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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: education (page 4 of 4)

Three Versions of Politics

In the aftermath of the Southeast Asia tsunamis, the Bush administration pathetically found itself spending more money on its second inauguration than it initially committed to disaster relief. Even now, its contributions are not especially impressive. I donated to relief organizations, and then, left to my own thoughts, I went through three responses: anger, despair, and detachment.

I was infuriated when I read Slavoj Zizek’s The Liberal Waterloo. Zizek proposes that it is for the better that Bush won the 2004 election, since it will

dispel the illusions about the solidarity of interests among the developed Western countries. It will give a new impetus to the painful but necessary process of strengthening new alliances like the European Union or Mercosur in Latin America. … Within these coordinates, every progressive who thinks should be glad for Bush&#x92s victory. It is good for the entire world because the contours of the confrontations to come will now be drawn in a much starker way. A Kerry victory would have been a kind of historical anomaly, blurring the true lines of division. After all, Kerry did not have a global vision that would present a feasible alternative to Bush&#x92s politics.

Zizek spends a good deal of space lambasting liberals for their faulty faith in Kerry and his empty vision, instead proclaiming the ascent of a new counterweight that will not seek unity with the United States. I disagree (except on the empty vision part), but it is not this that bothers me. Nor is it throwaway lines like this, which make me fear that his grasp of economics is quite weak:

Further, Bush&#x92s victory is paradoxically better for both the European and Latin American economies: In order to get trade union backing, Kerry promised to support protectionist measures.

No, it was the words “painful but necessary” that were maddening. I pictured Zizek sitting in his safe European home, gently telling his dialectic-minded followers that it is all for the best, that the nightmares that await are part of a cleansing clarity of darkness through which the new sun will rise. I thought it displays a faith not so different than that which informs the Left Behind books that he mentions. I exaggerate, but I was upset.

From Edmund Burke, a philosopher I despised for a long time before coming to a tenuous rapprochement, I learned not that revolution was wrong, but that it is absurd to believe that a ideology, revolutionary or otherwise, can be faithfully transmuted into a working polity. Zizek does not offer statecraft, but inflated theory with which he cheers the coming crash. I have no doubt that life will get far more unpleasant, but I will not allow myself to believe that the decreased education, increased poverty, and burgeoning intolerance will yield a better world or revivified political debate through anything except pure accident. I will not applaud the clarity gained when the U.S. refuses to ante up more than a pittance for the damage wrought by tsunamis in Southeast Asia.

Nor do I believe that the “lessons” learned from these horrible experiences by the vast majority of Americans (or others) will be anything other than instinctive reactions towards some new random vector. Even the ultimately optimistic economist Joseph Schumpeter was sober and cautious when considering the failure of capitalism and the successful rise of socialism, offering only an equivocal endorsement of what he believed would come to pass.

Zizek portrays an America of uniquely extreme religious fanatics. But the United States’ problem is that through an unlucky confluence of events, a group of crazies have taken over, people who do not act, in general, in line with the beliefs of those who voted for them. This is not because Americans are particularly close-minded or bloodthirsty, but because most people everywhere are irrational and ignorant.

After the election, I felt an alienation from huge chunks of my country far greater than anything I’d previously experienced. I could not find words for it, but Steven Shaviro sharply articulated the paralyzing despair: Nothing.

I think, rather, that 59 million people voted for Bush in full consciousness of what they were doing. They were aware of the harms that they would suffer from this action, but they were willing to put personal advantage aside in order to serve a higher duty. In other words, the reelection of George W. Bush was an ethical decision, a moral choice.

I believed this too in darker moments, but then I asked myself: what duty? I remind myself that this President hardly articulates policy, especially given how often it reverses. His steady, agonizingly simple personality is the foundation for any policy; (I don’t think Tom DeLay could have gotten elected with the same rhetoric, and so far, he agrees with me.) With any luck, this version of politics too will fall away after Bush leaves public office (whenever that may be), and there is no longer a cowboy hat on which to hang the current policies.

Looking to the future, I think that India has it right. The Road to Surfdom has a piece on India’s attitude towards America that gives probably the best-case long-term scenario. Dunlop paraphrases the Indian government’s attitudes as such:

[The Congressional delegation] spoke to a lot of Indian government people and the message from them was very clear, and in a nutshell it was this: We don’t much care about America. He said they were very polite but almost indifferent. Maybe matter-of-fact is a better description. The conversation went something like this:

We consider ourselves as in competition with China for leadership in the new century. That’s our focus and frankly, you have made it very difficult for us to deal with you. We find your approach to international affairs ridiculous. The invasion of Iraq was insane. You’ve encouraged the very things you say you were trying to fix – terrorism and instability. Your attitude to Iran is ridiculous. You need to engage with Iran. We are. We are bemused by your hypocrisy. You lecture the world about dealing with dictators and you deal with Pakistan. We are very sorry for your losses from the 9/11 terror attacks. Welcome to our world. You threaten us with sanctions for not signing the non-proliferation treaty, but you continue to be nuclear armed and to investigate new weapons. You expect us to neglect our own security because you want us to. We don’t care about sanctions.

That seems about right. The resistance of so many people to embrace a non-Western-centric view of the next half-century years (and I include Zizek here) is as much a product of parochialism as it is of short-sightedness. The view of a battle between European progressivism and American fundamentalism (Zizek calls it fundamentalism; I, who can’t see a competent hand at the wheel, would just term it insanity) seems obsolete, an artifact of half a millennium of Eurocentrism.

Given the damage wrought to it by the tsunamis, India certainly regrets the United States’ lack of assistance, but is probably not surprised by it. The United States’ total inability to lead in aiding South Asia, or even to feign appropriate sympathy (pace Burke), is ironically appropriate. I still wish that the richest country in the world would shell out a few billion, and I do believe Kerry would have wrangled a bit more, though not as much as I would like. But either way, change is coming through economic realignment, not through Zizek’s advocacy of the repoliticization of the economy (which itself seems to be synonymous with a re-Europeanization of the world).

Likewise, the damaging acts of the United States, assuming they don’t wipe us all out, will be self-marginalizing, rendering the decline of liberalism and the increased polarization of Europeans and Americans irrelevant. So when I am set upon by the black mood of despair that Steven Shaviro described, I regretfully welcome the decline of the United States’ influence, so as to minimize the impact and scope of what Zizek ominously describes as “the confrontations to come.”

Ominous to me, at least.

A Mind Forever Voyaging

This was one of those old Infocom text adventures, one of their most ambitious, and one of their least successful. It came out around 1987, when they had pretty much exhausted the cave crawl (Zork, Enchanter, etc.) genre and were branching out in whatever directions appealed to them, as graphics games slowly eroded their market share. This was not helped by their ill-advised foray into relational databases, Cornerstone (aka Gravestone), but AMFV came at a time when the future still looked relatively bright. Steve Meretzky (Hitchhiker’s Guide, Sorcerer, Leather Goddesses of Phobos) would never attempt anything so ambitious, or so earnest, again.

The game is the only explicitly political game in their catalog, an exercise in liberal agitprop/hysteria. You play a supercomputer who is going to test out a “simulation” of the future after the adoption of an ominous right-wing “Plan for Renewed National Purpose.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a disaster; forty years into the future, the world doesn’t just suck, it’s literally hell on earth, with gangs and vagrants occupying what used to be civilization. The apocalypse comes through pure social decline. You expose this grim future to people in the real world, and a different, liberal plan of social welfare, compassion, and peace is adopted, yielding paradise on earth shortly thereafter.

So the politics are callow, but not much more so than your average John Brunner book. But check out the Plan itself:

The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Legislative action: * cut tax rates by fifty percent * vigorous prosecution of tax evasion * decentralization of federal responsibilities * deregulation of all major industries * reinstatement of the military draft * emphasis on fundamentals and traditional values in education * mandatory conscription for troublemakers and criminals * a strict “USA First” trade policy * termination of aid to nations not pro-USA * cutbacks on all types of bureaucracy, e.g. registering cars, guns * termination of government subsidies to outmoded industries

The Plan for Renewed National Purpose, Constitutional amendments: * increase the powers of the Executive Branch * increase the Presidential term of office to eight years

Draw your own conclusions.

2.1.4 Mme Swann at Home: Odette Herself

As with Swann, Odette herself has changed. Proust alternates between “Madame Swann” and “Odette” without a clear pattern, but it’s still evident that they represent two aspects of her, one in her role as Swann’s wife, one as the ill-bred and coarse Odette of years past. “Madame Swann” is the woman that the teenage Marcel sees, the charming mother of Gilberte, to whom he is affectionate. Odette is the person that Swann still remembers as his erstwhile love, but who no longer exists.
The “Madame Swann” of this section is defined partly by her relationship to Swann himself, but moreso by her relationship with Marcel. The Swanns initially find him distasteful, but warm to him and eventually Marcel’s relationship with Madame Swann is more intimate than that between any of the others: there is reticence and a maternal aspect to her, traits never before glimpsed. Yet the interchanging of the two names implies that there is part of the past Odette that persists, not the Odette in Swann’s mind (which is well and truly dead) but something that she envisions in herself, and something that persists in her relations with other people.
As she walks down the Avenue du Bois at the end of the section with Swann, as “established” as she ever has been and still the target of ambivalent gazes from younger men, she says to Marcel:

“You aren’t ever coming to see Gilberte again? I’m glad you make an exception of me, and are not going to drop me completely. I like seeing you, but I also liked the influence you had over my daughter. I’m sure she’s very sorry about it, too. However, I mustn’t bully you, or you’ll make up your mind at once that you never want to set eyes on me again.”
And as the average span of life, the relative longevity of our memories of poetical sensations is much greater than that of our memories of what the heart has suffered, now that the sorrows that I once felt on Gilberte’s account have long since faded and vanished, there has survived them the pleasure that I still derive from seeing myself once again strolling and talking thus with Mme Swann. (689)

(Marcel has long given up on Gilberte at this point.) Mme Swann is a different person entirely here; the years and her change in position have permitted her to participate in this experience right here, for which Marcel claims an esteemed position. It is as though this has endured even while his love for Gilberte, and Swann’s love for and jealousy over Odette, have not.
Again, the issue of taste–more specifically, of discernment–is paramount, because it’s the attunement to this sort of aesthetic appreciation, to the affecion shown within a casual social context, that Proust paints as being more enduring than the transitory passions. Thus, lack of taste towards such experiences is one of the largest failings one can have, in Proust’s world. Consequently, this moment holds a bit of redemption for Mme Swann, who, while no great intellect or moral paragon, has carved out a brief moment of bliss that has remained more strongly in Marcel’s memory than any of Swann and Odette’s unfortunate experiences. And I infer that Odette has slightly more taste too, as she can participate in such things.
It is this sort of rewriting that changes the shape of Swann’s Way in my mind, because while there was the sorrow of Swann’s waste of his life on Odette and the contrast with Marcel’s own memories of Combray, they were presented as distinct elements. Now they are intermixed and even Odette, very unsympathetic in “Swann in Love,” has facets that Swann and readers like me could not fit into the earlier framework.
That theme, if only as a subtle undercurrent, runs through the section. Swann and his wife have a relationship which has an intimacy that, if not love, is beyond sheer convenience:

As for Swann himself, she knew intimately those traits of character of which the rest of the world is ignorant and which it scoffs at, and of which only a mistress or a sister possesses the true and cherished image; and so strongly are we attached to such idiosyncrasies, even to those of them which we are most anxious to correct, that it is because a woman comes in time to acquire an indulgent, an affectionately mocking familiarity with them, such as we ourselves or our relatives have, that love affairs of long standing have something of the sweetness and strength of family affection. (505)

Actually, I’m confused as to why Proust uses the term “love affairs,” since what the Swanns have sure isn’t that. But Proust emphasizes a mysterious relation, the private aspects of what has gone on between the Swanns which are mostly not detailed, as having provided for them. They haven’t provided love, but they have provided, for Swann, stability, and for Odette, standing. And while Odette does no love Swann, nor does he bother her; there is stability there.
As Swann no longer has the demon of jealousy affecting his relationship with Mme Swann (since it’s affecting his affair with his mistress), he is in a pleasant torpor himself around her:

But so far as Odette was concerned, Swann was quite blind, not merely to these deficiencies in her education but to the general mediocrity of her intelligence. More than that; whenever Odette told a silly story Swann would sit listening to his wife with a complacency, a merriment, almost an admiration in which some vestige of desire for her must have played a part; while in the same conversation, anything subtle or even profound that he himself might say would be listened to by Odette with an habitual lack of interest, rather curtly, with impatience, and would at times be sharply contradicted. (559)

I suppose this sounds negative, but next to “Swann in Love,” it’s almost comfortable. (The reference to residual desire for Odette, however, seem to contradict what’s gone before and after, where it’s made quite clear that Swann does not love Odette any more, and so all I can say is, I give up. Such things are unknowable, if not in real life, at least in this book.) Swann has grown patient with Odette; Odette still does not understand much of what he’s talking about. But these are the ground rules, and they have provided, even still, a measure of nominal success. Swann’s ambitions have changed to fit the shape of his life, and with Gilberte around, he doesn’t even seem like the disappointed man that he ought to be.
What continuity there is to Odette is established in one cryptic passage, which draws the distinction even as it isolates a similarity. It begins with Proust discussing the importance of Mme Swann’s Garden:

There was another reason for the flowers’ having more than a merely ornamental significance in Mme Swann’s drawing-room, and this reason pertained not to the period but, in some degree, to the life that Odette had formerly led. A great courtesan such as she had been, lives largely for her lovers, that is to say at home, which means that she comes in time to live for her home. The things that one sees in the house of a “respectable” woman, things which may of course appear to her also to be of importance, are those which are in any event of the utmost importance to the courtesan. (638)

This passage is presented specifically as Marcel’s experience of his visits to the Swanns’ home, and how he feels her extend over the house so that even the flowers become an intimate particular that make him feel awkward. (Pages 638-641 or so give the full story and are very beautiful and difficult to summarize.)
But what does it mean? Is Proust taking high society down a peg by equating a woman’s dominance of her salon or other parties as similar to the control expressed by a courtesan? Is it an explanation of a continuity in Odette, detailing how she has preserved some crucial aspect of her soul after marrying Swann by removing the unacceptable aspect but preserving her sphere of influence? Does it anticipate the later quote mentioned above (page 689) by implying that the real importance to Odette’s earlier actions was not in the affairs themselves but in the aesthetics with which she conducted herself, which have developed and mutated into something not only acceptable in higher society, but aesthetically memorable?
I don’t think there’s a definite answer at hand, but there’s probably something to all three explanations. There is more of Odette in “Mme Swann at Home” than there was in “Swann in Love,” which was mostly about Swann, and if she’s not as sympathetic as Swann, she’s at least explicable and complex now.

Crisis on Infinite Websites/Campuses!

Ray at Bellona Times presents us with an inspiring vision:

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters — the comparison that decides the value of what they’re doing — isn’t their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

–to which Wealth Bondage responds:

Blogs? The deal, I think, is this: I will pretend to read your crap; if you will pretend to read mine.

It’s two sides of the same coin really, since I’ve felt both sentiments (though hardly as wittily) on alternating days. But Ray mentions academia specifically, and the large amount of books printed up in editions of 500, or 200, to be shelved at an equal number of libraries and consulted only ever after for futher dissertations.

Much of the stuff coming out of literary academia in the last twenty years, give or take ten, would be, if self-published in pamphlet form, be branded the work of cranks. This is not to comment on its quality or worth; it is simply a statement about the sort of internal validation arcane, “technical” writing needs to gain credibility. When it’s said that of course a layman couldn’t understand Fredric Jameson, and two or three years of being a teacher’s assistant is necessary to get it, there are two possibilities: one, that like neurobiology or electrical engineering, modern language theory is a well-founded discipline that has grown from a foundation of concrete; or two, that its validation is purely internal.

It might be presumptuous to make this observation if the speakers at the MLA weren’t alluding to the same thing. The New York Observer takes far too much pleasure in reporting the dire state of the academy that rejected most of the paper’s writers, and they fail to notice that what MLA President Stephen Greenblatt says–

We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club. It’s as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories.

–is not so different than what ex-MLA President Elaine Showalter said a few years prior to that, when she suggested that graduate students in literature be able to use their training for non-academic jobs (i.e., not to do the thing with your graduate education that you couldn’t do without it). Both Showalter and Greenblatt explicitly undermine past defenses of the most obscure work produced by their establishment, and it at least indicates a coming crisis.

What it points to, specifically, is an upcoming point at which the judgment of work will be so disciminatory as to rule out all but obvious geniuses or trend-setters. You can see it happening if, as the article suggests, academic presses cut down on the number of lit crit books published to the extent that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between the gray masses of non-genius Ph.D.’s. If this stage is reached, where we’re at now will look like an interim stage. Things may turn decisively commercial, with the classic gentleman’s club of criticism so beloved by the old white men who prospered in it continuing in drastically diminished form, and the more fashionable theory disciplines generating something not too far off from market research. Since everything is a text anyway, it’s not hard to see Ph.D.’s analyzing websites and magazines and producing area-targeted follow-ups of Growing Up Digital. Franco Moretti (read the review, it’s quite good) has already analyzed the causes of the popularity of books of the past; why not take it into the future, where it’ll be useful?

Assuming such a switchover happens, the arcane work, or what’s left of it, has to move somewhere, and people including Stephen Greenblatt are already suggesting the web. In the absence of a silver bullet that preserves a prestige publishing industry at low cost, that’s what will probably happen. At that point, the web, previously home to popularizations, incomplete understandings, and well-ground axes, will bulk up with some of the most incomprehensible writing imaginable, and their audience will be, at the end of the day, about as big as it was before. The point being that the current state of affairs, where the literary establishment publishes incomprehensible technical work and the web is home to chatty, colloquial correspondents, is unsustainable, and substantively speaking, the situation will probably invert before it stabilizes.

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