Monday, February 24, 2014

The ambivalent academic, round 2,671

I can never get enough of these "what's wrong with the academic profession and what should we do about it" discussions, for pretty obvious reasons (I'm a PhD, doing "other stuff" besides teaching at a university). When Nicholas Kristof's column lamenting the lack of public intellectuals came out, I thought, God, he's right! Then came a flurry of both outraged and more nuanced rebuttals, like this one, and I thought, Those are all right, too! And so is Josh Marshall's new post!

Whether we stay in academia or leave, I can't help thinking a lot of us who went to grad school end up disillusioned in some way. I venture to suggest that we're a more idealistic lot than most, attracted by the prospect of a lifelong job creating and disseminating ideas--not products; not shareholder value; not, God help us, lies to induce others to buy products. We loved thinking, talking, writing, mentoring, discovering, sharing. And then, at some point, we realized that the profession involved lots of activities other than these, time-consuming efforts which even ran counter to our ideals. There was unfairness. There was infighting. There was insincere schmoozing and jockeying for position. There was pettiness and envy and full-on stupidity and grossness. Sure, such conditions existed elsewhere, but we joined this rarified world to get away from all that. When it showed up in our world, we felt particularly betrayed. Whatever decisions we made after the scales fell from our eyes, we were never the same again. Call us naive, or at least call me that. I was.

Still, one thing is different today: we have the Internet, and we're not afraid to use it--at least if we're not aiming for tenure. It's already changed the equation for people like Josh Marshall, and it will continue to do so. I find this very hopeful--those who enter grad school will do so less innocently, with a wider view, I hope, of their eventual options.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Monday, February 10, 2014

When reality imitating fiction creates a new reality altogether ... or something

I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Orlean's piece in last week's New Yorker on net art. Recently, Orlean played a crucial role in revealing that the most successful example of net art thus far, Twitter's beloved spam account, @Horse_ebooks, was in fact a human mimicking a spammer. In fact, @Horse_ebooks originated as a genuine spambot but the net artist/prankster Jacob Bakkila bought access to the account and then posted snatches of truncated text from other sites, just as the original software had done. The resulting phrases, like "Everything happens so much," were at once deeply meaningful and hilarious.

I came late to @Horse_ebooks, but when I found out a human was behind it, I was delighted--I thought the work, or stunt, or game, was brilliant. Others, however, expressed outrage. To them, the fascinating phrases could only have meaning if a machine had randomly created them. That they were selected by a human being pretending to function like a randomizing machine rendered the whole business inauthentic.

Have we not, then, come full circle, if the machine is authentic and the human is not?

Not yet. For now we have another insanely delightful phenomenon that I would also put under the net art category: I speak, of course, of Dogecoin. A "satirical cryptocurrency," meant to parody Bitcoin, which is already a sort of parody but also a real thing, to the extent that any form of money is real, and that extent is highly debatable, Dogecoin, too, can be exchanged for goods and services in the real world.

In yesterday's New York Times, Maureen Dowd says, of Paddy Chayevsky:
Chayefsky warned against “comicalizing the news,” noting “To make a gag out of the news is disreputable and extremely destructive.” But real news became so diminished that young people turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert to learn about what was going on in the world.
But what if, via the Internet, comedy becomes the news, as jokes commenting on the world begin to reshape the world?

I suppose there's a lot to worry about in all of this. Yet when I think of @Horse_ebooks and Dogecoin, my heart swells with hope for the human race. Seriously.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Consuming ambivalence

Do a Google search on "consumer culture ambivalence," and you will get "about 245,000 results." So, apparently, this is an issue.

But perhaps I don't need to tell you that. Because there seems to be something deeply ingrained in the experience of buying anything--other than, perhaps, food--that induces discomfort. At least for me. Do I really need this thing? I mean, really, really, need it? Or am I just adding to the stuff that surrounds me, separating me from a more authentic experience of life? I desired this thing, which is why I bought it, but now I kind of hate it, because it tricked me. I wanted it, but I didn't really, really, really need it. The thing made me confuse want with need.

Thoreau, of course, was quite the scold on this topic:

I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long by three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and, having bored a few auger holes in it, to admit the air at least, get into it when it rained and at night, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free. 

However, we know Thoreau was kind of a nut. Admirable, but impossible to imitate; in fact, not even he could really walk the talk. As Paul Theroux says of his near-namesake

During his famous experiment in his cabin at Walden, moralizing about his solitude, he did not mention that he brought his mother his dirty laundry and went on enjoying her apple pies.

Did he also occasionally buy some snappy new boots in downtown Concord? But I ramble. My point, or my question, is: how do we decide when our consumption has gone overboard?

A book called The Ambivalent Consumer: Questioning Consumption in East Asia and the West, says the decision is cultural:

People believe consumption has become excessive ... when it threatens a culturally understood "balance" with morality, citizenship, production, saving, or the environment.

I'm at the point where any consumption feels like too much. Yes, deep inside, I'm Henry David. And yet, under these circumstances, buying feels somehow gleefully naughty, like an act of defiance, or a piece of apple pie. There's just no way out.

The things will always get us in the end.

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