21 September 2008

Strange Days

While it would not be true to say that we are experiencing an “Indian Summer” in its most classic manifestation, it has warmed up after a disturbing dip into fall here last week, with a spate of cold, wet grey days. The sun is warm again, and even though the foliage is moving increasingly towards changing, smatterings of yellow breaking up the chartreuse monochrome, one can for the briefest moment pretend that summer is actually not on its inevitable way out, that l’air douce of warm nights and sunny days shall continue unabated, in perpetuity, that we can stay this way forever.

As the unwelcome spooks of autumn creep forward, however incrementally, up the stairs, banging on the floorboards like an unhappy Poltergeist, blowing out candles and moving things mischievously, so our national mood has too an almost unbearable sense of foreboding, an unsubtle foreshadowing of disaster, if not disaster itself. The tension is palpable— in the almost-histrionic back and forth in the press over the national election, the cascading economic crises whose final coup de théâtre remains as yet unseen behind the curtain, in the taciturn classroom atmosphere this semester, students tense and crabby.

For my own part, I have found it increasingly difficult to contain my withering scorn over the state of the national body in the classroom, the outrageous fact that the criminal political party responsible for our national decline is even running a candidate, much less the two they have chosen to represent their idea of leadership. This is a dangerous position, considering one is already discussing hot button topics in courses focused on race and sexuality. And as much as I may strive to maintain an apolitical classroom atmosphere, students themselves reference political events beyond the classroom, which even if triggering only a silent grimace, betray personal sensibilities that inevitably offend others, the put-upon conservatives who describe undocumented workers in discussion as “illegals” and sit sullenly when conversations tend towards the critical, which is to say, pretty much every session.

Last week, the Dean sent out an advising email about student complaints, reminding all of us of the risks of political commentary, no matter how brief, to classroom atmosphere (and, as an aside, apparently to the Dean’s voicemail, which has been receiving anonymous messages describing the college as a site of indoctrination and “despicable”). To the Dean’s credit, there was not a subsequent finger waging about avoiding politics in the classroom, but practical solutions for reframing political discussions and debates in ways that empower student voice, theoretically enabling conservative students to argue, or at the very least state, their opinions.

And admittedly I attempt to do this in class as well, often ventriloquilizing those positions by anticipating and naming common sense perceptions of race and sexuality (and then, of course, demolishing them). But since so much of conservative rhetoric is ahistorically misinformed and reflective of socio-economic ressentiment, it can be hard to find a rational place of engagement with such positions and the students who hold them.

In a piece on teaching in the New York Times Magazine, the following observation is made:

Why are good teachers strange, uncool, offbeat? Because really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does. Teaching is about being what people are now prone to call “counterintuitive” but to the teacher means simply being honest. The historian sees the election not through the latest news blast but in the context of presidential politics from George Washington to the present.

What is left out, unsurprisingly for the New York Times, is that increasingly seeing the election in historical terms is itself a political position, which only means that it has become, over the last eight years of rapacious governmental criminality, even harder, more political dangerous, to teach critically, even to the text, much less voicing informed personal opinion. Those of us in the reality-based world now must confront those who do not wish to participate in such things: reality, that is. That this is a long-held truism in teaching, the disabusing of students of their preconceptions, their “common-sense,” seems to have been transformed, accelerated, and perhaps fundamentally challenged by the fantastical political polemic world of extracurricular culture and, more importantly, the apolitical culture of pleasure and consumption that, thus far, has largely insulated Americans of the last thirty years from making hard choices.

The grinding you hear all around you is that pleasure-consumption nexus achieving critical status. If indeed what we are looking at is a fundamental restructuring of American socio-economic expectation, then the stark political choices of the national election stand in marked contrast to such a crisis. The fact that one could even have a debate about the merits of the Palin nomination, outside of political theatre, is, frankly, absurd. And that is what, unfortunately, historical knowledge gives you, not the least of which is a rising Arendtian suspicion of mass enfranchisement, especially in a voraciously white supremacist capitalist culture that is trapped in a dream state, sleepwalking through history as the sun sets on a thousand dreams of widescreen televisions and cheap travel abroad.

Anne Lamott recently published a soft piece for nice Subaru-driving leftists on dealing with the political stresses of the moment, oddly echoing but not resolving the challenge of a conversation at a party last weekend with a completely drunk colleague, who wondered about the political apparatus for people like us, not moderates or conservatives, but dedicated leftist progressives, people who believe in and want to see things like comprehensive and universal national health care, paid maternity and paternity leaves, generous annual paid vacation time for all workers, subsidized affordable education, steep progressive taxation and an end to corporate welfare (or at least its most egregious forms); in short, a return to the commonweal, a commonweal that includes everyone, not just white Americans who bitch about socialism and the government and unfair affirmative action, even as their entire lives have been based on such benefits. Considering the current trillion dollar bailout being engineered to save American Capitalism from itself, such things are, ultimately, quite affordable in comparison.

Those of us in the reality-based world recognize, perhaps too critically, the array of possible futures before us. It is the American dreamers, those caught up in the night terror of consumption and resentment, falling towers and American flags, Rapture and Pretty Princess politics, which one must be concerned about. For the time of American Dreams seems over, and now the ugly drudgery of reality, or in Zizek's memorable phrase, the desert of the real, lies before us like a barren plain. It could all be such a nice teachable moment, if it weren’t all so vivid, so felt.


Anonymous said...

I wish people could get reality based enough to see this:

"...such things are, ultimately, quite affordable in comparison."

The desert of the real is a real desert and it is going to be unpleasant.

Rebel Girl said...


Just what I needed to read.

Hattie said...

Came here via Prof. Z.
The constraints on academics are extreme right now. Maybe it is time to stop being afraid. I know that caution is a survival trait in the academic world, but at some point it becomes a character trait if persisted in too long.
As well, silencing oneself contributes to the myth of the wimpy liberal, afraid to speak his/her mind.
It's an odd situation in that academics may entertain radical beliefs in their research and writing but must not let their work "contaminate" the classroom. If they blog, they remain anonymous, as if their real opinions must remain sub rosa.