Monthly Archives: December 2008

Reading for Pleasure Wednesday: Edith Wharton

“Then the populace closes in again, so quickly and densely that it seems
impossible it could ever have been parted, and negro water-carriers,
muffled women, beggars streaming with sores, sinewy and greasy “saints,”
Soudanese sorcerers hung with amulets made of sardine-boxes and
hares’-feet, long-lashed boys of the Chleuh in clean embroidered
caftans, Jews in black robes and skull-caps, university students
carrying their prayer-carpets, bangled and spangled black women,
scrofulous children with gazelle eyes and mangy skulls, and blind men
tapping along with linked arms and howling out verses of the Koran,
surge together in a mass drawn by irresistible suction to the point
where the bazaars converge about the mosques of Moulay Idriss and El
Kairouiyin.”

–E. W., In Morocco (1917)

Axé.

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New Year: In Which I Am Not a Suburban-American

In the New Year I will renew last year’s vows, namely, to engage in luxury, calm, and voluptuousness. I will call more regularly upon the spirits, who reside here in the breath of winter’s fiery hearth.

I

In graduate school one had to prove one was serious. One of the main ways to prove this was to say one would live anywhere. In the New Year I will say I am only interested in urban life. Perhaps I am not serious. Perhaps my attitude is  insufficiently sacrificada. But my problem as an academic has always been that in order to be one, one was expected to renounce being the person one needed to be in order to be one.

II

In Reeducation one had to change oneself, also. The main change was that you had to learn to feel the pall of death inside your chest. You had no right to the breath of life, and you must stamp it out. Despite these warnings I still wanted more breath, not less, and so I failed Reeducation. But I am as sure now as when I failed this course that it is in one’s own nature that one finds the breath of life.

III

Since Reeducation I have been intensely phobic about almost every aspect of academic work. I spend a great deal of my work energy calming my nerves around the fact of being here at all. This is because academia, for me, has not been a great deal more than a random, abusive workplace, located far away from the things which interest me in life. And in both academia and Reeducation, having an intellectual orientation turned out to be problematic.

The result of it all is that to stay in both I had to defer my own life and suppress my intellectual interests. This process of suppression is very violent, and that is why I am so phobic. Every day I have to deaden myself in order to go to work, and then reanimate myself enough to function. Being half dead and also  falsely animated, it is hard to produce well.

“You are steeling yourself like someone who is going to a torture chamber,” said a friend watching me get ready one morning. It was true, I noted, but I had not even realized it, because I was not even preparing for a difficult day.

IV

This year I will no longer say, except in public, that I like things I do not.  I will also work on getting over my  academophobia by hiding from it less. I will honor its causes, recognize that its roots are real, and then nurture my breath. I will say that it is wonderful I have gotten through things at all. I have already asked, why did you succumb to everything, and answered that it was because I was weak or weakened. There is no need to ask again.

V

I have these tendencies to self abuse and to claustrophobia as a result of trying to change my interests, desires, and tastes to fit in with academia, suburban life, and Reeducation. I try to limit myself in the proper ways, but it feels like suffocation and suicide. I then want to run from the scenes of these crimes and also from the self that feels shame of having suffered them and has not yet overcome their effects. I want to run to my stronger side, or to a side with no memory.

VI

What is it I want to leave? From what can I depart instantly? This year I will stop residing in the self that thinks it should be someone else. I will remember that it is not a personal failing not to thrive in the suburbs, or to have a taste for a different sort of life. I have been trying to survive by becoming someone else and only being myself in cyberspace, but this year I am going to stop.  That, I think, should help with the claustrophobia and activate the breath of life.

VII

Despite what I say in III and what others say, my issue has never been the academic world per se. It is the nature of my own daily life in it and my attempts to submit to it which bother me. The common answer is to adjust but there is a point at which adjustment becomes self-betrayal. It might be possible to live the same life minus the attempt at adjustment, and live it better.

VIII

Also despite what I say in III, it is worth remembering the list of things that actually set off my academophobia is very short. My problem is that those activities are my principal job assignment. It is unclear to me what to do about that fact in the immediate term, but I perceive that to remember how short the list actually is would help. And I am always amused that those who tell me most stridently that I need to adjust, do not want to hear what my job actually is – or wrinkle their noses if I do explain it. I am used to the things which shock them, but it is still terribly hard to live so far from town.

IX

It helps to notice how well my research brain wakes up when I get to California, or the D.F., or Lima, or S. Paulo, or anywhere with cities, mountains, and seas. It will help to remember that the list of phobias is short and all the phobias arise from my working conditions, not my work. It will help to remember that I am phobic because of having lived in situations where it was dangerous to say no to things any sensible person, or self respecting academic would refuse. It will also help to remember that at the root of it all is my thinking I should be someone else. It is, of course, possible that I should be someone else – that I should be able to live without cities, mountains, or seas – but I have seen that it is not fruitful to try.

Axé.

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Another Past

The third section of this post is the one relevant to its title, but I have a few other things to say. Even before the first thing, and in preparation for tomorrow’s post, I announce that not only do I believe in living in VERY URBAN ENVIRONMENTS, I also believe in SURFING and BACKPACKING, this last at HIGH ALTITUDES. I further believe in doing these things as part of normal life, not at the end of a plane voyage. These opinions explain a great deal and I point them out to prepare my more assiduous readers for tomorrow’s post. I have been called superficial many, many times for having these interests and tastes, but I have determined at last that I am not superficial at all.

First:

Featured blogs for today are From Gaza With Love and Daily Routines. The first is heartrending and the second, fascinating. You discover how creative people organize their days. Each one is more eccentric than the last, and I want to read them all. (So far I identify most with the “Early Risers” and must clearly become one. The thought of putting off beginning work until afternoon is so depressing as to be scary. I read those routines and feel true dismay.)

Next: Notes from the MLA

1. People in S.F. for the first time kept marveling about how intercultural it is. I find it normal. I can finally relax. I am freed of that nagging feeling that someone is missing I get in many other U.S. cities.

2. Going from hotel to hotel to see different things, and especially threading yourself through the labyrinthine S.F. Hilton, is difficult.

3. The basement of the S.F. Mariott reminds me of an airport.

4. I liked the Spanish and Portuguese panels better than the English panels – except for the digital editing panels, of which I wish I had attended more – and became glad my line is not based in English (I sometimes wish it were).

5. I did not stay in a hotel but in an apartment from Craigslist. I am in it now. This comparatively inexpensive option is comfortable and very, very hip.

6. There were papers on poet friends of my parents, and retrospective panels on my former professors.

Finally: An Alternative World Fantasy

A friend in graduate school pointed out that the reason the university worked so well was that it had an enormous semi-secret corps of excellent assistant professors who were actually advanced graduate students, teaching up a storm at more levels than one realized and generating a great deal of research. I have now uncovered an old U.S. model of the academic ladder, in which that corps was no secret. Could a return to it help reduce student loan debt, the job crisis and the tenure trauma? Apparently the system was:

1. You do an old fashioned, fancy M.A. with a serious thesis, taking up to three years, during which time you are a T.A. with a low teaching load.

2. You are hired as an instructor, and this is a tenure track position. Via teaching, research and service you earn tenure, whereupon you are promoted to Assistant Professor. Not having the Ph.D., however, you cannot teach certain senior or any graduate courses.

3. If you do not wish to remain at this rank permanently, you go on sabbatical to take coursework toward the Ph.D. While working on your dissertation, you come home to teach. Your dissertation and the publications it generates as you write it gain you admission to the Graduate Faculty.

4. Your further work as an Assistant Professor and Graduate Faculty Member earn you promotions to Associate and eventually, Full Professor.

What do you think, Lumpenprofessoriat? Would this arrangement alleviate the current problems in any way? What are the various reasons why it would not work?

Axé.

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Limits of Modernity

I never get over missing the Western landscapes and Woody Guthrie’s song “Roll On, Columbia” never fails to make me nostalgic.

The video has majestic photographs, but listen closely to the song lyrics. They are racist, colonialist, anti-environmentalist, and although Guthrie would never admit it, they favor big business. These are some errors in modernization theory and perhaps in modernity.

Axé.

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On the Train

In Denmark this is the first day of Christmas. To get ready for Christmas back in the day you had to prepare many special foods, including rolled lamb sausage and pebernødder. On Christmas Eve there was rice pudding and goose with red cabbage. On Christmas Day there was an endless luncheon of pickles and things. On the first day of Christmas there were hens. Eventually there would be the best food item, gizzard soup (fowl carcasses, giblets, head, feet; the rest of the gravy, apples and prunes; vinegar, sugar, carrots, and leeks, simmer it all down).

Everyone had a bottle of Sandeman’s port in their cabinet except for a man named Stone (yes, Danes have names like Wolf, Bear, and Stone), who had rainwater madeira. The twentysomething crowd, born after the war, had secret stashes of Camembert. They spread butter very thickly on their bread. One Christmas OPEC was not selling us oil, so there was no driving and no heat. There were always real candles on the tree, which was otherwise decorated with cookies and garlands of nuts and raisins. Presents hung from its branches. “First we show the tree, then we eat it,” said the song. “Christmas lasts a long time, and costs a lot of money.”

*

Now there is a conference I could go to in Deutschland, which we call Tyskland in Danish. It is too expensive, but we must enjoy the fantasy while it lasts.
It is at the University of Bielefeld, in Westphalia, near Hannover. By train Hannover is the gateway to Denmark. But Bielefeld lies on the traditional train route Paris – Köln (Cologne) – Bielefeld – Hannover – Berlin – Warszawa – Kiew/Moskwa. Nowadays, if I had the cash, I could calmly buy a ticket and actually ride that route.

The USSR existed when I used to spend time in Europe. Going to Denmark from Spain, Hannover was a major interchange. Trains left in the evening, and German passport control officers would wake you up sometime before dawn and stare at your papers. Later in Hannover you could see the enormous Russian trains announcing their route: BERLIN – Киев – Москва. Even Berlin was deep in the forbidden lands then.

*

I never got on one of those trains, of course, but onto a German one. I would find a Danish speaking compartment to sit in. Danish customs officers would come on as we moved across the Dannevirke and into Jutland. They would stick their mild heads around our door and say, I see you are all Danish. Welcome home.

Axé.

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Lumen Christi

This is also my birthday, and it is an excellent day to work for peace. Among other things let us consider working to free Muntazer Al-Zaidi (especially since Bush has “no hard feelings”) and to get out of Iraq, Barack!

I am feeling interestingly light. Here comes part of the 2007 Christmas concert given at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Saint Mary OF THE PEOPLE, in Rome.

Here is the Piazza del Popolo, where the church stands, with its lion fountain.

Axé.

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On the Docks

A few days ago I was standing on a New Orleans wharf watching the ships come in, and just after noon today, Pacific Standard Time, I will be on a San Francisco dock waiting for the Larkspur Ferry. If you fly to San Francisco from Houston this morning, you may see me on the plane. I hope it is not one of those notorious MLA flights.

Standing on docks in San Francisco is a very traditional thing to do. One of my aunts did it in 1917 to welcome Emma Goldman. Another aunt went down not much later to pick up my uncles, white Russians arriving from China, and put them on a train bound for Harvard University. A few years later my parents were children, and Memphis Minnie sang this song.

That old ‘Frisco train makes a mile a minute
That old ‘Frisco train makes a mile a minute
Well, in that old coach, I’m gonna sit right in it
I’m on my way, to ‘Frisco town

You can toot your whistle, you can ring your bell
You can toot your whistle, you can ring your bell
But I know you been wanting it by the way you smell
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

There’s a boa constrictor and a lemon stick
There’s a boa constrictor and a lemon stick
I don’t mind being with you but my mama’s sick
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I would tell you what’s the matter, but I done got scared
I would tell you what’s the matter, but I done got scared
You got to wait now, until we go to bed
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

If you was sick, I wouldn’t worry you
If you was sick, I wouldn’t worry you
I wouldn’t want you to do something that you couldn’t do
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Well, if you want it, you can get it, and I ain’t mad
Well, if you want it, you can get it, and I ain’t mad
If you tell me this is something that you ain’t never had
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Look-a here, you get mad everytime I call your name
Look-a here, you get mad everytime I call your name
I ain’t never told you that you couldn’t get that thing
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I woke up this morning about half past five
I woke up this morning about half past five
My baby turned over, cried just like a child
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I got something to tell you, I don’t want to make you mad
I got something to tell you, I don’t want to make you mad
I got something for you, make you feel glad
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

Look-a here, look-a here, what you want me to do
Look-a here, look-a here, what you want me to do
Give you my jelly when die for you
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

I got something to tell you, gonna break your heart
I got something to tell you, gonna break your heart
We been together so far, we gotta get apart
I’m on my way to ‘Frisco town

There was no Golden Gate Bridge and no Bay Bridge, and you went to Chicago and New York by train. In Berkeley my grandfathers took the streetcar down to ride the ferries to work.

On weekends my grandparents went out dancing in San Francisco. If you missed the last ferry to Berkeley, you had to take the late one to Oakland. This ferry had potted palms, a dance floor, and a jazz band. When you landed, there might still be streetcars running. If not, you rode home luxuriously by cab.

In this video you can see what it was like to arrive in San Francisco, by ferry from Oakland or Marin, in 1940.

F E L I C E S
F I E S T A S

Axé.

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What Is A Scholar? or, Primordial River. Original Groove

ERRORS OF MY WAYS/JOB DESCRIPTION

What my job ideal description was and is: Active, fast-paced career in large, urban, research oriented, policy making institution, involving national and international partners. Find documents, analyze and discuss them, discover their role in the national and international imaginary. Make decisions, write reports. Organize research groups. Write books alone and in groups. Give seminars and entry level workshops, travel for research and business. Create and disseminate new knowledge, found innovative social and educational programs, strengthen community ties.

From what I  had observed in the seven institutions I attended before becoming a professor, I really thought this was what professors in Latin American Studies did! Many would say that means I utterly internalized the R-1 model, which makes me an elitist. I suppose I am guilty as charged, but I do not think elitism is the most accurate term in which to frame this issue.

What the public R-1 mentality means to me is the opposite of elitism. It means that everyone is seen as a professional, and works as one, and people are treated as (hu)mans and citizens whether they are known to their interlocutors or not. I do not see elitism in that, I see democratic vistas.

SCHOLAR OR ACADEMIC?

Servetus distinguishes between being a scholar and being a professor or an academic. Before that I had found a distinction between being an intellectual and being a scholar, but in the Academic Industrial Complex Servetus’ distinction seems more à propos. Not being allowed to be who one is, when to be who one is was what one was told was the job requirement, is my problem with academia.

The hardest thing for me has been not getting to work as a professional, but having to go back to models based more on family dynamics and the social patterns of high school cliques – with a patriarch or two in charge, of course, running a few fiefs regulated through patron-client relationships.

It seems to me that many of the internecine wars that take place are not actually over scarce resources but over dignity, recognition, and small bits of psychic space. Everyone is trying hard to gain, however they can, the rights of (hu)man and citizen they need to actually do their work. Those cannot really be gained except collectively, and that is why I believe in civic virtues.

SWEEPING AWAY

I hasten to say that these comments are not necessarily, and certainly not primarily related any current events, or to events in any single place. Remember, I have studied at seven institutions, if you include the ones where I was a Visiting Student. I taught in three departments as a T.A. I have had more than one job since. I am and always have been a member of more than one administrative unit.

What I keep on learning are the things I knew in the first place, and from which I amiably tried to dissuade myself. Now that I have finished boiling Reeducation down, I have begun boiling academia down. What I have figured out so far is that the root issues for me are: can you be who you are in it (a scholar!)? Can you work professionally in it, that is, can you really do what you say you are doing, as opposed to merely create a simulacrum of it?

I have personal reasons to have come to doubt whether these things were possible, but many other reasons for it are external. My experiment now is to see whether, if I sweep the personal reasons away, it becomes more possible to be who one is, here – since, after all, who one is is, officially as well as unofficially, who one is supposed to be. I have been told many times that thinking was a bad thing and I have duly tried to renounce it, but thinking is my primordial river.

Axé.

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Stolen from Servetus

Servetus says being a scholar …

* is about having a question or questions you need to answer. Not want, need to answer. For you or for the world. Not for your tenure committee or to fill out your vita. To inform the world. To change the world. To find the truth. Your truth, whether continent or eternal.
* is about watchfulness, about seeing the detail that changes the meaning of the picture.
* is about seeing the big picture. Your big picture, no one else’s.
* is about telling people who need to know. They might not be the people who “matter,” but they still need to know.
* is about integrity, about craft, about fashioning a perfect thing.
* is about joy, about the delight in watching the mind work, about delight in watching the minds of our interlocutors work, about delight in the process of seeing students’ synapses–or our own–connect and lightbulbs go on.
* is about power. Power to determine what is real, what is important. Power to tell our OWN stories as we see fit.

I am trying to get in touch with this. I know how to teach other people to be like this but not really how to be like this. When I got back to Maringouin from New Orleans last night, I had the academic raven sit down on me again. It reminded me that being an academic (note that I am not yet saying scholar) was about repression, suppression, service, duty, drudgery, sacrifice, lobotomization, self-abnegation, drudgery, punishment, guilt, shame, hopelessness, incarceration, pain.

WHAT I LEARNED BEING A PROFESSOR

“We will not let you survive here if you cannot renounce your intellectual orientation,” is the message I have received in more than one academic job. I wanted to leave academia because of this. When I was talked into staying, one of the elements in the discussion – an element I accepted at the time, after some effort – was that I expected too much from life and had not dedicated myself sufficiently to pain. “I suffered greatly in Racine, Wisconsin. I still got my book out and managed to get hired in Jacksonville, Florida,” was the sort of sentence I listened to.

I always said helplessly, “But I do not want to live in Jacksonville, Florida. I want to live in Miami, New York, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, or New Orleans.”  Then people said, “Dear, dear. Do not be so snobbish. Are you interested in nothing but money?” I was unable to make people realize that it is not money I want, it is urban life, sidewalks to walk on. Urban life, an intellectual orientation, and often also college level teaching are the desires I keep trying to repress.

Notice that academia does not promise urban life, but it does promise intellectual life and college level teaching. Two out of three is the standard academic formula for good enough, and that is why I originally thought things would be all right. In the worst case scenario one would not get urban life during the academic year or week, but one could get it weekends and summers. I did not imagine renouncing the other two elements. My attempts to do enough violence to myself so that I can fit in such small spaces have not done me a great deal of good.

For academia’s sake I also repressed the desire for autonomy as a person. I accepted a situation in which one must indebt oneself to support one’s professional activities, and remains otherwise dependent for everything upon the apron strings of an institution which approves or disapproves of one and one’s small requests. This is simply unhealthy. It goes against my grain. It is worthy of further discussion (in a later post).

WHAT I LEARNED ELSEWHERE, AND ON THE MARGINS OF SCHOOL

I liked college and graduate school a lot. It was generally assumed there that one was already a scholar, and was now learning to be a better one. Upon first looking into Servetus’ post, however, I realized with wild surmise that I never realized I would be allowed to come out in public as a scholar. Scholarship, as it applied to me, was something one did secretly. When one did it in public it was to:

* prove to brunette graduate advisers that not all blonds were vapid, and then
* prove to senior male colleagues that one could publish while female.

I had learned that only other hallowed people could be scholars. The rest of us, including all women, could only put on puppet or ventriloquist performances and earn a living that way. We were to remember that the object of the game was not to produce worthwhile things, but to produce things which would be counted in a certain way. The main objective was to keep one’s health insurance.

I thought this was a very sour and negative way of being in the world. I was tired of being made fun of for my comparative lack of cynicism, however, so I became quieter and quieter. I tried to learn that this way of being in the world was not sour and negative, it was realistic, and that any attitude I would have thought more practical  was in fact self-indulgent and generally unworthy. I tried to learn that positive people are self-indulgent and unworthy. It seemed that if one first suffered enough, one would be seen as worthy at last, and not to be criticized any more for self-indulgence. It seemed that one must emulate the Velveteen Rabbit.

CONCLUSIONS

This shows that ultimately I do FEAR SUCCESS, and that the reason I fear it is that I want to live. If you succeed,  they will kill you, not just torture you, the next time they drag you off to the chambers. If you succeed, you will not have a second chance at life. Furthermore: to want to live is an insufficiently cynical attitude. Show it and you will have withering scorn heaped upon you. You have to remain in the shadows until the coast is clear. You can have a creative life so long as it is invisible. In public you must be seen to toil and suffer. Only this way will you be allowed to continue to live.

Let us now sweep all of this away. Écoutez et répétez. Not only scholarship, but also life:

* is about having a question or questions you need to answer. Not want, need to answer. For you or for the world. Not for your tenure committee or to fill out your vita. To inform the world. To change the world. To find the truth. Your truth, whether continent or eternal.
* is about watchfulness, about seeing the detail that changes the meaning of the picture.
* is about seeing the big picture. Your big picture, no one else’s.
* is about telling people who need to know. They might not be the people who “matter,” but they still need to know.
* is about integrity, about craft, about fashioning a perfect thing.
* is about joy, about the delight in watching the mind work, about delight in watching the minds of our interlocutors work, about delight in the process of seeing students’ synapses–or our own–connect and lightbulbs go on.
* is about power. Power to determine what is real, what is important. Power to tell our OWN stories as we see fit.

Axé.

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En ville!

Je suis en ville! Je ne rentre pas à Maringouin jusqu’à la nuit! C’est merveilleux!

I keep thinking I have a Serious Mental Health Problem I need to blog my way out of. But I do not – I merely cannot take the suburbs and the suburbanites, that is all.

That is why I stay up all night – night blocks out the suburbs.

La ville est belle. You can walk on sidewalks past businesses and shops. There is neighborhood life.

Axé.

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