Sunday, March 08, 2015

Sunday Morning Service: Jeremiah and the Value of Not Being Answered

I used to try to be upbeat and witty every time out, here. Then I went dark. Still, I like to avoid the personal, even if I am changing the rules. For example, I'm not going to talk about how our latest college president disappeared one weekend and why this good result was for a bad cause. That sort of thing would really get eyeballs, but it would be the kiss of death (or the second base of death, or maybe even the going-all-the-way of death). I also try not to go into purely religious stuff.

Well, nuts to that. You've been warned.

I will confess, first: I knew Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Thou Art Indeed Just Lord" before I knew the lament in Jeremiah that Hopkins is referring to. If you can read his sonnet, understand it, and not feel a sharp nail in your heart, you're stern, grim, and possibly psychopathic:
Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners’ ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?
    Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now, leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build – but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain.
I've written about the sonnet before, and here, so I won't belabor the faithful or task the fickle. His reference is to Jeremiah 12.
1 You will be in the right, O LORD, when I lay charges against you; but let me put my case to you. Why does the way of the guilty prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?
2 You plant them, and they take root; they grow and bring forth fruit; you are near in their mouths yet far from their hearts.
3 But you, O LORD, know me; You see me and test me -- my heart is with you. Pull them out like sheep for the slaughter, and set them apart for the day of slaughter.
4 How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither? For the wickedness of those who live in it the animals and the birds are swept away, and because people said, "He is blind to our ways."
5 If you have raced with foot-runners and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? And if in a safe land you fall down, how will you fare in the thickets of the Jordan?
6 For even your kinsfolk and your own family, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you.
It's strange, isn't it? Any reader can figure out that there are divisions. Like a sonnet, we can see pieces. Lines 1-4 seem like a completely different thing from 5-6. In fact, 1-2 is the charge, 3-4 is a call for justice, and then 5-6 are . . . different. The first part is the question of theocidy -- why is sin allowed to continue, and why do the evil prosper? The context of the twelfth chapter is that Jeremiah has discovered that there is a plot to kill him.

Lines five and six are God's answer. We're often thrown off in reading Psalms and the major prophets by the shifts in voice, because ancient Hebrew did not have quotation marks or use our conventions in signaling speaker shifts. God's answer to Jeremiah is, essentially, "If you're ready to give up now, just wait for the challenges coming up! You have no idea what injustice is."

Everyone who has read the Bible notices that Jeremiah's first lament is like Job's. Job is the master class in both theocidy and perseverance. However, Job is global and cosmic. Job asks about suffering, whereas Jeremiah asks, as the psalmist does, about the very specific problem of frustration, hopelessness, and fruitlessness in the midst of the prosperity of the wicked. Jeremiah, unlike many of the psalms, can see that there are two systems of "good" at work, that there is the "good" of wealth and plenty, and there is the good of God's will. As the wicked run riot, there is an evil and a greater evil, for not only does the pious man suffer, but the world is degraded and brutified by being under the control of evil men. He appeals to the judgment for the good of the land and the man.

It is the most specific formulation of the question of why the wicked prosper, and Jeremiah is calling for a hastening of the Day of the Lord. He would, therefore, seem to demand a specific answer.

God's answer is specific. However, Jeremiah has enough knowledge of the cosmic and human scales of justice to invoke the dual outrage, but not enough to actually locate his own place in those scales. Nor does he understand more than his own heart, ultimately, at a particular time. God answers with the specifics that Jeremiah is really moved by. Jeremiah is afraid and outraged by a plot, and God tells him that this is but the first hurdle. In Jeremiah's own biography, this grievous moment will only be a moment, and this danger will be, comparatively, an inconvenience.

The big question gets answered in that way. It is the same way that Job is answered. God does not translate His justice into human terms for a human, who is always a component part of that justice, to understand, but, instead, refers outward. For Job, God referred to eternity and creation, to the world itself. For Jeremiah, it is his life and the history of the men plotting against him.

The lack of an answer is the answer, but not in the way that silence is an answer. The answer is not "ineffability," nor is it merely, "suffer and learn," but rather an answer that points outward, always outward, beyond the person asking and the powers of language to contain. Job must gain, lose, and gain and bless the Lord for the blessing to mean as fully as it does, because the context is the meaning of "The Lord has given. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." Only outward, beyond the encapsulation of the phrase, is there meaning for the phrase.

For Jeremiah, the answer will come not from questioning, but from the campaign of his whole life -- the race with horses and the thickets of Jordan -- which will both moot the complaint and make Jeremiah one of the answers to the question.

I couldn't think of any pictures for this one.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Sale of the Century

The challenge of historicism post Hegel is not diagnosing ghosts for the metaphors by which they organized their lives or elaborating upon the tropes that kept them from seeing the plain truth before them, nor is it in diagnosing the dead's schizophrenia and condemning their certitude that phantoms were real. Explaining to one another that they were all infected and limned by the absurd "seven races of man" and exploring the narrative of such a belief is not frightening. No. What the anxiety of historicism is the awareness it commands of us that we ourselves are hooded by a metaphor we speak so often that we no longer hear it and the dire likelihood that many things we know to be obviously true, even clear states of physical being, are just as much phantasms as the "murderer's brow ridge."

Once we learn about Hegel's idea of history as an ineffable force, we're confronted with a paradox and a panic. The paradox is that, if history is determining and no person is ever free of history, then how was or is anyone ever able to come to the realization that history is a determining force? It would have to be the historical moment of Hegel that made it necessary and fitting for Hegelianism to occur, because there is no room for "genius" to be effective. The panic is that the student of history as much as the subjects of historical narratives is being controlled by the historical moment.

In the 1970's American intellectuals devised the notion of "paradigms" and "paradigm shifts." Around the same time, Michel Foucault wrote about the "episteme." Both are related, if not genealogically descended, from Hegelian historical determinism. In both cases, every generation or epoch of humanity organizes not merely what it knows, but what it can know along specific framing metaphors. It may be "father/family" that acts as a prefiguring metaphor in an age -- showing up in everything from discourse about the king/nation to church/flock to landlord/tenant to market regulations -- or it may be "inviolability of the body." Regardless, the who world of speakers and thinker is captured before it even emerges by a pattern of perception, processing and speaking. Political and economic power flows through these figures, but human knowledge itself moves only when "revolutions" occur in these frames.

We can reaffirm this anxiety, if we ever start to calm down or feel hopeful, by resorting to Marxism or remembering the painful lessons of Wittgenstein. According to the former, super-structure is only ever a reflection of base conditions. Marx never quite got around to writing a book about art, but the Marxists have hardly been able to shut up. Let's just say that what exists in language is not anything so coarse as Immanuel Goldstein's NewSpeak from 1984, nor is knowledge and artistic expression controlled by the capitalist directly, but what we can know and say and ask is at least engaged in a project of social and economic control. It gets that way coincidentally, and not because someone at Goldman-Sachs declares it, but ideas that spread do so because they are going through expensive media that is funded by investors, and "successful" persons are emulated, so individual, class-conscious, and free expression is at long odds.

Wittgenstein simply casts a doubt on the status of interrogation. He does not make knowledge less likely, but he points out so clearly that our words control our thoughts that he makes any honest person a skeptic about even asking questions.

No one wants to hear that he or she is a fool, and no one prospers by talking about the emperor's nakedness. However, I'm about to suggest that something "obvious" is actually artificial and mercantile.
I have dealt with being a religious intellectual for a long time. As I have gotten older, I have recognized that the dormitory conversation about "is too!" "is not!" in regard to God never grows up, because every year a new group comes into the dorm room. Therefore, I try not to get involved with naive arguments on the subject. People who argue their passions instead of their reason are impossible to reason with, so, since my religion forbids my slapping them, I really don't have much to say.

However, I was drawn on the subject too recently. I get annoyed by the "Stupid people are religious" line. I can have 20+ years of college education, and the other person can have a high school degree, but that person is much "smarter" and "knows" more because he (or she) does not believe in God. After all, he is following the course of Reason and Science. Only people who don't know anything believe in a "magic sky father."

What I said there caused enormous hurt. I said, "You bought your atheism from the store, and it was on sale, cheap." I pointed out that all of his argument was a script written for him and a discourse of power, that he had swallowed a cultural narrative that had been invented. He had not discovered it, had not bravely achieved courageous individualism against the repressive hoards, and he had not surmounted some vast intellectual height. He had gone along with a cliche.

That is what I'd like to discuss, perhaps in my next, since this is already long and has big words. Atheism is an invented concept. It is a cultural moment that has a history and functions in history. Like most of the poisonous metaphors that limit perception, it tells a lie about itself. Like most of the successful cultural adhesions of the last century, it serves capital.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Falling from Small Heights

"Man is, and was always, a block-head and dullard; much readier to feel and digest, than to think and consider." -- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
As part of an "assessment instrument," I've been reading sample essays from Oh-ficially scored sources. See, our students read four very short arguments responding to a common prompt and then write their own argument about which is the best case. We free ourselves of subjectivity by using nationally certified sources. Our old essays are now too well known by the students, and we need new ones for the exit assessments anyway, so that means reading this year's samples. The old set responded to "As people rely more and more on technology, their capacity for problem solving and creativity will surely diminish." The responses were quite different from one another in approach, and the best was different from the middle one in thought as well as expression.

This year, all the prompts are business related. The best one, for our purposes, was, "For the leadership of the future, it is imperative that children be trained in the values of cooperation rather than competition." The responses, graded by the Official services from six to one, all agree with the prompt, and the differences between them are differences of compliance with written English. The "six" has complex sentences, and the "one" has sentence fragments.

They are all dumb. In fact, the "six" would have gotten only a B from me, because even it had the "Leaders will need to be encouraged in their school" object/subject number confusion (unless all "leaders" go to the same school). Not one of the responses was analytical. Not one questioned the dichotomy of the prompt. Heck, the "five" essay began with one of those, "The dictionary defines competition as..." gambits that is only supposed to be used if a person intends to redefine a term.

Consider this my answer, and my protest to the stupids that this Official voice wanted to offer people going to its test prep site.
"Skepticism (is) the virtuous mean between two vices: absolute knowledge and absolute ignorance." -- Odo Marquard, "Skeptics: A Speech of Thanks," in In Defense of the Accidental

"Competition" and "cooperation" are actions incomplete in their own. They both require objects, company, friends and enemies. One competes or cooperates with. These are neither values that can be taught in the abstract, nor are they transactions that can be consistently enforced without teaching a social setting that mandates the activity.

The submerged assumption in the writing prompt is that "MBA culture" has harmed America. Well, that's hard to argue, but it's also important to follow. "CEO America" looks at quarterly profits, does not know or care what the core business is, and is pleased to fire all of the labor force and eliminate all the goods being made by the company, because those are debts. The resulting "profit" will increase the stock price, which will increase the CEO compensation, and the trading of the stock will increase the company value, which will increase its price on being bought, which will ensure the board a good package on the merger. Thus, all of those making decisions will make enormous profits. The things being made will cease, but. . . that's not the business of the CEO. The CEO and board's duty is to shareholders, not to "consumers" or "labor."

Obviously, the effects of stock traded corporations are evil. Obviously, CEO's are bad for business and bad for the larger economy. Obviously, market funds are bad for the nation. Even their positive effect on stimulating start-ups is cancelled by their decapitation of those same businesses when they begin to produce, and especially when they manufacture. The specific evil is a system we have developed of captial pitted against commodities. When capital moves and "innovates" and "is made" without any relationship commodities, then there is a separate industry of "wealth workers" who set themselves in opposition to those who work in everything else, because their fundamental task is to shake capital free from any attachment to any person. (If you don't think we are post-capitalist in this manner, I'll see you in comments.)

By nature, humans are cooperative. By nature, humans are competitive. By nature, humans compete against themselves preferentially over other people, and we do not need studies to establish this.

Look around you at lunch. How many people are playing Candy Crush or played Tetris? How many people are playing video games solo? When they play in networks, do they play against one another, or do they play with each other in teams? In general, people play against fixed goals and against their own performances, seeking to be perfect at things. It is why they go to the gym and shoot hoops or lift weights.

At work, how often are you asked for help? How often do you ask for help? The point is that people are competitive, but not hostile, and they are cooperative, but not sycophantic. Indeed, we do need to battle the damage done by the naive assumption that "capitalism" is Darwinism and the even deeper lie that Darwin's "survival of the fittest" meant survival of the biggest, toughest, or strongest -- "fitness" means toward the environment, and strong, mean, nasty critters are not very adaptable. We have to fight the fascist theme that "America" is about individuals fighting it out without any help against one another for a triumph.

More, though, we need to understand that we are under assault by a post-capitalist economic theory that is disloyal, immoral, and corrosive of all values and value.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Consideration of "Nigger Lover" for MLK Day

I am not afraid of words. I am afraid of meanings of words.

In the 1990's, my students at UNC Chapel Hill were encouraged not to refer to all persons bereft of a Y-chromosome as "girls." The result was that I got numerous sentences like the following, "The females would like for fraternities to go away, but this is because some females are unable to get dates and are jealous." The boys who wrote for me managed to use the word "female" (not woman/women, because the Anglo-Saxon plural confused them) and intend things at least as venomous and ignorant as any man ever had when he referred to his co-workers as "the girls." At the same time, the fact that these boys knew that they were not supposed to write "girls" meant that they were aware that there was something going on, that they were conscious to some degree, even if this consciousness only resulted in reactionary knuckle dragging and chin drooling self regard in the short term.
"Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide." -- Abraham Lincoln, "The Lyceum Address" 1838
I recently ran into the word "nigger lover" for the first time in decades. As you might imagine, I don't spend any time in the "Comments" at, where, I gather, the term is somewhat alive. I will be discreet with the context because the context isn't actually very important: a high-up individual in a college was accused of having used the term. Students were extremely upset. In what follows, I will not say "N-word," and I won't say "n***." I consider "nigger" to be profanity. Just as I would not capriciously type "shit," so I would not capriciously type this word, but, just as I would not laboriously invoke and avoid the word, so I will not here. This post is about the meaning of the word, and therefore about the word itself.

First, do I believe that the college official used the term? No, not particularly. It's a bizarre term. It's a term that depends upon a biographical rather than geographical context, and I am pretty sure that it doesn't fit.

Here's the thing, though: what is the insult involved? Let's think through this term.

This is a picture of EVERYTHING
 If you were called a "nigger lover," as I was in 1968, would you be insulted? Would you even understand the charge? The term is much, much worse than "nigger," because it is an inescapable indictment of the speaker. It does not mean "inter-racial lover." It means, to its speaker, "traitor to the white race" and "person giving advantages to the unworthy and hateful villains, Blacks." The person who uses the word affirms two things:
  1. The speaker believes in skin color race. This person believes that persons descended from formerly enslaved persons, or simply persons derived from African stock by more than two generations, are naturally different from all other persons. This difference is a matter of innate competition as well as an entrenched and immutable superiority/inferiority. The person who uses the word believes that a child born with dark skin is already, before its first word, inferior, inimical, and alien to the speaker him or herself.
  2. The speaker believes that everyone else agrees with her or him. The person who calls someone a "nigger-lover" is assuming an audience, a geography, a region wherein race is not merely understood, but where the assumptions of inequality and enmity are accepted. The person who uses the word believes that history and biography can only be understood as the enactment of a race war.
It's shocking. The idea that a person might get upset with another person and reach for an insulting epithet is understandable. It's not acceptable, but it is understandable. The stressed out and angry office worker might refer to another as a Pollack or Dago or Spic in a moment of rage. The rage is the problem more than the word, and this is largely because the audience and community that believes in and accepts such terms as truths is not merely gone, but historical. That's not true for "faggot" or "nigger": there are huge populations that still hold the hostility.

I said that I had been called one in 1968. I was a little kid living in Savannah, Georgia, and the subject was Martin Luther King. It was becoming acceptable for white people to like King. My mother did. My father didn't, but he was generally not political. On my street, though, the kids were pretty clear: if you supported King, you were a nigger lover. (They didn't know what they were repeating or what it meant.) I was only six years old, but I remember being deeply, deeply puzzled by the charge.

What the heck did they mean? Of course I was a "nigger lover." Aren't we supposed to love all people? Isn't that what Jesus said? Aren't we supposed to love our neighbors?

The next year, we moved to Atlanta, then on to New Jersey, where I was accused of being a slave holder, because I was from Georgia, and then we came back to Atlanta. I didn't hear the word actually used again until last week.

Mr. Nickles: "There must be
Thousands! Whats that got to do with it?
Thousands -- not with camels either:
Millions and Millions of mankind
Burned, crushed, broken, mutilated,
Slaughtered, and for what? For thinking!
For walking round the world in the wrong
Skin, the wrong-shaped noses, eyelids:
Sleeping the wrong night wrong city --
London, Dresden, Hiroshima.
There never could have been so many
Suffered more for less. But where do
I come in?" -- Archibald MacLeish, J.B. Prolog
 Today, we have MLK Day, and we also have more overt racism than I have seen since my childhood. While we, the good guys, were triumphant during the 1980's, the bad guys were simmering and bubbling beneath closed pot lids, and they were spreading. The craziest idea of the anti-civil rights era -- the idea of races coming from the book of Genesis and there being a Christian race -- spread among the unmonitored, unlettered, uncontrollable right wing fundamentalist church networks -- reactionary racism riding reactionary religion.

I have heard, with my own ears, children seriously informing me that white people came from Adam and Eve, but Black people came from monkeys. That kind of gibberish was, in my day, hard to find if you were looking for it. Today, it walks up to you with a blonde ponytail and an ad for a Father/Daughter dance, with coupons for Chik-Fil-A.

The person who said that the college official said "nigger lover" was probably employing rumor as one of the last tools of the powerless in a situation that feels arbitrary, but I wouldn't want to judge. I do know, though, that the cultural milieu, the set of assumptions necessary, for using the word don't exist for the official. They don't exist at the college.

What frightens me more than any foul term is that the culture surrounding me is such that people are using that term, thinking that term, and believing that term's world again.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Why You Think the Internet Stinks Now

I have been active on the Internet since 1990. In those days, we had Usenet at the university and moderated private bulletin board systems (FidoNet) for amateur fun. This makes me four Internet generations ago, if we assume that an Internet generation is about five years, rather than twenty-five.

Indulge with me in nostalgia. Before the FCC decided to sell bandwidth to the .com top level domain, the Internet was a place of low or no graphics, where users were almost exclusively .edu accounts (with a few .sys, .mil, and .gov), and most accounts were a first initial and last name (mine being misspelled by the IT people at my U, so I had anonymity even then). HTML sites were usually navigated by Lynx or one of the other text-only Unix based clients. Since the entire endeavor was text on slow dial up connections or fast connections on computers with monochrome displays, it was an empire of words subordinated to either a group's activity (e.g. rec.bicycle) or a group's academic research. University and government workers created massive amounts of free information, and the early HTML systems were ways to link information infinitely. People spoke of beginning with an interesting note in the newspaper, clicking on an odd term, following to a strange fact, seeing a strange name, and spending hours “surfing” from site to site, but all of this was via reading.

When America Online and CompuServe opened their closed systems to the Internet, everything changed. There were floods of new users who reflected average America. While many snobs thought that “killed” the Internet, it was, instead, the underlying decision to commercialize the Internet, combined with hypertext, that turned the Internet into today's creature of clicks and “eyeballs.

By 1996, and certainly by 2001, most “Internet” users only knew the world wide web, not Usenet, not discussion. The world wide web itself “was” a series of commercially profitable sites, with the last of the .edu created purchased (e.g., created by Columbia University library to make all of its Columbia UP reference works available for free, was sold, then resold) or forgotten. University server sites providing information became gradually invisible to average users because they went unadvertised, and “the web” was no longer a place where persons “surfed” on an adventure of information. Certainly by the time the "tech bubble" burst, each website invested in keeping visitors on sites, in sites, and preventing outside linkages. Websites became more pictographic, with an increase in sensationalism, as the same pressures that turned superabundant newspapers in 1900 into the Yellow Press created increasingly narrow and vertical forms of discourse (“vertical” refers to information that is recursive and closed, in this case). What had been peer groups in conversation became interest groups engaged in a tailored retail experience. 

“Friendster” and “MySpace” were non-profit simulacra of the older Internet. They succeeded, to the degree they did, by offering like-minded cultures and subcultures. (There have been other simulations since, including Reddit.) However, when their host/software companies offered stock, they were purchased by media corporations that, as early as 1998, had been imagining an Internet/cable vehicle whereby visitors would be captive, ordering television shows, movies, books, radio, and the rest on an a la carte basis by the Internet. '

Neither the websites nor the delivery technologies were in place for such visions to be realized. (This vision, and its failure, was paradoxically critical to the collapse of Enron. The Amazon Kindle/Fire is getting very close to its realization today, according to critics. If they can "own the pipeline" and the store and the production, then the consumer choice is finally completely eliminated -- or "business uncertainty is minimized," if you prefer.)

 I'm no Electronic Frontier Foundation warrior or GNU freak. I haven't the money to be the first or the skills to be the second. I did join Wikipedia in 2003, though. My frustrations with it were that it was not dedicated to a common project of construction as much as it was a "community." My criticisms of capital in technology are not propelled by idealism or ideology. They are directed solely at an analysis of the deterioration of academic freedom and investigation because of a capitalized web.

One thing I've noticed is that a genuine analysis of technology cannot be found under the title of "technology" writing. For about ten years, I noticed that the writing about computer technology, in particular, fell into one of two camps. Either a new device or program was the Swiss Army Knife of Heaven -- able to turn every student into a buddha and genius -- or the next device or program will free the Fenris wolf and extinguish the sun for once and all. "Tech" writers are either reviewers or advocates. Sometimes, even worse, they're salesmen.

Look, capitalized websites serve capital. I get it. That's just and right. But non-capitalized websites are now all but invisible, especially since Facebook learned from MyFace's failure and AOL's persistence and began to fold in a whole universe of outside websites into its "you're still on Facebook" experience. Regular people are beginning, just beginning, to realize one of the more cynical web "memes": If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product.

All of the commercial Internet is riding on public infrastructure. Ask AT&T how it feels about cable companies getting access to "their" infrastructure. Well, how should we feel, then, about commercialized Internet services working against the public's interests or the nation's constitution? EU investigators found out that a person who creates a Facebook account and immediately deletes it generations twenty thousand pages of data that Facebook does not delete. That, after all, is their data.

Windows 8.1 is roping all its users into Xbox Live accounts and beaming geo-location to Microsoft. Apple does that with iTunes. This is without even talking about a smart phone. Any person who owns such a thing is foolish, in my opinion (as a phone, it's a phone, but as a computer, is it equal to a laptop? as an mp3 player is it equal to even a Walkman? doesn't it offer imitations of a dozen functions but at inferior performance, and all with the solitary advantage of fitting in a pocket?). I'm sure you have already read that the new iPhone made news for not including a backdoor into user encrypted data for NSA and FBI. 

Going onto Google is a losing proposition. It geolocates the browser. After a few searches, Google begins to tailor results to "customize the web experience." It predicts the sorts of results this user wants. It discounts, for example, "old" web pages -- so if you're looking for a news story from 2004, you won't find it, because Google simply doesn't want that to show up, because "normal people" don't search for old information. A few more searches, and the results are "customized more." 

Google's search is used by Bing, by the way. Facebook will tailor search results and "help" the user extensively as well. 

Doesn't that scare you? Don't you see why that's the end of the world?

The limitations are being made, in the case of Amazon, Facebook, and others, on the basis of likely purchases, not what one wishes. In the case of Google, it's made on the basis of what you have been interested in before. In other words, these merchants are making decisions about the sorts of questions you can ask, and answers you can get, on the basis of likely sales, likely happiness, not answers, not knowledge, not growth.

As an academic, I have to have open searches, because the Internet has consumed the library. Once that library has then become a public library with card catalogs assembled by advertisers, whole floors of the stacks go missing. The only answer to it is yet more capital outlays in the form of JSTOR and EBSCO subscription services. 

Meanwhile, the Facebooking of conversation has pushed conversation into interest groups, where like meet like, the agreed hear from the confirmed. That is guaranteed to be sterile or frenetic.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let's change the rules

My only real rule, and it's about me and for me, so I don't have to justify it before any tribunal, is that I won't talk about myself on this blog. I'm fully aware that there is no other subject, if we trace the matter analytically through hoop after hoop, but you can take your hoop and put it in your nose. The simple fact is that I don't like me. I don't find me interesting. More, I loathe "bloggers" who write about the miracle of their daily lives. While these verminous scourges are less common these days, when I began here, they had not yet found their Facebook selfy Reddit Instagram Pintrest nirvana.

I recognize that I have an audience of perhaps two, thinking optimistically. I have made this so.

I want to change the rules a little. I want to talk about the vitreous that blocks me, even if it isn't universal. For example, anyone who reads all of this blog gets the impression that it is written by someone with clinical depression. That makes it nothing special. My last (look down) commented on the fact that this is just how things are, and talking about it might be profoundly useless. However, today I decided to make a play list for my funeral. I didn't do that because I'm planning on hastening the pale visitor's conquest, but because I've gotten a couple of cancers. That's no big deal, except that I'm paid so little that some months mean hunger (really), and our insurance just pushed the deductible from $3,000 to $5,000. I just, in essence, got a $5,000 pay cut.

The IRS has chased me around and taken this month's paycheck. The reason is that my mother borrowed against a life insurance policy of mine some fourteen years ago. The insurance company made sure that the premiums would never go to repay the loan, and therefore the policy would die. When it did, the company reported that I had gotten $5,000 in "income." I, of course, had gotten not a cent. My mother had. She's dead. I don't blame the taxmen. I blame the insurance industry that wants old life insurance policies to die, because they're too cheap. Nevertheless, I owed $1,000 on the "profit" I had made when the policy died. I barely get $1,000 a month, so I wasn't exactly able to pay them from my excess funds.

There's good news, though. If I owed $10,000 or more, there is a "Fresh Start Initiative" to take care of me to renegotiate! But owing $1000? Well, hell, boy, everyone can afford to pay that!

I've been working at a job for 10 years where I am making $5,000 less per year than the starting pay for my position.

Still, money is not something I think about until I have to. I hate money. I hate the people who allow money to carry value. It is, after all, the most abstracted and irrational unit in the world. It is unconnected to morality in the extreme. It is unconnected to work nearly as far. The construction worker works much more than the stock trader, but the stock trader makes an obscenity of ejaculating money, while the construction worker makes a wage and destroys his body while listening to Rush Limbaugh and Neil Boors.

My college president thought it would be a good idea if all of us provided our Facebook profiles to him for a new intranet (that would be linked to the school's Facebook page. . . I'll let you figure that one out). We were also supposed to explain our conversion experiences. When did we realize that Jesus was Lord? What book or preacher was most important to us?

"Consider the lilies of the field. They spin not, nor do they weave...."

I do not do Facebook. I never will. I have Reasons. I put "A Poor Man's House" by Patty Griffin on my funeral play list. My first song is "On the Nickel," because it says, "If you chew tobacco, and never comb your hair," which sets out two of my conditionals.

I took a long time, but I finally came up with a response to the president's request. He wanted to know, so I decided I should tell him. I wrote two documents. I'll share them here, I guess. Maybe I won't. One is the actual story of how I lost my faith thanks to the evangelical movement and its emphasis on altar calls. I came back to it later and discovered a quiet, certain, faith. I never, in the document, point out the problems with the theology and polity that this college president and his new trustees embrace. I only tell the truth. Then I turned in a second document and explained why Facebook and all of the commercialized web is the destruction of academic inquiry.

This second one is boring as a sand pudding. I will post it here.

The point is that we once had a volunteer Internet, where discussion was organized by joint projects or activities. We exchanged that for interest groups and consumer subsets under Facebook or one of the others -- all designed as being conversation under the power of sale.

I will offer one of my blogs of Ideas next.

I remember the t-shirt from 1991: "The Internet's Full: Go Away!" That was a response to the "AOLamers." I thought the snobs were wrong then, and I was right, but I thought the Internet had been destroyed then, and I was right about that, too. In 1993-4, I thought the invasion of graphics into websites was the problem. I was feeling a symptom. The truth is that the decision to sell bandwidth to .com meant that, at best, the "real" Internet of Usenet days would exist only in an underpopulated, unadvertised, esoteric bubble, but "the web" would become a midway of freakshows, where the marks are the exhibits.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Therapeutics and Cures

I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. Iam very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. -- Hamlet III i
Hamlet is a great play for grumbling. It has the best condemnations of life one could hope to find. Hamlet, the character, is a peevish young man, but Shakespeare was a middle aged man who had license to write a peevish young man. It's the perfect combination.

"You know, I just can't stand myself/ And it takes a whole lot of medicine/ For me to pretend that I'm somebody else," Randy Newman wrote, in "Guilty," and the song (on "Good Old Boys") hit a common vein for muddled up men. From guys in foam trucker hats to bicultural intellectuals with delivery marijuana in Manhattan to stifled men hurling insults and encomiums at ESPN, the sense of self-loathing may be the most common sense, the only commonsense, in the American man.

I suppose there are men who like themselves. I think I've met some who, standing in a flood light and a room of mirrors, puff their chests out and say, "That's what I'm talking about!" However, I'm not talking about the water bugs who can live on a soap bubble. If those men don't make up for their lack of self-loathing in outright hatred from everyone they know, then I, at least, will hold them odious.

We begin in fantasy. We start as princes to be, quarterbacks and inventors of indispensable goods that will benefit humanity. We dally in plans that give us joy because of their fundamental justice: every plan is an affirmation of our potential, our uniqueness, our power. We even put plans into action and make achievements. However, we are not the jet pilots, the commandos, the secret agents, the wizards and rock stars we knew we could be, if reality honored -- if reality only allowed us to enact our plans.

Sartre said that Hell is other people, and the adolescent's fantasies fail to take into account other people, except as objects. Young men's plans fail to take into account unfairness as a founding principle of society. Each individual relationship is as fair as the two persons make it, and there is goodness beyond description to be found, but lurking behind the immediate, always present beyond the personal, is a force like entropy -- a force of profit, of grasping, of protecting power and subjugating the masses, and this force asserts itself like a flood against the leaky boat of the personal and the social.

Thoughtful people talk about The Combine or The System or late capitalism (although we're really in a post-capitalist state, to my way of thinking, as capital has divorced itself entirely from commodity and produces rents without reference to any commodity exchange). The less thoughtful people talk about The Government or immigrants or nepotism or loss of traditional values. All of the young men who had their plans and put their plans into action and found themselves anxious at the end of every month, or deciding which bill to be late on, know that something isn't right. All of them know that they have failed, and they know, accurately I'd say, that they never really had a chance.

Anger turned inward is depression. Yeah, well, depression is also realism.

Some of the most capable, beautiful people I have known have been crippled by depression. It never mattered what they could do. It only mattered how far they failed themselves, and they had failed themselves pretty deeply.

It occurs to me at this date, far too late a date, that we are a strange, crazed people. We are trying to "treat" depression. We are not trying to treat the fact that inflation is occurring (all food products are shrinking and staying the same price -- as if there were only a few manufacturers and they colluded to raise prices by shrinking portions. . . but such a thing could never really happen, could it?) but not showing up in an inflation rate, that surplus labor has meant increasing profits and no increase in employment, that tax rates for the top go down, while the taxes on the bottom go up. . . but I'm only speaking of money, because money is bothering me, personally. We have no frontiers, no new societies for humans to forge their identities anew, so our old accumulations of cultural power have begun to rot and invite violence. We have turned our nation into the value system of the MBA, and the MBA's value system is anti-humanistic and anti-human (as well as irrational).

There is no cure for depression. There is no point in asking for this or that thing, this or that process of chemistry, to intervene. Depression is not, after all, abnormal. It is legitimate, and it comes from never becoming persons. It is despair, in the Kierkegaardian sense, but it carries with it its own ever-shifting demands. Unlike Kierkegaard's notion of despair, where one must live in the eternal present and engage the self in full awareness of the religious obligation, this is a compass with fixed legs: as the self gets more engaged, its expectation of what it requires to be fully alive moves farther along, and the gap is an acute sadness.

That, I suspect, is a prospect of living.