We’re All Neoliberals Now

Yesterday, I came across a tweet proclaiming that this year’s freshman admits to UCSB have an average high school GPA of 4.15. Think about that for a second. On a 4.0-scale, the kids who have been let in to the fourth or fifth-best public university in the state of California don’t just have above-average grades, but above-perfect grades. Imagine the grades of the students admitted to Cal or UCLA!

“But, Dan,” you say, “how is it possible for students to be more than perfect?”

Well, it’s not. That gaudy GPA is just another example of why the current trends in higher education make a lot of sense given what has been going on for years at the K-12 level. The College Board is a nominally-not-for-profit organization that, among other things, administers “Advanced Placement” high school classes culminating in high-stakes standardized tests. Some high schools and many college admissions boards give students a GPA-bump for taking an AP course, thus making a 3.0 (B) student look like a 4.0 (A) student, or a 3.33 (B+) student look like a 4.33 (A++++++++++++++++++++++++) student. And did I mention that students pay $89 per AP exam? No? Well, they do.

In theory, AP classes are supposed to be college-level courses, but as most of my students have told me, very little of the writing that goes on in any of the humanities AP courses (English literature, US History, English Language, etc.) prepares them for the writing they do in college. Most of the essays assigned in these courses are timed, short, in-class affairs designed to help them beat the test at the end of the term. Individual teachers can assign other kinds of essays, but given that students are paying to take the AP exams, it makes sense that these courses often become semester-long test prep. Call it the Kaplanification of high school.

Now, I love UCSB students. I taught hundreds of them in my time there. But touting this inflated GPA does nothing but make the difference between what the College Board claims as college-level work and and actual college courses more difficult for students to accept. Many, and this is true of students at all schools where I’ve taught, feel lied to. They wonder why they paid for these classes that stressed them out but didn’t really prepare them for college. I can see the value in some of the higher AP math courses offered, but many AP classes are just content-dumps that can’t teach critical thinking and clear writing, two skills a student needs to be successful in and after college. And please understand: none of this is the fault of the teachers leading these classes. They’re doing the best they can to give kids a decent education in a system that is constantly being tweaked by administrators and private interests.

Meanwhile, as LAUSD continues on with its disastrous (and possibly illegal) “iPads for Everyone!” plan, Finland quietly builds a functional public education system by de-emphasizing drill and kill testing which, as this intrepid young American reminds us around the 2:40 mark, doesn’t actually lead to knowledge retention. Please note that nowhere in this Atlantic interview does Krista Kiuru,  the Finnish minister of education and science, mention classroom technology, partnering with private corporations, or using analytics to assess teacher and student performance. No, she uses crazy words like “equality,” “trust,” and “support.”

So, our educational system is creating people who have extremely good skills and strong know-how—a know-how which is created by investing into education. We have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others, because those individuals need more help. This helps us to be able to make sure we can use/develop everyone’s skills and potential.

This shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, but we’re trending in the exact opposite direction in the US at both the K-12 and college levels. A few weeks back, I criticized Duke’s Cathy Davidson’s “Remake Higher Education from the Ground Up” MOOC, as well as The Chronicle for giving one of her students a platform to rag on Stanley Fish. Well, the MOOC is done, and Davidson has now written her own piece about the experience. She says that going into the class, she had “so many reservations about MOOCs as pedagogy and as business model that [she] wanted to learn more about how they worked and didn’t work for [her], away from the obsessive MOOC hype and hysteria.” Fair enough. It continues in a good direction when she says that “as presently conceived, MOOCs are not a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising costs at American universities today.” Well, thank you, Dr. Davidson, for acknowledging what many of us “hysterics” have been saying for some time. Might we be on the same page? I doubt it.

The following paragraph is the most important in the piece:

Nor are MOOCs the cause of all problems facing American universities today. MOOCs did not create our adjunct crisis, our overstuffed lecture halls, or our crushing faculty workloads. The distress in higher education is a product of 50 years of neoliberalism, both the actual defunding of public higher education by state legislatures and the magical thinking that corporate administrators can run universities more cost-effectively than faculty members. They don’t. The major push to “corporatize” higher education has coincided with a rise, not a decrease, in costs. The greedy, corporate brutality of far too many contemporary universities is reminiscent of medieval monasteries of old. Let’s call it “turf and serf”: real-estate land grabs, exploitation of faculty labor, and burdening of students with crushing debt. MOOCs may be a manifestation of the problem, but they are hardly its cause. We addressed those harsh, overarching economic realities directly in “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.”

As far as I know, no one has argued that MOOCs caused our crisis in higher ed. That would be silly. However, this distinction between MOOCs as a manifestation of the problems of neoliberalism and the cause allows Davidson to gush for several paragraphs about how her MOOC could be the start of a “movement.” And she may be right, if by “movement” she means a movement toward more MOOCs and less funding for public education. By working within the logic of neoliberalism, Davidson’s MOOC does neoliberalism’s bidding. Her project isn’t radical, like the simultaneously conservative and socialist Finnish education system. It’s using the master’s tools to build up his house while telling yourself you’re tearing it down. Anya Kamenetz makes the same mistake when she assumes that the ideas in her “$10K BA” won’t be used as an excuse to kill public education once and for all by cutting funding to the bone. While I have to assume good will on the parts of both Davidson and Kamenetz, the fact that they seem more interested in exploring “stirring, rich” MOOC environments than fighting for smaller class sizes, increased teacher autonomy and compensation, fewer standardized tests, and student and parent accountability is disheartening. Neoliberalism is winning, folks. Most Americans are losing.


Local Geographies: Three Kinds of Document

This afternoon, after the rain broke, I went running (jogging) through my neighborhood, a citrus suburb that leans against a sliver of marshy, protected coast. The beauty of the rich green strip between the dense, humanized local environment (organized around U.S. 101) and the Pacific will make you happy to live on Earth, and so of course some ghouls want to “develop” (a verb we should put on probation) it into a pleasure dome for millionaires. Right now an anonymous Saudi investor owns it, but thanks to this area’s crazy liberals and the civic codes they have gotten enacted, s/he can’t destroy it yet.

My ‘hood is beautiful too, though. It is a shakily middle-class area that has evolved into a low-key, vernacular garden suburb. The hummingbirds are loud here, and we actually have honeybees, because over the past four decades the properties have mostly relaxed back into the land: almost every owner or renter maintains some mixture of vegetation—my tiny studio’s kitchen garden hosts California poppies, nasturtiums, sunflowers, aloe, two kinds of lavender, potatoes (I haphazardly buried a few moldy ones), mint, sage, shallots, and an elephant bush that is held up by two stakes and a web of steel wire. In the local argot the area is called “Noleta,” because although it is technically an unincorporated part of Santa Barbara County, it is culturally and economically scruffy, more similar to oceanside (southern) Goleta than central SB. I am grateful for the place in a way that exceeds my usual vain doings. After almost nine years in California my favorite parts of the state—a real American state but also the mental condition attendant thereon—are its humble parts.

With that preamble in mind, here are some texts that encounter and carefully document various local environments. May your habitat be sustainable, y’all.

  • If Adam Weinstein hadn’t written this, Ken Layne would be my favorite Gawker contributor, although he is apparently now leaving the site to run his own. Recently the man went on a walking tour of the region we have been told to call “Silicon Valley, ” and in Layne’s account, “Heart of Blandness,” the creepiest thing about the motherboard of the corporate tech sector is its physical banality: in material terms, it is just a constellation of heavily armored office parks set amid a congeries of infrastructure that has been crumbling since the Clinton administration. When the workday ends, the employees are bused (in private buses with tinted windows) back to their homes in San Francisco, where people who don’t work in Silicon Valley find it increasingly hard to afford to live.
  • Nineteenth- and twentieth-century America might have had a thing for the idea of Wilderness, but the nation’s greatest lyric poet wrote about nature in a town in Massachusetts. In this one here, Emily Dickinson looks at a snake; in this one here, Emily Dickinson reminds you that besides Shakespeare, nobody can bend language like she does, twisting it till it sounds eerily familiar again, like a tape of what happened inside your head when you stepped outside. If you don’t have a copy of the definitive edition of Dickinson’s notoriously complex archive, why do you even speak English? Do not trust the Google results, because many published versions of Dickinson’s poems mistakenly attempt to “normalize” her language and ignore her strange seventeenth-century capitalization habits, intentionally dropped or distorted punctuation, and seeming gaps in logic. Instead, buy the R.W. Franklin reading edition linked to above. It costs like three gin-and-tonics. If you went to college and don’t own it, do not talk to me about books. Ride or die Dickinson.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon
Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
  • In November, after about thirty people who know more about music than I do told me to, I downloaded Action Bronson’s mixtape Blue Chips 2, and since then I have bumped at least part of it at least part of every day that I’ve been near a speaker or a headphone. Do you like it when populist MCs with deranged lyrical gifts team up with DJs who prefer fun instrumental tracks? No? Then stop reading this blog. Yes? Then use a search engine and get the mixtape for free. In the meantime, here is “In The City” (feat. Jeff Woods), a short punchy track Bronson hides in eighteenth place on a collection that is, in this critic’s humble view, fucking bananas awesome.

Ed Links Addendum

As ever, Ryan has told it like it is. Teaching at the college level (or at any level, frankly) is not something any schmuck off the street can do, but it is something you can learn to do if you are willing to put in the time to understand all that it entails. It also helps if you ignore most things that “education experts” say. Whether they’re in the private sector or running the “Education” programs at most universities,  the odds are good that these folks either haven’t ever taught or haven’t taught a full load of demanding classes (both for the teacher and the students) in a long, long time. Learning how to teach involves observing great teachers, talking to them about how they approach their jobs, mastering the subject matter you will be teaching, staying abreast of developments in both your field and in pop culture (trust me, it’s important), and, above all, being able to take both praise and criticism from more experienced practitioners. Like Ryan, I too am confident in my abilities as a teacher. To paraphrase my colleague, Mike Bunn, I can justifying everything I do in the classroom pedagogically. But in ten years, I won’t be the teacher I am today. I will be better.

But if geniuses like Cathy Davidson at Duke have their way, I may have been replaced by a MOOC and a lab technician by then. I don’t blame the student writing this for the fact that it might be the best (totally unintentional) case yet against techno-fetishism. He’s 21 and has no idea that asking a student who has virtually no understanding of how education and the education system (huge distinction, by the way) work to design “higher education from scratch” is irresponsible. It results in students saying things like this about people who have taught for decades:

When you think about it, burying your head in the sand takes a lot more effort than lifting yourself out of it. It is just that we know what the sand smells, feels, tastes, and looks like. Sameness is comforting. As we approach Week 4 of the MOOC, however, we are asking ourselves to lean into discomfort and aim even higher.

The lack of humility that is clearly being encouraged in this class astounds. Why doesn’t it surprise me that this course is itself a MOOC? Here’s another gem:

We have an unprecedented opportunity to use technology to collectively rethink how we can use our resources to design new ways of learning about and systematizing (or not) education. Through crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer learning, online modules, flipped classrooms, and anything else imaginable, we are working not only to reshape how we learn but, even more important, to re-examine why we educate ourselves in the first place.

It’s funny to me how the folks who always seem to be most interested in “disrupting” higher ed are the ones who stand to gain the most when their prestigious degrees look even more AMAZING compared to the “BAs” that Reshaped State U will churn out (again, watch this Harvard grad interview this Yale grad about how we need to improve “access” to public higher ed by essentially getting rid of anything that doesn’t resemble Facebook).

If The Chronicle really cares about higher ed, they will stop publishing this stuff. Encouraging the “creative destruction” of the university should be the job of Silicon Valley. We all know what works best in higher ed: small classes, incredibly high standards, teachers whose focus is teaching, and above all BEING THERE, in every literal and philosophical sense of the phrase. Cathy Davidson knows this (again, she teaches at Duke), yet instead of working to figure out how to make traditional education better and more affordable (it can be done), she’s helping kids diss Stanley Fish. To quote Rushmore:


Baby Steps: Recent Higher-Ed News That Isn’t Entirely Depressing

Among the many trends in higher education that TGR bemoans, perhaps none is more personally galling than the persistent, Joe Biden-endorsed myth that faculty salaries are the reason college costs so much. Those tenured professors in their new Priuses and ivy-coddled homes, with their twenty-hour work weeks. But slowly, slowly, the glacier of ignorance seems to be melting a little around the edges. People besides readers of Inside Higher Ed, alt-academic blogs, and the Chronicle of Higher Education are beginning to embrace the material reality of things at actual schools on the planet Earth in this foul year of our Lord, 2014.

Over at Changing Universities, Robert Samuels reports that Congress (well, the Democratic Party’s House Committee on Education and the Workforce) has awoken to the fact that most American college professors work under conditions that range from Consistently Inadequate to Slough of Despond. And just after that document dropped, along came another study that adds to the Mount Whitney of evidence that administrative bloat, overspending on amenities, and the cheapskatery of state legislatures are why Americans are choking on student-loan debt. The report in question is from the renowned Delta Cost Project, which has been tracking university finances since the 1980s. Allow me to summarize: Blaming teachers for enormous tuition bills is like blaming the price of a new flatscreen TV on the wages of delivery drivers, or faulting the tellers at Wells Fargo for the 2008 financial catastrophe.

Now, given that one of the post-Goldwater conservative movement’s greatest achievements was getting Americans to distrust labor unions; given that anti-intellectualism is a national tradition (“My son had to read about GAY IMMIGRANT BLACK HOMO *SOCIALISTS* in history class!”); given that it is easier for the already powerful (provosts, not profs) to maintain the status quo than it is for the underclasses to change it; and given that Americans have many other distressing things on their plates, like the near-jobless post-Bush recovery; I’m not wildly optimistic that unionization and other forms of activist organizing among faculty are going to achieve much. Still, if anyone has a decent chance at reviving the labor tradition that helped create the twentieth-century middle class, it might be college teachers. Besides having the sort of intellectual capital (superb communication and research skills) that could sustain a broad movement, people with PhDs also tend to have more social capital than their dilapidated cars would suggest. That is, many of us know lots of other smart people who weren’t silly enough to become teachers, and instead ended up in law, government, medicine, and other places of relevant affluence and influence. Our brothers and sisters in unions like SEIU are starting much farther back.

For now, here is what I tell my students: If you have younger siblings who are shopping for schools (and thus parents who are likely worried about family finances), then on every visit to every campus, brother/sister should keep asking “What percentage of your undergraduate courses are taught by full-time faculty?” until they get an answer, then follow up with “And what percentage of your total budget goes directly to undergraduate instruction?” Rebecca Schuman is right: The managers of American schools will begin caring about undergraduate education (as opposed to undergraduate gyms and stadiums) real goddamn fast if their customers start refusing to pay for cynical, rickety, adjunct-dependent bullshit.

Small Thoughts on a Huge Book: David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”

Although he never won a National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, or a Pulitzer Prize—a good sign of how little such commendations mean—David Foster Wallace’s literary importance does not need much defending. (Besides, the MacArthur people did throw him one of those mega-grants.) Few serious American writers are better known. I would wager any amount of money that his reputation will hold up as long as English does, and at the core of this esteem will be Infinite Jest, his haunting, borderline-indescribable epic novel that I finished re-reading this week. It took nearly four months because, like all months, these were teeming with work and other distractions.

Wallace’s fame is relative, of course. Contemporary American society as a convulsive whole will never grant him anything like the profile of cool but lighter objects like Quentin Tarantino or the NBA; the moronic inferno (a phrase Saul Bellow lifted from Wyndham Lewis) has some good parts but rarely values works or entities that are intellectually, aesthetically, or emotionally complicated. There is nothing new about pointing out that mass culture isn’t much for thinking deeply while getting its heart broken and remade. Wallace knew this and seemed to realize that obsessing about it would not do anything besides paralyze a writer.

Let me dust off my academic hat and say something about one of Jest‘s big themes and how the book’s structure contests it. Form and Content, people. I’ll spread this over a few sections.

The modes of consumption available within contemporary markets (markets that have been developing since Shakespeare’s time, the onset of European empire) can do awful things to the societies that enable and contain them. Capitalism has always found it necessary to stoke or invent our impulses, especially the greedy ones, but twenty-first-century global capitalism, or whatever you might call it, is extraordinarily reliant upon consumers with a twitchy, impatient need for more new stimuli right fucking now. The historian David Courtwright refers to this as capitalism’s “limbic turn,” and even reasonably self-aware people have difficulty evading the hyperactive gestalt that results from it. I haven’t. I just scanned my iTunes library for some reason even though I was not listening to music, then worried about posting this on the blog’s Twitter feed for all six of our readers. And so forth.

Narcotics (a heading under which booze definitely falls) and visual entertainment are the most prominent forms of pleasure in the novel. Its two main characters—one in recovery, one approaching a ghastly breakdown—have drug problems. Much of the book takes place in a halfway house for addicts. But it depicts plenty of other addictions that are just as catastrophic: addictions to sex, to dissembling, to work, to food, to various instantiations of social prestige, to violence and cynicism. Each of these is what Don Gately, one of those two central characters, has learned in AA to call “the Substance.” You needn’t be able to physically handle something for it to be a Substance. Many are emphatically not things you can smoke, drink, snort, or shoot. Americans tend to be discomfited by this.

In phenomenological terms what distinguishes all Substances is their ability to establish a nasty feedback loop between themselves and our worst Western tendency, which is to retreat into the self. You see this when people like Mitt Romney and the Koch brothers, whose accountants help them stash Olympian wealth in various spiderholes, behave as though they are one tax increase away from a box on Skid Row. You’ve experienced this if you have ever been around a serious opiates addict, and seen how they disappear into nods. At one point near the novel’s beginning its nameless omniscient narrator, who splits time with the characters, remarks that “American experience seems to suggest that people are virtually unlimited in their need to give themselves away, on various levels. Some just prefer to do it in secret.”

Infinite Jest takes place in a near future, as American society undergoes an accelerating collapse into obsessive, lonely pleasures. One of the book’s running jokes is that the USA now rules an entity called the Organization of North American Nations, or O.N.A.N. Tendencies that will always bedevil any society which prizes wealth and democratic “independence” have hypertrophied and are keeping sales brisk. The cultural prognosis is grim. As Wallace liked to say, this is a sad book.

A world like this, like ours (published in 1996, IJ is probably set in what would have been the 2010s, although in the novel’s present the years don’t have numbers anymore, just names sponsored by corporations), has a rough time with long texts. If one finds it hard to watch an episode of Breaking Bad in one go, then a thousand-page novel will be appalling. And so what arises throughout the culture is a suspicion that if a book is long, then it must be too long. I have met several otherwise intelligent people who deploy some version of the theory that while DFW was brilliant, he “needed an editor.”

Which he did have! Said editor was apparently OK with the book’s girth, and probably cut plenty before it was published.

It isn’t that people consciously want Infinite Jest to be Ethan Frome. But when attention spans wither a long novel is going to spook most readers into finding external reasons for not trying at all. It’s so big—no wonder people don’t finish it.

I don’t think the final form of Jest needs to be reduced. As published, it is not a mess of narrative appendages or dead ends, like many sprawling novels unintentionally are. Nothing feels out of place or redundant. Every word in the book is perfect, and when someone tries the “editor” tack, even if they have actually read some of Wallace’s stories or essays, I can’t help filing them under Second-Rate Taste. (Kingsley Amis said you could do the same with anyone who denies that Shakespeare is the greatest poet in the language.) A writer, especially a brilliant one, can put whatever he or she pleases into a work, whether or not some prospective readers want an imaginary proofer to condense things. It might be that Infinite Jest pisses off a lot of people, because it is regarded as a Cool Thing to know about in many cosmopolitan circles but is not easy to consume.

You can listen to all of Aphex Twin’s albums in a weekend. Same for Kubrick’s films. You might nibble on some Flannery O’Connor and talk later at the bar like you’ve got her covered. You cannot do that with an epic. You can try pretending that you’ve read it, but for anyone with a literary education and a decent radar for the kind of cultural-capital bullshit that some intellectuals try to sling at parties, bluffing is easy to spot. Plus, only that sort of nerd is going to care in the first place about how you read some long book.

Get off the fence. Don’t count your books—this is worth a pile of smaller ones. Besides, you are already spending time on a silly blog about books and Culture. Whatever you would otherwise be reading, you aren’t missing much even if Jest takes you six months to finish. Cf. Bleak House.

Wallace hung himself in 2008, as you may have heard. It embarrasses me to write it, but my first reaction to the news was resentment as much as sadness, as though he had stolen his talent back from the rest of us. God, the gods and goddesses, the Prime Mover, the watchmaker, the universe, whoever, whatever, takes a little extra time to wire you up as a someone who could make language do things that would stop an angel’s heart, and you pull your own plug at 46? Even when explicable—and it usually is—suicide is pure wastage, a cruel thing to lay on people who love you; and I only loved the writing, having (duh) never met the man. Near the end, his friends and family were frightened and watched him closely. He hung himself when his wife stepped out of the house. Jonathan Franzen, who was close to Wallace, got criticized for confessing that anger was part of the emotional blowback for everyone who loved Wallace. Lazy critics don’t reward honesty.

But Wallace lived most of his life with a strain of depression that many sufferers, however tough or gifted or well-medicated or lucky, don’t survive: the frantic walking nightmare of being “Buried above ground,” as William Cowper wrote in 1773, frequently leads to the pistol or the sealed garage. Outside of certain passages in Infinite Jest (Kate Gompert’s hospital intake, Hal’s monologues, Joelle’s preparation for her overdose), the only books I know of that come close to evoking this pain are William Styron’s memoir Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s astonishing “Atlas of Depression,” The Noonday Demon.

I plan to read Infinite Jest about once a decade. (Dan does this every year with Gatsby.) This was the first replay, and as you would expect, reading it at 32 was different from reading it at 23. Granted, the novel shocked me back then, when I felt what Wallace calls the “click” of writing that speaks at the blood level to someone.

But now, when like pretty much every other grown-up on the planet I have actually lost people whom I cared about as an adult to illness, suicide, addiction, geographical and psychic distance, infidelity and selfish anger, to a bouquet of the universe’s surprises, of which our own meanderings and fuck-ups are a huge part (and when I know to expect lots more), finishing wasn’t a moment when I sighed and inwardly congratulated myself for being sensitive, not to mention persistent—long book, you know.

Finishing was visceral this time and I suppose that is the point. It was something like being emptied then filled with grief for the species, not just my own piddling self. I cried in private (I admit it, stop laughing) the way I do in some situations with certain works that aren’t trivial like the stuff I consume when driving, exercising, cooking, cleaning, and doing most everything else in my life. Part of my weeping list might go: some of Philip Larkin’s late poems, a couple of Hamlet’s speeches, the “Ode to Joy” at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth, the nameless boy soldier on the cover of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, the first field recording of “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues,” certain Psalms (King James Version only, bruh), Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” the Gettysburg Address. Usually words or music are the trigger. I was not thinking much about my admirable sensitivity. Instead I was having to deal with the reality that, well-trained sensibility or none, everybody is going to disappear one day, and that it is easy to die having never really known anyone besides yourself. A shocking moment for someone who is usually a selfish dick! Of course I can only offer this as a subjective and perhaps mawkish reaction. If the first part is true, though, it is difficult to explain Wallace’s sales.

Ironically, in building a world racked by loneliness—really an entire world, the kind only big books can assemble—Infinite Jest demonstrates that it is possible to reject or at least postpone drinking the cup of poison that modernity waggles at us. One needn’t buy the fantasy of constant, easy, tailored diversions. The novel’s multi-voiced giant performance shows that under some conditions art can help ward off solipsism, by (for example) socializing the reader into the long haul of a text that doesn’t seek to flatter or distract one, a phrase I have the feeling I stole from Wallace, though I can’t track it down. Reading is a mode of empathy. One can’t help being drawn out and then drawn into the book’s crowded, grimy Boston.

You read the novel, which a person made. Some evil mothers will try to tell you that everything is just dirt, as Lou Reed has it, and, further, climate change can’t be fixed with literature. Nonetheless in Wallace’s fiction life does have a tenuous meaning. We save ourselves by being present in our own lives, which in turn makes it possible to love others, even if the nature of mortality is to eventually fail at both things, since you die at the end of the story. Wallace took his title from the graveyard scene in Hamlet, the play’s funniest and most terrifying passage, for a reason.

America’s Text Life

While stalking the murky woods of final grading, your humble critic also foraged throughout the Internet, looking for choice edibles. Very local. So with today’s last spasm of energy, let me adduce the following links as evidence that humanity’s existential status is still blinking at “Worth Saving.” They are all about language and how we should take better care of it.

  • Norman Mailer’s critical fortunes have been on the wane for a while, though an eventual rebound is always possible for any writer whose name rang out during his lifetime. At least in the case of The Armies of the Night (1968), his fictional history/historical fiction/officious monologue about the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, this is unfortunate, because the book contains a wonderful depiction of the poet Robert Lowell, whom he found worthy of overlapping adjectives, “a fine, good, honorable man” whose “grace was in the value words had for him[.]” I love Mailer’s attention to the ethical consequences of language. As he saw it, Lowell always “seemed to emit a horror at the possibility of squandering them [i.e. words] or leaving them abused[.]” I tend to trust Mailer’s judgement on this, because in the same narrative he carefully dismantles the mid-century American version of imperial euphemism (VIETNAM WAR EFFECTIVE AND JUST). Dude spent time in the military and its profanity-rich cultural ecosystem, and guess what? “[A]ll the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity upon concept, which enabled one to go back to concept again.” “What is magnificent,” declares Mailer, “about the word shit [sic] is that it enabled you to use the word noble[.]”
  • Years ago Paul Fussell’s Wartime (Oxford UP, 1989) drew my attention to the shit/noble point. Did you know that Fussell also wrote a slim study of Kingsley Amis? Follow that link to The Anti-Egotist (1994).
  • Dan has mentioned this essay before, so I apologize for repeating, but David Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence,” published near the end of the Bush/Cheney administration, is required reading. It will always be required reading. That crew’s loathsome rhetorical productions will be classroom material for decades. Think about all those lyric villainies. Extraordinary rendition. Coalition of the willing. Axis of evil. Shock and awe. The surge. Even Richard Nixon, coiner of “War on Drugs” and the “silent majority,” can’t touch that swag. Sadly, Bromwich’s text is behind a paywall, unless you have a subscription to the NY Review of Books (duh) or are on a campus/library network that has access. As 2013 ends, let’s recall that we live in a world that is in some ways worse than what the Bush vandals dreamed up, thanks to the Obama administration’s shameful expansion of the American security state.
  • Re: the above: This is your semi-daily reminder that President Obama is not a populist with a cool iPod and a Lapham’s Quarterly subscription, but a modestly progressive, by-all-appearances personally decent member of the USA’s detached elite. In other words, not horrible like Romney, but basically Bill Clinton without the adolescent sexual habits.
  • At Slate, Rebecca Schuman has a modest proposal: abolish the essay-writing component of content-based or otherwise discipline-specific introductory college courses (e.g. Western History 101, Intro to Great American Words, Philosophy’s Biggest Hits, Musicology for Physicists, et cetera). Instead, she argues, intro classes should base their grading on oral exams, which, she argues, would force students to actually master course material, reduce opportunities for long-winded bluebook bullshit, and consequently make life better for teachers, who wouldn’t have to slog through as much coal slurry. No more papers or essay exams; just answering questions that a real person poses in real time. Paper writing would be left for later classes, where students motivated about their majors would be more willing to put in the labor it takes to produce decent prose. The article has drawn brainlessly awful hate mail as well as thoughtful discussion. It is worth your five minutes. Come on. Slate articles are short, and it isn’t like other experienced teachers haven’t also brought this up. Granted, as a comp instructor who runs a lot of first-year classes, I don’t think it’s feasible to stop assigning papers altogether. In fact, I’m generally skeptical of Schuman’s pitch, if you read it literally and not Swiftianly. When it comes to writing instruction at most colleges and universities, it would be more immediately helpful to have smaller classes, better job security for faculty, and a  K-12 system that allowed its best teachers to actually teach kids how to write and read stuff besides Instagram captions and SAT swill.
  • If you write, edit, or publish in any professional capacity, you are tight with the Chicago Manual of Style, the “Grammar and Usage” section of which is written by Bryan Garner, who also wrote the best usage guide around for contemporary English, Garner’s Modern American Usage. When it comes to that small cohort of English speakers/writers/readers who care deeply (maybe even obsess, kibbitz, spasm, and fret) about grammar and usage, Garner and David Foster Wallace are fellow travelers. (Wallace’s long essay “Authority and American Usage,” published first in Harper’s as “Tense Present,” introduced me to Garner.) The point is, I seriously fucking care about hyphenating phrasal adjectives. The second point is, D.T. Max has a cogent little post on the New Yorker‘s website about DFW and BG. Like Mailer on Lowell, Max emphasizes that Wallace’s bone-deep fascination with English usage isn’t aesthetic snobbery but a form of moral imagination. See above, David Bromwich, or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
  • Considering that I’m someone who is always looking for work, it would probably behoove me to be blandly professional on this blog, which pops up in Google searches.  On the other hand, I am from Virginia, I admire Thomas Jefferson, and Patton Oswalt is great:

Bang palace! (h/t Dan on this one)

  • Naomi Baron’s Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford UP, 2008) is germane to everything if you live in an affluent country.
  • Since TGR didn’t get up a Weekend Beats post, I wanted to post a Tuesday jam. But because I’m on an Amtrak train (no big deal) right now, I can’t access YouTube content. This being the case, I suggest you listen to The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” followed by Trina’s “Pull Over.” They’ll blend, TGR promises. Stay warm for the holidays.

Sunday Night Links

As the frozen moon called North America upon which many of our readers live continues to darken, its daylight progressively emaciated and its nights positively steroidal, your cortex needs food. Here are some links. Take, eat. Stay warm.

  • Advertisements that use kids to sell grown-up commodities like cars and cable packages are repulsive. Just look at this and this, and try to ignore that sad, green revulsion mushrooming in your chest. “We want more, we want more.” Or don’t, and just take our word for it. An Urban Outfitters ad for cancer-style skinny jeans wouldn’t be much worse.
  • David Foster Wallace could be a bad TV guest, like many (maybe most) writers. If you tend to consider your words and think about whether the complicated answer you are about to give is plausible, then most TV hosts won’t know what to do with you. But when Wallace sat down with a German station in 2003 the results, which are on YouTube, were riveting. Here is the man himself talking about how pleasure within market societies can be a form of slavery; and here he is admitting how small the demand for serious writing is, compared to the immensity of the American fear of silence; and later homie gets to the paranoid wastage of the Bush years.
  • There is plenty more Wallace material on YouTube and for cheap on the usual book-buying sites, so do your brain a favor and stop watching Glee or reading Twitter or buying linen scarves or whatever, because as long as people read English, people will read Wallace. Chances are that reading him will make you at least a little happier. He’s consistently on the aesthetic and thematic level of his gregarious, crowd-loving forebears (e.g. Austen, Dickens, Faulkner, Pynchon, Rabelais, Dostoevsky), which is rare enough; most writers are just lucky to occasionally do something comparable to what an influential presence did. He’s one of those writers whose work gives enormous pleasure to a lot of well-read people. As such, anyone who dismisses his work outright (which is very different from saying that you don’t personally like his work*) is likely a pedant whose opinions aren’t worth listening to. Samuel Johnson is right: if a book is long esteemed, it is good, to the extent that we can ever define “good.”
  • Unfortunately we live in a USA where writers have to remind people that public colleges should be free for Americans prepared for college-level work. A democracy must be seriously deranged if its members have trouble with that principle, but many Americans are only OK with spending public funds on simultaneous trillion-dollar wars in multiple theaters. This means that the USA has some serious problems, given the current national acceptance of five-figure in-state tuition bills and leagues of alumni who carry five- or six-figure debt loads. But that shit has a righteous foe in Sarah Kendzior, whose work you should follow. It is great: sarahkendzior.com. American higher-education systems may have gutted their faculty (the loan racket helped), but many of the castaways are vicious writers. Have hope. TGR is roping together some logs in the ship’s wake.
  • High art is not always pleasant. (Just ask anyone who has looked at a Francis Bacon.) I say this because someone recently put together a file of every “YEEAH-UUH!” that Metallica’s frontman James Hetfield has ever barked, snarled, rasped, or sneered. Though conceptually beautiful, it might drive you insane after 45 seconds. Seriously, don’t listen too closely unless you are already a metalhead.

* I don’t like Austen, just as I dislike Woolf’s novels (besides Mrs. Dalloway), but  I wouldn’t pretend that either isn’t worth reading for a person wanting to know more about the canon.

OOPS, Sorry!

Having proselytized aggressively and lucratively for privatized online education (as it were), California supergenius and headset aficionado Sebastian Thrun is now engaged in a quietly massive rhetorical walking-back of those efforts. In one respect, good on him: It would be gratifying to see Wall Street execs do the same now that the Great Recession is limping off into the distance. On the other hand, the way bigger hand, Thrun’s maneuver is infuriatingly meek and selfish. As Rebecca Schuman, fan-object of this blog, points out on Slate, his position boils down to: My shitty product was shitty mainly because its potential consumers were shitty, not because it was a shambling, pointless, greedy waste of human capital. Seriously now, just look at the photo atop the Fast Company story. As many a person on many a bar stool would say, Fuckin’ guy . . . .

Still, if nothing else, the hyperlink wormhole which ensued after I read Schuman’s piece led me to Tech In Translation, which turns out to be the witty, sane work of Amanda Krauss, whom you might know from her former blog-incarnation as Worst Professor Ever, which she wrote after telling the Classics department at Vanderbilt, where she was on the tenure track, to go fuck itself.

Anyway, back to waiting to see how Dr. Thrun gets that horse back into the barn.