Saturday, May 29, 2010

What's Bad About Quebec

1. Taxes.

2. Separatists who believe they need to preserve the "purity of race." (Not all separatists are like that, of course. Some are great, intelligent people. But there is a bunch of Nazis that gives all Quebecois a bad name.)

3. Weird language laws that discriminate against immigrants.

4. The system of higher education does not follow the liberal arts model. This means that students can get a degree taking only courses in their discipline. As a result, you sometimes see people with university degrees in business who never took a single course in Humanities.

5. You sometimes see women in burqas or women being led around on leashes.

6. The overexaggerated welfare system which believes that people who don't feel like doing a stroke of work their entire lives should have this "basic right" protected and guaranteed.

7. The structure of society that rewards the lazy underachievers and punishes the hardworking and the driven individuals.

Once again, feel free to add to the list. But be careful because I love Quebec passionately in spite of all the above-mentioned. :-)
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What's Good About Quebec

(In no particular order):

1. People dress really well.
2. It feels almost kind of similar to Europe.
3. There are sidewalk cafes.
4. There are no Evangelical fanatics.
5. It's easy to find food that's not insanely unhealthy.
6. Paid maternity leave for one entire year.
7. State-sponsored childcare.
8. The system of CEGEPs (pre-university college).
9. Free medical care.
10. People are very accepting of and curious about other cultures.
11. Very cheap university education.
12. You only see flip-flops on tourists. 13. People are progressive and open-minded.
14. It is possible to find food that isn't horribly unhealthy.
15. Nobody goes to church on Sundays. Or pretty much ever. Or if they do, they keep it to themselves which is just as well.
16. Nobody stares at you like you are crazy if they see you walking.
17. Nobody is shocked if you dress well.
18. People know how to enjoy life.
19. People love travelling.
20. People love hockey and nobody cares about American football.
21. People mostly know that Latin America is not a country in Africa.

If you can think of more great things about Quebec, feel free to add to this list.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Two for One Patient Care

An article in yesterdays St. Louis Post Dispatch (I can't link to it right now because I'm in Montreal for a conference and far from a computer) says that a new law has been passed in MONTH approving two-for-one treatments for sexual diseases.

What this new measure means us thatdoctors will prescribe antibiotics to the partners of people with STDs without ever examining them. This is the most ridiculous thing anybody can imagine. Pumping people who might turn out to be perfectly healthy full of dangerous drugs WITHOUT even seeing them. Of course, pharmaceutical companies will get a huge boost. Imagine how their customer pool will grow as a result of forcing many healthy people to ingest their drugs.

Anything that has to do with medications is completely out of control in the US.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Hatred of Women Trumps Hatred of the Environment

In order to promote their anti-women policies, fundamentalists are willing to do anything. They are even adopting a seemingly environmentalist discourse. For them, even the environment they normally hate and try to destroy at any cost is a good enough justification to promote the subjugation of women. Today, they are coaching their anti-women propaganda in a completely spurious concern over how the contraceptive pill is "damaging" the environment:
This year, birth control advocates are celebrating 50 years of decriminalized hormonal contraceptives. American Life League and our co-sponsors don't think half a century of contaminating our waterways is something to celebrate. Study after study has shown that hormonal estrogen in the water has severely damaged the ecosystem and our health.
Of course, these women-haters are somehow not as interested in the horrible BP oil spill. For them, liberated female sexuality is a lot more damaging than the eco-disaster we see in the horrifying pictures of the Gulf oil spill.

Appropriating threatening types of discourse and using them for their own purposes is a favorite ideological trick of the Conservatives. Sarah Palin, one of the biggest women-haters around, calls herself a feminist in order to appropriate the intellectual and political prestige of the feminist movement while simultaneously diluting its message. Now anti-choicers appropriate the environmentalist discourse in order to push their agenda of denying women the right to their own bodies. This does not prevent them, of course, of pushing the most anti-environment policies thay can think of the second they come to power.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Traveler IQ

Here is a really cool game that tests your knowledge of geography. The game gives you the name of a place and you have to click on the location on the map where you think that place is. This is so much fun!

The Traveler IQ challenge ranks geographic knowledge of cities such as: Sharm El-Sheikh, Negril or Istanbul by comparing results against 5,542,877 other travelers. Brought to you by TravelPod, a TripAdvisor Media Network partner

Whining As A Way of Life

One of the things that I observe a lot among my fellow academics is how much they love to complain. A life of a regular academic is a constant self-pity party. Whenever two or more professors get together, they immediately engage in gleeful comparisons of whose life is more pathetic. Everybody tries to prove that it is hardly possible to be more miserable than they are. Of course, their colleagues passionately dispute the title of the most miserable person around.

Objectively, we all know that a professor's life is not that bad. Tons of people have it a lot worse than we do. We only have to be physically present at work seven months out of a year and then only two or three days per week. Of course, when one brings this up, the academics who fight for the title of the most miserable person alive immediately exclaim: "But we have to do research!" Well, first of all, if you chose this career in the first place, you are supposed to enjoy research, not spend your life complaining about it. Second, lying on the sofa at home reading books or watching movies (which is what research means in my area) is really not the same as slaving in some stuffy cubicle 40 hours a week 50 weeks a year constantly terrified of being fired.

To be completely honest, those of us who manage to finish our dissertations and end up getting tenure-track jobs are pretty fortunate. We get good salaries (if you don't think your professorial salary is good enough, check out the median salary range for a full-time worker in your area, and stop whining already), a high social status, a lot of free time, and the constant company of colleagues who - albeit whiny - are mostly intelligent, kind, progressive individuals.

We, the college professors, are very far from being miserable. We just like to pretend we are. This weird tendency starts when we begin our academic careers as undergrad students. My students at Cornell told me that it was considered bad form among them to say you are not completely exhausted. It is considered some sort of a badge of honor to claim that you haven't had any sleep in a week or haven't rested in a month. Then, the insanity continues in grad school. "I keep slaving over this dissertation," fashionably dishevelled grad students sigh. "But I still need at least 6 more years to finish it." In my experience, grad school is actually non-stop, endless, exuberant partying but, somehow, we are not supposed to mention that.

This process of ever-intensifying self-pity reaches its climax when one gets an academic position at a university. Now academics can finally indulge in the joyous recitation of every little thing that makes their lives oh, so difficult. "I'm so exhausted but I have this conference in a month and I've yet to prepare my talk. I don't know how I'll manage that",  the pity-partiers whine. Sure, what a tragedy. The poor, fatigued academic forced to read a book, write a ten page talk based on it, and go hang out with some colleagues (all trip-related expenses paid by the university, of course), drink cocktails, and blab about literary theory. Sounds like a really miserable existence.

When I think of all the fine, intellectual people who had to drop out of grad school for financial or personal reasons, everybody who didn't manage to get a tenure-track position because of the jobs that were lost as a result of economic crisis, all of my talented colleagues who keep going to the MLA conference for yet another round of job interviews and getting nothing but rejection letters, it makes me very angry to hear my fellow academics complain of their sheltered, happy existences.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Repairing an Aspie Child

Recently, helicopter-type parents have found a new reason to feel sorry for themselves and victimize their children: autism. Television, newspapers and Internet journalists cater to their needs by offering endless advice on how to "deal" with their child's autism. Here, for example, you can read a very typical example of such an advice-filled article. Parents are told that there are many ways they can "repair" their broken children. They are told to drag their poor, miserable Aspie kids to all kinds of therapies, activities, sports teams, etc. As a 34-year-old Aspie, I almost had a panic attack while reading this litany of activities that any person with Asperger's sees as pure and undiluted torture.

The most shocking thing about such posts and articles is that they completely disregard the simple fact that autistic children are human beings in their own right. Nobody ever asks the question of whether these children actually suffer from their way of being. The parents are uncomfortable with an Aspie child. Ergo, the child must be miserable as well and in urgent need of repair. All the therapies aimed at socializing these children cater only to the needs of parents who want a "normal" child.

Why should we necessarily assume that if a child sits staring at the wall and rocking for hours, she isn't enjoying herself? I know I was. Why should we necessarily believe that if a child stays in his room for several days classifying the items in his herbarium, he can't be happy? I know I was. Why should we assume that if a person stays completely silent for two weeks they can't be having a blast? I know I did. The only people who are bothered by these manifestations of autism are parents who see their child as some kind of a project in need of being constantly perfected.

The best thing parents could do for a child with Asperger's is leave her or him in peace. Stop trying to improve their lives. Simply accept that they have a different vision of what constitutes an enjoyable existence. And who is to say that your vision of a good life is making you any happier than their vision makes them?

Saturday, May 22, 2010

American Patriot's Bible

Another hilarious find at our local bookstore was this expensive and beautifully edited volume titled American Patriot's Bible. The author of the book goes out of his way to convince himself that Christianity is the basis on which this country was built. There is even a chapter dedicated to the "faith of the Founding Fathers." Of course, the following quotes didn't make it into the book:

Thomas Jefferson:

"I have examined all the known superstitions of the world and I do not find in our particular superstition of Christianity one redeeming feature. They are all alike founded on fables and mythology. Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been
burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned. What has been the effect of this coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites; to support roguery and error all over the earth."

"Christianity...(has become) the most perverted system that ever shone on man...Rogueries, absurdities and untruths were perpetrated upon the teachings of Jesus by a large band of dupes and imposters led by Paul, the first great corruptor of the teachings of Jesus."

John Adams:

"The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus is made a convenient cover for absurdity."

Thomas Paine:

"Among the most detesable villains in history, you could not find one worse than Moses. Here is an order, attributed to 'God' to butcher the boys, to massacre the mothers, and to debauch and rape the daughters. I would not dare so dishonor my Creator's name by (attaching) it to this filthy book (the Bible)."

"It is the duty of every true Diest to vindicate the moral justice of God against the evils of the Bible."

James Madison:
"What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyrrany. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government,
instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy."

No wonder that after being exposed to the egrigious falsifications of history offered by such "Bibles" my students are surprised to find out that there is a separation of Church and State in this country.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Turning Your Teen Into a Neurotic

I just discovered this curious little book at our local Borders. I was first drawn to it by its extremely unsettling title. Are the teenagers now expected to be "highly effective"? Effective in what? I mean, they are kids, why even use such a strange language to describe them?

After I opened this miniature book, I realized that its main goal was to convince teenagers that they are never too young to start transforming themselves into efficient little robots whose goal is to be "successful"  at all costs. Having fun, hanging out with friends, playing, flirting, enjoying your existence - all these activities should be expelled from a teenager's life since they cannot be construed as either "effective" or "productive."

Here is a sample of wisdom that this book offers to poor teenagers:
All successful people have the habit of doing the things failures don't like to do. They don't like doing them either. But this dislike is subordinated to the strength of their purpose.
Obviously, the purpose of this "successful" individual does not include being happy or enjoying life. The quote makes a lot more sense if we substitute the word "neurotic" for successful. It's also curious how a person who refuses to do things s/he doesn't enjoy is necessarily seen as a "failure." In this masochistic worldview, the only permissible lifestyle is the one that includes constant self-repression and suffering.

Other pieces of advice the book offers include making weekly lists of the goals you need to achieve and looking at yourself in a mirror in order to find in yourself qualities that need to be eradicated.

When will the legacy of the Puritans finally be overcome, I wonder?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Is It OK to Hate Kids?

Recently, the feminist blogosphere has been abuzz with endless discussions on wheter it's OK to say that you hate children. You can read the contributions to the discussion here, here, and here. In case you don't feel like wading through this endless exchange of posts and comments, I will summarize it briefly. Some people have stated that they dislike having their peace and quiet invaded by screaming and misbehaving children. Especially if you go to a very expensive restaurant, for example, you are paying to have a certain kind of ambiance and might not want it disrupted by other people's children's tantrums. As a result, many people say they hate kids. Other people say that this position is misguided and oppressive.

In my view, the problem does not originate with children. It's the inconsiderate adults who often inconvenience others, while the children get the blame. The day before yesterday, for example, I witnessed the following scene. I went to the gas station next to my house to buy some stuff. A woman with a little boy of about 4-5 years of age was in line ahead of me. She hoisted the child onto the counter and decided to use that shopping trip as an opportunity to help the child develop his counting skills. She gave him her purse and had him figure out how many paper bills and then how many coins he was supposed to pay for their purchase. Of course, this took forever. Soon, quite a long line formed behind me. This was a gas station, so many people were obviously in a hurry. An older gentleman behind me was struggling to hold a heavy box of soft drinks. Everybody was getting visibly annoyed, although nobody said anything. The cashier was getting frustrated as well.

The intentions of the woman who caused this scene were obviously good. She was trying to teach the child an important lesson. The problem is, though, that she was doing it at the expense of others. Besides teaching the little boy to count money, she also ended up teaching him that it's fine to inconvenience others. This is how we end up with a new generation of completely self-involved kids who honestly believe they are the centre of the universe.

I applaud parents who choose to take their children to real restaurants instead of stupid McDonald's and disgusting places like that. I think it's a great idea to take kids to "adult" spaces such as coffeeshops, museums, theatres, libraries, etc. It is the parents' responsibility, however, to prepare their children for entering such public spaces. I'm sure this would be a great educational opportunity from which everybody would benefit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010


There are 28 shelves filled entirely with Bibles in my local bookstore. 28 shelves of Bibles, people. That's scary.
The moment I get used to living in this area, something like this comes to my attention and scares me.

Does anybody know if Southern Illinois is considered part of the Bible belt?

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The Guilt of Abstinence Pushers

The Republican Mark Souder of Indiana has dedicated years to the propaganda of his ridiculous abstinence-only policies. Of course, as happens so often with these pseudo-religious freaks, he has been caught with his pants down. After the news broke about his affair with a staffer, Souder had to resign. In his resignation statement, Souder said the following:
What I find especially appalling is that even now Souder doesn't ask for forgiveness all those kids whose lives he attempted to destroy by his hateful anti-sex, abstinence-only policies. He has discovered exactly where the sexually repressive views of his own party lead people. He has discovered that the anti-sex bent of the Republicans breeds personal misery. Still, he blames "the poisonous environment" of Washington for what happened to him. Like there is anybody stupid enough not to realize that it's hypocrites like Souder who make the American politics such a vilely poisonous space.

Alabaman Teacher Lectures on How to Assassinate Obama

If somebody did this during the Bush administration, we all know what would happen to them:
A Jefferson County teacher picked the wrong example when he used as­sassinating President Bar­ack Obama as a way to teach angles to his geome­try students. Someone alerted autho­rities and the Corner High School math teacher was questioned by the Secret Service, but was not taken into custody or charged with any crime.
"We did not find a credible threat," said Roy Sex­ton, special agent in charge of Birmingham's Secret Service office. "As far as the Secret Service is concerned, we looked into it, we talked to the gentleman and we have closed our investigation." Sexton said he generally doesn't discuss threat cases, but confirmed his of­fice investigated the inci­dent. No federal charges followed the probe.
The teacher was appar­ently teaching his geometry students about parallel lines and angles, officials said. He used the example of where to stand and aim if shooting Obama.
"He was talking about angles and said, 'If you're in this building, you would need to take this angle to shoot the president,' " said Joseph Brown, a senior in the geometry class. Efforts to reach the teacher for comment Mon­day were unsuccessful.

 Superintendent Phil Hammonds said the teacher remains at work, and there are no plans for termination.
These hateful pricks use the fact that the president they hate so much is not a vindictive, torture-loving individual with a God-complex. If this happened under George W., the teacher making such idiotic remarks would already be on his way to Guantanamo to be torured for years to come.

One of the most frustrating things connected with the story is that the parents of this school's students are willing to defend this so-called teacher:
Caroline Polk, the parent of a ninth-grader at the school, said she doesn't be­lieve the teacher ought to be fired."We all make mistakes, and we should be able to learn from our mistakes," she said. "What he said was just wrong and inappropri­ate. Everyone's got their own opinions, but we have to be aware of our sur­roundings. At this point, it just needs to be handled in a way that it won't be re­peated."
For this crazy lady from Alabama (well, Alabama, what could one expect?), fantasazing about how to assassinate a president is a matter of having an "opinion." I'm sure there are quite a few folks in Alabama (and across the country) who would not mind having classes on how to assassinate a President added to the curriculum. Their hatred for the President is such that they don't even stop to think about the damage this freak of a teacher did to their children. What he was teaching them is that shooting at people is OK if they annoy you enough.

I really disliked former President George W. Bush. I hated his administration, I couldn't wait for his term in office to end. I believe that his policies ruined this country in many significant ways. I have a lot of anger towards him. Still, it would have never occurred to me to fantasize about his assassination, or discuss the possibility of killing him with my students. Disagreeing with a politician is one thing. Wanting to kill a human being is another. I believe that Bush needs to be brought to trial for his crimes against humanity. But I also believe that any one planning his assassination should be incarcerated immediately.

Allowing such a disgusting freak to keep entering the classroom and contaminating students with his hate is really too much. Even for Alabama.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content: A Review, Cont'd

It makes me very happy that the first part of my review of Agamben's The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) has provoked such an intense interest on the part of my readers. This has become the most popular post in the past 6 weeks. I have to warn my readers, though, that a significant chunk of Agamben's book is dedicated to a very painstaking analysis of the Ancient Greek terms central to his analysis. As a result of reading the book, I now understand some Greek words. In a way, this analysis of terminology employed by Greek philosophers becomes quite redundant, which in my opinion, is the main weakness of The Man Without Content.

As some of my readers observed correctly, you cannot discuss aesthetics without addressing the issues of class. Agamben dedicates quite a lot of time to analyzing whether Marxist theory is helpful to the clarification of the issues surrounding aesthetic enjoyment. Agamben rejects the Marxist-based perception of artistic production:

The privileged status of art in the aesthetic sphere is artificially interpreted as the survival of a condition in which manual and intellectual labor are not yet divided and in which, therefore, the productive act maintains all its integrity and uniqueness; by contrast, technical production, which takes place starting from a condition of extreme division of labor, remains essentially fungible and reproducible.
This attitude to art is, however, fairly new in historical terms. For Agamben, it is based on a decidedly incorrect and artificial approach. He reminds us that the Ancient Greek philosophers had a completely different view of differences between art and labor:

The Greeks, to whom we owe all the categories through which we judge ourselves and the reality around us, made a clear distinction between poiesis (poiein, "to pro-duce" in the sense of bringing into being) and praxis (prattein, "to do" in the sense of acting). As we shall see, central to praxis was the idea of the will that finds its immediate expression in an act, while, by contrast, central to poiesis was the experience of pro-duction into presence, the fact that something passed from nonbeing to being.
The real difference between art and a non-artistic result of our productivity lies in art's central capacity to bring into being something radically new. Art's privileged status, says Agamben, is a result of art's power to create something out of nothing. Today, we have unfortunately forgot about this crucial ability of art to create something out of nothing. Agamben points out that the tradition of storing art in museums and art collections of private individuals robs art of its role as an act of creation. The moment you attempt to contain art in a museum or a collection, you transform it into an occasion for aesthetic enjoyment or, as happens more and more often, an opportunity for the spectators to practice their aesthetic judgement. Thus, art stops being a subject and becomes an object. It is only valuable as long as we can turn it to our use as a trigger to our critical analysis.

The reason why this new attitude to art was formed lies in the changing attitude towards work. We all know that the Greeks did not hold working in a very high regard (to say the very least):
The Greeks were prevented from considering work thematically, as one of the fundamental modes of human activity besides poiesis and praxis, by the fact that the physical work necessary for life's needs was performed by slaves. However, this does not mean that they were unaware of its existence or had not understood its nature. To work meant to submit to necessity, and submission to necessity, which made man the equal of the animal, with its perpetual and forced search for means of sustenance, was thought incompatible with the condition of the free man. As Hannah Arendt rightly points out, to affirm that work was an object of contempt in antiquity because it was reserved to slaves is a prejudice: the ancients reasoned about it in the opposite direction, deeming necessary the existence of slaves because of the slavish nature of the activities that provided for life's sustenance. In other words, they had understood one of the essential characteristics of work, namely, its immediate relation to the biological process of life. 
According to the Greeks' way of thinking, one had to deserve the right to be considered a human being. The way to achieve that was by making oneself as different as possible from an animal. While animals are ruled by their biology, human beings can attempt to free themselves from this enslavement to physiological processes. (In my view, this is the central idea behind the origins of feminism - see Beauvoir's The Second Sex - which allows feminism to claim as its origin such an unlikely place as the Ancient Greek philosophy.)As we can see, for Agamben this understanding of the reasons behind the privileged status of art is completely artificial. The philosopher reminds us that the way in which the thinkers of Ancient Greece understood art did not allow for such facile and reductive understanding of art and production:

This vision of work vs art is completely transformed in subsequent historic periods, claims Agamben:

Work, which used to occupy the lowest rank in the hierarchy of active life, climbs to the rank of central value and common denominator of every human activity. This ascent begins at the moment when Locke discovers in work the origin of property, continues when Adam Smith elevates it to the source of all wealth, and reaches its peak with Marx, who makes of it the expression of man's very humanity.
We can see how true this analysis is if we observe the way artists relate to their own creative tasks. The legend of Balzac who asked to be tied to an armchair in order to remain as productive as possible continues today in the perennial efforts of artists to keep producing regularly and always achieving higher quality of their product. As a result, the role of art in our lives is transformed in the ways outlined previously. This is, of course, a very dangerous thing to happen:
In the work of art man risks losing not simply a piece of cultural wealth, however precious, and not even the privileged expression of his creative energy: it is the very space of his world, in which and only in which he can find himself as man and as being capable of action and knowledge.
This is, in my opinion, the central part of Agamben's message. What we have lost as a result of our approach to art is a place where we can truly come to existence as human beings.

Food for thought:

I would love to know how my readers would answer the following questions:
  1. What are the reasons behind the privileged status of art, in your opinion? Do you agree with Marx or with Agamben in this respect?
  2. Do you agree with the Ancient Greek philosophers in that being human requires a break with the dependence on "the biological cycle of the organism"?
  3. Does work make us human (as Marx maintained) or does it make us less human (as the Greeks would have it)?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beginning Gibbon's Decline and Fall

Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has always had a huge symbolic importance for me. All the way through two different grad schools, I hoped that the day would come when I would have enough free time to read this humongous work of an eminent historian completely and entirely for fun.

Today, this day has finally come. I am starting to read Gibbon's 6-volume history. It will probably take me a couple of years to get through it. Possibly even more. It's really great to have a job that allows one to dedicate lots of time to "impractical" things like reading, contemplation, reflection, and a completely gratuitous pursuit of knowledge.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content: A Review

The philosophy of aesthetics normally does not interest me very much. However, like everything else written by this great thinker, Giorgio Agamben's The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) overcame my resistance to the subject of aesthetics.

For Agamben, aesthetics presents both a great impediment to the fulfillment of human destiny and the only hope of achieving it. He begins his fascinating study by discussing the relatively recent origins of the idea of good taste and aesthetic sensibility. It is not until the mid-XVIIth century, says Agamben, that the distinction between good taste and bad taste appears. It is at that same point in history that a strict boundary between art and non-art begins to be drawn. From that moment, a work of art increasingly transforms for the spectators into an opportunity to practice their good taste and exercise their aesthetic judgement.

The appearance of the notion of bad taste is, obviously, attendant on the rise of the idea of good taste. Agamben points out that

Today the existence of an art and literature whose sole purpose is entertainment is so exclusively attributed to a mass society, and we are so accustomed to seeing it through the psychological condition of the intellectuals who witnessed its first explosion in the second half of the nineteenth century, that we forget that when it first arose . . .  it was an aristocratic, not a popular, phenomenon. And the critics of mass culture would certainly be setting themselves a more useful task if they started asking, first of all, how it could have happened that precisely a refined elite should have felt the need to create vulgar objects for its sensibility.
In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting subjects Agamben discusses in The Man Without Content. For the obvious reasons, I spend a lot of time with people who are literary critics, art critics, etc. Largely, our entire profession consists of enjoying, contemplating, and analyzing works of art. Usually, the best way to distinguish a seasoned colleague from a novice in our craft is by their attitude towards mass culture. The more secure an art critic feels in his or her vocation, the easier it is for them to confess their intense enjoyment of Elizabeth George's mysteries, the music of 50 Cent, or the reality television. While the 1st year PhD students react with indignation (mostly, completely fake) to the question whether they enjoy mass entertainment, literary critics of international renown happily show you their mystery novel collections or the DVD sets of their favorite soap. Thus, it was good to see Agamben discuss how popular culture had its origins in the preferences of the intellectual elites. I would have wished to see him explore this subject further, which he, sadly, decided not to do.

Another fascinating point that Agamben makes in The Man Without Content (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) has to do with the radical transformation that has taken place in the very nature of the enjoyment of artworks:
The work of art does not satisfy the soul's spiritual needs as it did in earlier times, because our tendency toward reflection and toward a critical stance have become so strong that when we are before a work of art we no longer attempt to penetrate its innermost vitality, identifying ourselves with it, but rather attempt to represent it to ourselves according to the critical framework furnished by the aesthetic judgment. . . The work of art is no longer, for modern man, the concrete appearance of the divine, which causes either ecstasy or sacred terror in the soul, but a privileged occasion to exercise his critical taste, that judgment on art which, if it is not actually worth more than art itself for us, certainly addresses a need that is at least as essential.
In my experience, at least, Agamben's observations couldn't be more true. In a museum, I often find myself standing in front of a work of art, composing in my head a critical narrative about the painting I am observing. Many a play has been spoilt for me by this obsessive need to accompany the act of watching a theatrical performance with a mental composition of a review explaining its meaning to an imaginary audience.

This manner of relating to art has eventually led to a very similar approach to nature, especially since our direct experience of nature has been reduced in number and quality by the advances of civilization:
While we are no longer able to judge a work of art aesthetically, our intelligence of nature has grown so opaque, and, moreover, the presence in it of the human element has grown to such an extent, that sometimes, in front of a landscape, we spontaneously compare it to its shadow, wondering whether it is aesthetically beautiful or ugly. . . Thus we find it natural to speak today of "land conservancy" in the same way that we speak of the preservation of a work of art, both ideas that would have struck other eras as inconceivable. It is also likely that we will soon create institutes to restore natural beauty just like those for the restoration of works of art, without recognizing that such an idea presupposes a radical transformation of our relationship to nature. What used to present itself to aesthetic judgment as absolute otherness has now become something familiar and natural, while natural beauty, which was, for our judgment, a familiar reality, has become something radically alien: art has become nature, and nature, art.
What distinguishes Agamben from most contemporary philosophers is his reluctance to accompany such beautiful insights by obnoxious moralizing. Too many thinkers would have grasped this line of reasoning as the perfect opportunity to rant against the "evils" of progress and civilization. Agamben, thankfully, avoids this trap.

[To be continued...]

Part II of this review is located here.

How Do They Know?

I have a silly question that I hope my readers will help me answer. I've lived in the United States since 2003 but there are still things that surprise me. One of those things is: how do the political organizations know about my poltical convictions? For a while now I have been receiving letters from the Democratic National Committee, letters asking for support for President Obama and various Democratic politicians. I never get similar letters from Republicans asking for any kind of support. Since I'm not a citizen, I obviously have not registered as a Democrat or anything like that.

So how do they know to send these letters to me? And how do the Republicans know not to?

Does anybody know how this works?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Law and Order Cancelled: I'm Sad

Law & Order is my favorite show ever. If it weren't for its constant reruns, I would produce a lot less research. It's so sad to know that there will be no more new episodes.

Maybe I'm just getting old but I can't find any recent shows that would be equally engrossing to me. We have been watching Boston Legal, but this show is disgustingly sexist and anti-autistic. I tried watching Lost (starting with the first episode) but it really bored me. Shows like Glee are really not my cup of tea at all. 24, which I have been watching as a comedy, is in its last season. Law & Order: Criminal Intent has been changed beyond recognition. Law & Order: SVU added the grievously talentless Sharon Stone to its regular cast.

So I don't know what I will do for television watching now. And television really helps my research because I can't write my articles in silence. Any suggestions from my readers will be welcome. The future of Hispanic Studies is in your hands, my friends. :-)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Putting Women on a Pedestal: A Patriarchal Trap

The India society is patriarchal to the core – simply stated, men rule the roost. The society in general seems to have resigned to this, while women have been forced to reconcile to be the ‘fairer sex’. However, we are a society that worships women. Our goddesses of strength, wisdom, love, and power, are all personified as women. I cannot understand that irony here; India has one of the highest rates of female infanticide and dowry-deaths, while the society and the government claim to vigorously promote the girl-child and women’s emancipation. How can a society that boasts of a rich, ancient, and varied culture simultaneously glorify and dehumanize women – how can mythical womanhood be celebrated and worshiped in the form of a goddess at the temple, while helpless women are subject to eve-teasing, torture, abuse, discrimination, and unspeakable indignity.
These fascinating observations come from a post from my dear colleague and friend Catherine Xavier. What Catherine observes is very true not only of India but of all patriarchal societies. Putting women on a pedestal, worshipping women, idolizing them - these practices do not contradict patriarchal values in the least. Just the opposite, these are some of the techniques that the patriarchy relies upon for its very existence.

The main goal of any patriarchal system is to keep women subjected to the needs of men. Female choices, desires, the multitude of differences each individual woman represents have to be reduced to one clearly defined set of roles and expectations that the patriarchy imposes on women. Putting women on a pedestal achieves this goal admirably. Idolizing somebody always translates into imposing a very high set of expectations on this person. As a result, the idolized group of individuals cannot live freely, according to their own desires and needs. They have constantly to  render accounts to the society that places them on a pedestal as to whether their actual behavior is in keeping with the set of expectations imposed on them.

There is another role that this women-worship plays in patriarchal systems. In order to exist as long as the patriarchy has existed, every system, no matter how oppressive it is, has to offer some compensation, some benefits to each of its members. Women are compensated for their participation in the patriarchal system in a variety of ways. This is simply one of them. Your life choices are limited, your mind and body are not your own, but in return, you are worshipped and told you represent the "fairer sex."

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Wakeup Call for Poor, Deluded Douthat

The long-time followers of this blog know how much I enjoy ridiculing the New York Times resident conservative freak Ross Douthat. I wrote about his unintelligent, hateful, anti-women columns here, here, here, and here. Recently, however, it seems that Douthat has finally had to face the glaring contradictions that are plaguing his worldview. We all know that for all the Conservatives' talk of family values, they truly suck at creating stable families. Going to Church, abstinence until marriage, and voting Republican mostly guarantee breakups, divorces, and all kinds of misery in one's personal and sexual lives. The incredible frequency of sex-scandals on the Republican side has been notorious. The progressives, however, do a whole lot better at creating stable, life-long marriages and good, happy families.

Today, even somebody as deluded as Douthat had to recognize these obvious facts. In a rare moment of getting back in touch with reality, Douthat admits:
Socially conservative states have more family instability than, say, the culturally liberal Northeast. If you’re looking for solid marriages, head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.

Accepting that his favorite conservative values lead to family breakup and personal misery is, of course, extremely painful to Douthat. Having finally realized that through their silly insistence on abstinence until marriage 
conservatives guarantee that their children will get pregnant early and often (see Palin, Bristol), leading to teen childbirth, shotgun marriages and high divorce rates,
he immediately becomes terrified and starts looking for somebody or something to blame. The answer is found soon: it's abortion. Or, rather, the Liberals openness to consider abortion as a way out in case of an unwanted pregnancy. Any reasonable person with half an ounce of grey matter would conclude on the basis of this information that any opposition to abortion is stupid. That's not a possibility for Douthat, though. Broken marriages, miserable teenagers, sky-high divorce rates are an acceptable price to pay for not allowing women the right to control their own bodies.

Douthat is a perfect example of conservative hypocricy. "Family values" mean absolutely nothing to him. He - as well as all other followers of this ideology - would sacrifice family values in a blink for the possibility of keeping women subjected and under control. These people's hatred of abortion reveals their own extreme sexual insecurity. They don't have political convictions or social concerns. They simply hate female bodies because these bodies repesent the constant threat of revealing to themselves and to the world their sexual failings and incapacities. Douthat and Co have no ideology. They are simply terrified of women, and that's the only opinion, belief or conviction they can offer to the world.

P.S. Turns out that Hugo Schwyzer has also written a great post about this article by Douthat.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Pill's Birthday

Another important holiday to celebrate today is the 50th anniversary of the Pill. On May 9th 1960, FDA approved the first ever contraceptive pill.

This is, without a doubt, the most crucial invention ever in terms of women's rights.

Yay for the Pill, everybody!

Google Gone Nuts

I'm sure that everybody has noticed the most unwelcome change to Google that took place recently. You can see the new excessively busy and annoyingly Bing-like design on the right.

I have no idea what prompted Google to mess with the simple and uncluttered design that made them the search engine par excellence all over the world. Why they would want to imitate the not nearly as popular is completely beyond me.

Google is my homepage at every single one of my computers. I use Google at least a dozen times a day. So imagine my annoyance when instead of a simple and straightforward search results page I got to stare at this confusing mess. What are these people thinking? If I were into the Bing look, I would simply go to Bing and avoid Google altogether.

Thanks to, I have discovered a way to go to the normal Google homepage. You can find it here. Now, I have to change the homepage option on all my computers, which will finally save me from having to see the mess created of my beloved Google.

Victory Day

With all the saccharine rejoicing over Mother's Day, many people have forgotten that May 9th is the day when Nazi Germany capitulated to the Soviet Union in 1945.

Happy Victory Day, everyone!

Friday, May 7, 2010

Another Hat Post

As people might have noticed, I love huge hats. So here is a picture of me in a huge Mexican hat.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Are You Sexist?: A Quiz

It seems that people love quizzes. I like them too, so I made one for my readers. Enjoy!

Are You Sexist?

In order to determine whether you are sexist, choose how much or how little you agree with the following statements:

  1. In the dating game, nice guys always finish last
  2. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  3. I would feel weird if my wife and my child did not have my last name
  4. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  5. If my romantic partner were making more money than I do, I would brag about it to everybody I know
  6. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  7. Women are better than men at learning languages
  8. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  9. Talking about feelings comes easier to women than to men
  10. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  11. Women worry more about their weight than men
  12. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  13. Women want to get married more than men do
  14. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  15. Women say that they prefer sensitive men but in reality women despise men who are very emotional
  16. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  17. Abortion should be freely available to women whenever they decide to have one
  18. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely
  19. Children benefit from having a stay-at-home mother
  20. Agree Completely Agree Slightly Disagree Slightly Disagree Completely

Analyzing your results:

0-4 - Good news, dear progressive thinker! You are not sexist in the least.

5-15 - I know you are trying to be understanding of women and avoid sexism. However, some of your beliefs point to a disturbing sexist tendency in your way of thinking.

16-24 - In some ways, you are pretty progressive. In others, though, patriarchal propaganda has left quite an indelible mark on your way of thinking. Keep learning, my friend! I know you can overcome patriarchal conditioning.

25-35 - It might come as a surprise to you but you are sexist. I hope these questions allow you to reexamine your values.

36-46 - Wow! You are one raging sexist, my friend. I hope this blog helps you educate yourself and curb your sexist tendencies.

Political Compass Test

I just took this Political Compass Test and to my surprise it placed me at the exact same spot where it placed the Dalai Lama.

I think I need to learn more about the Dalai Lama now, since we seem to have so much in common politically.

Feel free to take the test and share where you stand politically.

Academic Jargon

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
                                                                                          - Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time.”

This sentence by the brilliant and famous Judith Butler won the firt prize at the Worst Writing Contest. The talented but mostly unreadable Homi Bhabha took second prize with the following monstrosity:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

So why do these extremely gifted thinkers write in a way that makes their ideas almost completely inaccessible even to the readers who are pretty well-versed in the academic jargon? Do they care at all that a larger reading audience becomes completely inaccessible to them as a result of these convoluted sentence structures? To my huge surprise, I discovered a while ago that there is an actual purpose and a much-discussed ideology behind this use of language.

In their book Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Cultural Memory in the Present), Dr. Jonathan Culler and his colleagues defend the right of academics to employ extremely obscure language in their writing. They maintain that they have no interest in attracting the kind of readership that would be put off but endless sentences, confusing verbal structures, and abstruse vocabulary.

And that is where I have to disagree. Members of academia are the favorite object of derision that even the most liberal media love to ridicule. For the far right extremists, we are the most hateful group of people par excellence. In the US culture (just like in Franco's fascist Spain), intelligence, learning, bookishness, a dedication to intellectual endeavors are seen as silly, laughable, and pathetic. Whenever a college professor appears on a TV show or in an American movie, we immediately know that s/he will turn out to be either a monster or a freak. At the very best, they will be presented as pitiful. The message our students are getting on a regular basis is that knowledge is only needed insofar as it can help them find a better job. Reading for pleasure, cultivating oneself intellectually, pursuing knowledge for any reason other than ingratiating oneself with an employer are woefully out of vogue today. Can we truly afford to turn away those of our students who might be willing to learn, think, and enrich themselves intellectually but are unable to wade through convoluted sentences of some of our leading academics?

That is why I like Terry Eagleton so much. He writes in a way that any reasonably intelligent person will be able to read and enjoy. His writing is clear, funny, accessible but at the same time incisive, lucid, and profound.

In no way does this liteary critic and philosopher try to dumb down his ideas out of some misguided need to condescend to his readers. His ideas are so powerful and engaging in themselves that making them clear to others is not that hard.

For the longest time, I was convinced that the only acceptable way for an academic to write was to imitate Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and other masters of the inaccessible prose. I learned to construct preciously convoluted and painfully jargony sentences. To tell the truth, I actually enjoy writing a la Judith Butler. Something in me relishes the act of creating a sentence that runs for an entire page. Or even longer. However, after I started reading those academics who make clarity and precision the central goal of their writing, I realized that all I'd been doing with my complex and incomprehensible paragraphs was aimed at building a huge and impenetrable ivory tower around myself.

Of course, it's harder for us to make our ideas understood than for those who manipulate the public with facile slogans. It is harder to analyze things intellectually than to screech about "traditional values," "American freedoms," "big governments," and "accepting Jesus as your personal savior." But unless we make the effort to make our ideas known, these meaningless pronouncements will exist in an intellectual vacuum. Younger generations will buy into them simply because there is nothing else. We need to start offering an alternative. And we need to do it in a language that has the capacity of being understood.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Patriotism Without a Nation

There are numerous modern examples of this renewed love of country that open up to a love of humanity. . . The political times and the mode of production have changed. We have to construct the figure of a new David, the multitude as champion of asymmetrical combat, immaterial workers who become a new kind of combatants, cosmopolitan bricoleurs of resistance and cooperation. These are the ones who can throw the surplus of their knowledges and skills into the construction of a common strugle against imperial power. This is the real patriotism, the patriotism of those with no nation.
                                                                                                 - Hardt and Negri, Multitude.

When Hardt and Negri talk about immaterial workers they refer, among others, to people like me. Those whose job consists of absorbing, reformulating, creating, and disseminating knowledge represent the very group of people who can affirm a new kind of patriotism.

As most people know, national patriotism (i.e. the kind that includes being proud of a specific country, being emotionally attached to its flag, its anthem, its symbols, its history, its achievements, etc.) is a very new historic formation. It was created by the Enlightened thinkers of the XVIII century for a variety of reasons. One of this reasons was the impossibility of maintaining huge mercenary armies and the need to get people to die enthusiastically and for free in the numerous wars that needed to be waged.

One of the neatest tricks in the arsenal of national patriotism is its capacity (its absoulte need, even) to take the most recent historical developments and invest them with an aura of longevity. Nationalism manages to convince people that the nation existed long before it actually did. Nationalism's heavy reliance on all kinds of emotional manipulation devices ensures that people never question the validity of nationalist myths.

Today, it is becoming increasingly obvious that national patriotism has run its course. It has had a huge historic importance and helped create the world system in place today. Still, the world has changed and today nationalism has, for the most part, lost its useful functions. Nowadays, it is the reason for endless warfare, acts of terror, suicide bombings, death, and destruction.

For all their previous errors, Hardt and Negri suggest something very useful in the quote I placed at the beginning of this post. Increasing numbers of people today spend their lives on the move. They are born in one place, grow up in another, acquire their education someplace else, and inhabit different countries and regions in the course of their working life. Their patriotic allegiance is not to a specific nation whose papers they carry. I agree with Hardt and Negri in that patriotism of those without a nation is the hope for humanity today.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

How Come They Are All Marxists?

I'm not a Marxist. I believe that Marxism is deeply flawed at its base and no amount of recasting it in new terms will be able to salvage it. Still, all of the philosophers, literary critics, historians, thinkers, etc. whose work I read on a regular basis, enjoy profoundly and use in my own work almost exclusively are Marxists. Terry Eagleton, Perry Anderson, Slavoj Žižek, Giorgio Agamben, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman, Stuart Hall, Fredric Jameson - these are the most brilliant thinkers of our times, and they are all Marxists.

I have been searching for a long time for a serious philosopher, critic or historian of global significance who would not be a Marxist. Of course, I don't mean a clown of Francis Fukuyama's ilk. I mean a real thinker who can construct a good argument and who actually knows how to write well. I have had no luck so far.

So if any of my readers have any suggestions, I will definitely welcome them.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Gendered Science

It's funny to observe how some so-called scientists begin their research from ridiculous gender stereotypes that have been interiorized to the extent where they start looking real. Here is the result of such profoundly unscientific approach:
A nasal spray can make men more in tune with other people's feelings, say a team of German and UK researchers. They found that inhaling the "cuddle hormone" oxytocin made men just as empathetic as women.
I guess we are supposed to gather from such statements that wihout this nasal spray (a nasal spray, of all things? Seriously?) men are not in tune with people's feelings and have no empathy. These are, of course, not the most outlandish suggestions this article makes about men. Almost immediately, it makes a connection between this non-empathetic condition and schizophrenia:
Professor Kendrick said the oxytocin spray may prove to be useful in people with conditions associated with reduced social approachability and social withdrawal, such as schizophrenia.
Basically, the idea that is promoted here seems to be that schizophrenia is just a small step away from being male. If men go long enough without this miraculous nasal spray, their biological tendency towards being non-feeling might take them all the way to schizophrenia. Female schizophrenics are, of course, left out of the picture. So are non-cuddly and non-empathetic women. Any kind of reality that does not fold itself neatly into the strictly gendered worldview of these pseudo-scientists is simply discarded. Their gall is such that they do not think twice before presenting schizophrenia as a "male" disease.

These sexist studies based on assuming that learned social skills are predicated on gender marginalize significant groups of people of both genders. Sociable, sensitive, empathetic men are branded as somehow less male. Non-cuddly, unsociable women are seen as less female. All this, of course, ends up placing an additional burden an autistic women. As it is, the patriarchal gender roles mandating that all women be weepy, sentimental, overly attached creatures deny female autistics any inclusion into this socially constructed kind of womanhood.

Autism, the favorite bugbear of mass culture today, is also addressed in this strange study. It was always completely obvious to me that all the stupid "Autism Speaks" campaigns and all the mass hysteria surrounding autism were paid for by pharmaceutical companies. These companies are interested in presenting autism not as a way of being that has a right to exist but as something that can be if not cured, then "managed." In this particular case, the suggestion is that we should spray this junk up our noses in other to "learn" to relate  better to other people. Whether most autistics are actually interested in learning how to be more "cuddly" is never addressed.

For such a short article, it packs a very powerful ideological punch. First, men in general are presented as biologically insensitive, non-empathetic beings who are physiologically one step away from schizophrenia. This serves the purpose of marginalizing men who have no problem with empathy, while presenting insensitive men as truly masculine. Then, the myth of general female cuddliness is reinforced. And to top it all off, autistics are used once again to fulfill the goals of pharmaceutical companies.

It's truly sad to see what passes for science these days.