5.22.2019

Fear & Loathing in Academia, or Why the University is Structurally Backwards Looking

   


Long before I ever walked academic halls, I had a certain image of the professorial life that, when I think about it, came predominantly from Animal House. It was a place of equal parts play and thought. 

Later, I'd read William Burroughs and my imagination blossomed  (I substituted "professor" for "writer"): As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. 

Yes o yes, I'd be a professor! The university would be my home, a place of books and ideas and casual but meaningful sex. It'd be relaxed and indulgent yet concerted when it mattered. In my delusional imagination, academia was an oasis in the desert of capitalism and its soul draining daily demands. 

Then, as a grad student, I was immediately thrown into the classroom, teaching composition to Berkeley undergrads. While many would grimace at such a prospect, I felt like I was home. Being in the classroom felt good and right. Sure, I wasn't paid much but I was paid—and in pre-dot com San Francisco, that mere $17,000 a year, give or take, was plenty. (Writing that now, it seems insane!)  

So yes and yes again! I'll teach, gladly and enthusiastically. And then I'll read some books that I love. And I'll write about them. This is perfect! It's everything I thought it would and should be.

Until, relatively quickly, it wasn't. Soon, the ugliness would rear its head with such bilious determination, I'm still staggering from it. At first, I thought it a local problem—this professor is anxious and insecure. I didn't see the institution at work, breeding anxiety, systematically quashing thought, creativity, and worst of all, pleasure. (In Nietzschean fashion, I ask: Who would ever found and propel an institution that didn't foster pleasure?)

Looking back, I should have known. As an undergrad, I'd read plenty of academic writing. And, as we all know, it's not exactly a genre that fosters pleasure or the delight of thinking. Which is why I'd shied away from it, sticking to so-called primary sources. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Foucault's historiographical methodology, I mostly just read Foucault. Later, when writing my dissertation, my bibliography has around 40 books—all by the authors I was writing about. I don't think I included one contemporary academic text in my entire dissertation. Life's too short, as my brilliant advisor would say. Or too long, my comrade in rhetorical arms would offer.

But I assumed that everyone agreed! That we were all on the same page! After all, who wants to read that arid, convoluted, pedantic scholarly prose? Sure, there might be a keen insight here and there. But deciphering and uncovering it comes at too great a cost to one's soul and body! So I just figured we were all of an ilk when it came to such things.

Oy, silly me! If I'd thought about it for a moment, I'd have realized that this academic writing was written by those in the academy. So if their prose is life draining, it's not a big jump to seeing that they are products and proponents of a life draining system. Plus, well, it turns out criticizing academic writing is not the way to endear oneself to academics. But I really thought we all agreed that this kind of academic writing is not only absurd, it's antithetical to our mission, namely, fostering and teaching the art of thinking! Holy moly, was I naive.

I'm trying to place the first incident that should have told me everything I needed to know. It could have been when I was teaching as a GSI (graduate student instructor) and my class was over enrolled so, to weed out the disinterested, I required they write a paper. One student did not. But, as I'd eloped the night before, I forgot to drop him from my class roster. And by the next day, the system wouldn't let me do it; the student had to drop himself. Which, it seems, angered him. And so he complained to the department. I was summoned to a well-known faculty member's office—she wrote and taught about pornography; her curriculum on the subject, I imagine, was quite different from what I'd teach on the subject—anyway, she summoned me and said: "Students are your clients. You can't kick him out."  Really?!? I would never, and will never, see students as clients. 

And then there was a very well known faculty member who chaired my dissertation exams. As I had a good, friendly relationship with her, I asked if she'd consider chairing my dissertation. Rather than saying yes or no or instructing me to ask otherwise, she launched into a tirade about how inappropriate I was by asking so casually and not referring to her as Professor or Doctor and—and!—asking about her son about which we'd spoke frequently in the past but, it seems, was verboten in this context.

And then, upon walking out of my successful oral exams, this same said well know professor of a certain radical theory of gender told me to have my dissertation prospectus to her in two weeks. Once again: Oy. Needless to say, I did not and she did not remain on my dissertation committee. Who subscribes to these idiotic formal rules of this inane institution? This so-called radical faculty member, that's who. And also perhaps needless to say: at that point, without quite knowing it yet, I kissed any academic career goodbye. Because nepotism premised on sycophantism is pro forma in this institution of pettiness.

Or when I was no longer a graduate student but adjunct faculty and I was summoned to this same said radical philosopher's office who told me that my cursing in my lectures had to stop as it "offended students' moral and religious beliefs." I'm not making this up. 

Or when that same well known faculty member informed her graduate students that their teaching should always take a back seat to their job search. 

Or when I was denied a contract for being a "demagogue"  — despite growing the major and driving money into the department. 

Or, when I was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, and became loathed by faculty I'd never met once because their students were all in my class — at which point I was asked to limit enrollment so professors whose classes no one wanted to take would have students in them. Again, I'm not making this up. 

Yes, some might consider me paranoid. And, no doubt, there is much to loathe about me. But teaching the shit out of my classes with enough both quantitative and qualitative metrics to prove my success should not have been one of those reasons.

The fact is: I taught the shit out of my classes because I loved teaching and took it seriously. I poured my heart and soul into every class. And I believed that would be enough to afford me professional success. Students loved me! The major grew! And that is precisely why they canned me — or didn't renew my contract, which is the same thing. I'm not saying I'm not an asshole. But I was a committed, good teacher — and that was the very reason they canned me! It was ressentiment. 

I don't mean to invoke these personal anecdotes as proof of the academy's idiocy. I proffer them as my first hand account of an institution dedicated to backwards thinking. There is no place in the American academy for original thought. The entire enterprise is premised on scholarship, on having some domain of expertise and, preferably, access to some document that gives you dominion over the smallest, least interesting realm imaginable.

Not only is there no incentive to think creatively, it's institutionally prohibited. To wit, I was in the Rhetoric Department. As I wasn't going to get a job in other rhetoric departments—they mostly focus on composition theory—I was told to write about something that could get me a job in an English department—20th century American beat literature or something like that. But my interests move across time, country, and genre—like all thinking does— so I wrote about philosophers and writers from different countries. But that meant there were literally no jobs for me. 

The academy, alas, is premised on having domains of expertise. It is distinctly not dedicated to thinking. Thinking cuts across time, place, and genre as it wants. The academy does not. Look at the departments; look at the courses they offer. They're all pedantic, tightly bound fields: 19th Century British Women Writers; 20th Century French Phenomenology (well, that's not actually offered); Conceptions of the Self in Ancient Greek Poetry. These might be interesting subjects but they are constrained by institutional demarcations that prohibit the meandering essential to thought.

Without a specified and predetermined subject matter of expertise, there is no way to enter the academy. The gates are kept by pedantic weasels protecting their domain of knowledge and systematically prohibiting anything resembling live thought. And if all the domains and departments already exist, where does the novel live? How are new ways of thinking supposed to enter and operate?

Mind you, this is not to say that there aren't great people in academia. I know many. But they are the exception. And, more to the point, they got in by playing the scholarly game. Power to them. I was naive enough to think being smart, loving writing, and being a great teacher would be enough. Not only weren't they not enough: they are precisely why the academy refused me with such ardor!

Rather than fostering thought, academia is thought's undertaker. The institution is premised on pre-existing fields of knowledge. Whence these fields? Why aren't they up for grabs? And it's premised on "mastering" some tiny, specialized domain that you're then expected to protect. Which means, like all experts, you're dedicated to received knowledge and existing modes of approach. The entire institution is, quite literally, backwards looking. And this is supposed to be where new thinking is born! It's absurd.  

But, even worse, it's so depressing. The fact is I have more time and freedom working for the so-called Man than I ever would have being a professor. I work for my clients, sure, but I maximize my time writing and thinking about anything I want—death, tequila, Deleuze, Burroughs, porn, pedagogy, dating. I miss teaching terribly. But at least I'm free to think and write as I want. 

I haven't taught in 10 years. But the small glimpse I get of life there today seems so miserable, so determined to eradicate pleasure—in life and thought—I'm relieved they got rid of me before this new assault. It's to the point where I am discouraging my 15 year old son from going to college as I tell him—much to his delight—that there are other ways to learn, think, and experience life. (Mind you, "work" isn't one of those other ways. So it's a quandary as to what life holds for him.)

Frankly, this all makes me sad. Because academia should be amazing, vital, challenging, delirious. It should be a place of delight in ideas and conversation and other people. A place of exploration—intellectual, sexual, existential. A place that actively fosters thinking and the new rather than systematically eliminating it, an oasis from the quotidian soul death of American work, a viable counterpoint to the techno-capitalist assault on existence. O, to smoke that spliff with Donald Sutherland and become a world in someone else's thumbnail! That sounds perfect just about now.

5.15.2019

The Radical, Generous Genius of No Life Shaq's "Reaction" Videos

 

I recently stumbled on an incredible YouTube phenomenon: so-called reaction videos. As the name suggests, people record themselves reacting to something they're experiencing for the first time — a song, tv show, comedy routine. I absolutely love this. It's so seemingly simple, so clean. You witness people reading the world, engaging difference, and seeing what comes.

But it's not that simple, really.  After all, what is more profound, more important, than how we engage difference? If you would, consider for a moment how you come to difference. Most of the time, most people come armed with all sorts of criteria for judgement. I can't date someone who doesn't have a career! Action movies are stupid! I can't stand acoustic guitar in my music! I only like real drums, not drum machines! Who eats that?

As a culture, we actually privilege such an approach. We call it sticking to your guns, being principled, staying true to yourself. But that's just the aggrandizing of bigotry. How in the world are we ever supposed to discover the new or enjoy difference if we tether ourselves to predetermined positions, principles, narratives of self, and tastes? If the world is in fact in motion — if we are indeed inherently temporal creatures — then being a rock, sticking to your guns, and being principled are anti-life as they are all attempts to prevent life from happening.

Mind you, I am not exempt from this judgement of judgement. When I picture myself doing a reaction video, I imagine grimace after grimace, mugging for the camera with vague contempt as some sedated rapper mumbles to sleepy beats. Such, alas, is my grumpy disposition — which is itself symptomatic of a more pervasive malady, namely, a fear of difference, of change — which is really a fear of, and disdain for, life. This is what Nietzsche would call an ill-constituted soul, one that works against life. (One of my favorite moments in all of Nietzsche: “What is it that I especially find utterly unendurable? That I cannot cope with, that makes me choke and faint? Bad air! Bad air! The approach of some ill-constituted thing; that I have to smell the entrails of some ill-constituted soul!”)

Now look at the video above by the brilliant, charming, inspiring, and generous No Life Shaq. Look how open he is to whatever comes. He doesn't try to tie what he hears back to what he already knows. Nor does he try to name or know it — that horrible thing grad students, and most academics, do: Oh, that's just Deleuze's notion of the rhizome, uttered with dispassion and a hint of disdain. Nor does No Life Shaq dismiss the song for being boring or different or not meeting his expectations. From the get go, he goes with it, letting it take him where it will. You literally see him being moved by the music, his face and body and words and thoughts being nudged in different directions as the song plays on. He is a generous, if inflected, canvas for the song.

It's an incredible thing to witness, to see life emerging, taking shape in and with his way of going. I find it so beautiful it makes weep with joy. For this is precisely what No Life Shaq delivers: unabashed joy, a radical affirmation of life. He never resists or judges. On the contrary, he actively seeks to go with the music, with its affective and intellectual flow, looking for the song's shtick. In a different video, listening to Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," he inquires out loud about what he calls the "concept" of the song. I think that's as good a word as any for what we're talking about here: he looks for the concept of each song, for its logic, its operation, its performance, its question. His process is as much an intellectual operation as it is affective as, for him, moods and ideas emerge and commingle. It is an acrobatics of taste and thought and it's downright exquisite. Who can watch this and not smile, laugh, jump up with him? That is joy.

Now, No Life Shaq is no musicologist — at least he doesn't present himself as such. He doesn't know how to pronounce the name of the band; as for the song, he doesn't know "what it is." In fact, in contrast to how we're usually taught to present ourselves, he goes out of his way to refuse any institutional authority, proudly claiming his ignorance. He doesn't parse the song's structure or chord changes, its time signature, or even its historical import. No, the video is just him listening to the song. What, then, is his ethos, his authority? Why does this video have over 380,000 views? Because his acumen lies not in his expertise but in his skill as reader, his poise and receptiveness.

In my book, I call this immanent reading. Rather than beginning with categories — Rock, Rap, Country — and trying figure out where the song lives, he begins with the song and sees where it takes him. Marshall McLuhan would call him an amateur, a critic with nothing to lose, no domain of knowledge to protect. Experts put new things in existing categories, murdering them, sucking the novelty out. The job of professionals is to defend knowledge that already exists. So there's no possibility for anything new to emerge. Amateurs, however, are not beholden to any domain. They don't heed existing categories; they follow the song wherever it goes. Amateurs have nothing other than themselves, their experience, their constitution, their desires, their will. It's reading as a high wire act: the only thing holding their interpretation together is themselves in that moment. 

Watch No Life Shaq reckon. For that is what we're seeing: a reckoning, an emergent commingling of two bodies, his and "Freebird's": Out of the gate, bro, outta the gate, the beat, the instrumentals, whatever y'all wanna call it, is already talking to me....It's speaking words to us. Y'all don't hear that? C'mon man! He doesn't give us a map of the song— "Lynyrd Skynyrd was formed in such and such a place and time and so on" — he performs a tour. And like any good tour guide, he doesn't give us a checklist of "great" things we can tell our friends we saw. He doesn't share his his knowledge. He performs his experience. His critique if of "Freebird" is itself an event. As all critiques should be! Which is to say, rather than plugging things into known categories, critique is a vital event that infuses the received with new life. Why else critique?? Why else read someone else's critique if not to be infused with the novel, the different, the vital?? Do we read the world to accumulate knowledge?  Or to experience life, extend our ability to be affected, and affirm existence in all its wondrous, odd flux?

At the risk of sounding even more like an academic wonk than I already have, No Life Shaq's approach makes me think of what the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, calls intuition as distinct from intellect or intelligence. For Bergson, intuition is the most rigorous methodology of knowing the world. The intellect, he argues, comes from the outside to map all the points of a thing. Intuition, however, is mobile, moving with a thing, entering its different way of going in the world — a batter feeling for the way of a pitch as the ball hurtles towards him. Intuition, Bergson writes, is a method of feeling one's way intellectually into the inner heart of a thing, in order to locate what is unique and inexpressible in it.

The genius of No Life Shaq lies not in his discovery of masterpieces but in his mode of listening: the genius is precisely in the reaction, not in the revelation of content. So when I made the choice to read viewers' comments, I was dismayed — they're all about this young man discovering greatness. "You had me in tears.😂 It's like I said, I love watching you young cats hear this stuff for the first time. It brings joy to my heart." "And that my friend, is the best guitar solo in history." "This made my day. Glad you understand this now. You have good taste! Maybe one of the best songs ever written and recorded in history."

Oy! First of all, there's something so offensively condescending in these comments, as if this young black man is discovering the inherent genius of the rock and roll canon. Which is a symptom of an even more insidious disease: a focus on the what, ignoring the how. What matters to the commenters is that he's listening to this particular song — and, by liking it, No Life Shaq is catching up to what they already know, namely, that "Freebird" is a great song. In their eyes, and to their seeming delight, nothing new has been added to the world. The rules have been affirmed.

But the brilliance of No Life Shaq is his methodology, his openness and active participation in difference without recourse to expertise, knowledge, or institutional prowess. His brilliance exists with a fundamental indifference to the provenance of the content. It lies, rather, in his relationship to the new, in how he listens — not what he listens to. If he were just discovering things we all already knew were great, his videos would be cute, perhaps, but finally banal. No, his genius doesn't exist in his confirmation of the known: it exists in his affirmation of life itself.

What these YouTube comments reveal is the precise opposite approach to life: confirmation of the pre-known. They give his videos the ol' thumbs up because they think he confirms their world. But what he's actually doing is radical, undermining the very possibility of their posture in the world. These commenters are zombies, dead on arrival, preaching the virtue of what cannot be questioned. No Life Shaq, however, is creative evolution before our eyes, proffering the most radical methodology that undoes any possibility of a canon — going with the emergent difference of the world. They should fear him.

Zombism, alas, is the reigning technology of sense. I see this it at work in my son's high school English classes: they read books for their content, for their what. They never consider how the book says what it says or how critique operates. His teachers never consider the role of form and structure; never consider narrative, novel, sentences, the alphabet as technologies. They assume language — along with story and the novel — are given, neutral conveyors of information not to be questioned. Americans are never taught how to "read" critically,  never taught to seek the logic of meaning production, to be alive to the world as it emerges without recourse to citation and pre-existing knowledge. Just look at American political discourse: people continue to argue over this vs. that presidential candidate without ever questioning the presidency itself, what a republic is, what voting is — and whether we might do it all differently. And so the absurdity of our world perpetuates itself.

Life happens in-between — in-between you and me; you and ideas; in-between this, that, and that. It happens in the how more than the what — how we stand towards the world, the manner in which we hold our ideas, approach one another, the manner in which we think and make sense of this life. But all we're ever taught is to seek the known, seek confirmation of the greatness of some song or book. We stake our positions, stay true to ourselves, and stick to our guns so when life happens, when difference wields it heads and we're thrown off kilter, we pull our weapons and fire away, killing the budding life before us. This zombie technology of making sense is inherently violent. I want to suggest that if we were to teach critique as a reckoning of an emergent event, the mad violence of the world might dissipate a bit.

No Life Shaq, then, as a radical, undoing the technologies of violence by proffering criticism as generosity. His methodology is not just a winging it. It is a way of going with the world that is nimble yet poised. Note that he doesn't abandon himself as he listens, disappearing into the haze of Southern anthemic rock. He goes into the song poised, ready for what comes while simultaneously being absolutely himself. In this mode, there is no strict boundary between listener and song. There is only a going with: the song going with him, him going with the song. What emerges is something new, what Deleuze and Guattari call a bloc of becoming: a No Life Shaq-Freebird becoming. Those same French philosophers refer to this as a nuptial, a kind of mating in which neither party dominates (even if the give and take is not always equal). And that is surely what we see in this video, see in No Life Shaq's beaming smile: a nuptial, and it's beautiful.

In this seemingly simplistic video lurks a radical approach to life, an exquisite methodology of critique premised on a supreme generosity that affirms life, engaging things anew to discover what new worlds flourish there. This is what No Life Shaq teaches us: a technology of  sense making, a posture of standing towards difference, of doing criticism, that is open, affirmative, generous, joyous. This is what we should be teaching in our classrooms and homes: engage the world vitally and generously, maximizing its beauty.

After watching No Life Shaq's videos, I question the name of the category, reaction videos. For while he is no doubt reacting, he is surely creating. And this, in the end, is the most radical, generous, divine gesture possible: the creation of life.

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