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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Reading the New Yorker this morning,  §

I’ve decided that the main difference between New York and Los Angeles is about 10 years.

There are now real grown-ups or real children in either place; everyone that’s really modifies themselves in every way in an attempt to seem older and everyone that’s really old modifies themselves in every way in an attempt to seem younger.

The only difference is that in Los Angeles the “ideal age” that everyone desperately tries to achieve and maintain is a permanent 21 years old, whereas in New York the “ideal age” that everyone desperately tries to achieve and maintain is a permanent 31 years old.

Los Angeles idolizes the vain, stupid, drunken post-teen with the intense, life-consuming fashion identity; New York idolizes the ironic, sardonic, successful-but-still-too-young-for-marriage-or-kids sophisticate.

I finally took something of a nap,  §

a brief one. I dreamed about bugs. Triumphantly about bugs, in the weirdest way, since I kept discovering them and announcing to people that I had done so as though such discoveries were forms of immeasurable success.

One in particular was quite large and round and beautiful (if still scary) and lived inside the closet, on the door. It didn’t seem to be afraid or to run away no matter how many times I opened the door and pointed it out to others.

In the dream, too, as the bugs were everywhere, I was entering into sentimental truces with everyone I’ve ever argued with.

There is clearly some sort of subconscious metaphorical analysis going on here, but I don’t want to know what it is. I don’t want to know anything in particular today.

Is it possible to disagree  §

in interaction without those involved feeling as though they’ve been subject to an attempt at argumentative delegitimation?

Is civil society even possible in cultural regimes like this?

It seems that the very cultural desire for consensus over and against lack of consensus makes the possibility of civil society impossible.

The most infuriating thing in life for me  §

is when people don’t give me credit for knowledge. I just plain know more than most people about most things. It’s knowledge I can defend, cite, provide resources for. Knowledge about which an expert would not disagree with me.

But somehow, in real life, in a day-to-day public, this is absolutely disregarded and even disbelieved.

When happens when you stake all of your claims in life—claims on status, on resources, and even on identity and social location—in a discourse that is widely disregarded, disparaged, and also disappearing?

The answer is that you are increasingly locked into this small discourse community if you are to continue to have any status, resources, or identity at all, and the longer you maintain this orientation, the more locked into the community you are, because the more ground you have to make up to achieve these things in other discourse communities.

This is the ivory tower, and I am in it. And I can increasingly see why people in it don’t venture outside, and why they’re hated. It’s because they have what is widely perceived to be unfairly large reservoirs of status, resources, and identity within the context of the larger system when set off against the general publics of other discourses that aren’t inclined to (and absolutely at the end of the day) don’t grant legitimacy to these claims based on a discourse (knowledge, academics, science, a particular conception of epistemology) that is equally held as illegitimate.

So if you’re already in the ivory tower, or if you think you have a chance of being in the ivory tower, with what the public already tells you is a bunch of unfair perks, you go inside and shut the door, to keep all of those that are angry at you out.

Inside, you can position yourself within the discourse and stake a claim to your share of this bounty of status, resources, and identity. Outside you’re now one of those who are, in effect, stealing from the public. They hate you, they delegitimize the discourse upon which your claims are based so that you know that your defense won’t work with them and will be essentially hollow in their eyes—you know that there’s no point talking to them.

And then you’re inside the ivory tower, one of the pompous assholes inside the ivory tower, and you know you’re seen that way, but you also know that it grants you a bunch of advantages so long as you stay inside, while if you go outside you’ll be ripped to shreds by people who fundamentally don’t share the same way of looking at the world. So why go outside?

Disbelieving someone is always an assertion. It is either the assertion that they are naive/ignorant/stupid or the assertion that they are acting in bad faith—lying to you. To be disbelieved is to be belittled.

I am perpetually, catastrophically behind  §

this semester. It’s not just that I can’t catch up, it’s that I’m continuously on the verge of letting reality slip into the past long before I get a chance to work on it.

It’s a nonstop scramble. Anybody I talk to, any question they ask, I have no idea the answer, despite the fact that it’s my responsibility not only to know, but to have known last week.

“Oh, shit!” moments proliferate.

It’s driving me absolutely crazy. Frustration is coursing through my veins in the way that icewater ought to be and usually is.

I will double my gray hair this semester.


Of cyborgism  §

It was the strangest thing today. I was sitting there having lunch and not thinking about anything in particular when I felt a buzzing in my leg. In retrospect, it was just a muscle twitch, but the thing is, I absent-mindedly assumed it was vibrating because I was receiving a call on it. Without thinking about it, I reached down and pressed my thigh like a button and almost said “Hello?” before realizing that it was my leg I was about to “answer,” not a telephone.

Legs do not—yet—receive phone calls.

And for a moment, the notion that my leg could not receive a phone call was the strangest thing on earth to me.

Then it passed.

I am finally officially done with coursework  §

for the rest of my life. I have a 4.0 Ph.D. GPA.

Slightly over 20 years ago  §

I spent $180 on a used 4.0MB (that’s MB as in ‘megabyte,’ not GB as in ‘gigabyte’) hard drive. It was about the size of a watermelon, heavy as sin, and unreliable as hell (it developed a dozen or so new bad sectors every week, literally bleeding data into the void).

It was, at the time, amazing technology. It could almost hold the complete works of Shakespeare in electronic form, and it could transfer a full 4.0MB of data in just over 24 hours. It cost about $180 a year to run at 24 hour/day operation.

Sometime next week I will take delivery of 4.0TB of storage (that’s TB as in ‘terabyte’, not GB as in ‘gigabyte’) that costs the same $180 new, costs only $20 a year to run, and is the size and weight of a large paperback novel.

It will hold more than 2 million copies of the complete works of shakespeare, and will be so reliable that I don’t ever anticipate losing any data stored on it. It will transfer 4.0MB of data many dozens of times in the space of a single second.

The late ’80s 4.0MB hard drive sounded like an airplane, almost required earplugs of those in the same room, got so hot you couldn’t touch it, and was an ugly, unfinished, industrial steel gray. The new storage will be so silent I will have to place my head against it to hear whether it’s on or not, so cool I won’t be able to tell based on the touch of my cheek, and will be a decor-friendly chrome color.

The “dry powder” problem is driving me nuts  §

Like everyone else, I spend a great deal of my life trying to walk the fine line that lies between sufficient preparation and wasted time (wasted, specifically, trying to prepare sufficiently).

I think (at least offhand) that this is a structural analogue to the “dry powder” problem of naval warfare fame. Use your powder too soon in the engagement and you will waste a limited resource on volleys that fall short of your target, leaving you ultimately exposed and unable to respond as the battle progresses. The longer, however, that you keep your powder dry, the greater the risk that your enemy’s volley will take you out before or as you finally fire back, rendering all of that “saved up” powder useless anyway.

I don’t know whether it’s an analogue, I suppose.

But there is an awful lot of “prepare” and “foundation” and “intangible stuff” to academic life, to writing life, to technological life, to personal life. There is a lot of time spent “laying groundwork” and “lining up ducks” and there is very little reward for any of it. A lot of it, in fact (like, say, college programs, or M.A. programs, or Ph.D. programs) costs a great deal of money and time and offers no immediate reward.

Instead, it’s all an investment in later.

Thing is, you can always invest more now in a return later. Meanwhile, it’s a limited resource kind of situation insamuch as you’ve got a limited amount of time (read: life) to go around. You can spend your time on school, you can spend it on personal life, you can spend it on career-building, or you can spend it on writing, for example.

Don’t listen to anyone that tries to assert the possibility of “doing it all,” for example “going to school while also working a full-time job.” No matter the verbal and cognitive gymnastics involved in describing the situation, the simple fact remains: when such a person is in the classroom, he or she is not in the office; when they are in the office, they are not in the classroom; no matter which they are in, they are not developing their personal life.

I’m spending so much time on foundations here. Not just school as the foundation for a career, but even within school, on certain kinds of practice as foundations for other kinds. Book-shopping as the foundation for book-reading. Book-reading as the foundation for good research. Good research as the foundation for good papers. But in going through all these steps, the good papers are spread out to such an extent that they are few and far between thanks to the degree of preparation involved.

Meanwhile, the competition chucks out papers in bulk, maybe eight out of every ten of them crap, but the other two publishable, even if not perfect.

Can I tell which way is the better way to work? Not a chance.

In practical terms, I could simply stop reading. Anything. At all. Stop thinking. Anything. At all. And just start writing. Just write and write and write and see what would come out. It’s been a while since my last book (five years, in fact, half a decade) and I feel like I’m getting rusty. But it’s all down to preparation. Lining ducks up in anticipation of some future in which I will be “sufficiently prepared” to write at “sufficient quality” levels to produce whatever it is that I think that I need to produce in order to be competitive.

But what if this is backward? What if I should be, as most people are (it seems to me), simply shooting for bulk? Simply shooting as much shit as possible in as many directions as possible to see what sticks to what?

Don’t these people get farther, faster?

Sometimes the whole “do a good job” thing seems like a tremendous gamble. Sometimes it seems to me that the most successful people are those that bet on everything, all the time, as much as possible, as recklessly as possible, without any concern for the risks, in such volume that the process of tallying the totality of their account balance is an insanely complex task that keeps everyone in the world one step behind them until the day that they die, frenetic until the last, and dropping dead while ahead simply because no-one could every quite catch up and declare the column counted and the bill pronounced.

And in that way, they not only prosper, but they literally outrun the consequences.

I wish, sometimes, that I was one of the “I can outrun all consequences” people rather than one of the “I am the slowly building consequences” people.

But I suppose we all are what we are.

Still, it leaves the original question unanswered. Given that I will prepare to some extent, always, and that it will be long, painstaking preparation, it’s still unclear just how much preparation is right, just when I should throw up my hands in any given instance and transition from “foundations for doing it right” to “what the hell I’d better get moving and build something on top of these foundations.”


Advantage, progress, success  §

These things are so difficult to quantify and measure that I suspect no one ever escapes bewilderment about them.

What actions and positions are to my advantage right now?

Am I making progress?

What is it to make progress?

Toward what am I making progress?

Toward what ought I to be making progress?

Am I successful?

What is it to be successful?

What definition of success is the right one for me?

Which one will make me feel most successful in the end…?

I don’t know. My entire academic life (and often my personal and profession lives as well) are marked by uneven progress and wild swings in confidence. One moment I am master of the universe; the next I am a third-rate apprentice. One moment I am sure I am the vanguard of a new generation of . The next moment I am sure that a new generation has already passed me by, and that I have waited too long to make my move.

Right now I am caught in bewilderment about the politics of my department. It’s all politics in the end, I suppose. I’m trying to remember my Weber and to see whether I can happily stop having these thoughts tonight by retreating to an adequate Weberian level of abstraction.

Everything is politics. Everything is political. There is no such thing as science, knowledge, economics, literature, birthdays. It’s all just politics.

Maybe it’s actually Darwin I’m hearing and smelling tonight.

At times I’m fairly positive there is almost no difference between a human and a single-celled animal. Yes, there’s a certain level of abstraction there… but for those of us that aren’t particularly impressed by individual idiosyncrasy, it certainly seems important to work at some minimal level of abstraction if anything is to mean anything at all, beyond its own identity.

That’s the late modern ideal, of course, the logical conclusion to the process of individualization. The ultimate meaning of everything is uniqueness, pure information, discretion, location. The “this” and an infinite universe of “this-ness.”

That’s the thermodynamic prediction, too, of course. And endless field of energyless, colorless, immobile individuals stretching forever and ever away in every dimension. All individuals.

Of course, at that point, the abstraction that means something is also the one that will depress the hell out of you… or would, if there were any you there at all.

What nonsense.

Sometimes it seems as though there’s more to Ice Road Truckers and the state fair than there is to anything else. Maybe George Bush was right and we should never have invented sanitation or agriculture. Or if we go too far toward the “precognitive” man do we once again start to erase meaning?

Is meaning something that inheres in mediocrity rather than in achievement of extremes? Is meaning, to refer to a Hessian formulation, little more than the ultimate in bourgeois values?

I am supposed to be working right now. The answer to the question of the end toward which I am working… eludes me at the moment.

“Good morning,” said the lady on the radio,  §

“it’s Monday, October 5th,” and with that gusts of damp, autumn nostalgia overtook and swept around me for a moment.

When I was small, seasons and time were a part of the atmosphere; they pervaded the people around me, the furniture around them, and the space between all of these. In October, for example, everything was invariably fully saturated, dripping, pregnant with impending autumnity. Each one of the senses was continuously innervated by October itself, which seemed to exude a subjectivity and agency of its own.

Now, the seasons fall away behind and around me and I hardly notice them.

It is autumn, 2009.

Why do I spend most of my time not realizing that it is autumn 2009?

I am home ill today and would simply have gone about my business, grading papers and responding to email. Thanks to the essentially anonymous voice on NPR telling me the date and time, for a moment I feel fully present.

This feeling will no doubt fade before the hour is out, and I will be left with a vague sense of ennui about modern living.

Women make  §

men soft.

Here we go again  §

It’s like a curse. The moment I catch up so that I can get some of the “important” work done, something in life has to happen to throw me into a completely unhelpful frame of mind in which I’m absolutely incapable of concentrating on anything.

Clockwork. Fuck.