About Amardeep Singh
Amardeep Singh is Assistant Professor of English at Lehigh University. His book, Literary Secularism: Religion and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Fiction, was published in 2006 by Cambridge Scholars Press. He has also published essays in journals like Wasafiri, Semeia, and Himal Southasian.
Posts by Amardeep Singh
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Debating Tenure, Again
By now, many readers will have seen the story in the Chronicle of Higher Ed about the dramatic decline in the number of tenure track faculty at American colleges and universities. The Valve’s own Marc Bousquet is quoted in the story. There is also a series of columns under the “Room for Debate” rubric at the New York Times, called “What if College Tenure Dies?"
The comments on the Chronicle story expose some of the problems in the way the story is framed. The basic graph shows a decline in the percentage (not number) of tenure track jobs in academia across the board (from 57% in 1975 to 31% in 2007), which then provokes a round of debate amongst pro-tenure (i.e., Cary Nelson) and anti-tenure (i.e., Mark C. Taylor) academics, who are quoted in the article and then expand on their views in the Times. No one disputes that there’s been a surge of adjunct hiring at established universities in recent years, and no one disputes that colleges and universities often try to downplay through reclassification the amount of teaching that is done by graduate students (that said, I think it’s incorrect to include graduate student instructors as “non-tenure track,” since in principle graduate students are on their way to tenure track jobs in the future; the number of courses/students taught by graduate students should be in its own category).
But what if the sharp decline in the percentage of tenure track jobs is not due to decisions to eliminate the idea of tenure, so much as the growth of community colleges and the rise of for-profit institutions? The former only rarely have tenure track positions, while the latter never do. As I understand it, very few traditional colleges or universities have actually decided to abandon tenure in recent years. The Chronicle only cites Evergreen State College; Bennington College, not cited in the essay, also abolished tenure in 1994. Does anyone know of other colleges or universities that have gone this route? If that’s it, this is almost certainly a misdirected debate.
Questions by commenter “bmartin” (#12) at the Chronicle fall along the lines of my own objection:
An interesting analysis, but I would like to see the actual numbers not just the percentages. By what amount has the overall higher education enterprise increased since 1975? Is the increasing percentage of non-tenured positions due in part to the increase in for-profit institutions? Has the actual number of tenured positions decreased? I presume the actual report will include the numbers but it would be helpful to include these in the summary.
The actual Department of Education/AAUP report from which the Chronicle derives its numbers hasn’t been publicly released yet; when it is, we’ll be able to get a more exact picture of what exactly is happening vis a vis community colleges and for-profit institutions. Unfortunately, this Chronicle article, extracting one factoid without sufficient “internals,” as Nate Silver might call them, seems to be designed to provoke a contentious debate over “abolishing tenure,” which remains for most universities a non-issue.
Monday, June 28, 2010
Research, Teaching, and What Ails English Studies (a brief response to Cathy Davidson)
I would recommend readers to Cathy Davidson’s recent post at the HASTAC blog, “Research is Teaching." She helpfully puts the basic drift of her argument in bullet-points, which I’ll paste here:
1. Most doctorate-granting departments require one monograph for tenure, two for promotion to full professor.
2. Yet we do not support colleagues whom we believe have written the finest examples of the genre. We don’t buy them, we don’t assign them.
3. We do not teach monographs even on the graduate level and so miss the chance to teach graduate students how to evaluate and master the form that we say represents the finest articulation of our disciplinary form of thinking.
4. By not requiring that our students study monographs, we are making monographs so unprofitable that many university presses want out of the market.
5. We thereby undercut our own chances and that of our younger colleagues and graduate students of having venues for publishing that crucial monograph required for tenure or promotion.
She’s aware that there may be a problem with the “book for tenure” model, though that is not her focus here. Rather, her point is that there’s something awry in the fact that many people who teach at institutions that effectively require a book (or more) for tenure don’t actually assign the fruits of all that academic labor in their graduate classes.
Davidson doesn’t address the root issue of the phenomenon she describes: most academic monographs adapted from dissertations simply don’t adapt very well to the needs of a graduate classroom. Most first books are simply too specialized for the kinds of courses many of us teach.
Some of this might admittedly vary by institution. At my institution, most graduate students who succeed on the job-search are generally hired for teaching-intensive positions at 4-year colleges, so our aim in teaching graduate students is really to help prepare students to teach the material to *undergraduates*. Thus, a really solid introduction to a critical edition of a text is more likely to add value than a very specialized monograph adapted from a dissertation. Also of value are well-organized anthologies. I recently assigned the anthologies “Modernism and Colonialism” (Begam and Moses, Eds.), and “Geomodernisms” (Winkiel and Doyle, Eds.) for a course on “Modernism, Colonialism, and Sexuality,” and was very happy with the decision.
Yes, the fact that most English studies academics don’t buy other scholars’ monographs poses a problem for publishers, but I think the explanation is simple: we don’t assign those monographs because we don’t value them very highly as pedagogical aids. Davidson’s solution to that problem in (4) above sounds a little too much like “If only I keep buying CDs, I can save the record industry.” It doesn’t work like that. She also doesn’t acknowledge the issue that many of us contend with when we design courses: our graduate students, on limited stipends, simply can’t afford to spend much more than $100 per course on books, and monographs can be prohibitively expensive. (Relatedly, many faculty teaching outside of elite institutions, simply don’t have the research budgets—or, for that matter, the salaries—to buy a lot of specialized books. We depend on libraries.)
The other solution to What Ails Us is still the right one: we simply shouldn’t be requiring a book for tenure at most institutions. It should be a balance of publishing, teaching, collegiality/service, and a general sense of academic seriousness and competency. (In actuality, I think many tenure reviews already work that way.)
Questions for discussion: do you use monographs authored by peers when you teach either undergraduates or graduate students? What are some examples of monographs that have worked well in classes you have taught recently?
Friday, April 02, 2010
Murakami, “The Big Sleep,” Allusions to Proust
As I have been teaching Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World this spring to undergraduates, I have been tracking some of the allusions and reference points. Some, like the references to Turgenev’s Rudin and Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, seem to be relatively straightforward allusions, though admittedly I haven’t gone to the Turgenev yet to see if there might be more to it.
However, I did notice something potentially interesting with regards to an allusion I was able to check more closely. Murakami briefly mentions Hawks’ film adaptation of The Big Sleep, based on the Raymond Chandler novel. It occurs about a third of the way through the novel, and interpreting it raises some interesting challenges. Going well beyond simple correspondences between the two texts, Murakami’s allusion to The Big Sleep also appears to be an allusion to Hawks and Chandler’s own literary allusions (often figured dimissively—as examples of what not to read, i.e., Proust). In other words, Murakami’s invocation of Hawks’ film is a kind of versioning or remixing that channels not just a voice or a character from the source text, but the source text’s entire orientation to literature. There is only one instance of a direct allusion to The Big Sleep in Murakami’s novel, but as many as a dozen instances of what I might call buried allusions, which are only legible once we’ve applied the key represented by the first, and begun to read Murakami’s novel through a Big Sleep lens.Continue reading "Murakami, “The Big Sleep,” Allusions to Proust"
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
From “Pinocchio” to “Astro-Boy”: Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi
In the spring I’m co-teaching a course with a scholar visiting from Japan, “The Edges of the Human: Bodies, Animals, and Machines in Speculative Fiction Films and Literature.” The course will be about evenly divided between Japanese science fiction films and books, and British and American science fiction and fantasy. It’s an introductory course, meant for non-English major undergraduates.
I obviously have an interest in children’s books and movies (see earlier posts on Kipling and Toy Story), as well as a limited interest in literary science fiction (China Mieville, Early Bengali Science Fiction), but I’ve never taught a course specifically dedicated to this type of topic before. It will be an added challenge to team-teach the course—especially given that the topic itself is so wide-ranging.
To make the course cohere, we will need to show connections between the 20th century Japanese tradition in science fiction (both in literary fiction and manga, anime, and popular cinema) and at least one thread of the parallel tradition in the Anglo-American context.
One unit I am working on is a Pinocchio/Astro-Boy nexus. Pinocchio feels like a folk tale, like Snow White or Cinderella, but it is actually a late Victorian, serialized novel. Most people know it through through the 1940 Disney animated feature, but of course the story was first written by Carlo Collodi, as The Adventures of Pinocchio (available in translation on Project Gutenberg, and as a free audiobook via LibriVox). Collodi was clearly influenced by the established fairy tale tradition and the Brothers Grimm, but his story also has some elements that seem distinctly Victorian, including the emphasis on show-biz, via the Marionette show, and perhaps some of the direct moralizing about what it means to be a good little boy. (Many Brothers Grimm tales actually do not have such blatant moralizing; the moral is quite often simply “pay attention to the fairy, dummy, if you don’t want the witch to turn you into a statue").Continue reading "From “Pinocchio” to “Astro-Boy”: Fairy Tales and Sci-Fi"
Monday, June 22, 2009
The Sort of Book You Actually Want to Write: “Big Sid’s Vincati”
A friend of mine from graduate school, Matthew Biberman, whom I knew primarily as an ambitious and driven Milton scholar, has written a memoir, not about Milton but motorcycles. The book is called Big Sid’s Vincati: The Story of a Father, a Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime. His book, which has not had a lot of publicity yet in the general media, has come out at the same time as a second memoir about the power of physical involvement in mechanical problems (incidentally also involving working on motorcycles), Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. Crawford’s book has gotten quite a bit of attention, including a long excerpt in The New York Times Magazine, as well as Kelefa Sanneh’s review in The New Yorker. And Stanley Fish, in his blog at the New York Times, put together a lengthy blog post last week, where he considered Biberman’s book alongside Crawford’s, while also addressing Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. Here I’d like to attend to Biberman’s memoir on its own terms, though I’ve also added a brief consideration at the end of this blog post that gets at the obvious ‘meta’ question of why this particular kind of knowledge seems to be so satisfying to people who started out their lives with a passion for the abstract liberal arts—literature and philosophy.
Since I know many readers will be wondering, I should probably start by explaining the “Vincati”: a “Vincati” is a hybrid bike, with a Ducati frame and a Vincent engine. It brings together the best features of two legendary motorcycles, the 1970s Ducati’s widely praised chassis, and the 1950s Vincent’s powerful twin engine, immortalized by Richard Thompson, in “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Creating a hybrid bike using largely original parts is a particularly challenging project, both in terms of tracking down the necessary vintage parts and as a matter of mechanical skill. In the case of Matthew and his father, Sid, putting one together after the latter had a nearly-fatal heart attack became a labor of love and a reason for his father to go on living.
The memoir resonated with me in part because Biberman, like myself, came into literary studies from a rather unlikely background – his father was a motorcycle mechanic who never went to college, while he went to elite schools on scholarship, only to struggle somewhat in the early years of life as a “grown-up” in a tenure track academic job. Being a hungry outsider in English studies can give you the motivation and hustle to get through college and graduate school with flying colors, but it’s when you settle down into a tenure track job that you realize that sheer scholarly hustle alone may not make you happy in the intensely bourgeois culture of academia, nor does it give you the continued motivation to keep up the intellectual pace you set in graduate school. Academia has many perks, but for many people it can be a difficult profession to remain passionate about, and a curious sort of disconnection sometimes sets in for people about half-way to tenure. I’m not sure there is any single explanation for it—though, admittedly, the institution of tenure might be part of the problem—so let me just say this: it does not seem entirely an accident that many academics have passions outside of their teaching lives that animate them more than their primary work.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Shameless Literary Tourism in Dublin: Bloomsday 2009
It’s rather striking how much of a commodity James Joyce is in Dublin; there’s nothing comparable to it in any American city. You hear mentions of Bloomsday activites on Dublin radio stations, and see events described in some of the newspapers. There are two Joyce museums in the city, a proper statue of Joyce on one of the biggest commercial streets in the city, and plaques on the ground and on buildings all over the place. Every other pub has a picture of Joyce or Yeats somewhere; there is even something called a “James Joyce Pub Award” (for “being an authentic Dublin pub"). On Bloomsday there are performances at big as well as small venues all over the city related to Ulysses. We saw a flyer for an actress doing a solo show as Molly Bloom, and we even saw something about the dramatization of a brief dialogue between Ned Lambert and J.J. O’Molloy at St. Mary’s Abbey (from “Wandering Rocks") – a rather minor incident in the novel.
That said, some of the events not involving pubs didn’t seem to be all that well attended. And while there were a fair number of knowledgeable readers of Joyce on the two tours I went on (many of them American college students, interestingly), there were plenty of people who came out apparently because their guide book recommended it as something to do in Dublin.
The only dissenting voice I heard on James Joyce was in a pub in a village called Bunratty, north of Limerick. There, at a place named “Durty Nelly’s,” I was accosted by a rather inebriated Irishman who wanted to tell me all about his time at the Kumbh Mela in India. When Joyce came up in the conversation later (this man knew a fair bit about literature), he scoffed: “Joyce was a lackey, he was nothing but a lackey.” I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask him why he thought so, and now I wonder what exactly he meant.
As an intellectual exercise, I’m not sure whether there was much value in spending a day walking around Dublin with Joyce-tinted glasses on; it’s admittedly tourism, not scholarship. But it was certainly fun to see Dublin this way.Continue reading "Shameless Literary Tourism in Dublin: Bloomsday 2009"
Friday, May 08, 2009
“Mimicry” and “Hybridity” in Plain English
The following is in part inspired by Rohan Maitzen’s post, from a few weeks ago, on questions in postcolonial theory. Upon reading about her dissatisfaction with the way reference books and anthologies introduce certain key concepts, it occurred to me that it might be useful for teachers who are not specialists in this sub-field, as well as their students, to have an essay introducing some of these concepts more straightforwardly—so I tried to write it. I should also note that the following is a sequel of sorts to an earlier blog post/essay I wrote a few years ago, introducing Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism, again, as a resource for students as well as general readers. I would appreciate any feedback, further examples, or criticisms.
* * *
When the terms “mimicry” and “hybridity” are invoked in literary criticism, or in classrooms looking at literature from Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean, as well as their respective diasporas, there is usually a footnote somewhere to two essays by Homi K. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” and “Signs Taken For Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority Under a Tree Outside Delhi, May 1817.” But students who look at those essays, or glosses of those essays in books like Post-Colonial Studies: The Key Concepts, generally come away only more confused. Though his usage of a term like “hybridity” is quite original, Bhabha’s terminology is closely derived from ideas and terminology from Freud and French thinkers like Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. I do respect the sophistication of Bhabha’s thinking—and the following is not meant to be an attack on his work—but I do not think his essays were ever meant to be pedagogical reference points.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Eve Sedgwick: A Few Reflections
As many readers may be aware, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick passed away last weekend. Her friend Cathy Davidson has a tribute up, and Duke University Press has noted it as well on its internal blog. I’m sure there will be much more to come from Eve’s friends, colleagues, and students in the months to come.
I knew Eve in person for about two years, but I have remained, in one way or another, in constant engagement with her work during my entire career as a scholar. She was teaching at Duke until around 1998, and I joined the Ph.D. program in 1996. I took two classes with her, one a general seminar on Victorian novels, the other a more specialized seminar called, if I remember correctly, “Victorian Textures.” The ideas in the latter class, which were in turn inspired by Renu Bora’s work (“Outing Texture”), became the basis of some of Eve’s final published essays, in the volume Touching, Feeling (2003).
I did not work with Eve Sedgwick at the dissertation level, and indeed, I don’t believe I saw her again in person after 1998, when she left Duke and started teaching at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, she had a pronounced influence on me, both as a person and as an intellectual and academic. The following is a brief account of the nature of that influence. It’s not meant to be a definitive, or even a very representative, statement on Sedgwick’s work; I am probably not the best person to write that. Rather, and quite simply and humbly, her work has meant a lot to me in particular as I’ve evolved as a scholar and teacher, and here is a little bit as to how.
Continue reading "Eve Sedgwick: A Few Reflections"
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Nose-Picking Is Encouraged (Teaching Notes on “Ulysses")
[Below is a modified version of a wrap-up lecture I used in an undergraduate class last week, closing out our unit on Ulysses. The class is titled “James Joyce and Modern Ireland,” and it is aimed at senior English majors.]
When I was an undergraduate at Cornell, I took a class on Ulysses with a senior Joyce scholar who, in a pretty egregious example of a pedagogical faux pas, “required” us to buy two of his own books on Joyce and modernism from the bookstore. He also told us, via the course description, that he expected us to read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before the beginning of the term, which none of us ended up doing. I bought both of the professor’s books and never read them (recently, I finally threw them out). I also didn’t read Portrait of the Artist until around the time of my Ph.D exams several years later; my loss, for waiting so long.
Though my reading of Joyce was a revelatory and entrancing experience that fall, the class itself was somewhat of a disaster. For one thing, the in-class dynamic was quite tense, particularly around questions of gender in Joyce’s novel. As a rather radicalized, “politically correct” college student of the early 1990s, I was offended by Stephen Dedalus’ tortured relationship to women, a problem my professor wasn’t interested in (I didn’t have the tools to see that Joyce disagreed with Stephen as well). I was also bored by Joyce’s “mythic method,” and didn’t really know what to make of the dense grid of literary allusions and parodies in the novel. Early on, I got into some heated arguments with the professor in class, and then retreated into defiant (Stephen Dedalus-like) silence as the semester continued. By the end of the term, I had silently vowed that Ulysses was not going to be my “thing”; I ended up writing my senior thesis the following year on Salman Rushdie, and worked with another professor, who had taught me, brilliantly and engagingly, Borges, Barthes, and Octavia Butler.
Fifteen years later, the roles are reversed. Is it possible to do Ulysses with undergraduates, and get it right? That is to say, without boring them and overwhelming them with an endless proliferation of mythology, religion, and authorial hagiography? (The people who come to heap praise on James Joyce may not realize that they are in fact unwittingly burying him: Death of the Author by deification. Or should I say, deifecation?)
Continue reading "Nose-Picking Is Encouraged (Teaching Notes on “Ulysses")"
Friday, March 28, 2008
William Deresiewicz in “The Nation,” And a “Long Sunday” Blogger’s Response
It’s been said many times that English enrollments have declined nationally because of “theory,” but that’s been shown, I think conclusively, not to be true. (A starting point might be this 2003 ADE report (PDF), which shows that the biggest decline in the number of English majors happened in the 1970s and 80s, though there was some recovery from the losses in the early 1990s—notably, the peak of the culture wars moment. But the ADE’s report also suggests there’s been a general decline in the Arts & Sciences as a whole; more and more students are getting degrees in other parts of the university, such as engineering, business, education, and the life sciences. A much smaller proportion of college degrees now are B.A.s than used to be. In short, the problem is not the turn to “theory” or the “epochal loss of confidence” Deresiewicz talks about, but a structural change in American higher education.)
Then, proceed to Ads Without Products, for CR’s response. The most striking observation for me had to do with the frame—what does it mean that Deresiewicz is publishing this essay in The Nation?
This move on Deresiewicz’s part feels like consummate culture wars base-touching, like he’s filling out the form that a venue like The Nation require those who would write on the literary humanities to complete before proceeding to other issues and arguments. (Why The Nation, ostensibly a left magazine, would implicitly condone or even require this sort of move is a long, long story, and one that is bound up with both micro-histories of the long standing academy vs. grub street turf war that has been going on in NYC for a long time as well as macro-histories of the anti-intellectualism of the American journalistic left… More on this another day…) (link)
Obviously, one wants to hear the “more on this” part, but there’s still quite a bit to chew on here as is.
Thursday, March 13, 2008
A Little on Poet Alan Shapiro
I first learned about Alan Shapiro’s poetry a couple of years ago, when someone suggested I read his book Song & Dance. I loved it, and then when a colleague suggested Tantalus in Love, I ate that up as well. This spring, I decided try and teach Tantalus in Love in my “Introduction to the English Major” course at Lehigh, along with a couple of essays by Shapiro (including this moving memoir essay, from Virginia Quarterly Review, about which I have more to say below).
Earlier in his career, Shapiro was included in the movement known as the “new formalism,” where poets started to reconsider the classical forms, and come to use more rhyme, meter, and formal structures in their poetry. Shapiro was somewhat ambivalent about being described that way (by Robert Richman, in the conservative/reactionary journal The New Criterion), and Shapiro wrote an essay for Critical Inquiry called “The New Formalism” (Critical Inquiry 14, August 1987: JSTOR link), where he discussed his ambivalence about the movement.
Yet I am anything but cheered [to be referred to as a New Formalist]. And not because I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member, though this may be a part of it; but because I suspect that what Mr. Richman hails as a development may in fact be nothing but a mechanical reaction, and that the new formalists, in rejecting the sins of their experimental fathers may end up merely repeating the sins of their New Critical grandfathers, resuscitating the stodgy, overrefined conventions of the ‘fifties poem,’ conventions which were of course sufficiently narrow and restrictive to provoke rebellion in the first place. Any reform, carried to uncritical extremes by less talents who ignore rather than try to assimilate the achievements of their predecessors, will itself require reformation. If James Wright, say, or Robert Bly, produced more than their fair share of imitators, if they even imitate themselves much of the time, they nonetheless have written poems all of us can and ought to learn from. Maybe we have had too much of the ‘raw’ in recent years. But the answer to the raw is not the overcooked.
This strikes me as right on the specifics, but also worth considering as a general way of thinking about periodization in literary studies (not to mention, literary theory). Later in the essay, Shapiro dismisses the argument that form reflects a poet’s ideological inclinations (i.e., if one were to say the New Formalists, who emerged in the 1980s, were in effect practicing “Reaganomics” poetry), and he reminds us that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound pioneered modernist free verse even as they espoused authoritarian politics.Continue reading "A Little on Poet Alan Shapiro"
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Blogging and Peer Review—Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s Experiment
In the January 22 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jeffrey Young writes about an experiment being conducted by Noah Wardrip-Fruin, a Communications professor at UC-San Diego. Wardrip-Fruin is publishing segments of his book, Expressive Processing, on a blog, with the hope that feedback from commenters might be as effective as traditional peer-review. The book is to be formally published by MIT Press, who are encouraging the experiment, though they are also continuing with a traditional peer-review process as well. Wardrip-Fruin is using the CommentPress feature designed by the Institute for the Future of the Book.
Luckily, quite a number of books have already been written about digital literature, and many more have been written about digital media more generally. However, almost all of these have focused on what the machines of digital media look like from the outside: their output. Sometimes the output is considered as an artifact, and interpreted in ways we associate with literary scholarship and art history. Sometimes the output is seen in relation to the audience and the wider culture, using approaches from fields like education and ethnography. And there are, of course, a variety of other perspectives. But, regardless of perspective, writings on digital media almost all ignore something crucial: the actual processes that make digital media work, the computational machines that make digital media possible.
On one hand, there is nothing wrong with this. Output-focused approaches have brought many valuable insights for those who seek to understand and create digital media. But, on the other hand, it leaves a big gap.
This book is my attempt to help bridge the gap. (link)
After perusing sections 1.2 and 1.3 of Wardrip-Fruin’s book, I must admit I’m not sure I get it. What Wardrop-Fruin describes as “processes” seem to me to be mainly programming artifacts. Why not work out a theory of video game narrative using the logic and idiom of the object-oriented programming languages that are used to create the video games in the first place? (Classes, objects, methods, etc.) But again, I should concede that this is not really my thing, theory-wise or thematically.
Wardrip-Fruin is certainly not the first person to blog a book in progress (see Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance), but he may be the first humanities/social sciences academic to do so. Do people know of other examples?
And of course: one wonders whether and how something like this might work with a book on a specifically literary (or literary theory-ish) topic. Wardrip-Fruin’s experiment seems to be sustainable partly because he is writing about a digital media theme, and is likely to find readers who are already densely involved in the internet; that is not so much the case for scholarly communities in literary studies.
Incidentally, I brought up an idea for a different kind of experiment in blogging/peer review last year, and got a somewhat mixed response from Valve readers.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
China Miéville, not a fan of Libertarianism
Via 3QD, China Miéville has a biting critique of libertarianism in In These Times. It’s an excerpt from a forthcoming book:
Libertarianism is by no means a unified movement. As many of its advocates proudly stress, it comprises a taxonomy of bickering branches—minarchists, objectivists, paleo- and neolibertarians, agorists, et various al.—just like a real social theory. Claiming a lineage with post-Enlightenment classical liberalism, as well as in some cases with the resoundingly portentous blatherings of Ayn Rand, all of its variants are characterized, to differing degrees, by fervent, even cultish, faith in what is quaintly termed the “free” market, and extreme antipathy to that vaguely conceived bogeyman, “the state,” with its regulatory and fiscal powers.
Above all, they recast their most banal avarice—the disinclination to pay tax—as a principled blow for political freedom. Not content with existing offshore tax shelters, multimillionaires and property developers have aspired to build their own. For each such rare project that sees (usually brief) life, there are many unfettered by actual existence, such as Laissez-Faire City, a proposed offshore tax haven inspired by a particularly crass and gung-ho libertarianism, that generated press interest in the mid-’90s only to collapse in infighting and bad blood; or New Utopia, an intended sea-based libertarian micro-nation in the Caribbean that degenerated with breathtaking predictability into nonexistence and scandal. . . .
A parable from seasteading’s past goes some way in explaining. In 1971, millionaire property developer Michael Oliver attempted to establish the Republic of Minerva on a small South Pacific sand atoll. It was soon off-handedly annexed by Tonga, and, in a traumatic actualized metaphor, allowed to dissolve back into the sea. To defeat the predatory outreach of nations and tides, it is clearly not enough to be offshore: True freedom floats. (link)
Though he is indeed merciless in slicing up libertarianism for dinner, Miéville is nevertheless interested in one of the recurring leitmotifs in much libertarian thought—the idea that true liberty must inevitably be landless, stateless, and therefore possibly afloat (in outer space, or at sea—same thing). The idea of the “floating utopia” is one he explored in his novel The Scar, which I briefly attempted to interpret here. In Miéville’s rendering, of course, a lived utopia is always going to be perilously close to its opposite.
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
“The Good Soldier”—A Bad Novel
Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) is considered a classic of sorts from the early modernist period. W.H. Auden thought Ford was a great novelist (he had particularly strong praise for Parade’s End, which deals with World War I), and so did Graham Greene. From what I can tell, The Good Soldier, which is not a war novel, but a novel about adultery in the British aristocracy, is still widely taught in college classes on British modernism (see here, here, and here); it’s also widely cited in the scholarly literature. But it shouldn’t be—this thing is a mess. (Or more politely, “perhaps it’s time for a reassessment”?)
One of the oft-repeated chestnuts about The Good Soldier stems from Ford’s early relationship as an editor and collaborator of Joseph Conrad. Ford, it is said, aims to use a version of Joseph Conrad’s nested narrators with their various, idiosyncratic approaches to the “truth.” But if Ford is aiming for a Conradian effect, it’s poorly done, to the point of unrecognizability. The Good Soldier has only one narrator, and the multiple points of view that emerge in the text are never fully explained (in Conrad, by contrast, the different narrators are usually in dialogue with one, primary narrator). The narrator in Ford’s novel at once knows implausibly much about what his friends and family were thinking at various moments, and far too little—it seems unthinkable that he could be such a poor judge of character (more on that below). Moreover, instead of creating a sense of suspense for the reader, the unraveling of the story merely creates confusion, as the story slides back and forth chronologically without leading to new insights on why the characters do what they do in the end.Continue reading "“The Good Soldier”—A Bad Novel"
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
Idea for Discussion: An Academic Blog Review
This is a variant of an idea John Holbo has mentioned a few times over the years. But while (as I recall), Holbo has posited blogging as a radical alternative to the old peer-reviewed journal system, I’ve been thinking there might be a need to have a system that is more formal than “whatever, it’s all good, do your thing” academic blogging, but which nevertheless preserves some of the fun and liberatory aspects of writing and publishing on the internet.
The idea came to me as I’ve begun preparing a tenure file at my current university, acutely aware that my blog writing cannot be considered “peer-reviewed” publication by any current standard. Even the rewards of occasional Boing-Boing-ish popularity (my post on “Early Bengali Science Fiction” from awhile ago, for instance) do not help, since that is really popularity rather than review. But why not institute a review of some sort? This was also, incidentally, a question raised at the MLA by Gwynn DuJardin: how can blogs be made to “count” as part of the academic process? It came out awkwardly at the time, and at the panel where it was first asked, Michael Berube swatted it down pretty summarily: they don’t count. Yes, but couldn’t they, if there were some kind of evaluation process?
My idea is to have a system of academic blog reviewing, where people self-select individual blog posts they’ve written for review by others, perhaps using a combination of Technorati tags and emailed links. The reviewers could consist of fellow bloggers (credentials no bar) as well as non-blogging academics in a given discipline, who would pubish their reviews on a central site. The reviewers could choose to be “onymous” or pseudonymous (as long as it is a consistent pseudonym, and contact information is available to site admins), and be asked to write a significant evaluation to the post in question (say, 250 words). Other reviewers and readers of the reviews could also evaluate the reviewers’ comments, as a way of maintaining standards for reviewers. Troll-like, unfair reviews would be deleted, and their authors denied reviewing privileges.
Reviewers aren’t that different from commenters in the current blog architecture, but their purpose in writing in my system is primarily evaluative—the goal isn’t necessarily to have a conversation. Just as in formal journals, reviewers can recommend revisions or corrections. However, in contrast to formal academic journals, the reviewer doesn’t recommend publication or rejection—since what they’re evaluating has already been published on a blog. Instead, they might recommend readers to check out the post in question—as in a “Digg.”
Though for many people the idea of a formal-ish evaluative process for blog writing will sound really depressing (or just boring), for those of us who are interested in blogging as an extension of our academic projects and research it could actually be pretty helpful. I want to stress that the idea here isn’t so much that people will stop writing bloggily, or only be able to submit 5000+ word posts for review; indeed, one profitable way to think of an academic blog review is as a space to “publish” shorter work, or things that cross disciplinary boundaries, or that might just be a promising riff on something. Another hope is that blog writing, even under a review process, would remain jargon-free; people would continue to presume that their readers are essentially educated lay-readers—not narrow period specialists. (That last stipulation might well be debatable.)
Even with review, it’s unlikely that one would ever put blog posts down under “peer-reviewed publications” on one’s CV. But perhaps academics could soon introduce a new category: “Peer-reviewed Writing Published on the Internet.”
I’m initially interested in a blog post review system for literary scholarship, but there’s no reason why other disciplines couldn’t also work with it. Indeed, the larger the range of disciplines included, the more likely it is to be accepted by the system as a whole.
This is admittedly just a preliminary sketch. What do you think? Is it workable? What are some of the problems you see with this idea? Are there ways to make it better?