehand that every man is capable of any evil act; and that, if he does not commit it, it is either that he has no need to, or that the opportunity does not present itself; in the disregard of formalities he saw a personal affront, a disrespect to himself; or a ‘plebeian education,’ which in his opinion excluded a man from all human society.

‘The soul of man,’ he used to say, ‘is darkness, and who knows what is in any man’s soul?’

At thirty, when I returned from exile, I realised that my father had been right in many things, that he had unhappily an offensively good understanding of men. But was it my fault that he preached the truth itself in a way so provoking to a youthful heart? His mind, chilled by a long life in a circle of depraved men, put him on his guard against everyone, and his callous heart did not crave for reconciliation; so he remained on hostile terms with everyone on earth.

Only then did I appreciate all the cheerlessness of his life; I looked with an aching heart at the melancholy significance of this lonely, abandoned existence, dying out in the arid, harsh stony wilderness which he had created about himself, but which he had not the will to change; he knew this; he saw death approaching and, overcoming weakness and infirmity, he jealously and obstinately controlled himself. I was dreadfully sorry for the old man, but there was nothing to be done: he was unapproachable.

Alexander Herzen, My Life and Thoughts

(Thanks, as usual, to A. for the recommendation.)

The Structure of University Education

We’ve gotta do it right

Within this system

Gonna take over

But within this system

Chicago, “It Better End Soon,” as quoted by Lester Bangs

It seems I’m late to the party over The Life of the Mind, discussing the problems of maintaining an intellectual life while pursuing an academic career in the humanities. The usual reactions seem to be either vehement, righteous agreement or scoffing at the author’s naivete that anyone could think that academia is anything other than a risky grind.



The Life of the Mind

Aside from the tremendous sympathy I have for those who are in unfortunate spots, this part of the discussion is largely redundant, as well as irrelevant. My two cents is that regardless of efforts of reform from within the universities, there are a couple of key factors that will cancel out their best efforts.

The democratization and class-flattening of university access over the last 50 or 60 years has produced two structural phenomena for academically-focused humanities departments that are not economically sustainable:

  1. The need to attract and retain a far larger number of low-paid graduate students and/or adjunct faculty than will ever attain a job in which they will have time to pursue “the life of the mind,” the ostensible goal.
  2. The need to attract a sufficient number of undergraduates who will overpay for large lecture courses so as to subsidize the rest of the faculty, seminars, and resources of the department, especially its graduate program.

The first is what I hear about constantly, but the second seems like the one that will be the ultimate forcing function. The low-paid adjunct/TA model can only go so far in reducing expenses in departments that aren’t economically self-sustaining, because the whole model is dependent on the second factor: as high a mean student-teacher ratio as possible across classes. (The median across classes is quite low, of course, which is why universities advertise that figure.) Even if graduate enrollment remained identical, reductions in lecture courses would be problematic, as David Leonhardt explains:

Because large lecture classes are cheaper for a college than seminars, freshmen are cheaper than upperclassmen. So a college that allows many of its underclassmen to drop out may be helping its bottom line.

So lecture enrollment and grad student enrollment need to be high, while the number of seminars and professors needs to be low. This is a squeeze. Kevin Carey’s excellent article about online education has this key point buried in it:

But the biggest cash cow is lower-division undergraduate education. Because introductory courses are cheap to offer, they’re enormously profitable. The math is simple: Add standard tuition rates and any government subsidies, and multiply that by several hundred freshmen in a big lecture hall. Subtract the cost of paying a beleaguered adjunct lecturer or graduate student to teach the course. There’s a lot left over. That money is used to subsidize everything else.

And with the rise of tuition and the flattening of wages over the last 30 years, this money source is inevitably drying up. The budding rise of online education will only speed the drought. Now, Carey is talking about college as practical job training. Those departments will have a problem but there will still be room for high-end theoretical and practical training in the sciences and social sciences, funded by grant money from DARPA and others. The humanities, by which I mean those fields which do not provide specific practical training other than for academia, will suffer far worse, only having the cushion of composition classes and the like to soften the drop in enrollment. In effect, it will be the final transition of college education from liberal education for the elites to job training for the middle classes.

Ultimately, I think it’s this factors more than anything that have led indirectly to the perversely self-defeating character of a lot of academic work in the humanities. The undermining of the classical liberal education paradigm has caused havoc to those who are attempting to work within it, even as some of them indicted its history. The recent archetypal example is Michael Berube, future head of the MLA, attacking his own discipline, which resulted in foolish rebuttals that only reinforced Berube’s claims (something Berube surely expected; I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he knows the score). For all his despair over the ineffectuality of cultural studies, but it’s telling that he cites its chief achievement as its analysis of its own socio-economic condition:

I’m not saying that it has had no impact. Cultural critics like Marc Bousquet, Cary Nelson, Andrew Ross, and Jeffrey Williams have written indispensable accounts of academic labor in America, and each has been inspired, in part, by some of the best work in the cultural-studies tradition, the branch that analyzes the social foundations of intellectual labor.

If the best defense Berube can give is its rear-guard action against its very own home–i.e., “We’re being exploited!”–then it is going to be difficult to make a case for its continued presence anywhere in a university. You can see this squeeze in much of the handwringing going on elsewhere. Steven Shaviro may have struck a blow for open access by refusing to let Continuum publish a piece of his under their draconian rights contracts, but it’s hardly the storming of the Winter Palace.

None of this is to pick on these people, only to point out that the “culture wars” are only a side effect of a longer-term economic process that is indeed mostly out of academics’ control. Like anyone who cares about these things, I have a bit of false nostalgia for the good old days that I never knew, but if cultural studies has taught me anything, it’s not to mourn the decline of an institution born in elitism and sustained by it.

An Interview with Lisa Samuels on Laura Riding and Poetry (Part 1)

Lisa Samuels edited and wrote an extensive introduction for the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Laura Riding’s 1928 collection of essays and stories, Anarchism Is Not Enough. Lisa has also published three books of poetry, most recently The Invention of Culture (Shearsman Books, 2008), as well as several chapbooks. She teaches at The University of Auckland in New Zealand.

How did you first encounter Laura Riding?

LS: I found Riding in graduate school at the University of Virginia, after I had finished all my coursework and exams. In retrospect, it’s odd that I didn’t learn about her at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I earned my B.A., since William Harmon was one of my teachers and knew and championed her work, as I found out later.

I first read Riding in 1994, the same year I finally found out about not only the Language poetry movement but also about what I think of as some of the core texts and ideas of the real revolution of ‘modernism’ (thinking of 1905-1930, roughly, and mostly trans-Atlantic): Stein, WC Williams, George Oppen, Georges Bataille, Mina Loy. The ‘broken’ writers, the Blakean modernists.

I differentiate these still from the smoother, more Wordsworthian modernists, the ones I did learn about in school and knew very well: Yeats, Eliot, Stevens, Marianne Moore. The division between these kinds of groups is perpetuated to this day, of course: the raw and the cooked, the smooth and the striated, the broken and the whole. It is difficult to set aside these binaries, mostly because people operate, understandably, by making distinctions and, unfortunately, by waging war on the ‘Other’ distinction.

Riding is such a singular figure that she is difficult to associate with any particular school of poetry. But would you compare her to the Objectivists like Zukofsky and Oppen?

LS: Laura Riding I wouldn’t necessarily put with Zukofsky because her poetry is systematically more abstract and allegorizing than his, less explicit in its processing of particular urban identity, in spite of her being raised in NYC and situated principally in urban contexts until the move to Majorca in 1930. She does share some of Zukofsky’s sense of verbal energy, especially as we see in his early “A” segments.

But I would put her next to George Oppen – not least because they both ceased writing poetry, or at least participating in poetic production, for a very long period in the middle of their lives and of the 20th-century, but also because of a commonality in their investigations of imaginative experiencing, he more from a phenomenological and minimalist perspective, she more from a dramatic/role-playing and exuberant one.

What effect did Riding have on how you read and interpreted poetry?

LS: Riding was part of my dissertating education, and her effect on how I read other poetry was that I looked for the kind of rigor, absolutism, hunger, presentness-of-voice-as-not-a-social-self, anger, adamance, energetic eschatology (rather than broken-hearted cultural despair) that Riding evinces.

Riding’s “rigor and adamance” is one of the major aspects that drew me to her work in the first place, a similar sort of spirit to that which I find in Robert Musil. Yet what I like about them at their best is that they deploy that critical acumen in the service of doubt and uncertainty without ever embracing willful obscurity or definite answers. And like with Musil, Riding’s rigorous and aggressive skepticism led to a problematic constructive project. Is it possible to have the negative project without the positive project?

LS: Tricky, isn’t it, given the personal energy that must be generated in order to overcome the will-to-repudiation once one is ‘in touch with’ radical contingency. That personal energy can immediately or swiftly or gradually overtake one’s ‘good self-abnegation.’ (One has to work very hard to ‘never be famous,’ as Bernadette Mayer exhorts.) Your question is unanswerable in absolute terms – I mean that even the term ‘negative project’ is a contradiction in terms, since absolute negation would never be traceable in the productive materials open to our view and to this consideration.

But one can comment on it from different perspectives – Nagarjuna, for example – and adduce a few examples of artists I think of as hovering pretty resolutely in projects of ‘positive negation.’ Oppen is one, and some others come to mind: William Blake (there he is again, all imaginative project and no apparently possible social ground), Larry Eigner (20th-century American poet, with lifelong cerebral palsy), Tom Phillips (contemporary English artist and writer, splendid stuff – I may not be right about the negative project, given his polishing excellence, but…), Veronica Forrest-Thomson (20th-century English poet), Oskar Pastior (German contemporary – from what I know of his poetry, which is not a great deal), Kathy Acker (20th-century American novelist), Emily Dickinson (surely), Lautréamont (The Songs of Maldoror). There are others.

To be continued. The next installment will discuss Riding’s abandoning of poetry and her prose works.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

It must not be imagined that Iudushka was a hypocrite in the same sense as Tartuffe or any modern French bourgeois who goes off into flights of eloquence on the subject of social morality. No, he was a hypocrite of a purely Russian sort, that is, simply a man devoid of all moral standards, knowing no truth other than the copy-book precepts. He was pettifogging, deceitful, loquacious, boundlessly ignorant, and afraid of the devil. All these qualities are merely negative and can supply no stable material for real hypocrisy.

In France hypocrisy is the outcome of a man’s upbringing; it forms part of “good manners” so to speak, and almost always has a distinct political or social coloring…If this kind of hypocrisy cannot be described as a conviction, it is in any case a banner around which men who find it profitable to be hypocritical in this rather than in some other way can gather. They are conscious hypocrites, that is, they know it themselves and are aware that other people know it too. For a French bourgeois the universe is nothing but a large theater in which an endless play is going on and one hypocrite gives his cue to another.

We Russians have no strongly biased systems of education. We are not drilled, we are not trained to be champions and propagandists of this or that set of moral principles but are simply allowed to grow as nettles grow by a fence. This is why there are very few hypocrites among us and very many liars, bigots, and babblers. We have no need to be hypocritical for the sake of any fundamental social principles, for we have no such principles and do not take shelter under any one of them. We exist quite freely, i.e. we vegetate, babble, and lie spontaneously, without any principles.

Whether this is a matter for grieving or rejoicing is not for me to say. I think, however, that while hypocrisy may arouse fear and indignation, objectless lying makes one feel bored and disgusted. And so the best thing is not to discuss the advantages or disadvantages of the conscious as compared with the unconscious hypocrisy, but to keep away both from hypocrites and from liars.

And so Iudushka was a sneak, a liar, and a babbling fool rather than a hypocrite….

The Golovlyov Family (1876)

And so, like a sober, humorless Gogol, Shchedrin sets about proving his point, not just by portraying these characters in unrelentingly brutal detail, but by killing them off rather arbitrarily. In Dostoevsky and in Tolstoy, characters do tend to stick around so they can meet a fate, deserved or undeserved, that serves some dramatic or moral purpose. Shchedrin kills off characters prematurely to foreclose any possibility of redemption, though it quickly becomes clear there was never a chance anyway. What begins as a character sketch ends with that same character dying. Even by Russian standards, this is a miserable book.

I don’t know if Shchedrin had read Burke or Diderot, to whom he seems to be responding here, but his point that hypocrisy implies a bourgeois sort of moral self-awareness is well-taken, and I would say I see Shchedrin’s sort of hypocrite a lot more often than Rameau’s Nephew.

Donald Philip Verene: Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine

I would feel a lot better about this book if it lost its subtitle. The full title is Knowledge of Things Actual And Divine: Vico’s New Science and Finnegans Wake, but this book is an exegesis on Vico with some Joycean flavoring. To the best of my knowledge, an extensive investigation into Vico’s presence in Finnegans Wake and its parallels with Vico’s philosophy has yet to be written. (Atherton’s book is the best treatment I know of. Campbell and Robinson give it a go but their analysis is tenuous.) Indeed, Verene complains that Joyce scholars know little of Vico. Since I know little of Vico, I thought I would apply what I learned from the book to the Wake. As for Vico himself, Verene only strengthens my conviction that Vico was an esoteric genius far ahead of his time, and had he been German, he would have stolen a good deal of thunder from Hegel. And I have great respect for the historicist thinkers that followed and paid tribute to him last century: Croce, Cassirer, Collingwood, and so on.

Verene does make some observations on the Wake, but these fall prey to the problems of making any decisive interpretation of Finnegans Wake. Early on he says, “Vico is the protagonist of Finnegans Wake. He is Earwicker.” The problem is not so much that this statement is wrong is that it is incomplete. Verene marshals many textual references conflating Vico with male archetype HCE, but Vico is no more the protagonist than Adam, Humpty Dumpty, Dublin, Finn MacCool, or some Irish pub owner. Verene analyzes Vico’s life in terms of a series of “falls,” and here he is on solid ground in equating Vico’s clap of thunder with the thunderwords of the fall that occur periodically in the Wake, but the problem is that the Wake always outsizes any interpretation because there is always such a huge remainder, and so declaring Vico the protagonist is ultimately, I think, wrongheaded. And I take issue with Verene’s claim that “Shem, like a forger, moves around a lot, but Shaun, like a post, occupies set positions and talks of past and future.” While Shem is a more slippery character than Shaun, it is Shaun who sets out on the quest in the third book of the Wake, and it is he who is the deliverer of ALP’s letter which Shem has transcribed. Again, it is not so much that such claims are wrong as much as that they need far more elaboration. So it’s best to see the book as using Joyce as a tool to conceptualize Vico’s life and work.

And on Vico, there is much of interest to Wake scholars. I’ll enumerate a few points that gave me insight into the structure of Joyce’s nightmare book. Two cycles are commonly cited as the basis for the Wake’s structure: Vico and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. But the three large books of the Wake do not clearly map onto the three ages of Vico’s New Science (divine, heroic, and human), though the final, short section does read as a recorso, restarting the book. Without elaborating on these matters, Verene still gives much evidence to contribute to the parallel. In particular, I was fascinated by the elaboration on Vico’s three languages, from the mute language of the divine to the verbal language of humanity:

The verb introduces time, and things can no longer be what they
are; their meanings can no longer just be mute. What is mute has being. It is
not transposed in time. The mute meaning is the denial of time. Like the ritual,
it takes us to the origin and stops time. The mute gesture is a ritual in brief. We
are back where the gods were.

Mapping the ages onto the Wake, this strongly parallels the curiously static character of the first book, which spends more time making lists and describing history than it does having anything actually happen. If the divine is a state of pure mute ritual language, then the non-narrative descriptions of the first book of the Wake fit well with Vico’s divine age.

Likewise, there is much to connect the second book with Vico’s seventh oration, which discusses education its goal of producing “the heroic mind:”

The ideal of ‘‘heroic mind’’ for Vico involves three things: all branches of
knowledge must be studied and put together; the human mind is divine and in
its activity of learning reaches God the creator in an attempt to make itself
whole; and the acquisition of knowledge, when rightly practiced, leads the
individual toward virtue and the good.

One crux of the second book of the Wake is the children learning about adult sexuality via the fall of man and forbidden knowledge. Joyce perverts the idea of education significantly, but it is still this education, and this very fall, that enables the maturation of the children and the eventual overthrow of the parents (who could be likened to gods themselves). That, in turn, leads to this passage of Vico’s:

Knowledge of the corrupt nature of man invites the
study of the entire universe of liberal arts and sciences, and sets forth the
correct method by which to learn them (125).

Which is to say, the fall is that which engenders knowledge and progress, and following on from that, the flowing of time itself. Joyce is perhaps more fatalistic than Vico in that he sees nothing but the endless battle of son against father and brother against brother, and little to be learned from it, but more significantly, Joyce renders this knowledge wholly physical and bodily, downplaying if not eliminating theology, philosophy, and eschatology. See also the mysterious fight between Berkeley and Patrick in Book IV, which may suggest that Joyce is neither a materialist nor an idealist, but merely a monist (or a this-ist, focused wholly on the world at hand). The exact relation of Joyce’s stance to Vico’s emphasis on the irreducibility of the real/mythic to abstraction is something I’m still puzzling over.

This is only the barest start. I haven’t even touched on how Vico’s conceptualization of language might relate to the linguistic apparatus of the Wake, as it’s simply too huge a topic to chance saying anything about. Verene’s book reminds me that I really do need to read The New Science from cover to cover, so that I can come back and say more insightful things about Verene’s book and Vico. And it reminds me how fantastic Finnegans Wake is underneath all the verbal impenetrability, as one of the greatest portrayals of human history in literature.

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