The Ubiquity of Contempt

I’m about to talk about feelings. So, if you don’t like to talk about feelings, read something else.

OK. So, I really don’t have anything to say about Spring Breakers. I haven’t seen it. I’ve even tried to avoid thinking about it. But today, I let myself follow a link in an email from the Daily Beast to this piece, which includes a short debate, between Marlow Stern and Ramin Setoodeh, about the relative merits and demerits of the film. Their debate didn’t actually make me more interested in the film. Instead, what interested me was how Stern characterized Harmony Korine’s approach to filmmaking as contemptuous. He betrays a kind of contempt for the viewer. Setoodeh confessed that this contempt—which apparently oozes through the medium of the film and into the emotional world of the viewer—is precisely what he hated about the film. He seemed to be meeting Korine’s contempt, and matching it. Stern, on the other hand, seemed unperturbed by it. The overall aesthetic effect of the film was pleasing enough that he didn’t mind being treated contemptuously. I have to admit, I admire Stern’s cool remove and sense of blase. I find contempt the most difficult of all affects to deal with and I felt an immediate emotional solidarity with Setoodeh. Continue reading “The Ubiquity of Contempt”

The Cyberteacher

What I’m about to say verges on the apocalyptic. Perhaps, in large part, because they quickly disintegrate into hyperbole, apocalyptic discourses tend to be easily dismissed. So I’m just going to own it. I’ll only add that apocalyptics, undeniably, have a certain rhetorical value. I suppose I’m adding that as a gesture toward self-justification. But, I digress.

My actual concern is about the possible futures of higher education. This is a subject I’ve been somewhat myopically tracking in news feeds in recent months. One obvious reason for this is the fact that I’m a dissertating PhD candidate, going on the job market in the fall. I’m trying to discern as much about the possible futures of the academy as I can. So that I can speculate wisely. Overwhelmingly, it seems that the magical bullet distracting many from narratives of academic collapse (and titillating commentators like Thomas Friedman) is the MOOC. The Massive Open Online Course. I have so many things to say about the MOOC. I’ve already said some of them, elsewhere. But I want to avoid making this commentary a wastebasket of opinions and gripes. Mostly, what I want to think about here is the kind of digital pedagogy they’re likely to advance, and the spooky virtual specters of the cyberteachers who might operate them. Continue reading “The Cyberteacher”

Books by the Cover

I’ve been asked to review a book, for a gender studies journal. When I received the book in the mail, and opened up the package, I could feel my face twisting into a frown. Here’s an image of the cover:






A few days later, I was leaving the house and was looking for some train reading. This book is small, so I grabbed it. But, then, I appeared in my own mind’s eye: a nerdy looking lady on the subway, wearing a a fluffy white mohair jacket and reading a book with this cover. I didn’t like it. So I removed the dust jacket and put the book in my bag.

When I review this book, I will not address the cover. I will unpack the presumptions that are embedded in the title. And I will point to the qualifications the authors make, in the introduction, regarding these presumptions. I will address the book’s scholarship. That is what a book review should do. And that is what I will do.

But can I just vent about this cover, about book covers in general, for a second here? Continue reading “Books by the Cover”

Mystical Texts “(Black Clouds Course Through Me Unending…)”

Readers may be interested to know that the new issue of the journal Glossator, edited by Nicola Masciandaro & Eugene Thacker, has just been published. The journal is dedicated to the theory and practice of commentary and this is Volume 7: The Mystical Text. Several AUFS voices have contributed. Dan Barber’s “Commentarial Nothingness” is a commentary on a commentary from Eckhart, Daniel Whistler is writing on mysticism in German Idealism, Joshua Ramey has written a piece with Aron Dunlap on Philip K. Dick’s speculative fiction. And I’ve written something about Saint Francis’s attempt to turn death into a creature. There are also several other names that may already be familiar to readers: Kevin Hart, Timothy Morton, Karmen MacKendrick. A plate of treats. 

I particularly like the quote from E.M. Cioran’s The Trouble With Being Born that the editors have placed under the table of contents (though it has left me perplexing over this question of whether or not a god can read):

It is always surprising to discover that the great mystics produced so much, that they left so many treatises. Undoubtedly their intention was to celebrate God and nothing else. This is true in part, but only in part. We do not create a body of work without attaching ourselves to it, without subjugating ourselves to it. Writing is the least ascetic of all actions . . . The mystics and their ‘’collected works.” When one addresses oneself to God, and to God alone, as they claim to do, one should be careful not to write. God doesn’t read . . . 

More Evidence Points to the Total Devaluation of Thinking

This article was popping up on my Facebook feed this morning. Academics that I know are sharing it with one another. What the author of the piece (a retired high school teacher) tells us isn’t news, per se. He’s simply tracing the damage that a generation of No Child Left Behind policies have done to learning in American public schools. There were a few things I didn’t really know: he gave me some insight into how the writing sections of assessments are scored, for instance. If I had questions about whether high school students today had fewer opportunities to learn how to struggle with ideas, or develop their inspired analytic faculties, by using the written word—to think—I feel like I now have answers. But in the end this is what the author calls a “plea” for some kind of help:

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

I’m picking up what he’s putting down: stop complaining about the high school teachers and start calling for policy change. Amen. Lamentably, he’s speaking to a class of professionals who (increasingly) are being forced to face the harsh reality that academic labor becomes more and more contingent: brilliant thinkers are unable to secure full-time positions, tenured faculty lose their jobs when their institutions declare “financial exigency.” Granted, there are still a few superstars who moonlight in the New York Times. And, surely, as long as they continue to celebrate the beautiful world of technological, non-institutional possibility that awaits us—as we stumble out of the wreckage of an educational system that never managed to work as well as it should have—there will be a platform for them. There will alway be a platform for the people who believe in the power of new techno-commercial enterprises. The rest of us will vent to one another, in forums like this, simmering in the safe shadows of our relative obscurity. Continue reading “More Evidence Points to the Total Devaluation of Thinking”

‘We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future

“Here we see more distinctly the structure of ‘animism’ haunting Deleuze’s ontology: under the spellbound conditions of composition, notes become birds that become souls. Notes do not represent but become horse steps, bird flight, or lovemaking. But this transmutation only occurs because in this process horses, birds, and love enter into new assemblages, and on that basis become something new, as yet unknown.” (158)

“Techno and jungle beats, for instance, are as much the untamed rampage of buffalos and the eerie longing of hyenas. We dance these beasts not to comprehend something, to understand the ‘spirit of our times’, but to connect the digital and the animal in an obscure filiation, out of step with the times, untimely with respect to the slaughter of animals and police-statist use of technological onslaught.” (160)

It’s not always a strange practice, to wear animals. We are, arguably, animals bound up in the leather of our own strange skin. It is more odd, admittedly, to imitate hoofed creatures and strap on the leather of a shoe. Or to double our skin with the leather of a coat. Or to shear the soft wool from a lamb’s body and weave it into a web that wraps around us a like a cocoon. Then again, we might think of these costumes as forms of protection. What is most uncanny (at least on the surface), for many of us in capitalist America, is the practice of wearing an animal whose carcass does not disappear: the fur coat. There are vegans who refuse to wear any leather at all. But, for those who cannot go quite so far, ascetic restraint seems to begin with the undead shroud that is the fur coat. Is this a gesture of solidarity with other creatures, against the rapacious teeth of the garment industries and the cult of fast fashion? Or is it a gesture of denial that sanitizes our public spaces, casting a hygienic light on death’s shadow?

Continue reading “‘We Dance These Beasts’: Capitalism, Animism, Believers of the Future”

The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory

Nigel Thrift has a new, dystopian, speculative post up on his blog at The Chronicle of Higher EducationHe reveals, at the end, that the entire vision he’s just laid out doesn’t really sit well with him. But, before he gets there, he raises a series of “what if” questions: what if a new kind of political economy were to arise in the American & British university system? What if it looked like the conglomerate chain model that so many restaurants follow (think: Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory) where “large numbers of customized choices” would be “delivered efficiently and well through the production of greater variety, better quality, and lower cost”? He’s inspired, in this reflection, by Atul Gawande’s New Yorker piece, where he reflects on how the medical industry could re-shape itself in accordance with these standardized restaurant models. In a nutshell: what if university education were to become a mass produced product with greater predictability and standardization? There would still be some old hold-outs, who could represent the “craft model”… the nostalgic sort, that’s only available for those with time and money to burn. 

Of course, the first thing that came to my mind was: isn’t this already happening? Isn’t this what the whole MOOC phenomenon (“elite” universities partnering with private companies like Coursera to offer Harvard-style lecture courses that are cheap to produce for “the masses”) is all about? Isn’t this craft model exactly what enterprises like the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research are trying to produce? This isn’t some dystopian future that might happen, if we don’t come up with something better. It’s what is happening now. These are the actual conditions of our existence.  Continue reading “The University as Craft Enterprise. Or, College as Cheesecake Factory”

Cynical & Religious

Perhaps you’ve already seen this term paper assignment, from Kurt Vonnegut, that’s posted at Slate? It’s worth reading, on the one hand, because it’s a simple reminder of how clever and lovely a paper assignment can actually be. I know I forget that, sometimes, and lose myself in the practical (and uninspiring) instructions I give my students. But I’m linking to it here because one particular passage captured my attention. Vonnegut writes:

As for your term papers, I should like them to be both cynical and religious. I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be. “This above all …”

There’s been ample discussion, on this blog, over the past several days about issues of “tone” and “discourse” in theological (and theoretical) conversation. There’s been talk of how to mitigate forms of rhetorical violence, about the relative value of anger, about the role of graciousness, the need to amplify hospitality. Continue reading “Cynical & Religious”

Gender & Ontology

Yesterday afternoon – after having read Brandy’s post, as well as Anthony’s recent post on ontology – I followed a link on Facebook to Eigenfactor’s breakdown of the gender balance in scholarly publications between the years of 1665 and 2011. The data apparently comes from JSTOR (I didn’t know that they’d stockpiled publications from the 17th century! Do they really?!) This isn’t necessarily relevant. But I decided to check out the stats in philosophy. In a broad sense, they are – not surprisingly – pretty bad: only 9.4% of the total publications are by women, as opposed to, say, 37.3% in education. But things get a little more interesting when you link to the philosophy publications page where the data breaks down into more nuanced detail. Relevant here: only 3.6% of all publications on ontological arguments are by women. By way of contrast, 19.3% of works on moral philosophy have been published by women.

While I share Anthony’s distaste for the muscular “hard core” discourse on ontology, I have to confess that I am also pretty fixated on ontological claims and issues. I will admit to being a little geeked about the fact that new strains of “speculative thought” proclaimed an interest in ontology.  Continue reading “Gender & Ontology”

Eat, Pray, Kill

I’m posting a link, here, to a piece that I just published with Religion Dispatches magazine. It’s not a philosophically astute essay, so I’m not sure readers here will find it interesting for that reason. I’m reflecting, mostly, on the violence of eating. The violence of eating meat, of course… but also the violence of eating more broadly. The occasion for the reflection is the recent ethical essay contest at the NY Times: to come up with a morally defensible reason to eat meat. But also in the background is a recent graduate student conference at Columbia, where religion and meat was a hot topic of discussion. Mark C. Taylor opened the conference with a line from A River Runs Through It: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion & fly-fishing.” His charge, as I heard it, was that recent thinking about animals hasn’t dealt enough with blood sacrifice. Wendy Doniger, in her keynote, meditated on a rather endless series of lists from (mostly) The Laws of Manu, developing all kinds of prohibitions against violent forms of consumption, including an injunction that we maintain awareness of the “screaming silence” of vegetables. I was kind of taken by her claim that these lists (of prohibitions) are a way of rationalizing (and thus, controlling and regulating) the moral ambivalence that’s attached to our violent consumption of fellow creatures. This seems right to me. I’m more confused about how effective this is, or should be. Readers: what do you eat? And how? Do you make/keep lists? Are they, in even a loose sense, inspired by any creedal codes or regulations?