Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Spain Is in the Quarter Finals!!!!!!!!!!!

The amazing David Villa scores against Portugal:

The Meaning of the Twilight Craze

Stephenie Meyer's The Twilight Saga has become a significant cultural phenomenon. Teenage girls go crazy over these poorly written books*. They write an incredible number of reviews for these books on Amazon. They create fan-sites and write fan-fiction. They make movies based on the series an instant hit. They go crazy over this - I'm sorry, I have to be blunt - rubbish. So why do so many young girls become fans of The Twilight Saga? Why all the Twilight craze?

For me, this is a particularly interesting question because The Twilight Saga is a female Bildungsroman**, which has been my main research interest for a while. A Bildungsroman is a story of growth and development of a young character, a story of coming into one's own, becoming an adult. Dickens's David Copperfield is a Bildungsroman. So are Dreiser's An American Tragedy, Bronte's Jane Eyre, Stendhal's The Red and the Black, Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, and many others.

When female Bildungsroman came into existence and began to flourish in the XIXth century, it concentrated on exploring how the patriarchal society forced women to stunt their growth, to grow "down" instead of growing up (to use the apt terminology introduced by Annis Pratt.) In order to be accepted by their societies, women were forced to infantilize themselves, to resign themselves to never becoming fully mature. The entire history of this genre is the story of women struggling against the society's attempts to infantilize them and, for the most part, failing.

In the 1970ies, when women's rights movements achieved so much, critics and readers of female Bildungsromane expected that now, finally, novels of female development will talk of actual growth, of women exploring their newly found options, making their own choices, and enjoying the same wide range of growth-related experiences as the protagonists of male Bildungsromane.

Contrary to these expectations, a massive appearance of these female Bildungsromane that would celebrate women's choices, growth and development never came about. In reality, the exact opposite took place. The genre began producing an ever-growing number of novels that concentrate on women refusing to grow up, infantilizing themselves of their own free will (and not because of any societal expectations or demands) and asserting their right not to grow, not to become adults, not to make their own choices. Often, these female Bildungsromane experiment with the Gothic genre. This happens because the theme of fear (fear of the world of adults, of a complex reality awaiting them when they grow up) can be explored very productively within the Gothic genre. So it is not surprising that Stephenie Meyer decided to bring vampires into the mix. The constant sense of dread, of danger that Bella Swan experiences is symbolic of the terror that she feels at the unwelcome prospect of coming into her own. Like so many of the heroines of these new Bildungsromane, she delegates all responsibility for her life to a man.

At the dawn of this genre, female characters were often forced into marriage and childbirth at an early age. They realized how limited their life choices were and struggled to find some opportunities for growth, to escape their stultifying environment. Not so the contemporary heroine Bella Swan. Unlike - to give just one example - Jane Eyre who longs to "reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen", Bella has every opportunity to carve out a life of her own filled with personal achievements of pretty much any kind. But she chooses not to. She elects the very lifestyle that her predecessors of 150 years ago struggled to avoid. At a very young age, she gives herself over to a man so that he can possess her, impregnate her, and integrate her into his clan. As if that were not enough, she makes sure that her daughter is integrated into this very patriarchal existence from an early age of six.

Today's female Bildungsroman is very often a story of women choosing never to grow up and defending passionately (and often violently) their right to eternal immaturity. The enormous popularity of The Twilight Saga shows that this narrative of voluntary female self-infantilization resonates with many young women. In my book (which is now under review at a publishing house), I analyze this phenomenon as it takes place in the contemporary Spanish literature. The Twilight craze demonstrates that it is not limited to Europe. Now we have a very similar development here in the US.

* This is probably the only positive consequence of the Twilight craze. Hey, at least these kids will find out that reading exists and that it's supposed to be an enjoyable activity. Of course, the question immediately arises whether it is better to read rubbish than to read nothing at all.

** When I speak of female Bildungsromane, I mean novels written by women about women.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning to Love St. Louis

After living for almost a year in the St. Louis area, I'm still trying to find ways to learn about it and like it. To be completely honest, it's not an easy place to love. I can't really explain why my rapprochement with St. Louis is proving to be so difficult. Probably, it's the semi-Midwestern semi-Southern culture of the city that I'm still not getting.

So yesterday I decided to mix different kinds of experiences in St. Louis: an authentic (or what I think is authentic, which could be completely misguided) eating experience in the Broadway Oyster Bar and listening to the opera Evgeny Onegin at the Loretto-Hilton Center.
As you can see from the pictures, the restaurant is very quaint and cute. Of course, the Cajun food it serves doesn't have much to do with St. Louis but the ambiance and the people made the experience feel very much like a genuine St. Louis way to spend time.

The opera was pretty good, and it was especially nice to see that there were almost no unoccupied seats. Of course, I am yet to get used to the very American practice of adding captions to an opera, which is extremely distracting and completely unnecessary.

If anybody has any advice on what one could do to learn to understand this city better, I would be grateful. I know I'll get it eventually but for now it's taking time.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Dumbed Down: Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties and the Erosion of Academic Standards

I have to confess that I cannot stop thinking about Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush which I reviewed here. I wouldn't mind so much if some Joe Schmo found a publishing house willing to accept such a poorly researched, superficial manuscript. I value freedom of speech and I believe that everybody should be able to express their ideas, no matter how silly and uninformed those ideas might be. What bothers me so much about Framing the Sixties is that the author of this disgrace of a book is an academic who published it with an academic press and who evidently believes that it qualifies as a piece of research. We can whine as much as we want about the corporate model destroying academia, but what can we expect when so many academics sell themselves out in this egregious way just to make a quick buck?

Believe me, I am not one of those people who think that if a book sells well it cannot represent a legitimate scholarly contribution. Far from it. I admire Terry Eagleton who writes books that sell without sacrificing academic rigor in the slightest. But, of course, in order to do what Eagleton does, you need to have his beautiful writing style, his great erudition, and his brilliant capacity to construct an argument. When those skills are lacking and you are still dying to make yourself some money, you can do what Bothmer has done in Framing the Sixties. The recipe is simple: find a catchy topic, interview some famous people, quote them abundantly with no attempt at analysis, and market your book aggressively. And the most important ingredient: avoid any argument or line of thinking that is not entirely superficial. Your own words should only serve to introduce quotes and provide very loose links between them. (Seriously, a more honest title for this book would be A Bunch of Quotes from Semi-Famous People I Met.)

Another thing that is so frustrating in the disturbing tendency that Framing the Sixties represents is the author's belief that name-dropping is an excuse for an absolute lack of standards. From the very first pages, Bothmer makes it clear that since he has managed to interview former aides to Reagan and Bush, he should be allowed to lower the level of his discourse as much as he wants. In his introduction, he states openly and unashamedly that he chose to exclude the opinions of women and African Americans just because he doesn't find these segments of population to be very relevant*. It is mind-boggling how something like this can pass for academic research. Can I now write in my book that I decided to analyze only the novels written by redheads just because I believe that nobody else is relevant? Since I haven't talked to any celebrities, I guess not.

So we have university presses that are turning themselves into vanity presses by charging for publishing and that print substandard scholarship just to make some money. We have academics that put out anti-intellectual swill that breaks every rule of responsible and rigorous research also just to make some money. We have college administrators who expect faculty to leave behind their scruples and imitate Bothmer's unashamed struggle for money and fame. And then we have students who observe all this and lose faith in their teachers, in their colleges, in academia, and in anything that claims to be even remotely intellectual.

Of course, Bothmer will claim that those of his colleagues who reject his blatant anti-intellectualism are simply jealous of his success. I have heard this argument from other money-hungry academics who are incapable of producing quality research and sell themselves out as a result. For this kind of people, "success" is always measured in money and tawdry fame among the unenlightened. It's hard for them to see why their colleagues see them as losers.

* The shocking thing is that the Left has now adopted this book as its own, giving it rave reviews and doing everything to promote it. This tells us a lot about what American Left stands for.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Texas GOP Against Oral and Anal Sex

People tell me I shouldn't make fun of Texas as much as I do but, come on, I just can't help it after this kind of news:

The Texas GOP platform . . .  would it make it a felony to perform same sex marriage (because "homosexuality tears at the fabric of society"), it would also ban oral and anal sex (because it tears at the...oh nevermind, too easy), and outlaw strip clubs and porn.
Some more gems from the platform:
Making make American English the official language of Texas and the United States.Passing legislation requiring a sonogram for each pregnant woman seeking an abortion.
Opposing legislation allowing stem cell research involving the creation of killing of human embryos for medical research.
 We obviously don't have any serious problems in this country if a major political party wants to waste its time and resources preventing people from having sex or doing anything sex-related. If anybody doesn't believe that the Texas GOP is a bunch of sexually repressed losers who hate the world because they have been so sexually deprived that they can't master any emotion other than hatred, please tell me how you can maintain that strange conviction in the face of such obvious facts.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Bernard von Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: A Review

I was prepared to love Bothmer's Framing the Sixties: The Use and Abuse of a Decade from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and sat down to read it with a sense of pleasurable expectation. From the opening pages, though, I was extremely disappointed. Bothmer is one of those historians who believe that writing history only has to do with the events concerning white males and nobody else is worthy of his attention. In the introduction, he declares that he has no interest in writing about "the political manipulation of gender sentiments since 1980." From his point of view, feminism has achieved all of its goals (according to Bothmer, it has to be true since even Bush Jr. condescended to women enough to talk about the need to be "concerned" about women), so there is no need to address the anti-feminist backlash that informed American politics since the Reagan presidency. He recognizes that he failed to interview a representative number of women for his book and insists that "neither the women's movement nor . . . the civil rights movement is part of 'the sixties' as that has been understood by the public." He and I must definitely be surrounded by some very different kinds of public because for everybody I know, the very words 'the sixties' immediately evoke these important movements that seem to bore Bothmer so much.Out of the handful of times Bothmer quotes a woman, Phyllis Schlafly (I kid you not) is his main source of female opinion.

The central premise of Bothmer's book is undoubtedly correct and truly fascinating. It is, of course, true that politicians manipulate the image of the sixties and their success or lack thereof in this manipulation still decides whether they would be successful politically. What is so strange is that Bothmer somehow excises the struggle over women's rights and gay rights from his discussion of the sixties. (For him, 'the sixties' last until 1974). Apparently, he believes that today's political discourse is dominated by the arguments on whether the Vietnam War was conducted properly and not on gay marriage and abortion. (I wonder if Sarah Palin would be able to point Vietnam out on a map. No, I actually don't wonder at all.)

Bothmer is right when he states that the conservatives have won the struggle over the right to narrate the sixties. Still, in no way has this important ideological victory "eventually destroyed liberalism." American liberalism has surely suffered some blows since the 80ies but it is in no way dead. Another one of Bothmer's ideas that he reiterates obsessively and for which he fails to offer any explanation is that the 60ies robbed George W. Bush of his legacy and destroyed his expectations while offering every opportunity to Bill Clinton. Seeing as both of these men ended up as two-term presidents of the US, this argument seems extremely weak.

Yet another problem with the book is that Bothmer believes that ideology is created "from above." (Some background in the theory of ideology would come in extremely useful to this author.) For this reason, he bases his analysis exclusively on what the white guys in power have to say about the sixties: presidential speechwriters, Washington insiders, and what Bothmer considers to be "the elites." Somehow, he has managed to convince himself that Americans are more influenced in their understanding of the 60ies by what some obscure lobbyist says in an interview to Bothmer than by conversations with their parents who lived the 60ies, the popular culture, music, literature, etc. If the author just stuck to narrating the opinions of these so-called "members of the elites", then I would have no objection to make. However, Bothmer follows many of the references to what some Washington insider told him by a baseless conclusion that this is what "the public thinks", "the public feels" or "the public endorses." I have no idea how he manages to find out what "the public" thinks about anything if he never asks the public. Does he consider the American people to be so stupid as to have no opinions besides those they are spoon-fed by politicians?

In terms of the writing style, the author seems to believe in the art of understatement even less than I do. :-) Every little idea that might have a tiniest speck of originality is beaten to death by constant repetition. The quotes from politicians interviewed by Bothmer are presented as gospel truth, with no attempt at criticism or analysis. Apparently, Bothmer believes that all politicians are always 100% honest, their memories never fail, and their opinions count more than anybody else's.

In spite of these severe limitations, the book has some interesting insights to offer. Bothmer demonstrates that in spite of its professed hatred for the sixties, the Right benefited a lot from that decade. The conservative movement in the US was pretty much on its deathbed until it came out with a certain mythical image of the sixties. The Right's virulent attacks on this spurious image of the 60ies allowed it to come to power in the Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. presidencies. It is also undoubtedly true that the Kennedy presidency was romanticized on purpose in order to make the post-Kennedy sixties to look more unattractive. Still, in my opinion these insights are far from being earth-shattering and ground-breaking and they definitely do not make the book worth buying or reading.

We Are All So Screwed

From the New York Times:

Great Recession? What recession? The world’s millionaires and billionaires — now totaling 10 million — saw their overall wealth jump 18.9 percent last year, to $39 trillion.
The surge in the stock market in 2009 restored many people back to the ranks of the rich as the financial crisis abated. The number of people with at least $1 million in assets beyond their homes and household goods climbed 17 percent, according to a report on the world’s wealth by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, a Paris-based business consulting firm. Their total wealth approached the 2007 peak of $40.7 trillion, after a 20 percent plunge to $32.8 trillion in 2008.
“We are already seeing distinct signs of recovery, and in some areas a complete return to 2007 levels of wealth and growth,” Sallie Krawcheck, president of global wealth and investment management at Bank of America, said in a statementAs expected, the most millionaires could be found in the United States, where their ranks rose 16.5 percent, to 2.87 million, last year, according to the report. Their total wealth in North America rose 17.8 percent, to $10.7 trillion. 
 I don't know what this tells you, but for me this means that the same clueless jerks who got us all into the current mess have gone back to their irresponsible lending, borrowing, paper-pushing practices. Why is nobody discussing the very distinct possibility (which by now has become a strong probability) that these losers will get us into a new round of this economic crisis petty soon?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Who Needs Student Evaluations?

As many people know, I'm no great fan of Stanley Fish and his opinion column at the New York Times. However, his recent column on the dangers of relying too much on student evaluations raises many important concerns:

And that is why student evaluations (against which I have inveighed since I first saw them in the ’60s) are all wrong as a way of assessing teaching performance: they measure present satisfaction in relation to a set of expectations that may have little to do with the deep efficacy of learning. Students tend to like everything neatly laid out; they want to know exactly where they are; they don’t welcome the introduction of multiple perspectives, especially when no master perspective reconciles them; they want the answers.
But sometimes (although not always) effective teaching involves the deliberate inducing of confusion, the withholding of clarity, the refusal to provide answers; sometimes a class or an entire semester is spent being taken down various garden paths leading to dead ends that require inquiry to begin all over again, with the same discombobulating result; sometimes your expectations have been systematically disappointed. And sometimes that disappointment, while extremely annoying at the moment, is the sign that you’ve just been the beneficiary of a great course, although you may not realize it for decades.
Needless to say, that kind of teaching is unlikely to receive high marks on a questionnaire that rewards the linear delivery of information and penalizes a pedagogy that probes, discomforts and fails to provide closure. Student evaluations, by their very nature, can only recognize, and by recognizing encourage, assembly-line teaching that delivers a nicely packaged product that can be assessed as easily and immediately as one assesses the quality of a hamburger.
While I can't agree that the assembly-line delivery of neatly packaged information is the only things that students are looking for in a course, in many ways Stanley Fish is right here. I wrote about this tendency that the students unfortunately have some time ago:
As a result, our graduates know how to follow instructions and work themselves into an utter exhaustion but they have no idea how to think originally or express their creativity. Recently, students asked me for a a study guide for our next exam. "There is no study guide," I said. "You will have to express your own opinions on the texts we read and the paintings we have discussed." "Is there a study guide on how to do that?" asked one of the students very seriously. Once again, the most pressing questions for us, the educators, is whether the goal of education is to produce people who can follow orders even at an enormous cost to themselves or people who know how to think and don't need a study guide to express their own opinions.
One of the sad consequences of this tell-me-what-to-memorize-but-don't-ask-me-to-think approach is that students are, indeed, likely to penalize a teacher who struggles to make them think rather than providing them with ready-made neatly organized answers. I believe, however, that Fish is wrong in addressing the concept of student evaluations instead of placing the blame where it is due. The very perception of higher education as having as its only goal a creation of efficient, productive robots who are highly organized and follow instructions perfectly is to blame for this state of things. Student evaluations can be very useful as a tool that lets the faculty know whether their teaching style is effective. Many faculty members start teaching without having taken a single course on pedagogy or the methodology of teaching. As a result, these professors believe that teaching consists in repeating things they know to their audience. How else would they find out that their teaching is not effective if not through student evaluations?

I don't think that student evaluations should be scrapped altogether. They are not the root of the problem. They are just a symptom of a much wider malaise.

P.S. Needless to say, I agree with Fish on everything he has to say about the insane attitude to college teaching in Texas. When I was on the job market, I realized immediately that it makes no sense whatsoever to apply for a job at any Texan university. The working conditions are ridiculous, the workload is insane, the college administrators are rabid, and the environment is miserable. But what can you expect from Texas, really?

Monday, June 21, 2010

World Cup Today: Spain vs Honduras

Now that Portugal has pummeled North Korea in a beautiful game, I can't help hoping that Spain will beat Honduras at least 2:0 (hopefully, more) in the next two hours. As much as I love Honduras, Spain needs to win this.

Real-time updates:

5:01 - Spain is playing beautifully. But if they don't score soon, I'll have a heart attack.

11:45 - I'm glad Valladares is fine. He is a great goalkeeper (Honduras), and it would be a shame for him to sustain an injury so early in the game.

14:11 - Spain is pressing like crazy but it is time to score already.

And what a beautiful one, too!!!!! David Villa is fantastic!

19:30 - And of course Mendoza tripped Villa up almost immediately after the goal. 

20:32 - What's up with Ramos? He is kind of all over the place today, and not in a good way.

23:38 - Xavi misses a sure thing header. Urrrrgh!!!

24:23 - Spain is playing the most beautiful game I have seen in this World Cup so far. Of course, I'm biased, so take it for what it's worth.

27:46 - Vamos, chicos, we need at least one more goal. Hopefully, more.

29:07 - Torres is like some kind of a football miracle.

32:59 - But he just can't get it in the net. Carajo.

[I can't believe I had to miss 10 minutes of the game because of an important phone call concerning my visa status.]

49:04 - Come on, guys, some people are winning 7:0, we can't stay at puny 1:0, especially with such a disparity in skill and technique

Villa is on a roll!!!!

53:30 - So whenever I write that it's time to score, Spain scores. Not to be superstitious here, but we need to score again!!

61:07 - Honduras is getting way too aggressive for their own good.

62:06 - Villa misses a penalty shot but he is allowed to do that after scoring twice already today. Well, I hope he gets to vindicate his penalty technique during the World Cup finals.

64:58 - Suazo misses, a Dios sean dadas las gracias.

66:37 - What's annoying is how the second you start watching a great game, the whole universe decides to call you on the phone. Why aren't they watching the World Cup, I wonder?

84:36 - I don't think the third goal is going to happen. Spain seems to be getting tired and begins to let Honduras attack. This is not good. Villa keeps trying to redeem himself for the missed penalty, though.

89:01 - Spain is so good today. I finally recognize the team that creamed my country's team in a very humiliating way in their first game of the 2006 World Cup. :-) (We later went on to the quarter finals.)

Great game overall. Final score Spain 2 - Honduras 0.

Genital Mutilation at Cornell

It sounds incredible that a respectable university would employ somebody who conducts genital mutilation on little girls:
A pediatric urologist at Cornell—Dix Poppas—has been operating on little girls with what he judges to be oversized clitorises, cutting away important clitoral tissues, and then stitching the glans to what remains of the shaft. 
As if that weren't enough, this vile witch doctor does the following horrible things to the poor little girls:
At annual visits after the surgery, while a parent watches, Poppas touches the daughter’s surgically shortened clitoris with a cotton-tip applicator and/or with a “vibratory device,” and the girl is asked to report to Poppas how strongly she feels him touching her clitoris. Using the vibrator, he also touches her on her inner thigh, her labia minora, and the introitus of her vagina, asking her to report, on a scale of 0 (no sensation) to 5 (maximum), how strongly she feels the touch.... Poppas has indicated in this article and elsewhere that ideally he seeks to conduct annual exams with these girls.... 
The question is, of course, what freak of a parent would allow this horror to be inflicted on their own daughter and would actually sit there watching their child being sexually molested like that. (Probably the same ones who breastfeed their children until the age of 5 and sleep in the same bed with them until puberty). But leaving that aside, I think the entire academic community should boycott Cornell until this disgusting individual is thrown out of the university for good. It pains me to say this because I have good memories of Cornell but for now this university is dead for me until Poppas is thrown out of Cornell on his ass and recognized publicly for a nasty, disgusting animal that he is.

Anti-Rape Female Condom with Teeth

A new anti-rape condom with teeth for women has been invented by Doctor Sonnet Ehlers:

Ehlers is distributing the female condoms in the various South African cities where the World Cup soccer games are taking place. The woman inserts the latex condom like a tampon. Jagged rows of teeth-like hooks line its inside and attach on a man's penis during penetration, Ehlers said. Once it lodges, only a doctor can remove it -- a procedure Ehlers hopes will be done with authorities on standby to make an arrest. "It hurts, he cannot pee and walk when it's on," she said. "If he tries to remove it, it will clasp even tighter... however, it doesn't break the skin, and there's no danger of fluid exposure."
Read more about this here.

The concept of vagina dentata now has a physical embodiment in this new invention. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept, this is what it means:
The myth of the vagina dentata, or vagina with teeth, derives from primitive masculine dreads of the "mysteries" of women and sexual union. It evokes castration anxiety, whereby the man fears loss of the penis during intercourse, and more generally it relates to fears of weakness, impotence, or annihilation by incorporation (connected to unconscious notions of "returning to the womb"). 
 More information and a bibliography on this concept here.

The main objection to this invention is, for now, that it will make women feel constantly as potential victims, which will have dire psychological consequences. I submit, however, that in most places in the world women already feel constantly victimized and that any "psychological damage" this anti-rape condom might inflict on women will be smaller than the damage - both psychological and physical - caused by rape. In war zones, especially, where rape is used as a tool of waging war, this might be a particularly useful thing to have.

I would like to hear what my readers think about this new invention. Do you think it's a good thing? Would it help prevent rape? Would you buy one?

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Terry Eagleton's On Evil: A Review, Part II

One of Eagleton's ideas that I always found to be the most annoying was his opposition to the concept of progress. As I said before:
As a group, privileged middle-aged white men have been steadily losing in power and prestige. When Eagleton says that progress is a myth, he talks as a representative of a particular collective identity, one that has suffered a significant decline. If things continue developing in the same direction, being male, white, and rich will entail no advantages whatsoever. As much as I respect Eagleton (and believe me, I really do), observing him in real life made it clear to me that he has been making full use of these advantages and will not give them up easily. Hence the "progress-is-a-myth" agenda. Eagleton and Co must believe that if they repeat this mantra often enough, there is a chance that the pesky consequences of said unexisting progress will disappear.
 After reading On Evil, I am happy to report that Eagleton has somewhat modified his position on whether progress is a valid concept. I believe that only a philosopher who is capable of rethinking his position and recognizing the faults of his previous arguments is worthy of the name. Hence, I was really glad to see that in On Evil Eagleton has been brave enough to step away from his former anti-progress rant. In his attempt to reformulate his attitude towards the concept of progress, Eagleton even agrees with Dawkins, the man he usually loves to ridicule:
So Dawkins . . . is quite right to insist on the preciousness of this development, in the teeth of those for whom the very idea of progress is no more than an imperialist myth. It is true that some things get better in some respects. Those who doubt the reality of progress might try having their teeth pulled without anesthetics. They might also try affording greater respect to the Pankhurst sisters or Martin Luther King. But some things also get worse.
 In this respect, On Evil has been a very refreshing and welcome read. The only problem I found with this book is that it seemed like Eagleton was in some kind of unjustified hurry to finish it and send it to his editor. The minute his arguments started to acquire a real "bite", he decided not to take his reasoning any further.
In spite of this, the book is really good, both thought-conducive and entertaining.

The first part of the review can be found here.

Jose Saramago Is Dead

The greatest Portuguese writer of the second half of the twentieth century, a Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago is dead. Until the last days of his life he kept writing. A little while ago he created a splash by starting a blog that immediately became extremely famous and has now been turned into a book. If you read Portuguese, the blog can be found here.

I can't believe that this great writer will never write anything else.

Some of my favorite books by Saramago are:


Thursday, June 17, 2010

Football Brings Civilization to Southern Illinois

I'm no fan of the German team, but it's great to see people drive with this kind of bumber stickers in Southern Illinois. In this way, some locals might even discover that other countries exist.

And then some people say that football brings no progressive values.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Football as an Ideological Tool

Terry Eagleton on football:

 If every rightwing thinktank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would be the same: football. No finer way of resolving the problems of capitalism has been dreamed up, bar socialism. And in the tussle between them, football is several light years ahead. Modern societies deny men and women the experience of solidarity, which football provides to the point of collective delirium. Most car mechanics and shop assistants feel shut out by high culture; but once a week they bear witness to displays of sublime artistry by men for whom the word genius is sometimes no mere hype. . .  
In a social order denuded of ceremony and symbolism, football steps in to enrich the aesthetic lives of people for whom Rimbaud is a cinematic strongman. The sport is a matter of spectacle but, unlike trooping the colour, one that also invites the intense participation of its onlookers. Men and women whose jobs make no intellectual demands can display astonishing erudition when recalling the game's history or dissecting individual skills. Learned disputes worthy of the ancient Greek forum fill the stands and pubs. Like Bertolt Brecht's theatre, the game turns ordinary people into experts.
 Read more here.

It is well-known that dictatorships of all types of political persuasion used football to distract people from what was going on around them and made them feel patriotic towards a country that at that very moment was posing a mortal danger to every one of its citizens. Stalin allowed football fans to participate in an extremely mild form of anti-KGB sentiment through the choice of a team everybody supported and that was the main rival of the KGB-sponsored team. During the Dirty War in Argentina, people managed not to notice the dead bodies washed up on the banks of the River Plate every day, the humiliating Falklands War, their relatives and neighbors being taken away at night to be tortured because of their national team's success. In Franco's Spain, screaming during a football game was the only way to express the rage that was burning people from the inside.

So should we agree with Eagleton? Should football be sent to the trash heap of history because of its inherently conservative nature? One thing that Eagleton is forgetting to mention in his analysis is that football is a beautiful game. And it is possible for people who have no use for "collective delirium," who feel very much a part of the "high culture," whose aesthetic lives are rich and whose jobs make all kinds of intellectual demands on them to enjoy football.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spain Needs to Win the World Cup

I am beyond disappointed and sad over Spain's silly loss to Switzerland (of all God forsaken places!) in Spain's first game of this World Cup. Since Ukraine is not playing in the 2010 World Cup, I have been rooting for Spain with all my heart. There are many non-sport-related reasons why Spain needs to win this year. The economic crisis hit Spain extremely hard. The unemployment level is at 20%, and this number is not expected to go down at the very least until 2012. Both main political parties are torn apart by endless corruption scandals. People are losing heart, and a win in the World Cup would help a country that adores football* recover its spirits.

Spain is a truly admirable country, and I'm not only saying this because it's my job to say this. :-) Not only is it incredibly vibrant artistically, it has preserved its art and culture against enormous odds. Victim of the longest surviving European fascist dictatorship, Spain only became fascism-free in 1975. Since then, it has progressed at an incredibly fast pace. A country that was plagued with blatant gender inequalities and truly disgusting degree of homophobia is today light years ahead of the US in what concerns gender equality and gay rights**. It also established a far more civilized relationship between state and religion than anything we can imagine in this country.

I truly hope that in spite of today's silly defeat Spain will be able to get it together and win the World Cup. In terms of its capacity for to fight for feminist ideals, there is no other country who deserves the win more.

A por ellos oe 
A por ellos oe
A por ellos oe
A por ellos oe oe

*I'm from Europe, so football is football and American football is non-existent. :-)

**Same-sex marriage in Spain was legalized in 2005.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Another Instance of Pseudo-Scientific Stupidity

This is what science has come to nowadays:

Want lots of kids? If you're a man, find yourself a neurotic mate. And if you're a woman, look for a gregarious guy. That’s because extroverted men and needy, anxious women are the most fertile coupling, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers looked at a population in Senegal for the study. That African nation is run a little differently from the U.S. - its residents practice polygamy and typically don’t believe in birth control. But whether in Senegal or America, extroverted men tend to make more money and presumably have more sex. And more frequent sex leads to more babies. The findings, says study author Prof. Virpi Lummaa of Sheffield University in the U.K., suggest “that the link between extroversion and number of children in men is driven by the effects of extroversion on the probability of belonging to the high social class.”
I was going to comment on this new bout of pseudo-scientific barbarity but then thought better of it. This rubbish definitely speaks for itself.

This is what happens in societies that glorify stupidity. This is what we will have in place of science if the disturbing trends in the academic world continue unchecked.

Terry Eagleton's On Evil: A Review, Part I

In his book On Evil, Terry Eagleton offers his readers an eminently readable treatise that combines literary criticism and philosophy in a way that does justice to his complex and charged subject. In my view, Eagleton does what every scholar of literature should attempt to do: make his analysis accessible to a wide reading audience without sacrificing the intellectual rigor of his work. As usual, the book is written beautifully, and Eagleton's sense of humor is highly enjoyable.

Eagleton begins On Evil by discussing how the concept of evil has been appropriated by a certain type of political discourse. The implication behind referring to terrorists as "evildoers" and their actions as "pure evil" is that if we accept that there is a rational  explanation for acts of terror, we somehow condone them. This, of course, is completely wrong:
Calling the action evil meant that it was beyond comprehension. Evil is unintelligible. It is just a thing in itself, like boarding a crowded commuter train wearing only a giant boa constrictor. There is no context which would make it explicable. . . if evil really is beyond explanation—if it is an unfathomable mystery—how can we even know enough about it to condemn evildoers? The word “evil” is generally a way of bringing arguments to an end, like a fist in the solar plexus. . . No Western politician today could afford to suggest in public that there are rational motivations behind the dreadful things that terrorists get up to. “Rational” might too easily be translated as “commendable.” Yet there is nothing irrational about robbing a bank, even if it is not generally considered to be commendable.
 The tendency to refer to terrorists as evil only serves the purpose of shutting down any kind of discussion of their actions. As a result, we are left with no understanding of what they do and what. Consequently, we cannot possibly hope to combat terror since we have precluded any opportunity to analyze terrorism in any meaningful way. There are other consequences, says Eagleton in his incomparably delectable writing style, to the constant references to evil that populate a certain kind of political discourse:
Once the middle classes get their hands on virtue, even vice begins to look appealing. Once the puritan propagandists and evangelical mill owners redefine virtue as thrift, prudence, chastity, abstinence, sobriety, meekness, frugality, obedience, and self-discipline, it is not hard to see why evil should begin to look like a sexier option.
Even though Eagleton ridicules the way certain politicians have appropriated the word "evil," he believes that evil actions and evil individuals do exist. In this, he disagrees not only with a certain brand of liberals but with many Marxists as well. (We have to remember that Eagleton himself is an unapologetic Marxist, which does not preclude him from pointing out the many subjects where he disagrees with his fellow Marxists):
For there are indeed evil acts and individuals, which is where the softhearted liberals and the tough-minded Marxists alike are mistaken. As far as the latter go, the American Marxist Fredric Jameson writes of “the archaic categories of good and evil.”1 One is forced to assume that Jameson is not of the view that the victory of socialism would be a good thing. The English Marxist Perry Anderson implies that terms like “good” and “evil” are relevant to individual conduct only—in which case it is hard to see why tackling famines, combating racism, or disarming nuclear missiles should be described as good. Marxists do not need to reject the notion of evil, as my own case would exemplify; but Jameson and some of his leftist colleagues do so partly because they tend to confuse the moral with the moralistic.
 I quote so much because it is impossible not to love Eagleton's way of expressing himself. As I said before, if I ever learn to write half as well as Eagleton does, I will die happy.

In Eagleton's view, the nature of evil is metaphysical, in the sense that it aims to destroy being as such, not just certain parts of it. It is the metaphysical nature of evil that Eagleton tries to analyze (and in my view, succeeds in doing so) in On Evil. The most intolerable thing for evil is that anything should exist. Its most important goal is the annihilation of being as such:
Evil would actually prefer that there was nothing at all, since it does not see the point of created things. It loathes them because, as Thomas Aquinas claims, being is itself a kind of good. The more richly abundant existence is, the more value there is in the world. . . Given the intolerable fact that things do exist, however, the best evil can do is try to annihilate them.
Eagleton comes up with the strongest and the most convincing explanation for the reasons that push people to engage in mass murder, genocide, extermination of others, etc.:
The kind of others who drive you to mass murder are usually those who for some reason or other have come to signify the terrible non-being at the core of oneself. It is this aching absence which you seek to stuff with fetishes, moral ideals, fantasies of purity, the manic will, the absolute state, the phallic figure of the Führer. In this, Nazism resembles some other brands of fundamentalism. The obscene enjoyment of annihilating the Other becomes the only way of convincing yourself that you still exist. The non-being at the core of one’s own identity is, among other things, a foretaste of death; and one way of fending off the terror of human mortality is to liquidate those who incarnate this trauma in their own person. In this way, you demonstrate that you have authority over the only antagonist—death—that cannot be vanquished even in principle. Power loathes weakness because it rubs its nose in its own secret frailty. 
In his  Living in the End Times, Slavoj Žižek says that the question we need to ask ourselves is not "Is there life after death?" What we should ask instead is, rather, "Is there life before death?" Eagleton echoes this statement in On Evil. He mentions "the worthless purity of those who have never lived", which can lead people to desire to bring destruction to those who have the capacity to enjoy the richness of human existence. It is among those who have never actually allowed themselves to live, to enjoy, to love life that evil has its perfect breeding ground. We can't but think of the glee with which the US Evangelicals indulge in their apocalyptic fantasies of world destruction. It is no wonder, then, that those very Evangelicals are so prone to wage wars on all and sundry.

[The second part of the review is here]

Kindle Update Version 2.5

Attention Kindle-owners:

The long-awaited update for the Kindle is now available. You can download it to you computer and then transfer to your device with the help of your USB cable. Then, use the Update button in your Settings.

This long-awaited update will finally give us separate folders for our book collections. You can place the same book into as many collections as you want. Deleting a book from a collection (or deleting the entire collection) will not delete the book from the device, so you don't have to worry.

We will also be able to tweet or post on Facebook our favorite quotes directly from the device. 

Two larger font sizes and clearer fonts will be made available through the update.

You will be able to see which places in the book you are reading were highlighted by other readers. This function is great fun because it allows you to see your book through the eyes of other readers.

My update is loading right now, and I expect to spend the entire night ecstatically sorting my books and putting them into different collections. Then I hope to finish reading Terry Eagleton's beautiful treatise On Evil and write a review of this great book for my readers.

Have I mentioned how much I love my Kindle?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Destruction of Academia: What Can We Do to Stop It?

A couple of weeks ago, I received a message from a very prestigious university press where I had submitted my manuscript proposal telling me that before they even start considering the proposal I need to make sure that I will be able to pay them $1,500 for the publication of my book. Of course, I refused because this would mean perpetuating a practice that I find to be not only wrong but also extremely dangerous for the academic world at large. The question remained, though, how it is possible for a UP still to be considered prestigious if their process of selecting promising authors is based on whether these authors have money.

Then, last week I was browsing through academic journals trying to decide where to submit a new article and discovered two journals that warn authors about the amount of money ($80-$120) that they will have to pay to have their article published. This practice existed before in the form of demanding that all authors who submit articles to a certain magazine purchase a subscription to it. Today, however, even this genteel pretense has been dropped, and money for publications is being demanded openly and directly.

The saddest part of this is that we, the academics, are not doing anything to oppose the gradual monetization of our field. We all need to publish on a regular basis in order to pass our retention reviews, merit reviews, mid-point reviews, and eventually tenure reviews. This makes the academics so desperate to get published at any cost that they agree to participate in the paying for publication process. I don't think I need to explain here why this practice is extremely dangerous for research.

There is this myth that is being circulated by university administrations and that is preventing many of us from fighting these pernicious tendencies. Of course, I mean the "we don't have any money" myth. It was created long before the current economic crisis but now the crisis has given college administrators a perfect excuse to make such practices even more far-reaching. What we need to do in order to save research from an imminent demise is, first and foremost, stop believing these lies. I will only believe that there is, in fact, no money in higher education when I see administrators take significant pay cuts or, better yet, salary freezes. Administrators often get upwards of $250.000 per year, while a very tiny fraction of that amount will allow an academic journal that publishes 20 articles per year to publish them for free. There seems to be money for all kind of silliness on campuses, except for things that are directly related to intellectual endeavors. Sports facilities continue to be built, administrators' offices continue being redecorated with expensive new furniture, marketing specialists continue to be hired at incredible salaries to "promote" the university and make people consider it prestigious. In the meanwhile, academic journals that have been in existence for 80 years are allowed to go out of print because the anti-intellectual administrators think that a catchy slogan, not an intellectually respectable publication, is what makes a college prestigious.

We, the academics, need to start taking our world of knowledge away from these ignoramuses. We need to start throwing peddlers out of our ivory tower, so to speak. We need to stop believing their lies and their complaints. We need to stop paying attention to their manipulative tactics aimed at distracting us from the reality of being exploited. We need to stop manufacturing the tools of our exploitation.

Unfortunately, we have allowed things to go so far that now many sacrifices will need to be made in order to combat these destructive tendencies successfully. The first and foremost thing that we need to achieve before starting our struggle is unity among colleagues. Look, my friends, if an autistic like me is ready to proclaim that unity is sorely needed, then it has, indeed, become central to everything we do from now on. Let's stop the power struggle and the bickering between tenured and tenure-track faculty. Let's stop telling ourselves that the problems of adjuncts and lecturers have nothing to do with us as tenure-track and tenured professors. Let's stop trying to figure out which one of us is owed more respect by our colleagues, or whose publications are more prestigious, or whose life is easier. We are looking for an enemy in the wrong place when we do that. As teaching faculty, we are all in it together. And we will all go down together if the system of higher education as we know and love it collapses under the pressure of a badly digested corporate model promoted by ignorant, anti-intellectual individuals.

In our struggle, we will be forced to sacrifice a few things. When the administration tells us that a university press or an academic journal will have to pay for itself by milking desperate academics for money, we need to be prepared to let that press or that journal go. We have to refuse to teach our courses online because the administrators need to save some money to refurbish their offices. We should oppose whole areas of knowledge being destroyed because we are told (falsely, for the most part) that they don't bring any money. We must stop dumbing down our course offerings. Forget the lie that it's the students who can't see how a course on the XVI century Spanish poetry is useful to them. It's the administrators who, from the depths of their ignorance, prefer to see course catalogs filled with courses on the importance of Britney Spears for world culture. We need to be ready to say no to practices that will eventually destroy us. This will be scary and painful but unless we are prepared to do that we will lose our universities for good.

Spain Puts Religion in its Place

More great news from Spain: after centuries of fettering the country's progress, running state affairs, and imposing all kinds of anti-women, anti-gay, anti-semitic, anti-science, and anti-basic human rights policies, religion in Spain will finally be put in its place. The new law of Religious Freedom that is currently being prepared by Spain's Socialist government is aimed at advancing "a secular state." Crucifixes and other religious symbols will be banned from schools, hospitals, and public organizations. State functions will not "integrate ceremonies of religious nature." This is a great and hugely important step for Spain.

Today, there are 1,4 million Muslims, 1 million Protestants and 600,000 Orthodox Christians in Spain. When this new law is passed, these groups will feel less discriminated against because of not being Catholic.Never again will the shameful events that followed the 11-M terror attacks be repeated, when all victims were buried in a Catholic funeral, even though some of the victims were Muslim and Orthodox Christian.

When will the US finally remember its foundational belief in the separation of Church and State and give up on silly stuff such as the National Prayer Day, dependence of public policy on religion, the religious fundamentalists' influence on politics, or interrogating presidential candidates on how often they go to church?

Those who have no objection to the Spanish language, read more about this law here.

Collective Identities

This is a re-print of a post I wrote at the beginning of my blogging career. I hope that more people read it now, and this will help us all avoid recriminations of the "I-thought-you-were-this-but-you-are-actually-something-else" kind.

People often ask me why I am so interested in collective identities as a category of analysis. I believe it's because I don't have any and feel very content living without any collective identification. So people who abdicate parts of their individuality (or even give their lives) in order to promote an attachment to a collectivity perplex me. Here is my position in relation to different kinds of collective identities:

  • Gender identity: I love being a woman and believe that it is the best thing in the world (of course, I have never tried being a man, so my view must be a little biased.) However, the kind of femininity I practise is far from mainstream. I feel different from many other women much more often than I experience a solidarity with them. I identify myself as feminist but my feminism is very different from what it is generally considered to be in North America today. I have been told by "real" feminists that I am actually a male chauvinist in disguise. My theoretical findings on women's issues are often not very palatable to other feminist scholars.
  • National identity: I strongly believe that any kind of patriotism is profoundly unhealthy, but many people talked about the insidious nature of nationalism before me, so I won't repeat their arguments.
  • Linguistic identity: I don't have a native language. This has both positive and negative consequences. I could never engage in any creative writing because for that you really need a language you feel as your own on a very profound level. On the positive side, I move between different languages and different cultural spaces all day and every day. This is a very enriching albeit arduous way of being. Language is not just a way to organize words into sentences. Living in a language means adopting the whole civilization that comes with it.
  • Professional identity: I love being a scholar and an educator. I do, however, find it difficult to meet colleagues whose view of the profession and our goals within it would coincide with mine.
  • Local identity: In the past 10 years I have moved 8 times. And this summer I will be moving two more times. It is obvious that with this way of life it is hardly possible to preserve a strong sense of attachment to any locality in particular.
  • Political identity: Some of my political views are so far to the left that some people might consider them radical. For example, I believe that women should have a right to abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy whatsoever. At the same time, my political beliefs also rely on certain concepts that are considered to be deeply conservative. For instance, I am a strong believer in individual responsibility. As a result of these seemingly contradictory views, I have never been able to identify with any political party or program.