gall and gumption

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Why Whine

don't blog about politics. In the current ghastly state of affairs maybe I should. But there are so many people out there doing it who are more focused on it than I am. They work at it full time, which I can't do. I read some of them. If you want me to point you to some of the good stuff let me know.

So what do I write about here? I've been having to think about this because of the job quest ordeal again. It always involves this reassessment of my life and how I got where I am. I'm not sure it should but this happens because I hate writing job letters.

Or maybe I hate writing job letters because this harrowing internal scrutiny seems to attend the process.

One day I was telling some people at work some story or other -- can't remember what it was about but it sort of came out of conversation. I heard myself wondering how it happened that I have had so many strange adventures. Only a few of them are the sort of thing that travel magazines, for example, call adventures. Most of the adventures were unsought, unexpected; not all of them have been unpleasant but some of them certainly were.

Apparently the one thing I do not have the remotest idea how to do is to plan my life. Or how to carry out a plan of my life, if I had such a plan. Sometimes I think that most of what I’ve achieved has happened out of a sort of desperate stubbornness, as though someone, somewhere, is expecting me to fail -- not so much at some particular task or at the job itself, but to fail in some inner way, that will demonstrate that I’m really no good, a poser whose pose has failed, I’ll spare you all the gruesome elaborations of it.

The only way I know how to answer this anxiety is by work, by concentrating on whatever job I’m doing. When I taught at Creative Studies, during the early 1990s my classroom was the one where you’d hear people roaring with laughter. I taught a lot of difficult stuff that it was a challenge to make students believe they ought to be interested in, and I succeeded in getting them interested. And then at the end of every single day I went home and pretty much lay in bed with the covers over my head till it was time to walk the dog.

In St. Kitts I ran myself into the ground. And even on the night when I got attacked I didn’t want to stop. When they were taking me to the ambulance I kept telling Rita, the reporter who was staying in my house, to take pictures of all the blood on the floor. Within hours of being back home from the emergency room I was back at my desk. And the next issue of the paper had a long, detailed story that I wrote describing the whole incident.

I can walk straight out of utter wretchedness and give a talk to an audience and make people laugh, energize and then go right back to utter wretchedness again as soon as I’m by myself.

I think the European Brown Rat is like that, if I remember that story by Joseph Mitchell correctly, the one about the rats?

I don’t believe in luck; my father believes in luck. We were driving across the country in my car in 2004. I was on my way back to Calfornia from Nevis. He kept speeding and I kept complaining. (I know he thinks it is rotten luck indeed that he ended up living with the only child he has out of the four who “back seat drives” -- a thing he hates deeply. Do I care? No.) He said, “Oh, they’re not going to stop me.” This is a statement of a person who believes in luck. I don’t. And if I did believe in luck I would want to save it up for something really big, not waste it on traffic tickets. When I find myself waiting for what luck is supposed to deliver, I am miserable. Because I hate hate hate games of chance, crapshoots. And since my job hunting has always had the appearance of a crapshoot I hate it.

I also don’t like haggling. When I was a freshman, before I got into Creative Studies, I was taking science classes and not doing brilliantly, having never been in a classroom with more than 20 people in it before, among other things. People would take exams and then go to the professor’s office and argue him into giving them a few points more. I could not bring myself to do this, the idea of doing it just utterly disgusted me. My whole trouble in life is that I don’t want anything that you have to get that way, by bullying people or by bullshitting. I am sure the professors might have made mistakes from time to time, but it seemed rather mean and sordid to want to profit by a few points from such mistakes.

But the whole idea of taking exams that way seemed really stupid to me anyway and still does. It’s a stunt. “It’s to weed people out,” you hear people say. And I always think, “Well, if you don’t want me here, I’m leaving.” It’s sort of a reflexive impulse to any sort of situation where my right to be there is in question. This trait is another family inheritance. I like to think of it as the Family Curse. We expect to be rejected. We cannot stand the suspense of waiting to be rejected. So we eject ourselves from a situation.

It was very lucky (hahahaha) that I found my way into Creative Studies then, where you were not punished for wanting to learn by being “weeded out.” And the strange thing is it worked, as anyone can tell you who knows what its students have accomplished for the 30 or so years of its existence. I had heard about Creative Studies, this college for unusually motivated students where the science majors got to work at original research and the arts and literature students, in the brochure, all looked like they were into whatever they were doing. And my first conclusion was, “They would never take someone like me. “ But a friend of mine took a class there. And I thought that if they let herhang around they could probably stand to have me. I took the class, Marvin Mudrick’s class in The Writing of Narrative Prose. The rest I won’t bore you with. I was weeded in.

Last year I went to this party in Sebastopol and I met a woman who was home visiting from her first tenure-track teaching job in English. The job was at a small college out in Ohio somewhere. We got talking about English-related stuff and I asked her a lot of questions and realized that she hadn’t read anything. She had written a dissertation somehow or other, I don’t remember about what, and she was looking about for the topic of her next effort of scholarship. Coming in on the tail end of New Historicism she was going to do some economics research involving welfare rolls or wills or some sort of public records in some English county which was all to prove something or other about literary texts in which she had no literary interest as far as I could make out.

I said, “Well, that sounds very nice, but you are at liberty now to do something that you could actually care about. So why not go for what really interests you?”

I said it nicely, OK?

She agreed with the sentiment but really couldn’t get a grip on it.

My mother is an economist. I remember when she was studying statistics, as she did her undergraduate work when I was in sixth or seventh grade. And I remember her complaining that statistics were hard. She did them though. Later, when I was in college, she picked up a Columbia MBA. She’s retired now, but a lot of her work was in development. She volunteers on a couple of charity boards, one, for example, involved with microfinance for women entrepreneurs in Grenada. She has worked with the EU, and with organizations involved in local and international economic development. Now, I have some idea of where literary studies has gone over the last 20 years or so, and I know that it has not equipped anybody to go wandering into raw 17th-century statistics or economics. So the whole thing would be a swizz and a bore. Guaranteed. But this condtion of affairs she just accepted with a sort of placid trustingness. Beavering away at utterly pointless useless work, that no one but an English professor with corrupted judgment would read, that would be contemptible in the eyes of anyone who actually knew anything about the subject, was the whole reason she became an English professor.

It’s like there are two kinds of knowing. One is the knowing of actual things the way I know all my favorite writers, or the way my mother knows how to put together policy reports for NGOs who want to take some action. Or how my father knows how to install electric poles and power them up without electrocuting himself. Where you know, or you don’t know. And you can know that you know. Or not.

Then there’s this other kind of knowing. It’s the kind of knowing where a person who has barely achieved competence in the study of English literature and language, is hired to teach it on the basis of research she is going to produce by researching economics -- a subject about which she knows, in that first sense, even less than she knows about English. But she apparently knows something else, by this other system of knowing, and the people who hire her think they do too, and think she does, and that something that they know is not anything that you could describe as “a subject.”

What is it?

I have not the remotest idea. I believe that Stanley Fish is a well-known exponent of this particular type of knowing.

I’ve met academic stars and stars-in-training; a specialist in Renaissance Poetry, a whiz at getting grants, who cannot scan Ben Jonson’s verses (Jonson is one of the easy ones). I met people who make sweeping pronouncements on scientific theory without having ever read any of Richard Feynman’s serious writing on science, or Karl R. Popper’s descriptions and critiques of pseudoscience. Or Darwin. By some totally (to me, at any rate) inscrutable mental process, writers like these who actually know something about these subjects are scrupulously excluded from a discussion of, say, what is a scientific theory. I’ve met people who study literature and make no secret of the fact that they think it’s all crap. Totally uncurious about Pushkin but stopping in the hall eagerly to ask, “Have you seen the new Frederic Jamieson piece?” People who are incapable of recognizing criticism from outside of the intellectual framework to which they have committed themselves.

An inability to think through to the practical, general, or logical consequences of any positions to which they have committed themselves is another characteristic.

Thus, I once had a colleague ask me, “But surely you don’t believe that there are universal human values?” This person was questioning my liberal cred on the basis of some offhand remark I had made, which I totally don’t remember now. But yeah, I kinda do think there are, or at any rate that large numbers of people seem to think there are, starting with human rights, the Geneva Conventions, and a whole long list of my own personal preferences, and a whole lot of things that individuals and societies have tried to describe, have believed in, have tried to achieve, have died for. It’s a huge subject, a splendid subject. It’s a subject! I mean, you can start with Sophocles’s opening chorus to Antigone, you can work through Clytemnestra’s speeches in Agammemnon, you can hit Dante, you can find it in the Knight’s Tale, in medieval Persian epics, in Voltaire, in Montaigne, in the writers of the Enlightenment, all the way up. Apparently as soon as people are able to take pen in hand a large number of them will begin to be preoccupied wth the question of whether there are any universal human values, whether there should be any, what they should be, why they should be those in particular, what the consequences of such belief might be for good or ill, what they should be based in (religion?which religion? consent of the people? laws of nature? my inner child? what?).

But when this woman thought of the phrase she thought of it in this very narrow sense in which it had come to her through literary study -- she thought of it through the provincialism of one method of reading, where you went seeking the colonialist patriarchal oppressor in order to condemn him. And from the perspective of that method that’s all there was. That’’s all she had, and you see what I have. And yet, I feel like the person who does not know.

Is that weird or what?

This is the “cultural relativism” that sets the wingnuts to foaming at the mouth, even as they are daily busted for practicising it themselves, to a degree, the record of the last six years now shows, that is beyond the most fevered dreams of the nuttiest campus liberal, and real, not hypothetical, destruction and misery have been the result.

So even as I make this critique of the “liberal” humanities I’m not losing sight of the fact that most of the critique of it from the right is in totally bad faith. They attack the “multiculturalist agenda” and “political correctness” as cover for a racialist, anti-feminist, anti-humanist agenda that is simple and practical. There is no equivalence between the two.

This has been another edition of "Not Writing Job Letters." I'm doomed.


At 7:47 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

On re-reading both, I don't know why, but still, I came across this essay earlier today and your piece somehow seemed similar. Maybe it will cheer you up.

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous tom said...

Here's something else, oddly anonymous, potentially relevant. Except you said more.

At 6:21 AM, Blogger Kia said...

Martha Nussbaum has been writing on these themes for years, starting with The Fragility of Goodness.


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