Month: April 2006

Postcapitalist Politics

Julie Graham, who constitutes one half of the feminist economic geographer author-function known as J. K. Gibson-Graham, gave an excellent talk tonight about her/their new book, A Postcapitalist Politics. And as I struggle/race/work to finish the final chapter of my dissertation, my head’s abuzz with their ideas. Some are familiar from The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), which — by the way — is in print again, in a new and more affordable edition, in case you missed it the first time. But I won’t here try to sort out the old from the new: suffice to say it’s all good, and if you’re interested (and maybe even if you’re not) in alternatives to mainstream discursive constructions of the all-consuming all-commodified wholly market-based economy, they’re well worth your attention.

Here’s why.

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SERE and the Essay

There was a decent episode of The Unit tonight that dealt with SERE training: scary stuff, from all accounts, and training I simultaneously found myself grateful that I never had to do and at the same time very much wished I’d had the opportunity to try and prove myself in. I was a lowly non-elite active-duty soldier and NCO, but I had some opportunities to train with guys from the 1st of the 75th, and they and the 3rd of the 160th SOAR were a visible presence where I was stationed, and my friend Daniel was Special Forces. (OK, so all that makes me sound like even more of a wannabe. Guilty as charged.) Out of all of them, Daniel and the two Rangers who’d done SERE training were the only ones who didn’t have that JSOC swagger; who didn’t have that cock-of-the-walk strut. And it’s funny, because that swagger was so much what I wanted to have: when I was getting near the end of my enlistment and thinking about how much I liked books, how much I liked reading and writing and how appealing being in higher education might be, the one thing that almost made me re-up was when the reenlistment NCO told me, “Sergeant Ed, I can get you a Special Forces contract.” But I went for the books instead, and now — years later — I’m happy to be headed to West Point as a civilian professor. (With the occasional second-guessing of what I might’ve done.)

Though the show never uses the word, The Unit is of course about Delta. The show’s a David Mamet project, and his writing made the first episode’s dialogue particularly snappy and engaging, but in the succeeding episodes, the writers and producers have clearly done their research. With the focus split between conflict abroad and wives waiting at home, the show’s cultural and political ideologies are very much designed to appeal to a conservative demographic — but I’d argue, as a political liberal, that that’s not much of a reason not to watch it. The show focuses on the tactical rather than the strategic perspective, and in fact often uses the tactical perspective to question the strategic perspective, as many soldiers do. The proliferation of supportive wives is overdone and reinforces unfortunate gender stereotypes, and in some ways moves the representation of post housing a little bit closer to Stepford with each episode — divorced JSOC soldiers are plentiful, for obvious reasons, so why aren’t they represented on the show? — but also makes a necessary statement about all the difficulties that military spouses manage to endure.

And then there’s the flip side to the way that the popular media tries to thrill you with representations of covert war: “The Desert One Debacle.” The story is yet more impressive reporting from Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down (forget the movie: if you want to know what really went on, read the book, and even the book is considerably sanitized). Read it all the way through, and you’ll see how stuff never works the way it’s supposed to in the military. People simply don’t learn that things never go the way you expect them to go. Nobody who’d been through SERE training ever talked about it much. They wanted those who hadn’t done it to not know, to not anticipate. And dive training? The first thing they do, we were told, is drown you. You’re held under water, at the bottom of a pool, until you take a breath, two breaths, more, and fill your lungs with water. They do it to get you over your fear of drowning, and then they rescuscitate you.

So I wonder, as I move from a deeply liberal civilian institution to a rather more conservative military institution of higher education: how might one ask a student who’s been drowned or gone through SERE to write the personal essay?

I’m Ted Kennedy

Ted Kennedy was on Jon Stewart tonight, and he needs to fire every member of his idiot staff.

Republicans had a field day with John Kerry’s relationship to privilege in the last presidential election, and yet Kennedy showed up with a fussy three-point folded pocket square and did everything he could to wipe his cufflinks across viewers’ faces. And the worst part was the heavy gold linked bracelet that Kennedy seemed to want to jiggle in front of the cameras at every opportunity.

Yeah, Ted, you’re a fat cat. Your family is extraordinarily wealthy, and you benefit more than anyone else from those tax cuts for the rich. And tonight, you displayed your privilege–in those cufflinks, in that fussy pocket square, in that heavy and ostentatious gold link bracelet–in a way that reveals the genuinely plutocratic nature of the United States Senate.

I’m a Massachusetts liberal, and I have to say to Senator Kennedy: thank you for losing my Democratic vote. Partly because of what you’re saying, yes, but more because of how you’re saying it: you’re one of the most important Democrats in the Senate, and yet you and your staff are sufficiently stupid to think it’s a good idea to prominently display all the emblems of economic privilege that you possess.

I’m Ted Kennedy. Vote for me because I’m rich.

Why We Need Tacitus

The recent Kairos Call for Webtexts has me interested. The CFW says, “we focus on the connections between classical Greek and Roman rhetoric and contemporary digital communication” — and yet the CFW’s three examples (Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates) are all Greek.

Composition doesn’t like the Romans, and especially not the Romans under Empire. (In our disciplinary literature, though not in Classics scholarship, Quintilian gets a pass for his collusion with brutality.) And I wonder whether seeing the rhetorical impulses of a massively powerful and deeply conservative agrarian world power makes teachers uncomfortable. The Greeks were about knowledge; the Romans, power. Questions of true and false versus questions of right and wrong. With such polarities, of course the Sophists might seem like more appealing allies with which to rhetorically align ourselves.

But if you look at Roman rhetoric under the stresses of imperium, you start to see a much more significant connection to the way words work in the world today. You start to see Leo Strauss as the contemporary theorist of the vicious and amoral Roman delatores, and the hopeful rhetoric of the Greek Sophists as an ultimate instantiation of contemporary critical relativism — and perhaps a reason why rhetoric as theorized in relation to power functions differently from rhetoric as theorized in relation to knowledge.

So what might we learn from imperial Rome contra democratic Greece? First: the Sophistic privileging of knowledge (and today as it functions in composition) is na├»ve under imperium. Like the later Romans — like Tacitus, like Juvenal, like Pliny, like Plutarch — we need a discourse that concerns itself with rhetoric’s relation to power. American rhetoric today carries an impulse towards stripped-down forthrightness characteristic of the early rhetoric under Augustus. Certainly, the style of Tacitus is glittering and pointed, breathtaking in its compression (ask any amateur who’s ever tried to translate him and for pages sought a verb), but unique for its time in its elisions. Most other imperial rhetoric carried a style that lectured and hectored and said what it meant, because it was able to, because it held no political importance. The rhetoric of empire was literary, and fraught with epideictic qualities, because — under imperium — it could not be deliberative.

I figure it’s clear where I’m going with this, and the parallel I’m drawing. The problem is just that imperium, now, is distributed and in fact enacted through distributed rhetorics. Could it be, though, that lecturing and hectoring in the American rhetorical mode that privileges so-called “plain speech” is forthright because it’s easy to oppose? What if we use Tacitus to turn Strauss on his head and argue for a difficult political discourse, an ambiguous political discourse, a problem-posing political discourse that asks questions rather than answers them?

About That Seder

I’m not sure whether to characterize myself here as gentile or goy, since one term seems to carry offensive connotations and the other seems to name one as either Christian or non-believer, none of which I’d entirely want to apply myself — but as my last name likely indicates, I’m not of the Jewish heritage. Welsh and Scots, mostly. Raised Unitarian but with Methodist and Episcopal grandparents, atheist as a teen and agnostic for a time after that, but now I’d characterize myself as having an uncertain and nondenominational but ultimately believing capital-f Faith.

And when I look at religion, I think my instinctive desire for order and my love for ritual and history and esoterica make traditions like those of Catholicism and Judaism deeply appealing to me. But this started out for me as a post about food, which is to say: I’m deeply curious about the ritual aspects of the Passover Seder. Albeit with a nod to the necessary heterogeneity of religious and cultural tradition, I feel impelled to ask: traditionally, the z’roa and the beitzah are cooked but never handled or consumed? Can the z’roa, as a roasted lamb shank bone, be used in the preparation of other Seder foods, e.g. in soup broth — or does it carry its own necessarily independent semiotic value? Does the same hold true for the roasted egg beitzah? Is there a symbolic distinction between the things consumed and the things not consumed?

CCCC06: Wrap-Up

That pretty much does it for my notes on this year’s 4Cs. I got to meet a lot of new people, see some old friends and colleagues, and attend some excellent presentations, most of which I’ve shared my notes on here. I got to hang out with Jen Beech at the Newcomer’s Station, and (very briefly — I had to run to set up my presentation) introduced myself to Julie Lindquist. Plus, after Mark Bauerlein’s sniping, the estimable John Schilb called him “lazy and paranoid” — my goodness!

I finally managed to sync up an audio reading of my presentation with the slides, so if you’re interested, check it out. (Eighteen minutes and thirty seconds of a 28.6 MB .mp4; right-click to download: I added some stuff and tried to read a little more slowly.) It’s a big file, and some of the slides are hard to read at 320 x 240, and my reading comes across as kinda stilted — I didn’t have the presence of mind to actually record while I was presenting, so it felt weird just reading it aloud a second time in my kitchen. Still, for a first attempt at a podcast, I guess it came out OK. Text of the presentation follows after the break.

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CCCC06: Bullshit

Well, OK. It was actually called “New Perspectives on Class.” But if you’ve got that nostalgie de la boue, friend, that hunger for naughty words in academic contexts, you likely know that I’m disinclined to disappoint: read on.

I was happy to meet Jen Beech at this year’s Cs, and happy — however briefly — to meet Julie Lindquist, as well, both of whom were present at the “New Perspectives on Class” panel. Amy Robillard, whose recent CE piece on affect and student scholarship I totally admire, presented on “Humility, Immediacy, Necessity: Bourdieu and the Production of Authenticity in Working Class Narratives”: if you know my work and how close I’m getting to the end of the diss, and the prominent place affect and authenticity take in my chapters 2 and 5, you know I wasn’t going to miss her talk.

Plus she said “bullshit” 45 times. In a totally scholarly, deadpan, and rigorous way.

To start, she began by describing how she “asks students to compose two to three pages of bullshit on vague topics like fear or patriotism,” because plagiarism and bullshit both spring from a failure to prepare. (Moment of obnoxious vanity: what would Amy make of my plagiarism sequence?) Robillard cited Lindquist’s description of the “what if?” characteristics of academic discourse (and one of Lindquist’s working-class Smokehouse respondents, “Walter,” who declared “Bullshit on ‘What if!'”) in order to propose that writing teachers might do well to play up the connections between “what if” and bullshit. In characterizing some forms of discourse that he used as “bullshit,” Walter disowned his own rhetorical labor by devaluing it, and in so doing strategically held on to the working-class identity he privileged, by proposing that his affectual and authentic working-class rhetorical strategies were inherently more valuable that the “bullshit” that — to some — exists as rhetoric for its own sake; word-wanking without referent or valuation.

Tangent: this spun me a bit, because I’ve been lately looking at word-work done for its own sake and its use value in the writing classroom as that which might be privileged for the way it forestalls the evacuation of use value in favor of exchange value predicated on the future commodified instrumentality of writing skills — but I get where Amy’s coming from. Still, I’m always suspicious of two-category oppositions, so I wonder: what might Amy make of Shadi Bartsch’s “doublespeak” (Actors in the Audience) from Roman times, sort of the counterhegemonic twin of Leo Strauss’s ugly esoteric discourse, in which rhetors craft messages that carry different meanings to different parties based upon their positions of privilege? (This is different from irony, which can be read multiple ways by everyone: in some ways, it’s very much about class position.) Is there a possible continuum between bullshit and not-bullshit? How does it work?

Do working-class students see the labor of academics as bullshit? Well, let’s define bullshit: Amy uses Harry Frankfurt’s book to fine effect, particularly its definition of bullshit as carrying “a negative relation to the truth.” Liars care about their relationship to the truth; bullshitters don’t. So bullshit is blatant and overbearing, and avoids the equivocation of falsehood in its highly context- and audience-dependent rhetorical nature. Bullshit doesn’t even worry about the truth: it just does its rhetorical thing.

Robillard then moved to Bourdieu’s famous and ubiquitously quoted observation from Distinction that “Taste classifies, and classifies the classifier,” and Bourdieu’s concern with the “distance from necessity” and the way in which “the aesthetic disposition” brackets off material and practical and real-world concerns. The aesthetic disposition equals doing something for its own sake, disconnecting it from material and worldly concerns: in language, it’s word-wanking without referent or valuation. Academics like to argue, and they often do so for the sake of performance, rather than for the sake of utility or instrumentality. Given that circumstance, working-class students may see the conventions of academic discourse as lending themselves to a rhetoric that serves only itself while offering zero effect on their material lives: in short, they may see it as bullshit. We need, Robillard argued, a deeper engagement in cross-class conversations about what academic and non-academic argument does.

CCCC06: Personal Writing

The presentation Sharon and I did with Peter Elbow as respondent came off extremely well, I think. Thanks to Peter’s generous presence (and I love Sharon’s observation that he was taking notes in a Gryffindor notebook), we got a big hall, and we filled it. I clocked my presentation at 17 minutes and some change, with slides (I got two slides behind at one point, but managed to recover), and almost abstrusely theoretical in its Marxian economic analysis of the valuation (in Bruce Horner’s mode) of student writing — and then Sharon turned things around and made our audience gasp (audibly: if you were there, you heard it) in her profoundly moving personal examination of her reaction, and her students’ reactions, to the Gulf Coast disaster that hit her school in Mississippi. And after we talked, Peter got up and offered his response, his account, and synthesized what we’d said better than either of us could have ourselves, in a performance that was — well, if you know Peter, or have seen him talk, he was at the top of his game, and in his mode. Sharon and I were grateful to have him and his audience there, and he really did manage an impressive integration of our two extraordinarily different presentations on personal writing — which was, in fact, very much our point, though we made it in very different ways.

If you know me here, you know I’ve been posting a lot of theoretical stuff about the economic, the affective, and the personal, which is why I’m going to hold off posting my talk for a bit. It condenses and re-works material from my blog posts over the past couple years, and adds some new stuff as well, but I was more than a little proud of my 49 PowerPoint slides, so I’m going to try to sync them to some audio and then put up the text and podcast together.

But definitely pester Sharon for notes on her talk, which was wonderful — and with as many folks as we had in the audience, perhaps somebody (was it you?) took notes on what Peter had to say, and could share them as well?

And, to Peter:

Thank you.