Friday, October 18, 2002

Well, That's it for Civilization, Then.

As it's Friday, I don't feel like scouring the Web for silliness. Besides, The Corner has linked to a really nice piece on Campus Watch over at Sandstorm. So read that, while I provide a personal anecdote for your reading pleasure.

Yesterday, I read a piece by Mark Goldblatt about MoDo which had an interesting premise about the intellectual elite; namely, that to be a member, you should actually have intellect. The piece itself prompted me to send him an email with the subject line "Marry me, Mark Goldblatt!", but that's beside the point. It also reminded me of this experience: Hublet and I were at a friend's cookout one Fourth of July, eating burgers and shooting the breeze about politics with folks whose educational level was MA or better (hublet and I were flying under the radar, being politically to the right of these folks but also being polite southerners whose mamas told us never to belittle the people feeding you) when a friend's wife--a lawyer--responded to a particularly hysterical ad hominem screed against Republicans with: "See! WE are the intellectual elite in this country!" Hublet and I looked around and thought, "Well, that's it for the country, then."

BTW, Mr. Goldblatt did not issue a restraining order, but sent a nice reply in which he mentions this article he'd done for a book he wrote. Check it out. I'm amazed that a professor nowadays would have the temerity to write such a thing, much less get it published!

Thursday, October 17, 2002

Stanley Fish Chaps My Ass; Or, Is There A Course in This Course?

Stanley Fish first came to my attention as the professor of a course entitled "Is There A Text in This Class?" which was most remarkable for its stupidity. He has since come to represent everything silly about taking postmodern or deconstructionist thought to its logical conclusion. After running Duke University's English Dept. into the ground he departed and is now ensconced at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he is teaching the following course: The University and the Public Sphere: Public Intellectuals and Their Social Influence.

Course description, anyone?

Course Organization
This course is organized around a "contested concept," a concept the definition and shape of which are in dispute. The phrase "public intellectual" is often encountered in conversation and in writings, but no one quite knows what the category includes, or who are and are not its members, or if there is a strong connection between the flourishing of public intellectuals and democracy, or if the age of the public intellectual is over, or if it ever began, or, if it did begin, whether or not it was and is a good thing. (Or if you can read this giant stupid sentence without committing suicide.) Was Socrates a public intellectual? Was Shakespeare? Moliere? Francis Bacon? Thomas Jefferson? James Madison? Jonathan Swift? Goethe? Byron? Oscar Wilde? Disraeli? Walt Whitman? Daniel Webster? Frederick Douglass? Carrie Nation? Woodrow Wilson? Lenin? Churchill? Gary Wills? George Will? Charlie Rose? Mohammed Ali? Robert Redford? Ralph Nader? Al Gore? Rachel Carson? Margaret Mead? Gloria Steinem? bell hooks? Regis Philbin? John Lennon? Bob Dylan? Sting? Bill Maher? Hilary Clinton? Stephen Ambrose? Homer Simpson? If some of these are and others are not, what are the criteria? If all of these are, is "public intellectual" a real category or just a label we apply to people we've heard of? Would you want your children to grow up to be public intellectuals? Would you hire one? To do what? Is public intellectual a career choice? Can you get a degree in it? Is there a market for it? Does the country need public intellectuals? For what? What good are they? Have they been of any use in the aftermath of September 11th? Are they important enough to serve as the focus of a course?

Could we have more questions? Could the list be longer, and perhaps lend an air of "studious inquiry" to a course that appears to have been pulled out of your ass because you just HAPPENED to write an article for Harper's on this same theme and you'd like to increase your profile as a Public Intellectual by requiring it as reading? More pertinent questions, to my mind are:

Why do you still have a job? And, when will universities realize that pointless sophistry isn't really furthering the cause of intellectual development?

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Sometimes I digress. Today's post is one of those times.

Pampered Now. Can We Please Stop?

For the past few years, I've been caught up in a bizarre phenomenon that seems to coincide with becoming an independent female adult--invites to what I like to call "product parties." A product party is one in which you are invited to sit with a group of friends and listen to a sales pitch on cosmetics, or kitchen ware, or candles or home decor, oooh and aaaah over the fine quality and "reasonable" price, and then purchase something in order to fulfill your friendship obligation to the hostess of the event.

It started innocently enough a year out of school, when someone at work brought in a catalog for Party Lights. They had a Party Lights party at work, and it was all very exciting to a naive young girl like myself, who was totally caught up in the smelly candle trend of home decorating (classier than incense with its pseudo-wiccan college hippy association, but aromatic and mysterious and exactly the way you imagine that the homes of successful single women would smell). So I bought a candle. Then all hell broke loose. See, part of the "product party" spiel is to entice attendees to have product parties of their own, and apparently the Party Lights Proselytizers had descended upon Raleigh like a plague of nice-smelling, flammable sirens, calling the entire female population of the city to its death on the rocks of votive candle holders and "scent sampler" candle packs. I cannot even tell you how many parties I was invited to, nor can I relate the pressure to "help out a friend" by attending, or just ordering something. To this day, my hall coat closet smells like an air freshener warehouse.

Finally, the candle craze abated. However, it was replaced by a string of (mercifully brief) successors: Avon, Tupperware, Mary Kay, some weird home decorating firm that specializes in giant swags featuring fake magnolias, about a million random jewelry companies, that damn scrapbooking thing with the acid-free paper and the photo albums that cost a billion dollars each--the list goes on, culminating with my current arch-nemesis, The Pampered Chef.

I don't have anything against the company per se; in fact, the stuff that I've gotten works pretty well. But I'm getting invitations to these parties on roughly a weekly basis now, plus co-workers are involved in selling it, and so everywhere I turn I am being threatened with Pampering. Here's the thing: I cook, so I already have all the cookware I need. So I end up getting "accessories"--garlic presses, meat thermometers, measuring spoons, etc. Not so bad, but the hoops I have to jump through to obtain some teaspoons are ridiculous.

A Pampered Chef party lasts about two hours, involves "cooking" some recipe made out of combined pre-cooked or frozen food which is always too salty, and compels the hostess to pull out and "demonstrate" EVERY LAST ITEM OF PAMPERED CHEF CRAP SHE HAS. And believe me, there's a LOT of Pampered Chef crap out there to demonstrate. How hard is it for a layperson to figure out how a measuring cup works?

So I sit there, enduring the Smell of the Salty Food Involving Prefab Pillsbury Biscuits, contemplating putting my eyes out with my order form, trying to ignore the prattling of the Converted as they discuss the fabulousness of stain resistant spatulas. Please, I just want a cake tester and a paring knife. I knew that coming in. Can't I just order now? But nooooooo! We continue with a raffle for a door prize, we pass around the cook book (filled with more prefab salty recipes), we compare Pampered Chef stories, and what do you mean, it has to COOK for THIRTY-FIVE MINUTES?! Can't I order and leave? It's just a cake tester! In the name of all that's holy, just STOP TALKING AND LET ME WRITE YOU A CHECK! No, I don't want a free sample of the taco ring. I want you to sit down, shut up, pull out the damn calculator and take my order! No, I will not host a party. I have no friends! I hate humanity, and I especially hate you right now because you're STILL TALKING, and it's been 2 1/2 hours and I have to actually work for a living eight hours a day and this is a huge chunk of my time and Cake Freaking Tester, Dammit!

Sigh. I finally get to go home, where I consume a gallon of water to counteract the bloating caused by the taco ring, rush around like an idiot to get things ready for the next day at work, put on my pjs, pour a glass of wine and sit down to go through the day's mail. There, poking out from between catalogs--a small, glossy index card. Yep, another invitation to a Pampered Chef party. I can't even cry, because the salt content of the taco ring has depleted all the moisture in my body. Perhaps a move is in order. I hear Australia's a nice place to live.

Tuesday, October 15, 2002

Bad Subjects, Indeed

Ahh, scholarly publications. Takes me back to the days when I frantically spewed forth reams of, well, crap really, in the interest of getting the almighty A and maybe fodder that could later be turned into an article for publication. In the desperate rush to publish or perish, tons of tiny little journals have appeared to make it easier for aspiring academics to get their stuff into print and pad their vitae. Think I'm being too hard on myself and my fellow students? Well then, let me direct your attention to this little foray into academic publishing: Warning: the following excerpts contain specious logic, willful misinterpretation of reality buried under popular pseudo-academic or scientific terminology, and a large volume of over-cutesy "irony," in which "terms" that are "supposedly" up for "discussion," but which are "really" being "defined" within the "rubric" of the writer's "politics" will be set aside in "loaded quotation marks" so that "we" are "in" on the "joke."

From Bad Subjects, a journal of Political Education for Everyday Life published by the Communications Dept of the University of Pittsburgh:

BAD SUBJECTS promotes radical thinking and public education about the political implications of everyday life. We offer a forum for re-imagining progressive and leftist politics in the United States and the world. Whenever you see "re-imagining," they want you to think of it in terms of radical, risk-taking intellectualism, but it's basically just redefining stuff they don't like until it fits their world view, or twisting it around to make previous arguments against it seem silly or obsolete. We invite you to join us and participate in the Bad Subjects project as we enter our eleventh year of publishing.

Okay, the latest issue is on violence. The editors have this helpful forward (I'll link to the entire intro here, because it's long, and really a paragraph or two will give you the flavor of the thing).

The Aesthetics of Violence
The urge to violence is deep-rooted in the human psyche. Theoretical explanations invoke bio-mechanicism, social territorial defense, sexualities and gender construction, displacement of social anger, economic causes, class hierarchies, or other plausible and implausible motivations for violence.
If a motivation is demonstrated as having been responsible for a violent act, how is it then implausible? Nowhere would anything as simplistic as a notion that sometimes big people take stuff from little people because they can make an appearance. Nor would any conception of good and evil. These thoughts are classified as reductive and don't exist among the thinking class--they are implausible.

Many of these explanations have potential explanatory power. as explanations often do, damn their obstinate, redundant little hides.

This issue of Bad Subjects employs not science, but cultural criticism to search for an interpretive skein within that overburdened word 'violence'; this issue examines the phenomenon's representation and aesthetics. Yep, need that skein. 'Cause violence as a word just doesn't really mean violence anymore, or at least not what we want violence to mean, which is: US capitalism, which has historically been predicated on the instrumentalization of violence to achieve it systemic purposes, has learned to commodify violence as a global media product. "Buy McDonald's cheeseburgers or I'll beat your damn head in!" was a very effective ad campaign in China. Every Hollywood action film draws on a long-developed visual vocabulary of violence, and as audiences we have cultivated tastes for the narrative possibilities behind a swift kiss of lead. This aesthetic permeates US cultural products and their sponsoring national narrative. This bar of Dove soap brought to you by Die Commie Scum! The official sponsoring narrative of the United States of Amerikkka.

Simple-minded condemnations of violent aesthetics are useless; they lead to Tipper Gore-like campaigns against rock lyrics. And it's always bad to call parents' attention to what their children are consuming--I mean why do that? A steady diet of violence couldn't possibly influence behavior, never mind that the first three paragraphs of this introduction (see link above) establish exactly that. It's always better to sit around and think about WHY the violence is pervasive, rather than attempt to do something about it and risk being thought of as simple-minded.
Besides the obvious point that we enjoy a well-done indulgence of obscenity-filled music or blow-up-the-bastards filmmaking, the politics of condemnation are anti-progressive. The US right wing has staked out an oppressive cultural politics that opposes the public representation of violence in a world where the violence propagated by American policies is on everyday exhibit, at home and abroad.
Okay, there it is. The official "WTF" moment of this screed. Read it again. And again. Make sense yet? Nope? That's because it doesn't. It is meant to hypnotize you with its run-on conglomeration of trendy post-mod catchphrases like "politics of condemnation," "oppressive cultural politics " and "public representation of violence." Oh, and let's not forget the misuse of "everyday." It's TWO WORDS in this instance, MORON! But grammatical trauma aside, what does this mean? Basically, that America, its culture, wealth, and citizenry, all thrive because they violently crush anything in their path under the hobnailed boot of capitalism. And the countries that have tried to adopt capitalism are all worse off now than they were when they were all happy little cave dwellers--never mind what the citizens of those countries reply when you actually ASK them whether they're better off. And the Eeeeevillll right wing won't let anyone talk about it! See how brave this tiny little journal is? Rock on, tiny journal! Free the masses!

It goes on to list the submissions to the journal which are the predictable, tiresome produce of mental masturbation. No coincidence that this publication's initials are BS.

Monday, October 14, 2002

Mailbag, Windbag, Take Your Pick

Though I consider reading student publications tantamount to visual and mental torture--The typos! The misuse of the mother tongue! The lack of coherent thought!--it's always a good way to find out what the hot topics are on campus. So I check out the publicatons from the 3 local universities, and I usually skip to the editorial page as the most direct route to the student psyche. Was reading through The Daily Tarheel today, and came across this guest column from Francis Boyle,, which I found intriguing in light of my previous post about campus attitudes towards anti-semitism and Israel. (BTW, Asparagirl linked to that post--thanks!)

Divestment is the fun leftist cause du jour, and The Daily Tarheel is nothing if not a fun leftist paper! Mr. Boyle is a law professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and he began his campaign for divestiture from Israel in 2000. In post 9-11 America, the time is apparently right to ramp up this campaign. A few items from the letter (my comments are in bold):

During the course of a public lecture I gave at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal on Nov. 30, 2000, I issued a call for the establishment of a nationwide campaign of divestment/disinvestment against Israel, which I later put on the Internet. In response thereto, the Students for Justice in Palestine of the University of California-Berkeley launched a divestment campaign against Israel there. Berkeley jumped on this particular bandwagon? I'm shocked. Shocked!

Then the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., considered divesting from Israel. See above statement, rinse, repeat. I don't know if Ann Arbor followed through, though. Probably not, since if they had he would have been more explicit in pointing that out.

Next, the Palestinian Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (whom I am privileged to advise) launched an Israeli divestment campaign here. As of last count, more than 50 campuses in the United States have organized divestment/disinvestment campaigns against Israel. I wonder if these additional 48 or so participants signed up before or after 9-11 and the new center-stage position of Middle Eastern politics. Campus activism is nothing if not trendy.

This grassroots movement is taking off! Umm, here's a heaping helping of What with a nice side of Ever, guy. In two years, 50 or so campuses doesn't really equal "taking off." But okay, if you say so. My inner English Major is screaming at me now to point this out: A paragraph is NEVER COMPRISED OF ONE SENTENCE!!!!! Jesus, man! You're a professor! Can you at least PRETEND to EDIT the LETTER that you're PUBLISHING?!?!???!?! I even combined two of your previous sentences into one paragraph because I couldn't take it anymore! You're killing me, Mr. Boyle. Please stop.

Read the rest of this yourself. Blah, blah, blah, yadda yadda divestment-cakes. He does leave us with this little gem, however:

Today the Republic of South Africa stands as a beacon of hope for peoples and states all over the world. Why yes, yes it does. Every day, I hope that I will never, ever have to live there.

I can't tell from the paper's website whether Mr. Boyle sent this particular letter to lots of campuses, but it seems likely. No student replies have been posted to the letter yet, as it's fall break around here.