Friday, July 27, 2007

The end (at least of the semester)

A guest post, from The Wife.


Finished, finito, Schluß .... The semester is (finally) over. But just as there are still a few things that I need to get off my desk before I start thinking some serious thoughts, I need to get some things off me chest before I can settle down to recharge my batteries. So, this is just a brief cathartic rant about the last few frustrating weeks – after which I shall hold my tongue. Ignore at leisure.

Why rant if you have a cushy job with a semester’s sabbatical ahead of you? Because the institution in which I work is undergoing a Kafkaesque metamorphosis from which it will never recover and which has altered the profession I initially “went into” (back in those innocent days when it still seemed desirable) beyond recognition in a way that makes me weep. Don’t worry, I won’t go into the details of the current intellectual Gleichschaltung of German academia, other people have done that much more eloquently than me.

I just want to ventilate the lingering frustration of the past months (for the sake of above-mentioned catharsis). And I want to take this opportunity to emphasise how painful it is when, as you are trying to merely survive on less than six hours sleep a night for weeks on end (including weekends), a well-meaning colleague – though in the nicest and kindest possible way – tells you off for not showing up at a conference warming on the one single day that provided an opportunity to write a lecture during normal daytime hours rather than as part of yet another endless-seeming nightshift. And this, after telling me in her preceding sentence that I need to 'take some time out'.

So which advice should I follow. Or should I, at best, do both simultaneously?

Apparently these days, NOT to be schizophrenic is considered undesirable. Go, split up in as many selves as you can come up with to increase your bloody availability. I am, in fact, tired of being available and doing seven things at the same time. I too would like to be able – like apparently most men – to cultivate the old tunnel vision and FOCUS.

In the face of these demands, which are at complete odds with what academia was suppose to be at one point in my imagination (a safe ecological niche for misanthropic bookworms such as me) I’m getting increasingly exasperated by overeager students setting out on their GACs (Grand Academic Careers – herewith copyrighted) in their second semester (without anybody ever suggesting to them that they should).

Say no more – especially since Zadie Smith hits the nail on the head in the following description in On Beauty:

Zora was on her way to Dean French’s office to empty her hypothetical future into his lap. She was particularly concerned about her failure to get into Claire Malcolm’s poetry class last semester. She hadn’t yet seen the boards, but if it happened again then that could have a very adverse effect on her future, which needed to be discussed, along with many other troubling aspects of her future in all its futurity. This was the first of seven meetings that she had taken it upon herself to schedule for the initial week of the semester. Zora was extremely fond of scheduling meetings with important people for whom her future was not really a top priority (140).

No comment.

I have an odd relationship with Zadie Smith, whose books I tend to give a wide berth (because the wrong kind of people seem to like her for the wrong kinds of reasons) until some specific reason compels me to read them, typically with the effect that I then enjoy them so much that I wonder why the heck I hadn’t looked at them before. This was the case with White Teeth, which I’ve reread several times and set for classes.

On Beauty, too, is already a couple of years old, but maybe because of the title I feared an unfunny, clever-clever tract about art and lies à la Jeanette Winterson.

As usual with Smith I’m disconcerted by her humour, which strikes me as facetious and potentially unkind (and hence is embarrassingly close to my own). Yet ever so often she comes across as sane and clever – like in the following passage (featuring aforementioned Zora and Claire, about whom the former goes to complain to Dean French):

The food arrived. Claire was still speaking about the land. Zora, who had been clearly brooding on something, now spoke up. “But how do you avoid falling into pastoral fallacy – I mean, isn’t it a depoliticized reification, all this beauty stuff about landscape? Virgil, Pope, the Romantics. Why idealize?”
“Idealize?” repeated Claire uncertainly. “I’m not sure I really … You know, what I’ve always felt is, well, for instance, in The Georgics –“
“The what?”
“Virgil … In The Georgics, nature and the pleasures of the pastoral are essential to any …” began Claire, but Zora had already stopped listening. Claire’s kind of learning was tiresome to her. Claire didn’t know anything about theorists, or ideas, or the latest thinking. Sometimes Zora suspected her of being barely intellectual. With her, it was always “in Plato” or “in Baudelaire” or “in Rimbaud”, as if we all had time to sit around reading whatever we fancied. Zora blinked impatiently, visibly tracking Claire’s sentence, waiting for a period or, failing that, a semicolon in which to insert herself again.
“But after Foucault,” she said, seeing her chance, “where is there to go with that stuff” (218-19).

Reading this, I felt uncannily reminded of a conversation I had had with a student a few weeks previously – an unusually bright student, I have to add, whose optimism and enthusiasm I should applaud rather than ridicule – who in the course of this conversation suggested that I should “make more gender trouble”.

Not that I haven’t read Ms Butler (which the student implied, probably finding me “barely intellectual”) – actually, I did read her about 10 years ago, the well-thumbed and heavily annotated version of Gender Trouble in my office upstairs is testimony to that – but this day and age, with my need for sleep extending proportionally to my going grey, I can’t see the point in all this anymore. I wouldn’t even know how to make gender trouble (and didn’t know then). I don’t think the student knew either – but then Ms Butler remains completely abstract about the whole concept herself (unless what she means is being some kind of academic Melissa Etheridge without make-up and a propensity for garbled writing).

This makes the passage from Smith’s novel all the more disconcerting. On the one hand and from my momentary perspective, I identify completely with 53-year-old Claire. Although well over a decade away from that age I have developed a very mature appreciation of humble animals (oh, our hedgehog!) and plants (one of the greatest successes of the year, my tomatoes. I now have become the kind of person who hands out freezer bags with home-grown produce ….) as well as a penchant for weeding.

On the other hand, Zora is exactly what I was like not too long ago: madly into subversion and anything needlessly complicated. But since my halcyon days of postmodern transcendentalism are over, I have developed a new appreciation for people who say intelligent things about complicated things in a clear and straightforward manner (audio file).

Anyway, against the schizophrenia and fucking aging process, here’s some music:

Watch out for the great line: “Our earthly pleasures distract us against our will.” Dig this, Judith Butler! And then of course the wonderful question: “Are you hopeful or just gullible?” – which reminds me of, oh, several professional acquaintances.

Cheers and happy weekend!

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