In German, "Streber" is the word for an overachiever. But if anyone still looks at this, you might find the following article interesting: The Neoliberal Assault on Academia:
Monday, April 28, 2014
Reading Watkins this week came at a particularly reflective time for me. I apologize for being so transparent in this post, but I would love your feedback – and sense we’re skipping the Watkins reading, I would like to focus on it. For another class that I am taking right now, I need to write a teaching statement. The teaching statement, or philosophy, as I’m sure that many of you know, has all the ambiguities of the personal statement plus the added stress of trying to articulate exactly what is you “do” in the classroom, what you want from your students, what you do to aid in their learning, ect. This is particularly challenging for me sense I’ve never actually taught a class before. But for the sake of this particular assignment I’ve been ruminating on something that is future tense. In my thinking, I continue to return to Watkins and the class problems of both teaching and higher ed and being a student in higher ed, and how to simultaneously manage the demands placed on teachers while also dealing with the demands and expectations that rise up through the students.
I found myself lazily slipping back in to the old standbys of, “reading writing and literacy” or “English is a tool for other/any/all disciplines,”ect. I wrote these words because part of me thought that that was what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to boast of how my future class, my discipline can prepare anyone for anything! As if, some how, reading A Brave New World will prepare someone to work on an oil rig or some other job that any one of my future students will find themselves in. And part of my answer to this is “Yes!” it will prepare them, because literature and the studying the humanities makes a person human; it’s not about being cultured at the end of the day, it’s about the infinite variety of experience that literary studies provides in aiding our understanding of ourselves and of one another.
However, I know that this humanist, idealistic, bleeding heart response isn’t . . . enough . . . or isn’t all that we can say or do for our students and for our discipline. Furthermore, I don’t want to trap myself into some kind of moralist argument about how literacy makes someone a “better person” or Fisher’s "surrogate parenting". This discussion is slippery and endless while the the urgency to nail down the infinite variety of work accomplished by departments of English is imminent. “Higher ed” is becoming more and more corporate, more and more a “knowledge factory” designed for profit. “Middle management” grows to oversee and regulate this system while part time writing teachers work hard for little pay and are ultimately charged with mitigating the greater class distinctions in society. The truly terrible thing about this is if H&N are correct, then the writing teachers are the ones we need most- they may not be recruited (as Chandler pointed out) like those of STEM, but they should be.
Again, I know this is a rehashing of an old problem to which there is probably not a clear answer. I would love to hear some of your responses to these questions and problems. Some solutions may be with Marx, but when the problems of higher ed develop from a larger global culture of Capitalism, it is hard to feel like one very small, somewhat helpless, piece of the puzzle. The options for action seem to fall along the lines of Clover's "Cars are going to burn" or McClosky's "Optimism." Szmen's careful, mindful analysis of the oil industry (and thoughtful writings) may pave a more middle road not entirely unlike H&N.
Just a reminder: I'll talk a bit about Jameson tonight before we turn to Capitalist Realism (remember I had told you that we'd skip the Watkins reading). We'll finish with course evals--and if anyone is game we can head over to Marz for a drink (I'll be heading there, in any case, and anyone interested in joining should feel free to do so).
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Fisher's Capitalist State of Affairs
Mark Fisher's book reminded me of the comment about dialectics being the state of affairs; it seems that capitalism has become a state of affairs out of which imagination seems incapable of transporting us. Although the constant re-tellings of capitalism's appropriations of rebellion (with punk culture's fascination with "selling out," the marketability of the "Basquiat-ball shoes," and the hipster irony of expensive ripped jeans or mustachioed commodities) sometimes seem impossible to get beyond, Fisher inflects the same old story with a twist inspired by Zizek, Foucault, and Deleuze-- that the force of capital is so pervasive that it preconceives of these minor rebellions as capitalist enterprises. Fisher's pastiche of theoretical and pop-culture references subtly reinforces this in a Jamesonian way, even as he moves beyond Jameson.
What Fisher describes as "reflexive impotence" in students reminds me of what I've heard called "learned helplessness." The hedonic component of reflexive impotence-- that these young consumers have become incapable of pursuing anything but commodified pleasure, which is likely always moving just out of reach (22)-- coincides nicely with his characterization of ADHD and the instant gratification of internet culture. The "learned helplessness" I've encountered as a high-school sub and a 100-level instructor is this difficulty to make an effort beyond a certain point, which is accompanied by cries for help. I see this in that email from a student asking a question that has been discussed in class and is clearly answered on a prompt and/or syllabus. They're trying, at least, but there seems to be an obstacle to trying to figure this out by rereading the materials that I know they have. How do we help students become more independent?
This attention-deficit impotence goes along with Fisher's thoughts on the dreaming of social reality through a sort of flexibility that is characterized by constant change and memory lapse (60). And as past readings have also suggested, the nomadism and schizophrenization that appear to offer lines of flight out of capitalism also appear to be characteristic of it. Even the constant state of change intrinsic to capitalist success resembles the points that Deleuze makes in his description of an ontology of difference. Especially intriguing is this dreamlike, capitalist trait of the ability to overlook gaps in memory and logic. This dreaminess is Kafkaesque for Fisher, who compares it to call centers and the constant remakings of capitalist production.
Although Fisher ends on a hopeful note, we still have to wonder: If capitalism has pre-formatted/preconceived of minor rebellions in its favor, mightn't it also pre-format/preconceive of anti-capitalist theories as capitalist enterprises as well?
I have started typing out three or four blog posts this evening. I keep erasing them. I wanted to be clever and add a commentary on Breaking Bad to correspond with Daniel’s (very interesting) analysis of Mad Men (a show I have never watched). I started writing a post about mental disorders and the emergent role of a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. While I see a great deal of nonsense about autism appearing on news aggregates like HuffPo and on my Facebook feed, I find it interesting how much emphasis is placed on an overreaction to late capitalism’s stimulus society. For example, I have seen what the inside of a McDonald’s can do to my quirky, very sweet, and mildly autistic nephew. Moreover, I have watched my sister’s family deal with the financial realities of having to home school their kid with the hopes of “mainstreaming” him into elementary school. Unlike so many kids diagnosed on the autism spectrum, there are ample resources in many public schools for kids with other learning disabilities to become “productive.” I will always remember how proud I was supposed to be of my fellow high school student with Down syndrome who I actually observed sweeping the floors at a McDonalds (the one on I20 and Cooper). But more to the point, what does this mainstreaming into public education even mean? Fisher’s discussion of education is not so appealing.
I guess this train of thought leads me to the third topic I keep wanting to write about: teaching. Fisher states that he has “chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becom[e] increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalism realism: education” (20). One of my favorite plays deals with the events that take place in a mid-twentieth-century British school. To paraphrase the line spoken by the retiring head master, he says that he never like the word education; he preferred the term schooling. Notions of teaching have come a long way from then to what Fisher now describes: “teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioral protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases only minimally socialized” (26). By all accounts, the system criticized by Charles Dickens has metastasized except that Nicholas Nickleby can’t help out because he dropped out of high school and is now the evening shift supervisor at Radio Shack.
Fisher is really concerned with student behavior, their mental conditions, and the causes of those mental conditions. I do think that “social systemic causation” is a factor that can cause some form of mental or social dysfunction (21). I am not entirely sure this is always a problem. I also think that the environmental degradation from capitalist exploitation is causing chemical imbalances that lead to mental health problems. However, as a teacher, I know that those students who are more extreme, more histrionic, more willing to push back on my performance and more willing call out bullshit when they encounter it enhance my classes. And no, I am not saying that any of them have been diagnosed with mental differences (though some admittedly have). Nor am I arguing that I am able to effectively deal with every atypical student. That being said, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t ever have an extreme reaction when I walk into a McDonalds.
While Daniel is trying to stir up rebellion with his Teaching Evaluation Strike, my response to Fisher is a bit more subdued. Even if his pop culture references are outdated, I thought this was a great little book with fresh insights. For example, the notion that capitalism has colonized our dreams by preemptively shaping our desires; that the old struggle between subversion and incorporation is over. Although Cobain and Nirvana have been overused as cultural examples, Fisher is right use it here: once Cobain realized that no amount of resistance would stop his music's absorption into the "mainstream," he chose the final form of resistance. Anytime I walk into a bar full of flat screens playing various football games, and the only chatter relates to the game, it reminds me two things: 1) Bradbury's visionary dystopian novel, Farenheit 451, and 2) Zizek's comment that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In fact, I think the final answer lies within that phrase. The recent series of environmental "near disasters" and financial "near crashes" has made our vision of the world's end is much more clear, though nobody wants to admit it. Perhaps something like a hurricane that wipes out New York, a tsunami that destroys California, a widespread water shortage, or hackers that penetrate the stock market and deplete everyone's net worth, will serve as the impetus for change. Fisher briefly mentions environmental dangers, but then he weirdly downplays it by saying the environment has become too politicized. Well, sir, if a mammoth hurricane takes out D.C., I think that might finally end the global warming debate. (Maybe a few Tea Party folks from Kansas and Kentucky would still cling to the "junk science" conspiracy theory.) Indeed, Fisher makes some great argument, particularly his claim that our mental health disorders are connected to the dysfunctionality of late capitalism. However, a problem like too much bureaucracy is not, by itself, powerful enough to change the system. There has always been some degree of bureaucracy and always will be. I prefer the "big bang" theory. The only question is how epic will the next disaster be?