Unreadable Excursions Into the Higher Drivel

There was a bit of the New Yorker that I read. It, like most outlets, quibbled and fretted over the inclusion of Trigger Warnings.

Many of the op-eds and articles on trigger warnings published this week have argued on behalf of the sanctity of the relationship between the reader and the text. For the most part, I have agreed with them. A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points. If a novel like José Saramago’s “Blindness” succeeds because it sews up small yet essential pockets of human normalcy against a horrific backdrop, a preëmptive label like “Trigger Warning: Violence and internment” strips it down to one idea.

I relayed these thoughts to Brodsky, along with the anecdote about my professor and “Lolita.” “What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!” she said. “Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?”

For those well-versed in the neo-orthodoxies of the new, illiberal liberalism the next paragraph writes itself. Immediately reference the author’s own non-WASP background. Dodge. Evade.

I admit, this was an angle I had not yet considered, and I recalled the severe annoyance I’d felt in college seminars and coffeehouse conversations whenever a white person would say a bit too ringingly that a book written by a person of color somehow “transcended race,” as if that was the highest compliment that could be paid to a work written by one of us poor, striving minorities.

Let us ignore, for a moment, an Asian-American from California talking with any authority on America’s race questions–because the only fun there is unintentional irony, and not much irony at that. Such a contrived point about the quintessential ‘white person’ making a reckless statement. I wince. Recall Heine’s prophetic observation about Marx and his peers: “These revolutionary doctors and their pitilessly determined disciples are the only men in Germany who have any life; and it is to them, I fear, that the future belongs.” I recall it daily. In name of tolerance we have a man, ostensibly a ‘man of letters,’ immediately contrite. The disciples of political correctness have another victory. He should have doubled-down. Where is Gore Vidal, James Baldwin or Joan Didion when we need them?

There is an excellent rebuttal begging to be made to Brodsky on Lolita. “What a tragedy it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and have the book be only about sexual violence to you!” Brodsky has the benefit of owning a worldview that allows her to converse at length and authority on novels that she has never read.  Or if she has read them without understanding them. Give Brodsky credit, dear reader, for explicitly announcing her intention. Books should be edited for political reasons. For her reasons. Art can take a backseat. I hate the sensibility, I admire the honesty. Like an ancient Essene, or a modern Jain, she strives for irreproachable correctness in every action. But her zeal is more admirable because it is more exigent than their’s. The tenets of her creed are not eternal, but submit to the shifting caprices of Midwestern colleges and a few outposts along the coasts. If I had half as much dedication…

What I worry about is reduction. I can summarize with the lapidary phrase “Everything flows” the philosophy of Heraclitus. But what a weak reading. It consigns him to purgatory–remembered but hardly celebrated.

Take, for a moment, this synthesis by Borges.

Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: a hyperbolic and even unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies his flesh; Judas did the same with his spirit. He renounced honor, morality, peace and kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure. With terrible lucidity he premeditated his sins. In adultery there is usually tenderness and abnegation; in homicide, courage; in profanity and blasphemy, a certain satanic luster. Judas chose those sins untouched by any virtue: violation of trust and betrayal. He acted with enormous humility, he believed himself unworthy of being good.

Think of the reading that began with Trigger Warning: Regicide. Or Theocide. Or Homicide. Much more consider the word conspiracy. Should that also be included and if it were consider the new meanings. Consider what has been lost. The word changes the meaning of the paragraph. Trigger warnings are edits. They are alterations of the text. It is only a difference of degrees, rather than a change of principle, between removing words. When I add a word I necessarily remove meaning, and relationships, just as if I took a word out. Some, either through stultifying or stupefying ignorance, dodge this last conclusion. Brodsky does not. For that I admire her. Be honest about writing profanities.

Notice the remarkable alacrity with which the poverty, and that is the only word I have for it, of past works will have been officially forgotten and paved over, such that deep social difference is denied or homogenized and even the most recent and contested past is available only in this nostalgic plastic reproduction carefully bracketed by authorities. In an perverse sense this, I believe, is the only way the current of thought is credible. It is the sign on the highway of forgetting. We’re all happy, except me because I am never happy, to travel on it. It may be an inauthentic journey. It may lead us to some disturbing areas. But it is an inauthenticity that is, as it were, authentically created. This effort at forgetting is not contrived. There are several people, hundreds if not thousands of people, that are sincere about forgetting.

Accreditation and the Academy

There is no core curriculum for Harvard’s undergraduate program beyond Expository Writing. One can go through the whole experience without straying one iota from intellectual self-satisfaction. Students exit with wildly different preconceptions about themselves, and what they experienced. There is no ‘Harvard education’ beyond geographic coincidence. The original impetus for the creation of a university, the cultivation and trimming of student expectations, is all but gone. It brings up an interesting consideration. When a student walks into Harvard, what is happening: is a brand being purchased, or is an education being sought? It is my contention that most of the students who end up in Harvard are looking for the brand, and whether they actually acquire the education they need is an ancillary consideration. The process has become an elaborate accreditation process. Show up for four years, get your piece of paper from this elaborate structure, play the game.

It does bring up some considerations over whether there needs to be a financial response to this situation. The President hopes to incorporate over 150 billion in block aid to colleges. For those who don’t know, block aid is synonymous with “here’s a bunch of money, do with it as you will.” Yet in spite of a proliferation of degree holders, there is still a considerable room of doubt. Whether students today are better than those of earlier generations is far from clear. “Trained almost from the cradle to smash the SATs and any other examination that stands in their way, the privileged among them may take examinations better, but it is doubtful if their learning and intellectual understanding are any greater.” One can’t help, looking at recent graduates, whether we have finally reached Hegel’s wimpy end of history. No fights for anything but a cushy middle-manager spot.

“We are the hollow men / We are the stuffed men / Leaning together / Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!”

If there is any doubt that we have become Eliot’s Hollow Men take, for instance, the proliferation of obscure and pointless business classes across the nation. ‘Strategic Marketing,’ ‘International Aims and Means,’ and a whole host of equally pointless classes that purportedly teach groups of near-alcoholics how to become CEOs. Ah, okay! All the classes are going to become CEOs? There’s not going to be one middle-manager of dubious import and intellectual weight? Thank you, Academy, for allowing us the ability to introduce three products into a foreign market with a competing product of higher price, higher quality. Certainly I am not going to end up working for Esurance.

As has been mentioned at length in other posts, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for the humanities either.

What, if anything, can be done? Kevin Carey has a few strong ideas.

To summarize, Matthew Yglesias:

People learn things all kinds of ways. I learn a lot from reading blogs and magazines. Hopefully people learn from reading me. I look things up on Wikipedia. I read books. I listen to lectures on iTunes. But federal funding is tied to a particular kind of learning in a particular set of institutions—college courses in accredited colleges. And who decides what an accredited college is? Why trade groups composed of accredited colleges do!

If the Academy is unwilling, or unable, to provide a good enough reason for its ever rising tuition rates then what else should we expect? A five-year bender for middle-managers sounds fun… But one has to wonder if the debt is really worth it.

Our Sad Academy

Gore Vidal, as always, has the words for every cutting opening (see “Hacks of Academe”). The world of ‘the enlightened’ is devoted to books that are written to be taught; they are not written to be read. The captive subjects, undergraduates, only mildly different in caste from particularly well-to-do peons, have no other recourse than to read books whose actual value is nil. The professors, perhaps delusional, fret that their free ride managing their classes of aspiring middle-managers and labyrinths of footnotes will end. This is their insurance policy: insulate the conversation up, and beyond, the point of sense. Write books and allow their cohorts to force payment.

“Why does the academy play such a minor role in guiding popular taste in theater, dance, and music?” bemoaned one recent graduate. Why is it that we can go into our libraries and pull off the shelf works that have not only gone untouched but uncared for? Pnin’s a tragic character, but is that because so many in the humanities see a reflection of themselves?

My answer: probably.

Today I held in my hand two books. One was visionary. Exciting. It was, there is no doubt in my mind, why ‘we’ write history. Max Berger defined art as anything that raises our consciousness to a new level, and if that is the case then this book is simply art. So little of American history is interesting to me. This, however, was a dream. A beautiful dream made moreso by its reality. The other book, however, was a perfect muddle. Repetitious. Incorrect. Tedious. Awful construction. My literary taste is not well-defined. My palette does not need much salve but there is no doubt in my mind that this book has done significant harm to my soul.

It was brought home, loudly and clearly, how far the academe has gotten from its purpose of existence. It is a self-perpetuating (Abyss? Morass? State of mind? I leave the word choice up to you, dear reader), or to quote Cornell West “the Academy feeds on critiques of its own paradigms.” It is, in short, “feeble” and it has never felt more feeble as I numbly flip through paragraphs of history—human life—drained of all meaning.

One was rejected by several ‘academic’ presses. It was deemed too, perhaps this is an unsympathetic interpretation, exciting. It would wake too many students in the classroom and hacks enshrined behind their self-importance. It would teach us that essential rule of history: it is the laboratory, the only laboratory that we are given to test ideas. The book was forced, finally, to ask for a printing by Random House. No academic would touch something that did not have a literature review! Heaven’s no. A book that did not consult the intricate, exclusive system of minutiae that they strain under? Heresy, plain and simple. The other, however, went smoothly through an academic press. It’s been reviewed, well, by all his friends.

One will be thrown into the trashcan by innumerable men and women in my classes. One will be cherished. Does anyone want to guess what one goes where?