CONNECT

Most important of all, we need to stay and keep connected. For my research, I’ve been reading Mark Granovetter’s work from the 1970’s on weak ties. He looked at working class Boston neighborhoods where unemployment was high. In one neighborhood, people did much better finding jobs than in another. In one neighborhood, people were successful in fighting the city’s plans to run a highway through the streets. What was the source of these successes? These neighborhoods were full of people who had ties to others outside the neighborhood. Granovetter found what we’re finding now in our social networks: if everyone you know agrees with you, if everyone in your circle shares your ideas, then your ideas don’t spread. But if you belong to a book group whose members differ from the people in your church which has a slightly different composition than your school board, you have the opportunity to spread an idea, to learn how to protest to local government when its acting against your interests, to pass your resume on to a manager who’s hiring folks in your area. Those groups that cross borders are weak ties and, in one of the most powerful and counterintuitive insights, Granovetter shows that only weak ties can be bridges.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about having a beer with a rancher when she was in rural Nevada on an environmental protest and finding lots of common ground. And I am still interested in and attracted to projects like Howard Schultz’s conversation starters or Matthew Dowd’s Listen To Us. Although I’m not loving Arlie Hochschild’s book, her project of going to rural Louisiana and getting to know people there, learning how they understood the role of big oil in their lives, is a good and brave effort to build bridges, not just for Hochschild, but, through her book, for may of us.

Keep those bridges. Build bridges. Instead of announcing “everyone who disagrees with me can go home,” why not remind people to be civil and strive to keep the links, even to those with whom you disagree?

Only connect.

This--defend, resist, connect--is my slogan, my aim and my hope for the coming year. What do you think?

 

 

RESIST

Even as we defend our ideals, we will need to resist the designs and policies of the incoming administration. We must resist any political threats to the environment, to journalism, and to our most vulnerable fellow-citizens.

This year, for the first time, our family set up recurring (small) monthly donations to charities. We have always made annual gifts and occasional one-time gifts, but these sustaining donations save charities some money on fundraising and help stabilize their budgeting. I’ve been a sustaining member of WNYC for years. To that, we decided to support the environment (through 350.org which is smaller, more urgent, and as highly rated as the also excellent Sierra Club), civil rights (through the ACLU) and women’s rights (through Planned Parenthood). Those three issues rose to the top for our family; others will matter more to you, but it does feel good to give and to help.

https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B6Ysk4PYO_W4cjlCeVJ2anVteEk

Reading continues to be an act of resistance, too. Partly by supporting independent investigative journalism—we have recently subscribed to Slate Plus, the Washington Post and the Economist, all of which have been doing great good work to untangle and uncover questions about the upcoming administration.

More than that, we have to turn to books. The books that amuse and inspirit us as well as those that inform and warn us about the perils ahead. (I’m currently reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark on my Kindle, listening to George Packer’s The Unwinding, and reading a paper copy of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. As soon as I finish one of these, I’ll let myself read Marcy Dermansky’s new book, The Red Car!) I’m collecting a list of those books at the Syllabus for Hard Times and I invite you, again, to visit there and add your own ideas. Do I have to finally read The Fountainhead? Please don’t make me.

The Syllabus for Hard Times

My grief at the outcome of the election is profound and it continues. It’s the atmosphere in which I live. It affects my sense of what is possible. It limits my horizons of hope. I can read all the Rebecca Solnit in the world, but the truth is I’m sad.

At the same time, I have work to do and I know that it is never more important to teach than in times when hope feels hard to grasp. So, every day I try to still be the best teacher I can be. And, of course, my students are doing the same and together, even in our sadness and uncertainty, we continue to arrive at great and good and exciting places of discovery and wisdom.

As propaganda surrounds us, how can teachers—college professors, especially (since that’s where my expertise lies)—work to help students distinguish truth from spin? As we prepare for the administration of a President who has courted the support of racists, hate groups, and neo-Nazis, a President who has admitted sexual assault and has openly mocked the disabled, a Gold Star family, Mexicans, and too many other groups to count, what is the right kind of respect—if that’s a word that has any meaning any more—to accord the office of the presidency? How bet to we continue to value the presidency as part of our democracy as we fight the policies—and outright lies—of the incoming President himself?

I am asking myself these questions every day. Following and learning from activists such as Rebecca Solnit, Shaun King and his #Injustice Boycott, Mikki Halpin, and her action now newsletter, and others.

My tiny contribution to this is a massive, open google drive folder which I’m calling the Syllabus for Hard Times. I value reading long hard things, but I find doing so increasingly difficult. I am distracted. I like the quick hit of a game of solitaire, a podcast, a “like” on a cute post. I’m not proud of it and I am striving to go deeper, to learn more so that I can be worthy of the credo Virginia Woolf expressed in the 1930’s: “thinking is my fighting.” If thinking is my fighting, I have to feed my brain enough so that I can think.

I have learned a lot from the various syllabi that have been circulating lately around #Occupy, BlackLivesMatter, NODAPL, and other movements, and, as I’ve been teaching a lot of pedagogy seminars lately, to teachers both new and experienced, I started the drive with a long bibliography of what I've been using to discuss teaching with teachers and then I and others have been adding from there. 

You can find the whole folder here. You can fill out the survey on how—if at all—your teaching will change here. Please take a look, add your own ideas and contributions, and pass it on.

An Audience of One

I’m on a Janet Malcolm binge lately. My friend in London gave me Forty One False Starts and I read much of it. Then, I read with the shock and slightly embarrassed pleasure of recognition her profile of Eileen Fisher in a recent New Yorker. Finally, then, in preparation for teaching Stein the other week, I read her Two Lives, a total pleasure (as I knew it would be).

But, as much as Malcolm herself, whose prose I’m studying and admiring,  one of the greatest pleasures of her book was this quotation from Stein, a brilliant and inspiring quotation about the importance, for any artists, of having one person, just one person, who understands what you’re doing.

It is a very strange feeling when one is loving a clock that is to every one of your class of living an ugly and a foolish one and one really likes such a thing and likes it very much and liking it is a serious thing, or one likes a colored handkerchief that is very gay and every one of your kind of living thinks it a very ugly or a foolish thing and thinks you like it because it is a funny thing to like and you like it with a serious feeling… or you write a book and while you write it you are ashamed for every one must think you a silly or a crazy one and yet you write it and you are ashamed, you know you will be laughed at or pitied by every one and you have a queer feeling and you are not very certain and you go on writing. Then some one says yes to it…and then never again can you have completely such a feeling of being afraid and ashamed. (Stein, qtd. Malcolm 157)

Stein wrote this shortly after beginning her relationship with Alice B. Toklas, the someone who “says yes” to Stein going on writing.

I shared it with my students this fall—I’m teaching at Juilliard, so all my students are young artists—and they nodded in recognition. Such a beautiful, beautiful reminder of how much we need, and how little.

 

Feminist Theory Reading Group: Sianne Ngai

So, we at my university, started a Feminist Theory Reading Group. Our mission: for faculty and Ph.D. candidates to meet & talk about a recent monograph on feminist theory. We aim to read a book each semester. Tonight, twelve of us met over wine and snacks to talk about Sianne Ngai's Our Aesthetic Categories.  

Here is a kind of summary of our conversation. It's sloppy, incomplete, misses all the joy of conviviality, all the texture of the personalities in the room jostling against each other, interrupting, and apologizing, but maybe, in spite of all that, it captures something about why it's fun, even in a stressful moment of the semester, to try to talk about something very challenging, brilliant, and innovative:

 

Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories (Harvard 2012)
Zany, cute, interesting: Ngai again looks at familiar but not valorized categories and at mass-culture. The blurb doesn't sell it as feminist (thanks, Harvard!), but I believe her work is: at least Ugly Feelings was. LARB long piece on this. (Just linking: haven't read yet.) [AEF]
This sounds like it would be an enjoyable read. [CH]. Agreed. [MAM]

This was the only question on our list when we started our discussion & it's how we began:
In "The Zany Science," Ngai writes, "Indeed, while virtually all our current aesthetic categories, from the beautiful down to the cute, turn in various ways on the objecthood of objects or the thingness of things, our experience of zaniness is often that of azany person//" (193, italics mine). I'm curious about how this final aesthetic category most often describes a person (or character) rather than an object. What is at stake in describing someone as "zany" that might be different from the "cute" or "interesting" object? Does identifying someone as zany confer a kind of "objectness" onto that subject? If so, what impact does that have on our experience of the zany? [KMN]'

We moved quickly from this question to a challenging passage about subjectivity in the introduction. That led to a segue from the zany back to the cute, and the relationship between the cute and the beautiful. Where we lingered for a while: 
How is the cute different from the beautiful? The beautiful is a category that “reveals how the faculty of judgment…presupposes the existence of other humans” (239); it’s one that messes Burke up; it’s feminized.

We debated the ethics of reading transhistorically. Ngai is interested in the now, but what is the present? How much do we care that the periodization is "late capitalism" instead of, say, "post-1989."?

We also discussed some problems with her examples--mistakes or looseness in the discussion of Stein and some special selectivity in the examples from kawaii. Some of these demonstrated Ngai's deftness: it's the case that the cutest character in anime is also the most dangerous (Anthony passed around a panel of cute characters yelling "Eat Their *X%$#!@ Ovaries!!!"), so that fits Ngai's argument. However, it's also true that Murakami's art is not representative and is, in fact, particularly, ostentatiously meaningless.

We talked about how discussions of the cute don't include what's funny in Stein, in manga. Why leave out the funny? Is laughter an aesthetic response? Doesn't the cute help Ngai describe the changed relationship between art and commodity in late capitalism?

Does it matter that zany isn't a live category, isn't something we say or talk about? Ngai offers one answer, maybe, here:

  • “The interesting is culturally ubiquitous as a judgment but by no means easily or intuitively recognizable as an aesthetic style…the zany as a style of desperate playfulness is virtually everywhere but is strangely recessive as a term of judgment” (235).

But, as an answer, "strangely recessive" may be a euphemism for "my idea alone."

We had a moment of admiration for the ways in which the book is cool: for its ability to contain a 3-page footnote on Flashdance. For some, that coolness grates; for some, it inspires. Then, why isn't "the cool" one of these new aesthetic category?

The discussion on race was missing in ways that some of us missed, that others saw as an opening for future criticism. What, for example, would a doll with "cute" "squishy" features be if it was also black? Why doesn't Ngai discuss Harriet Mullin's race in her discussion of Mullin's revisions of Stein?

We connect Ngai's work to weak theory: cf. panel at MSA & Wai-Chee Dimock's work on weak theory. Where some advocates of weak theory seemed to be simply advocating the ambiguity of the essay, Ngai actually demonstrates the political power of demanding that we pause in a moment of indeterminacy, that oscillation where something cute excites feelings of both tenderness and aggression. 

In what sense is this a contribution to feminist theory? what is Ngai's contribution to feminist theory? We talked about the ways in which Ngai revives aesthetic theory with new categories that are feminine and feminized. About how the book is anti-nostalgic for older aesthetic forms, categories, and the New Left in general. How, the very "our" of the title claims a space for feminist theorists in high theory.

Then, just when the conversation seemed over, we got into a big, lively talk about the uncanny valley, cuteness, disgust and disability studies, wondering at the way in which we are attracted to cute robots but feel the terror of bodily difference in the face of a prosthetic hand.

 

A room of one's own

I teach my Woolf class from 11:30 to 12:45. The next class begins at 1:00. On the first day, around 12:30, a man stood outside my door, peering and bobbing. He came in at 12:46 and, while I was explaining how to sign up for oral reports, he bodied me to put his coat down.

Today, he gave me till 12:47. I was explaining something to a student who'd just added the class and he interrupted to speak to me. "DON'T interrupt me while I'm speaking to my student," I said, but he would not be deterred. I apologized to the student and turned to him. He pointed at the board, covered with notes from the 10AM class--there was no eraser.

"Yes, I'm sorry about that--"

He says, "But you have to---"

I say, "I was going to tell you. Those are not mine. Listen: you need to give me time to get out of this room."

He says, "What time does your class end?"

"12:45."

"But I need time to prepare," he whines.

I, channeling the Dowager Countess, said "SO DO I." And then I went to the Dean's office and filed a complaint.

My colleague now has an email from the associate dean requesting him to respect the shared time. 

Something about teaching a lesson on feminism only to get bullied really raised my hackles.