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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

First They Came For [Trade War Rmx]

First they came for the solar panels, and I did not speak out—
Because my landlord thinks they're tacky.

Then they came for the metals, and I did not speak out—
Because I will never buy a new car.

Then they came for the lumber, and I did not speak out—
Because no one can afford a house.

Then they came for the sorghum, and I did not speak out—
Because what the hell is sorghum?

Then they came for the medicine, and I did not speak out—
Because I lost my healthcare last year anyway.

Then they came for the technology, and I did not speak out—
Because I was still paying off the last gizmo.

Then they came for Dollar Tree—and there was nothing left to buy.

With huge apologies to Martin Niemöller

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On Being Unhappy

by Lael Ewy

To look out over a barren backyard in the middle of winter, contemplating crows.

To grumble at the idiocy of workplace rules, the stupidity of traffic, the vapidity of the political status quo.

To despair at a planet polluted and melting, the indifference of those in charge, the greed of those in power.

To, considering these, wonder if going on is really worthwhile, if contributing to them through our labor and social compliance is more morally right than to just stop living.

To do these things is to be unhappy.

But they are both common and widely pathologized.

It’s no wonder that the rise of a psychiatry of depression—indeed, of psychiatry itself—tracks parallel with the rise of industrial capitalism. Certainly, unhappiness precedes these social phenomena, but its one-to-one association with a medicalized illness is a product of how we now live, and a reification of it. The Lord of the Manor cared little enough about his serfs that their states of mind were all but immaterial; it’s probable he considered the serfs incapable of the kinds of depths and nuances of thought and feeling of those of his own class. But it bothers the modern master that his employees are not both compliant to his dictates and also happy about it. As with all other things, “employee morale” has simply become a reflection of the ego of the CEO.

The economy of the US has moved toward services and retail, and the imperative for the worker to always be happy has only increased. Customer service representatives at a call center are judged not only by the speed with which they dispatch customer complaints and the adroitness with which they upsell, but by the attitude with which they go about their work.

To be sure, they “represent” the company; increasingly, they are not the company. They are contractors or other easily-eliminated classes of employee. The company is merely a set of legal parameters. Loyalty and pleasure in one’s work for its own sake are expectations of the company, not something in which they feel the need to actually invest.

Like the Lord of the Manor, they want something for nothing.

But even if they did want something for something, it would imply that emotions, just like anything else worthwhile in this system, are essentially transactional, that, like your labor and your time, I can buy your emotions as part of a package deal. And the lower you are on the economic ladder, the less your happiness is worth, and the more important it is to maintain if you are to be employable at all.

The policing of emotions, then, the sanctions against unhappiness, are matters of economic necessity: you can’t afford to be unhappy. The market demands it.

If you’re poor enough or a person of color, your unhappiness is a positive threat, and the displeasure it causes a literal policeman can be taken out on your body with little or no consequence of the cop.

Fortunately, industry has a solution to our problem in the marketing of antidepressant medications—a quick fix for a population that has as its basic mode of living a series of quick fixes.     

At this point, the prescription and monitoring of mood-altering chemicals has become the primary job a psychiatrist does. Insurance companies are happy to reinforce that model: 15 minute “med checks” are efficient uses of a psychiatrist’s time. If psychiatry is, indeed, the medicine of “the soul,” it seems what the soul needs nowadays is a pill, the strength of which is nudged this way and that every other month.

This is a system that, from the perspective of a consumer culture and a market-based economy, ought to make everyone happy.

Only it doesn’t.

We’re sicker, sadder, and more suicidal than we’ve ever been. And when the prescription drugs don’t work or don’t work well enough (statistically speaking, their effect sizes are fairly small), we’re turning more and more to street drugs—heroin and methamphetamine—to fight the depression and the inner pain that still wrack us day to day.

But perhaps my scope here is too narrow: Freud’s theories were built on the discontent of the Viennese middle classes of the 19th Century, mostly of their women, a class which expressed its values as a matter of how contented the household could be. Prior to that, in the US and England, Puritans had gone a long way toward waging war on emotions at large as signs of not being among the heaven-bound. The self-improvement we used to revere in the US was geared toward tamping down both sadness and joy. The former was once considered a sin; the latter a frivolity.

We’ve posited in the Declaration of Independence the right to “pursue” happiness. But now we’ll punish you if you achieve it in excess. And no concomitant right to be unhappy has been widely fought for. Indeed, our scientific community has no solid notion of what emotions are even for.

Sadness, like tears themselves, upwells within us, in unexpected places and unexpected ways. Sad songs, the blues and country, and sad images abound. Edward Hopper’s stark canvases have gained a massive following, and the crying emoji is just as popular as any other. People who would not be able to tell a Picasso from a pizza can easily identify a Hopper. And the same psychiatrist who makes his living waging chemical warfare on his patients’ emotions feels no compunction about indulging in the bluest of jazz.

As someone whose unhappiness has ranged from the merely sad to the existential crisis, I haven’t found unhappiness to be entirely bad. It is unpleasant, and it can be overwhelming. I’d be lying if I didn’t also admit that it has put my life and health at risk. But then, so can the drugs we take to combat it, the work we do that demands we deny it.

Moving through it, wrangling with it, and coming to terms with it can also be deeply satisfying.

If unhappiness exists for a reason, and its ubiquity would suggest that it must, it can help us to see that something needs our attention—something in the way we live, in our relationships with those we love, our orientation to the world we inhabit.

It only makes sense to be unhappy if we’re being abused or oppressed, if we’re dealing with trauma or constant pain. What doesn’t make sense is that we should blame the sadness for the sadness, that we should try to do away with the unhappiness itself instead of trying to change things if we can.

At the very least, the lassitude and disengagement that unhappiness can cause is able to lead us to deep reflection and taking stock, two things our productivity-obsessed culture considers wastes of time. It’s OK for you to express gratitude, of course, because you’re supposed to be grateful for your shitty lot in life, but purely and openly contemplative? Heck, no.

I’m getting upset again. I’m getting unhappy at the disdain in which our culture holds unhappiness.

And maybe that’s not an entirely bad thing. 

Monday, May 28, 2018

On Reading the Long Novel

by Lael Ewy

When one references War and Peace, one does so in order to invoke a cliché. War and Peace is the quintessentially long novel. It is known for that and for nearly nothing else—certainly not as something anyone would actually read.

In fact, the cliché itself is really not about the length of the book; the cliché is about the impossibility of reading it, and the disdain the speaker has for long novels.

For these reasons, among others, I set out to actually read it.

I suppose people hear the call to engage in physical challenges such as running marathons to prove something to themselves (or others), or the call to climb mountains “because [they are] there,” but I set out to read War and Peace in order to try to restore reality to it. For at least one living member of the species, it would become a novel again.

Since you probably won’t read it, here’s what you need to know from someone who has:

1. It’s good. For the most part. It’s not the novel you’d think it should be at least in part because novels weren’t what you now think they are when Tolstoy wrote it. Hundreds of pages are devoted to the analysis of the individual’s place in history and the minutiae of the War of 1812. The latter was of great importance to his expected audience, and it might still be of interest to scholars of military history. The former should be of interest to anyone with a pulse. But

2. no doubt all that would annoy contemporary readers. I honestly have no idea what contemporary readers want out of a novel these days. Apparently, they want to be terrified by the prospect of a dystopian future. To me, this seems silly given that the prospect of a dystopian present is quite frightening enough. However,

3. it’s not a “hard” read. There’s merely a lot of it there. Tolstoy, as is typical of the great Russian writers, draws characters who are detailed and complex, so if you put the book down for a while, it’s easy to pick back up. Like with old friends, you may not recall every detail of their lives since you saw them last, but you’ll always remember who they are.

Few western European writers create characters who are this fully realized. Perhaps Dickens’ main characters, but he also populated his book with caricatures in a way that Tolstoy never would. Even soldiers we meet for only a few pages seem like real people we might know. In the US, maybe Hurston Henry James, or Melville (at his best) were capable of such things, as, perhaps, the greatest of the French. 

4. It’s a romance, historical novel, and philosophical treatise. And that’s probably why it’s so long. The historical figures, including Napoleon himself, as the other characters, come across as actual people. The book’s philosophy, while I disagree with it, must be defended, and the novel almost achieves that as well. To a degree, the characters themselves might contradict the philosophy it seems to promote, but perhaps Tolstoy intended that, pitting the lived experiences of the humans against the cynicism and determinism of the narrator.

At any rate, it’s ambitious. That’s in its favor overall, but it also means that there is a lot for the book to do.

5. Reading it is familiar if you’re used to 19h century novels and philosophy. Most people these days aren’t, I guess, and maybe that’s why they should read more 19th century novels and philosophy.

Reading War and Peace will change your orientation to time, people, and thought, and that’s a good thing. The thinking that most people are able to do is severely compromised by the media they have chosen to consume. We’re unable to think long thoughts because we seldom encounter them. We’re distracted because we surround ourselves with distractions. And consume media we do: popping tweets like we do Skittles and gnawing video games like endless bags of chips. This has reinforced our inability to think in a coherent way. We may have deep maps in our minds of a million virtual adventures, but if we’re unable to appreciate the lives of those we believe are not like us—the Russians of 200 years ago or a Black laundress in the Jim Crow South—maybe we’re wasting our time. Perhaps we’ve “escaped” during the time we’ve played, but we haven’t really prepared ourselves to make the world we inevitably re-enter a better place.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Arts and Humanities, Again and Always

By Lael Ewy, MFA, CPS

In some ways, the arts and humanities are the only endeavors in which “lived experience” has always been privileged. So it’s no wonder they’d be marginalized or actually argued against in an essentially technocratic age. But the arts and humanities are also what’s missing from the current “job oriented” educational realignment. These programs may prepare people for specific jobs (although that’s questionable), but they do not prepare people for work in a future in which the nature of specific jobs is constantly in flux.

That, however, is not why we should keep them around.

The argument against lived experience is also an argument for process over understanding, the idea that through research and evaluation processes alone we will be able to gather all of the data we need to make the decisions we need to make. This is ridiculous; without “real life” understanding of something, you can’t even create meaningful criteria for evaluation. In this sense, the movement away from lived experience is a power play by those in charge and their academic lackeys to replace what they cannot control, direct understanding, with what they can control, processes and policies—in terms Bakhtin might use, to replace the novel with the epic.

This is the same attitude that privileges supervisory structures and administrative processes over the work itself, the executive summary over the full report, the report over the voices from the field, the data over the principle—if, that is, the principle is even addressed at all. It’s the driving force behind dismissing all truly new thinking as “theoretical” and all real world information as “merely anecdotal.”

In this sense, both “street smarts” and “book larnin’” are being marginalized in favor of the kinds of evaluative processes that exist for the sake of controlling the terms in which ideas are discussed (again, if they’re discussed at all) and for the sake of reinforcing power by those who already have it. “And we have the numbers to show it,” or “researchers say” are statements that seem unassailable, and so few question where those numbers come from or the assumptions upon which their gathering and interpretation are based.

When we lose an art, we lose a way of understanding the world. Consider that for a minute. What other realm of human endeavor would allow itself to just die, to be told by wealthy and powerful and supremely ignorant and unimaginative people that it should simply go away, that there is no place in the future for how it knows and what it has discovered? Yet that is exactly what academic institutions and their rich donors are doing to the humanities and the arts.

When its critics level against the arts and humanities that they aren’t practical or don’t prepare people for “the real world” or “real jobs,” what these people are actually saying is “The only thing that’s important is what I believe I can immediately sell,” or “The only thing that has any value is what I believe the market wants.” Nobody ever asks these same people to back up what they’re saying or to defend the principles they’re using to make the claim. So the debate about the value of the arts and humanities isn’t even about practicality at all but about a very narrow view of what’s important to human beings, a view that almost all of us accept without question because it’s the view of rich and powerful people. When the actual pettiness and ignorance of their position is revealed, it’s easy, or at least easier, to see why it is wrong, yet because of the positions of those who share this view, we are still collectively afraid to confront it.

So we try to justify what we already do as preparing people for jobs, as having practical components. We repackage arts programs as graphic design, drop studio arts majors for career programs in video game design, shrink studies of poetry for badges in advanced tweeting. Some of this has merit: studying the arts and humanities will make you a better communicator, and it will improve your critical thinking skills. When you see, as I have, respected scientists making basic errors in logic, when you see tech company executives utterly unable to imagine the negative experiences of their users much less dystopias they are busy creating, when you see presidents unable to understand why calling immigrants “animals” is wrong, you can begin to see why these people might need a few more novels and poems and paintings in their lives.

But the value of the arts and humanities is inherent, and that’s not something those currently in power, who understand “value” only in the most basic of monetary terms, can even begin to understand.

When we look back at the great cultures of antiquity, we don’t marvel at their technology except in the most patronizing of ways, amazed at what such “primitive” people could accomplish. But when we read their literature, when we hear their stories, meditate on their holy writ, when we analyze their design and witness the world from the perspective of their visual art, we experience something that a patronizing attitude never could: recognition, an understanding of the experiences they, and we, live every day.

When we encounter their art, their literature, their philosophy, we recognize something that we can learn from: we learn more, and more deeply, about being human. And that is continually new.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Dispatches . . .

The primary source of violence in human affairs is when one’s existence comes up against another’s set of purposes.

The culture of stupidity of our leaders has been very carefully cultivated by their benefactors.

Be open to everything language has to offer.

We have more invested in the reiteration of our own sanctimony than in alleviating the suffering of other people.

As useful as it is, research can also be a form of numbing.

We try to keep the facts on our side, as if that will protect us, somehow, from all the deep hurt.

The facts are inadequate for our purposes however vital they may be for our self-confidence.

The fundamental problem of human progress is and always has been that those who already have the power to change society owe that power to the status quo.

The truth is that there is no end state, no outcome, only the temporary cessation of a task, the momentary manifestation of a phase.

The internet and the worship hall have this in common: they are where we go to have our assumptions reinforced.

When your sense of hope relies on another’s despair, you’re doing it wrong.

Education isn’t learning facts about things; it’s using ideas in order to learn what to do with facts about things.

A tradition is a bad idea that refuses to die.

You develop a taste for ideas the same way you do for art, music, literature, fine food. This taste can—and should—be cultivated as a matter of becoming an educated person. If not, you’re not really engaging in your education, formal or otherwise, no matter what you may call it.

Character isn’t about always doing the right thing; it’s about having the humility to learn and change from having done things wrong.

There is a certain type of professional who always takes care to move the experiences of those he serves out of the equation in order to make room for his own ego.

One reason we don’t change is that, while failure can garner sympathy, change can threaten identity.

Businesses are fine, and we may even need them. But they’re not enough. The main business of a democracy must always be equity.

Framing government as a business and the taxpayer as a customer is misleading: in order to achieve “the general welfare,” we must see government as a means to create a common good, and our duties as citizens as contributions to a society worth living in.

We’ve been taught that tears are punishment for being sad. They’re really what we’ve earned for the privilege of being human.

It’s possible that the idea of a comprehensible universe is an artifact of the human mind, a necessary folly, a reassuring delusion masking fretful, cosmological chaos.

Poetry is primary research into what’s most basic and irreducible about being alive.

Privilege is the power to give your personal fears the force of law.

Our very systems of sorting and ordering data create both insights and cognitive impairments. We tend to forget the filter is there and take to assuming the world really does align with the tools we use to study it.

We’ll recover from the lies, but we’ll never fully recover from all the lying.

It’s a strange quirk of Western thought that the past is seen as the child of the present and the future as the father of now. A more accurate picture would reverse this order. The past, rather than being “primitive” or “innocent,” creates the world we’re emerging into, frames what discovery means for us, and is the very vehicle of all our current explorations.

The thing is the thing; the system is cognitive.

Good literature makes you think and feel; great literature changes the manner in which you think and feel.

For the competitors, the purpose of competition within a market is not to innovate or create efficiencies—still less is it to create jobs. The purpose is to win market share. In other words, the purpose of competition, no matter its means, is to reduce competition by reducing the number of competitors.

There are two ways to experience change: go somewhere or stay put.

Maintaining an identity is more important than addressing an injustice that does us harm.

A successful system of hierarchical power succeeds by rendering evil banal.

I often hear people excuse not reading poetry by claiming that they do not understand it. Do they really think they’ll understand it better by not reading it?

Problematic are not the questions you can’t answer but the ones you can’t ask.

We should first admit that we can’t possibly understand another person’s pain. But then we should do all we can to make space for it.

It’s funny with madness: the sane will ask “why” not because they want to know but because they want to be seen as the sort of people who ask “why.” The mad ask expecting an answer.

Contemporary conservatism: society exists to produce goods for an economy. Classical liberalism: an economy exists to produce goods for a society.

An irony: we feel safe within our own spheres of fear.

The expert, the businessman, th evaluator, the executive are motivated by what they know. The scholar, the artist, the scientist, the philosopher are motivated by what they do not know. This is why our current rush toward business models and toward reliance on existing evidence bases is so pernicious to the university, to creativity, and to science. We have subjugated scholarship to service delivery, artistry to marketing, science to research and evaluation.

Analytical spellbinding: the idea that a clever analysis equates with a complete understanding.

Analytical hegemony: the projection of an analysis or analytical framework into the world as an intervention or the solution to a problem.

The point of ambition is power, but art is impossible without humbling oneself to the task at hand.

Our assumptions form the main barriers to our understanding. 

--Lael Ewy