Tuesday, November 22, 2005

kick me, I'm postmodern

The Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter has published a very wierd article which claims in part:

The "postmodern" supposition that sex is nothing more than a "constructed social identity" threatens the very concept of "woman" while leaving intact the oppression of women. Little wonder that the sophistry of "deconstruction" - primarily developed and promulgated by white men such as Michael Foucault - has found such favor in our sexist society. But whenever off our backs publishes a two-page paean to "deconstruction" which cites Colin Powell and Jerry Springer as its only "authorities" ("Identity Politics and Progress", off our backs, April 1998) it is time for a reality check in a world in which women are routinely discriminated against and murdered because they are women. "Deconstruction" may very well eliminate the perception of such injustice by mutilating the bodies beyond all recognition but the injustice itself will continue unabated.

Now, I want to come out and state, for the sake of the record, that I am not disagreeing with the ultimate goals of this organization. Hell, I've never even heard of the organization before following the link the other day. And yes, for the record, the opression of women and violence against them is horrible, icky, and nasty, so my goals are basically aligned with theirs.

Now, my point: this group's observation quoted above shows a complete lack of thought or attempts to understand postmodernism. It is unnuanced, stereotypical, and knee-jerk reactionary. In other words, they are looking for a scapegoat to distract from their own lack of intellectual engagement.

When I was in a grad theory class, the major beef that some of the students seemed to have with postmodernism (other than the fact that many of its proponents could not write anything comprehendable) was that by deconstructing the essential existence of categories, it was saying that there were no categories at all. Furthermore, by deconstructing these categories, postmodern (they argued) rendered political action impossible. The only possible recourse, then, was to ditch this way of thinking and stick with our modernist politics, thank you very much.

This reminds me of the die-hard Christians who seem to think that Atheism is nothing more than a license to act sinful...that if one doesn't believe in God, then one just does whatever they please regardless of the harm to others. This view also reminds me of those who see anarchists as a bunch of people who think we should throw away the government, rule ourselves, live for ourselves, and to hell with everyone else.

For some reason, we mock the simplistic view that one has to be evangelical Christian to have morals, and we mock the view that one has to believe fully either in our government or in chaos. These are simplistic readings which show a lack of critical engagement, we (rightfully) say.

Why, then, is it okay to kick postmodernism using the same mindset?

Now, I am not the most fervent postmodernist out there, but it does make some good points. And while I am quite capable of slinging around the theory to support my argument, this ain't that kind of blog. But we cannot simply say "postmodernism says this," because the amount of things postmodernism does say is huge...because there are multiple varieties of postmodernism (the avant-garde engagement of Jameson, the weird literary formalism of Hassan, the "everything is illusory" world of Baudrillard). But what most people mean when they use the term "postmodernism" is really just a stereotype of people playing a meaningless intellectual game. What I would like to do is suggest that we have to look at these things with an open mind towards the true complexities of intellectual existence before we dismiss them with stereotypes.

Something I go over with my freshmen is the "social construction of reality" does indeed say that the categories under which we operate are constructed socially. What it means to be "a woman" or "a black" or "a working-class" is contextual, constructed, often entirely so. However, that your identity as a Jew or Latino is socially constructed is relatively unimportant if you are being beaten up with an axe-handle as the result of that identity. The students, being relatively reasoning individuals, get this.

Just because something is socially constructed and thus not really real does not mean that construction is not very real in terms of effects. You can deny the reality of an image, still be upset by and work to overcome its consequences, and be entirely logically and morally consistent. Postmodernism is more than capable of sustaining political action because (unless you are reading something written by an idiot or are yourself unbendingly literal) it does not say that since large elements of our lives are constructed, we should treat everything like a dream.

Furthermore, if you deny postmodernism, you are also denying the denial (if you follow me) of manichean logic and "essential" truths...because these are the things against which any good postmodernist should rally...they are the "shared feature" of most varieties of postmodernism (if such a thing can be said to exist).

To my mind, the question is less "how can you be postmodernist and politically active" than it is "how can you not be a political postmodernist?"

Elsewhere, I have railed against the annoying tendency of pro-choice activists to fall into a "you are either entirely with us or you are entirely against us" intellectual binary (this was, incidentally, in response to my being told that I wasn't allowed to have an opinion on abortion unless I could gestate a fetus). This binary, I argued, plays into the "women are reproduction machines" argument which is part of the system that has been oppressing women in the first place. It, unfortunately, is a mindset similar to that of many postmodern-hating lefties out there.

And yes, it's not a suprise that there are varieties of feminist thought out there that buy into the construction of gender roles as essential and natural (which seems to be an undercurrent in the Center's article)...but it's still kind of stupifying that people can call themselves political activists when, rather than wanting to change the system, they really just want to bend it to their purposes. This isn't activism, it's opportunism.

Short term change is a matter of getting ahead. Long term change is a matter of fundamentally altering the system. To do the latter, you have to question the thoughts, ideas, and assumptions at the basis of that system. This is what postmodernism does, if you let it by fully exploring it and considering the consequences.

Monday, November 21, 2005

conference 06?

I just got word that I have been turned down for one of my conferences for next year. While I am bummed that I won't be going to Vancouver, my bank account is slightly less precarious as the result of this rejection. Now I just have to hope that my other conference gets accepted. Jen, who do we bribe?

The thing that's kind of weird about this one is the paper I was planning to present (not written right now, of course) has a lot of potential...which means I'm probably going to have to actually write it, which means lots of work even though I don't have a home for it yet. For someone who's having trouble scheduling all the writing tasks I already need to accomplish as it is, this is slightly annoying.

I once read a sci-fi story about a human mutant strain that, for the people born with it, eliminated the need to sleep (sound familiar to anyone? I can't remember when/where I saw this). Those born with this mutation were generally very smart, could get twice as much done as everyone else...so naturally, the rest of society hated them and ostracised them. Personally, I wish I could not have to sleep...I could actually get caught up! I could get to all that scholarship which is sitting in my brain's "to do" file...which means that when I hit the job market again, I would actually have improved my chances.

Does anyone know how I can avoid sleep and get caught up..other than coffee, which is nice, but it would send me to the restroom too often if taken in significant quantities?

Friday, November 18, 2005

cold and weary

Everyone told me years ago that when I moved up north, I'd get to experience the change of seasons. They lie in fundamental ways.

Yesterday, it suddenly got cold. There's a very evocative scene in Bone where one minute it's fall, and the next minute, a solid sheet of snow, two foot thick, falls from the sky in one giant layer...and after that event, it is definitely, unequivocally winter. That's what yesterday felt like. It went from mid 50 degree, jean jacket weather to 28 degree high, quilted jacket and scarf time.

I thought that I felt it in my bones, but upon reflection, that's just the weariness. Sixteen credit hours of composition. Two hour blocks of "Mike as Professor" performance, and two of those back to back. Marathon grading sessions, extending over to the weekends. I'm tired. I see thesis sentences gone awry in my sleep. I think in terms of five paragraph essays.

For the first time, I did one of the worst things for a teacher to do...I changed my teaching (paper grading specifically) not for the benefit of the students but for my own purposes. I'm not sure if I can keep giving it my all, do what's best for the students, and still get everything done....but I'm still trying, in spite of the impending feeling of impossibility.

Maybe I just need sleep, rest, time away. The winter fell quickly...I just hope the break comes in as equally a swift fashion.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

simmeringhatred's take on Armistice day

simmeringhatred has a very sobering entry on the end of The Great War. Another example of something I need to think about a whole lot more.

mental jolts on saturdays

Warren Ellis has a brilliant character named Spider Jerusalem who mentions feeling the crackle of intelligence enhancers and caffiene in his head.

I have the latter and am wishing for the former. I am sitting in my office grading papers. I am thinking that Madagascar's fine coffee makes up for their extraordinarily gross roaches.

I am also thinking that I need to keep a ten year old friend from Scotland in my office to keep me company through such ordeals.

quantify your politics!

Where exactly does your political compass point? Go to Political Compass and then take the test...and please post your results here...I wanna know what my readership is really like.

My political compass:

Economic Left/Right: -6.88

Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.00

Thursday, November 03, 2005

the unbearable trauma of childhood memories.

When I was last at the grocery store, I was wandering down the cereal isle and decided to buy some Weetabix. As I am the type of person I am, this has led me into an incredible period of moroseness.

For those of you who don't know, Weetabix are these wheat cake cereal things that come from England. I used to eat them as a child, when we would visit my Grandfather and Nana in Cross Keys (a little farming town outside of King's Lynn). I had good memories.

While they still taste fine, they are texturally weird. They are the biggest absorbers of milk I have ever seen--and when they get milk, they revert to a mush state, so you can't just put them in a bowl of milk like with normal cereal. No, you have to put it in the bowl, pour a carefully measured amount of milk around it, and you have to have just enough milk so that it will absorb halfway up the cereal cake, thus balancing mushiness and sawdust textures. It makes eating breakfast much more of a ritual than it should be, and is frankly a bit of a pain in the ass.

Maybe the existance of such a product reveals some deep, cultural insight about the British character; maybe Eoin can lend some insight. Frankly, however, it just sort of bums me out.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

employment update

Yesterday, I came to the decision (after discussion with the spousal unit) that I was not going to do the job market thing this year. Earlier, I deleted a bunch of job announcement e-mails. I have to say, it feels good knowing that, for the first time since 2003, I will not be under tight, irrational scrutiny...except for that from my wife...or my students...or my boss...or my parents...or my friends...or the people who hate me for some reason unknown to me.

I still hold great hopes to get a tenure-track position in academia, and I feel it is even a realistic possibility. I am not giving up on my career. Things will still go forward...just not this year.

There are a lot of reasons for this decision. I am in a job that's going fairly well, but it is not a place I intend to stay forever...and they know this. I like my classes, I like my co-workers, I like my boss. However, I am teaching Composition, which is not my ideal topic...I'm a Culture Studies guy after all. I'm doing a 4/4, but the fall semester is 16 long credit hours...that's a lot of time to perform in front of a class. And whenever I have an assignment due, I get 80 student papers to grade. I'll probably be here untill 8 tonight in a marathon effort to get caught up.

So, if it is so much work and not in my field, why am I abandoning the search for a good job?

I am, frankly, tired. Before becoming an instructor, I adjuncted for two years. Last fall, I taught 18 credit hours at three colleges in four disciplines...one of which I'd only had one class in, another one that I'd never taken a class. I taught three different courses over Spring in addition to a part time job. This is all paying dues, yes, but paying dues frankly sucks...and it takes a lot out of you.

I haven't had time to be an active academic writer since I finished my Ph.D. I have a whole new theoretical direction I want to pursue. I have a book revision plan which, did it not reside in my computer, would have gathered a significant amount of dust. I have articles I want to write. And if I was to get back on the job market, I know all these things would never come back into my rotation.

So I'm taking a year off. UT is a nice place to be, for a while, and I'd like to just be a working adult for a little while, without the ego-crushing pressure of the job market.

I will be back. I will be ready. I'll have scholarship and hopefully a book contract with me when I do return, and I'm really hoping I can land a job that I want to work at for the rest of my life.

Long-term stability would be great...just let me experience a tiny period of respite before the hunt for it continues.