The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Calling Out the Evil

by TS DeHaviland

Occasionally, commentators like me get raked over the proverbial coals for calling certain economists and corporate management types "evil."

But then you hear a story like the one Yuki Noguchi did for NPR last week. Noguchi, to her credit, pointed out that Robert Simons, of Harvard Business School, the vocal proponent of stacked ranking systems interviewed for this story, has tenure and is therefore not subject to the system. But nobody else in the story seemed to even blink when terms like these were used in reference to struggling employees:

"You have surgery to cut the cancer out."

 "[I]it can sometimes work with an ailing business that has gotten too fat."

"[T]he bottom performers."

We're really talking about people here, of course, and struggling people to boot. We're not talking about pathologies or cellulite or even the "bottom performers," but people whose "performance" in any given position is a complex matter of what's going on their lives, what kind of relationship they have with their co-workers, and even what kind of work they're doing.

To glibly refer to people in this way simply means that the experts are being evil, callously distanced from the humanity of people who work. Calling someone a "cancer" simply because that person might have coworkers that don't like her or might be a poor fit for a position or might be expected to do impossible things on impossible deadlines with little or no support is simply unconscionable.  

"Bottom performers" may, in fact, be the true innovators, but what they're doing may be beyond the ability of an organization, its managers, or the person's coworkers to understand.

And anyway, stacked ranking systems ask for fundamentally contradictory things: that people compete with one another but also act for the good of the team they work with and the organization as a whole. What part of the stupid-but-true cliche "There is no 'I' in 'team'" have proponents of stacked ranking not heard?

It gets much worse, of course: systems such as stacked ranking create cadres of people who gang up against the one or two scapegoats that they know they'll have to get rid of every year. This doesn't improve anything at all; it just poisons the atmosphere of work for everybody. After all, next year, the "poor performer" the popular kids decide to yank could be you.

The flippant attitude of those who purport to know about management is so deeply ingrained that the so-called proponent of employee engagement who is quoted here dismisses it even as she tries to explain it: "Employees like to hear that their opinion matters. They like to hear that their manager cares what they think."

Employees like to hear it, but if their opinions really don't matter and if the manager doesn't actually care what they think, if their opinions are never acted upon, then "engagement," like "empowerment" of the 1990s, will be just another empty business buzzword, just another mask for the deep-seated evil that all too often governs the terms of employment.     

Friday, November 29, 2013

Against Problem Solving and Goals

by Lael Ewy

Almost all of our self-help and management literature is infected with the co-occurring disorders of goal-setting and problem-solving. The problem I have with goals is that they're poor ways to live your life. We live a continuum, not from discrete moment to discrete moment.

Goals are preferred by power structures because they can be easily quantified, listed on a resume or in a quarterly report. But they're also defined by their completion, by the discrete nature of their own parameters. Once reached, they have an effect similar to certain drugs: momentary euphoria followed by a crash (another reason, no doubt, that those power structures prefer them). If the meaning of what you do is entirely goal-defined, you'll be at a loss about what to do and how to be after the goal is achieved. And if the goal is not achieved, you may be in danger of not knowing what the point of all your work in fact is.

Goals, then, while useful for marking work and organizing it, can also become traps, catching people in such a way that they define themselves in terms of what is or can be achievable or accomplished instead of as persons who are having experiences, learning, becoming.

Likewise, we fall into traps when we problem-solve. Almost all problem-solving techniques begin with defining the problem clearly; some even advocate defining the problem in a way that can be solved. This presupposes a certain kind of solution: one already implied in the way a problem presents.

This approach restricts the possible solutions and outcomes. It also often leads us to define problems in ways we're comfortable with instead of ways that address difficult truths. The “problem” of education in America, for example, is presented as a problem of achieving certain measurable outcomes, namely, student performance on standardized tests. This fails not only to address issues such as preparing students to apply what they know in the real world; it also fails to address the person as a learner, as someone who will have to keep on learning in an unpredictable (and unstructured) future environment.

Furthermore, we know that in the real world, problems are seldom defined in the abstract, prior to their being tackled. It's much more likely that real-world problems will be defined and redefined as they are being solved. Once we've (pre)defined what a problem is, brainstormed solutions, and selected a plan of action, there's little room for changing course. This is how we tend to get literally lost, how economies fail, how people get mired in “stuck” places. The problem has been so clearly defined from the outset that even firsthand observers sometimes fail to see what the problem really is.

We all know from experience, as well, that a structured problem-solving process, as good as it looks on paper and as easy as it is to teach, is seldom how problems actually get solved. Ideas often come to you while you're doing something other than actively thinking about them. But employers would probably not pay employees to creatively go do something else until a solution appears, as that's, also, nearly impossible to account for. So we continue to pretend our problem-solving techniques are the way things really work, content to have defined the actuality, safely, away.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Beyond Excellence

by Lael Ewy

We need to teach students not to meet benchmarks but to question the very premises upon which those benchmarks are based.

What is or isn't “excellent” is the wrong aim of education in a democracy. We should be able to create standards and critique them, not just to live up the standards those-who-would-have-us-think-they-are-our-betters set. We should be well-versed in making meaning, not just in coming up with answers.

All this dilly-dallying about with “performance” is actually selling education far short, and we, as a nation, should be ashamed of settling for it. Performance standards are, at best, a distraction from the potentials of education and, at worst, part of a concerted effort to reign in the more independent-minded, and therefore more subversive and revolutionary, aspects of being an educated person.

The fact that school systems find it difficult to meet (often arbitrary) performance criteria is not a measure of the “rigor” of those measures but rather an indication of their irrelevance. We are a culture full of people who find themselves falling behind economically, losing collective power, and constantly facing new struggles that our existing power structure, instead of helping us solve, helps to compound. None of these more salient problems are addressed by standardized tests, and we feel it, even if we haven't the language to express it.

One's self-discipline is a factor of one's motivation; it isn't “laziness” to not want to play a game that you know is rigged against you. Rather, it is common sense to opt out, screw off, half-ass it. It's a good deal more compelling when what you need to know is presented as a factor of what you need to do. Exploring ways to better yourself that you can see and touch makes much more sense than granulated, preprocessed abstractions and idealizations of “knowledge.” Paulo Friere understood this, and his “problem-posing” education was thus attacked as being “theoretical,” the antithesis of what it actually is.

All we've done with “excellence” is increase the minimum allowable balance of our current “banking” style of education; we've done nothing to put that value to work for a people increasingly impoverished in both real and intellectual ways.

Crisis Fatigue and the Indifference of Ted Cruz

By TS DeHaviland

I am suffering from a great deal of crisis fatigue. I could get all uppity, as I'm wont to do, and remind everyone that crises are mostly the results of poor planning, but the ugly truth is that most crises are problems that we create for ourselves for the sake of proving to others that our concerns are real. We feel the need to continually prove this because the world is largely indifferent to our actual complaints.

And while a few of us still give lip-service to compassion—and some of us are even authentic about it—there's nothing cooler to your average American than simply not giving a fuck.

Th real reason Ted Cruz's stand against Obamacare didn't really hurt him or the Tea Party in the long run is that it established his image of cold indifference. It was petty and selfish and procedurally pointless, but to a lot of Americans, it made him look like a badass. His faux filibuster was a declaration of “I so thoroughly don't give a shit about anyone else's suffering that I will shut down the whole government to get what I want.”

And if that sounds like assholery, it precisely well is.

But the fact that it made Ted Cruz, for one horrible historical moment, the most powerful man on Earth is not lost on any American male, and a whole lot of American males admire him for it.

You see, the same American males are all too aware that their power is in decline. But instead of looking around and blaming the Ted Cruzes in their own lives—their bosses, mainly—for it, they look at those people and ask “If they've got all the power and all the cash, how can I be like them and get some of that power and money too?”

The litany of ways they try to do it is also a laundry list of liberal complaints against conservatives: bigger guns and more of them; control over women's bodies; indifference to the downtrodden and the poor (even though many of them are poor themselves); alignment with a vengeful, Old Testament God.

What fatigues people like me, people who have been raised to take care of things and not wantonly break them, people who spend time solving problems instead of blaming others, is that the more Ted Cruzes we have blasting their indifference all over the walls of our schools and the halls of our Congress, the more energy people like me have to waste cleaning up tragic and unnecessary messes.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Towards a Dialectics of Organizational Tongues

by Lael Ewy

A lot of the trouble we end up having in the workplace stems from our preconceived notions of how the workplace ought to run, our expectations of what we ought to be getting out of it, and what different communications at the workplace signify.

The ability to adapt to a new work environment—to a new workplace culture—is essential to our survival and comfort on the job. This could be said about any organization, schools, even families as well.

Part of that success is in reading the contextual cues of the environment and the organizational culture, of the communications of the “natives.”

A couple of tools spring to mind to help deal with the problem of not adapting well to an organizational culture, and one prominently: Reader Response, a theory of literary critique. Reader Response postulates, among other things, that texts contain the means of their own interpretation, that each work gives the reader cues and clues as to what's going on within it. Often, readers are unaware of how a text is “teaching” you to read it, but exploring these indicators formally helps us to see what we might have missed, explain things that confuse us, and help us gain insight into the internal codes the author has used. An organization's culture can be analyzed in much the same way: an awareness of its “tells” can give us insights into what is really going on.

If done well, a person can can not merely adapt to an organization but also gain a certain amount of agency, if not power, within it. This can help address the unspoken power differences that often create barriers between organizational equals.

The in-group language of those in charge, however, can still be used to to create and maintain hierarchies and reinforce institutional structures of power. In the same way that a ruling social class has its own set of terms and cultural cues, so too do the powerful within an organization: methods of dress and address, jargon specific to a certain theory of or school of management, or idiomatic fixations become, very quickly, the means to express in order to impress. Mastery over these may not guarantee success at an organization, but they no doubt increase or improve it. In turn, lack of mastery of these is used to create and reinforce subservience. As Bakhtin might have put it, those at the top speak the language of organizational epic. A way to push back against this reification of power would be through some form of polyglossia, of the novelization of intraorganizational discourse.

As with other forms of colonization, when those in charge try to “improve” the staff by teaching them the “master's” tongue, the result is nearly inevitable failure: outside the context of the boardroom, the language of the power structure holds little relevance and therefore little power to create positive change. Its lack of effective magic in these circumstances reinforces the idea in the minds of the managers that those lower on the org chart deserve their place, that those already in charge are fit to lead; their mastery of the magic tongue makes it so. This also reinforces among those lower in the organization that they deserve their place: if only they could make the incantations work, all would be well. That they cannot simply proves that they are not fit to lead.

Both sides forget a few important things: those of lower organizational status forget that the language of the managers is ill-suited to the work that they are doing, the appropriate language being that created by the nature of the work itself. And the managers forget that the miraculous effects of their words—the ability to create almost instant compliance, for example—comes not from the words but from the fact of organizational power.

Thus the language of power is really about the organization and its structure, not about the work the organization ostensibly exists to do.

For power to be challenged, then, and for the good not necessarily of the organization but its stated aims, actual dialog must take place, without assumption and on neutral ground.

True empowerment is dialogic, a product of shared magic.

A Bit on Brands

by EW Wilder

Brands have long lives but thin skins.

Branding is an essentially defensive move, as shown by its origins in tracking the ownership of cattle. The brand attempts to avoid attack by approximating ubiquity. For as much as the factual history of a brand may be written, it projects ahistoricity; the brand's job is to convince you that it has always existed. In this way, branding is much like religious iconography and tries to perform the same function.

Frequently, it succeeds.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Coming to Terms with Cocker

by Lael Ewy

A while ago, I pledged to explain Joe Cocker. It's not an easy thing to do: by turns gruff and spasmotic, to any even halfway intelligent outside observer, Cocker should have long ago succumbed to some agonizing, long-term, debilitating  neuropathy.

And yet, he persists.

Laying aside the apparent physiological impossibilities for a minute (for this will only take a minute), listen sometime, if you dare, to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes' 1982 hit "Up Where We Belong." Easily Cocker's most famous piece of work.

True to its origins as a cheezy love song from the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and to its writers, Jack Nitzsche, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Will Jennings, the lyrics and music are pure '80s pop schmaltz.

But if you want to understand Joe Cocker, you'll move past all that. Here Cocker is best displayed because of the contrast to Warnes. From her first "Who," delivered in a way both diaphanous and powerful, Warnes' voice is everything Cocker's isn't: it is genuinely operatic but with a slight folk-singer edge. These qualities force us to really listen to Cocker's voice, which is as rough and proletarian as Janis Joplin's ever was but with an utterly inexplicable tunefulness.

Listen to any classic Cocker track, like his cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends," and then put on some Led Zepplin. Go ahead. I'll wait.

See, that wasn't so hard.

Now, did you notice something? Yeah: no matter what kind of Robert Plant fan you are, you are now ready to realize what I have: Joe Cocker did, seemingly by accident, what a young Robert Plant was trying way too hard to do.

What I'm talking about, of course, is the blues.

This is also why, vocally, Plant's later work was so much better; he finally grew up a bit and came to terms with the fact that if he worked less hard he could get more done.

And Cocker? Well Joe Cocker just can't help himself, and that may, in the end, explain his greatness better than anything I could do.         

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Contemporary Conservatism and the Locus of Control

by EW Wilder

I can't help but think that the real problem with contemporary conservatism is that it traps people between external motivation and the expectation of an internal locus of control.

This produces the ultimate mindfuck, a powerful manipulative tool that projects tyranny far beyond the actual abilities of the oppressor to harm the oppressed.

It operates on the assumption that the reason for doing something (work, kindness, being “accountable”) is outside the person (the expectations of a vengeful God/country/king/marketplace/CEO), but the responsibility for doing something is entirely inside the person. This would explain why conservatives can believe both in authoritarian hierarchies and also believe in personal responsibility. Consider that conservatives support command and control structures that rely on punishment rather than reward, deterrent rather than cooperation, submission rather than empowerment. But they also support “self-starters,” entrepreneurship, and “freedom” broadly speaking. These things would seem to be incompatible unless the external motivation/internal locus of control theory is applied.

In the conservative paradigm (which governs almost all of our corporate, educational, and executive political systems), people are trapped into believing that if they did not achieve the proper outcome it is always their fault for not being responsible enough, even though they were “just following orders,” “just doing their jobs,” or, in the case of the latest economic downturn, “doing everything right” by investing in the market. The fact that their failure was highly likely, if not inevitable, given their circumstances and resources, is exactly why those in power tend to be conservative and operate by this set of assumptions, regardless of what they officially say. This is why Barack Obama can run as a liberal but, when he gets into office, “punish” his foreign enemies with drone strikes when they get out of line; this is how he can espouse a drill-and-test educational system and a regime of massive internal surveillance. All of these are based on the premise that motivations are external while all responsibility is internal. Consider the arguments: the Syrian government must be motivated to do what we want by the threat of force. Children and teachers alike must be motivated by the threat of the exam, upon which rides both their academic and their professional futures. At the same time, we say things like “Assad brought this on himself,” and “children must live up to standards of excellence.”

Thus trapped in untenable positions, people have little choice but to internalize the master narrative and feel that they can and should act only in ways prescribed by whatever authority they see as most operative in their lives. These authorities become the external arbiters of their behavior and help define their orientations to authority until something else has sufficient force to supplant it. Thus a “wild” teenager finds what he believes is “discipline” in the army. What he finds, of course, is fear, and he does not know what to do with himself without its threat. This is at least partially why so many returning vets have no idea how to re-integrate into civilian life: they have not identified with the new externalities, and there are no real means in our culture to nurture (much less make a living from) what motivates us internally.

This form of social control is subtle, brilliant, and ultimately disabling, leading us to seek control in other, usually self-destructive, ways, such as self-medication, controlling relationships, cutting, mind-numbing entertainments. If we engage in these too much, we find ourselves enmeshed in the officially and formally authoritarian systems of control: prisons, coercive “welfare” schemes, psychiatric “care.”

Despite the rhetoric, then, or perhaps as an indicator of its true intent, people acting out of intrinsic motivations are an existential threat to conservatives and to the systems of control and command that they embody, maintain, and seek to perpetuate, This is why the “geek” must be ridiculed or, when useful, corporatized and monetized, indentured into his “proper place as an engineer or an apparatchik. This is why the artist must be marginalized, the humanities department defunded, and “blue sky” research turned vassal to technological R&D. This is why mere refinement is redefined as innovation and innovation is relegated to the garage, the coffeehouse, the alternative communities of open-source software and “maker” spaces.

This is what Kafka got right: the motivations of the artists, the innovators, those who will help our civilization survive when our climate changes or the meteor falls, are internal, as basic as hunger, as clear as sweat.

War as Collective Psychopathology

by Lael Ewy

We call one person mad who attacks a public gathering for political purposes, but we call heroes those who “engage the enemy” knowing full well that innocent civilians will die in the process. Indeed, the war that we now look back on as “the good war” also brought us the concept of “total war” and involved both sides in the wholesale targeting of civilian populations in order the wear the enemy down and force a surrender.

Granted, some of our disconnect here involves how our media cover such events: the details of an “act of terrorism” are repeated endlessly and dissected microscopically; the families of those who died are interviewed, the life stories of the dead recounted. If any information at all is reported about the effects of war on “the enemy,” it's extremely vague, of the “we've got them on the run” variety, often reduced to number of missiles fired, sorties run, troops deployed, bodies recovered. In other words, “terrorism” has human effects and war has statistical effects.

But underlying the impulse to report this way we find, I believe, the heart of the matter: we judge the mass slaughter of innocent people not by its effects or by its real horror or even by its relative justice (or lack thereof) but by the perceived intentions of its perpetrators.

Killing a bunch of Afghans who had nothing to do with attacking us is acceptable because we believe that our intentions are pure, even if part of our strategy is to so terrify the population that it will no longer “harbor terrorists.” We judge the terrorists' intentions as impure and unjust (“What did we ever do to them?” we often ask.) based on what we see as individual motivations toward evil instead of selfless impulses of national defense.

But, of course, the terrorist, just like the soldier, believes that he is doing the right thing, defending his homeland from the imperialist West and his faith from the infidels.

And the effects on those who die are exactly the same: pain and trauma, destruction of bodies and disruption of lives.

In the end, both war and terrorism turn us all into psychopaths, allowing us to condone evil acts for the sake, we think, of noble causes.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Reason and Compassion Among the Non-Rationalists

While the human mind is capable of rational thought, humans are, by and large, not rationalistic; rather, we're totemic and associative. We love to think we're reasonable and will go deep into rationalizing why we're right, but to question the foundations of our preconceived notions is going too far for most people most of the time.

Messing with our preconceived ideas messes with our sense of identity, and while ideas can be constructed and reconstructed essentially at will, identities take years, lifetimes, and sometimes many lifetimes, to develop.

The problem this causes Americans in particular is that our political system was developed by self-declared rationalists under the assumption that with the proper training and education, everyone would think just like them.

That is why they put confidence in such concepts as “the marketplace of ideas,” which was supposed to allow reasoned debate that would lead to the best solutions being supported; they trusted in deliberative bodies and in the notion that people would, in the end, elect representatives who were better than they were, more able to govern.

But at the same time, the new nation stripped off a lot of those cultural ghosts that form the traditions, rites, customs, and mores that help define the individual, that help create identity.

On the one hand, this was a great boon: many of those European ways of being were fraught with inequality and oppression, and good riddance to them. But this also created a perpetual crisis in American life: without an ancient culture to tell us who we are, Americans were forced to create new identities with the bits and pieces left behind and the new ways of existence discovered along the way. There is, then, a sort of urgency in the American psyche, a desperation for identity. We can hear it most plaintively in those who call themselves conservatives. Uncomfortable with the need to constantly create anew, they cling to an imagined past wherein these questions were settled. The tone of voice of a Michele Bachmann or a Glenn Beck betrays this desperation: they keen out a world in constant crisis. This crisis is in direct proportion to their discomfort with the American project, which is bricolage, building an identity with what you have, inspired by what you want.

This is also why those who whine most loudly about “freedom” are the very ones who practice it the worst, gravitating toward hierarchical corporate structures, police state practices, walled compounds, and strict religions. This is why “blue” states tend to fare better on measures of quality of life, stable marriages, and productivity. Those who are more familiar with personal ambiguity are less likely to let others fail, less comforted by others' struggles, more likely to support the sort of costs of “finding yourself” through education, small-scale entrepreneurship, personal failure. They've been there themselves, or they've been close enough for it to have scared them into compassion instead of contempt. They've seen how struggle is part of success, not a punishment for some inherent inadequacy.

And this is America at its best, forcing us through our personal crises to think compassionately, to act out of fellow-feeling instead of fear. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

First lines from a failed novel: "Tabitha was suffering from the deep exhaustion that comes from always having to be right. As she stared at her ice cream, whiteness melting into the china, she wondered what her life would be like if she was the sort of person who could be satisfied by an evening at Applebee's."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

First lines from a failed novel: "They had rushed her, so the cake was going to be a failure. If he was using the band saw for the brisket, that didn't bode too well for the main course either."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

First line from a failed novel: "Someone had to have the world's largest collection of Toad the Wet Sprocket memorabilia, so it might as well be him, Nigel figured."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Social Biases and the Follies of Science

By EW Wilder

Sometimes, science is simply looking in the wrong place.

If we accept the notion that scientific inquiry itself is a social phenomenon, then it becomes easy to see why certain things are studied while others are not. The male gender bias in studies of heart disease are legendary, so I won't go deeply into them here, but they should have been cautionary: any time research money flows, the question that should be asked is “What cultural biases are inherent to the request?”

In mental health, one of those biases is in favor of a strictly biological model; that is, if your woes are experiential, they are necessarily a problem with your brain.

If you reel at what seems to be such a broad-sweeping generalization on my part, witness a recent report on NPR on some current efforts to use biomarkers to determine if a person is mentally ill. (Listen to this one, as the written synopsis does not give the full report.) The part about PTSD is the most illustrative, with researchers pouring millions into brain scans and computer programs that are supposed to “detect” PTSD. That the military is a large part of this research isn't surprising, but it should be: the people they're studying were in combat after all.

Which goes back to my point: if you have a combat veteran who is complaining about being unable to sleep, feeling constantly sad, being unable to concentrate, and flying into sudden rages, you could spend millions trying to figure out what was wrong. Or you could just ask him.

Our culture somehow discounts the idea that somebody's story of trauma and that the disruption to their lives that this can lead to are “real” (even though we frequently see the effects directly) unless and until there is some “objective” measure: a biomarker, a study, a brain scan.

There are two phenomena at work, and they represent the major streams of American life. One is the rationalist tradition that hies from the Age of Reason. This movement, in many ways, created our nation; the so-called “Founding Fathers” were rationalists, many of them deists, and even such notions as the idea that free people ought to be governed by bodies in which occurred reasoned debate (instead of by the caprices of a king) is a testament to this fact.

Rationalism is great; it has brought us the computers you're reading this on. It brought us modern sanitation and antibiotics and refrigeration. It made sense out of a seeable universe that just seemed to be jacking with us heretofore. But it also has a bad habit of blinding us to the more obvious cultural constants that create our lives: maybe the people who “have PTSD” have simply learned to adapt to an impossibly violent and stressful environment, and maybe those adaptations are ill-matched to a life of cheeseburgers and traffic lights. Maybe those who are labeled “bipolar” have lost their sense of balance because they have had to adapt to unbalanced lives. Maybe depressed people have damn good reasons to be very, very sad.

But the fact that these adaptations have profound effects on the lives of those who experience them and that those effects impact the abilities of people to meet the expectations of our society mean that they have a moral component, not just a medical one. This is where the other major stream of American life comes into play: Puritanism.

No matter what our official religious affiliation may be, even if we have none, American culture still is Puritan in the sense that it associates productivity with value; if you don't work, you're still stigmatized, particularly if your ailment isn't readily visible. That many employers view being unemployed as, itself, a strike against a job applicant shows how deep this cultural assumption is. Further, your engagement with work must always be a happy one: management books are all about how to reinforce upon the workforce how wonderful it is to be at work, even if your entire life seems to be crumbling around you. The reason managers insist that their employees all read Who Moved My Cheese? and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is that they believe that employees have an obligation, as an expectation of their employment, to always adapt and always produce. There is no room for (and considerable opprobrium in) merely being human.

This also helps explain why, despite the protestations of psychiatrists, including a prominent one in the NPR report, the disease model of mental illness actually increases stigma, rather than reducing it. If your problems have to do with your life, that's something you can change, but if your problems have to do with your brain, you are, for the moral purposes of a nation that associates productivity with being a good person, damaged goods.

My main problem with the search for biomarkers when it comes to those who go through extreme psychological states is not that it's a waste of money and time. If they are doing basic research, it's well worth doing. The brain's job is to adapt to and learn from the environment, and I'm sure they could find all sorts of interesting things about how the brain does that.

My problem is that they will miss the problems that underly the causes of the brain's adaptations to these states: a culture that does not merely countenance, but often reinforces psychological damage, that fails to address the social inequities and poor policies--both foreign and domestic--that perpetuate violence and despair, and that prevents healing by blaming the suffering and keeping in place schools, social spaces, and workplaces that are essentially inhumane.

We would rather spend millions over and over again to keep parsing out the biological details than spend the billions once to solve what we already know in our hearts, but will not admit in our heads, ails us.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Opposite of What You Know

EW Wilder

The more we see of the world, the more obvious it becomes: power protects itself.

This is evident from the smallest of power differentials—those between teacher and student, doctor and patient, worker and direct supervisor—all the way up to national and international power relationships. Because of this, it becomes the role of those in positions of power to protect that power first and foremost: the actual services or activities institutions with managerial power structures ostensibly exist to support are secondary at best; often they are almost an afterthought.

Supervisory roles, with their performance reviews and managerial expectations, are designed not to serve those directly performing the work nor to help the processes of production, service provision, or exchange. Rather, they exist to hold the worker “accountable” not to the ostensible effort of the organization, but to the managerial structure itself. This shifts responsibility from becoming concentrated up the supervisory train, as remuneration and role would suggest it should do, but away from it and onto the least compensated, least powerful members of the organization.

The protestations of those at the top that they deserve extra pay because they take extra risks and have greater responsibilities simply aren't true: those at the top are more able to manage their own time, more likely to have close relationships with those who supervise them (typically a board of directors for publicly run companies and non-profits), and have the clout to negotiate huge salaries and severance packages. This helps create conditions for them to be irresponsible with impunity, which would be impossible for low-level employees who are subject to many levels of supervision, demeaning if not infantilizing policies and procedures, and performance reviews designed to blame them when anything goes wrong.

Note, also, that the supposedly “free” market backs up existing power structures as well, demanding layoffs first when a company loses money, not that the CEO be fired. This is the opposite of what would be demanded of a college sports team, for example, or even a politician.

Managerial structures that reinforce power at the top create relationships with workers based on the negative: they kick into gear when the worker does wrong; they are punitive of her errors, not supportive of her efforts. Control over her own work, much less initiative and innovation, are a threat to power and therefore must be punished, no matter how useful they may be. And so a worker's role is strictly defined by procedure and policy. Further, the supporting structures that do exist are taken out of the control of the restive worker and insourced to separate “administrative” or “operations” departments, departments subject to punitive power structures of their own.

This concentrates the power of those at the top even more, pitting departments against each other for control over the resources necessary to get the work done and making the worker constantly under threat from that competition: if a department that is also competing for the company's resources keeps those resources from a worker, she will still be blamed for not getting the job done and subsequently punished. The power structure wins by a divide and conquer strategy. Departments, also, have no other recourse than to rely on the managerial power structure to work out the inevitable (and designed-in) problems between each other, reinforcing its power yet again and preventing worker collectivization.

If we see existing managerial power structures for what they really are, ways to protect those in charge and not ways to get work done, we may begin to address problems not only of inequality but also of inefficiency. But because we believe so deeply in these structures and replicate them everywhere from schools to the executive branch of government, change is unlikely to happen. And it's unlikely that those in power would let it happen: already we see the incredible influence of those industrialists and executives who would seek to impose this structure on our representative bodies themselves by electing “free market” politicians, whose stated goals are to bring these principles to the public sphere. Again, the rhetoric is the opposite of the intention, as we have seen how these politicians act when they get into office: in Kansas, and Texas, Wisconsin and Ohio, they have acted like petty dictators, bullying and dominating wherever they can, ignoring both constitutionality and the financial stability, much less best interests of, the states they serve.

The goal of these people is to usurp what little democracy our republic allows and decimate our last, best hope at retaining the popular rule we have so willingly given up in the workplaces that, if we are lucky enough to be employed, already dominate our lives.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Trouble with Contemporary Literature is a Matter of Voice

by Lael Ewy

An example of contemporary literature's maddening problems with voice is Charles Baxter's short story “Loyalty” which appeared in the May 2013 issue of Harper's. I like both Harper's and Baxter's poetry, and that makes this story all the more maddening. The voice in the story is not completely unbelievable, it's just enough “off” to create both tonal and cognitive dissonances that get in the way of enjoying the story and appreciating its thematic attempt.

For example, the narrator, ostensibly a mechanic, delivers lines such as these: “Love for Astrid like a climbing vine grew out of my heart. I don't know how else to say it” (77). But here's the thing: just about any mechanic would know how else to say it, in lots of ways, not the least of which would be “My love for Astrid was like a vine growing out of my heart.” As it appears in Baxter's story this is a line of poetry written by Charles Baxter, not a statement about love as spoken or thought by a mechanic. As I reformulated it here, it's more like a country song, as it should be: vastly more mechanics listen to country music than study creative writing. That's not stereotyping; it's a simple matter or statistics, and if by losing his lovely line Baxter gains some authenticity, his story is all the better for it.

And there's more: “He looks past me as if I were a footnote” (78) expresses the narrator's reaction to his teenage son, as if a footnote were the first thing that would come to a mechanic's mind when he was searching for a way to explain what it felt like to be ignored. “He looked right through me” or “He looked at me like I was thin air” are both dangerously clich├ęd, but they're a hell of a lot more true to the way most mechanics I know would think. Or take something like “She stands audibly” (78) which, for as simple as it is, is also not what a mechanic would say. He'd understand the physics of it, for one thing, and that would occur to him. What about “You could hear the cheap cushions suck in as she stood up”? Not as lovely, but a crap-ton more true.

Or take “I feel an antiquated tingle” as the narrator describes his feeling when he is kissed by his ex-wife (78). An Antiquated Tingle might be a great title for an alt country album, but a mechanic would say “I felt the old tingle,“ which he'd then joke about with his buddies down at the shop (and our narrator appears to have none) riffing on how he's “got your 'old tingle' riiight here!” It may seem crass, and it would make the story veer in a direction Baxter may not have been prepared for, but that's what would have happened.

Other touches seem minor, but they are glaring. In an attempt at authenticity, Baxter has his narrator notice how “the front end dipped from the bad shocks” (76). That's a piece of writing that has an assonance perfectly balanced, with a subtle interplay between that assonance and the consonants in the line that could take up 15 minutes or more of discussion in a literature class. It also isn't true. Bad shocks make a car bounce, not dip, as any mechanic worth his salt would know. At one point, Baxter's narrator's eyes glance over a “corroded timing light” (76) which, sure, he would notice, but doesn't bother to make note of the vintage of his own F-150 pickup with its “loose fan belt” (79). That's significant because no modern manufacturer uses separate fan belts anymore (they use a single “serpentine belt” setup for all the engine accessories), and they haven't for 20-some years. An F-150 with a fan belt would be approaching classic status, so it would be a real shame to let it rust (76), something our supposed mechanic of a narrator would doubtlessly know, and which would have potentially provided some rich thematic overtones to what happens to the narrator's ex-wife as she spirals into mental anguish, had Baxter been aware of what a mechanic would have been aware of.

Throughout the story, Baxter can't seem to decide if his narrator worked at a small, independent “shop” (78) or the service department of a dealership or department store that would have a separate “Parts Department” (81). This is no small difference, as working in a small shop might not be as lucrative as working at a dealership (where trained mechanics can earn upwards of $50 an hour and receive decent benefits). The narrator's lifestyle appears to be middle class, suggesting a dealership, but if that's the case, why hasn't he also bought himself a nicer truck?

To his credit, Baxter does create a reasonably intelligent narrator, and successful mechanics, unlike the “grease monkey” stereotype, have got to be intelligent people. This shows, perhaps, the problem with voice in contemporary literature: it is written almost exclusively by people whose experiences are limited to the academic world and the middle-class childhoods that create academics. These writers want to tell the stories of people who are not like them. They need to maintain the proper mildly liberal political correctness about those who are not like them. But these writers also need to show off the depth of their word-craft to editors who come from the same middle-class and academic backgrounds. Combined, all this leads to a lot of short stories just like Baxter's “Loyalty”: narrators who all sound like they have MFAs in creative writing peppering their narratives with little bits of “authenticity” that speak much more to the attempts of the writer than to anything about the world the narrators—or, for that matter, the rest of us—actually live in.

In that world, mechanics do speak a certain poetry. But the sort of poetry they speak is spoken accidentally, and to catch it requires listening to real mechanics, listing deeply and listening well, and listening for a long time. And sure, some mechanics have MFAs in creative writing themselves and may very well express themselves as Baxter presents here. But the narrator of “Loyalty” never suggests this about himself, and anyway, why that person would be a mechanic would necessarily comprise the bulk of the story, and that's not what Baxter seems to want to explore.

What he does explore has merit; the kind of relational ambiguity and family dynamics he presents do ring true to life.

Too bad the rest of it doesn't.

Work Cited

Baxter, Charles. “Loyalty.” Harper's Magazine. May 2013: 76-82. Print.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Numbers Just Don't Add Up

Why Purewater University would decide to not allow PostModern Village to publish a blog we didn't pay for in order to save the literary journal we do pay for is beyond me, but such are the times we live in.

So, after a few rather heated discussions with EastWesterly Review editor Lael Ewy, an amicable arrangement was made: myself, PB Wombat, Norma Perfect, TS DeHaviland, and a few others would spin off the PMV blog, which we would maintain on our own, our positions as EWR contributors and content editors secure.   

So if you're wondering where the blog went next time you visit PostModern Village and/or need something to tide you over until EWR returns from its convalescence after being hacked by rogue Russians, look no further.

--EW Wilder