Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Things That Are Bad For You: Steampunk, Football, Graduate School, and Barack Obama Edition

with 7 comments

* MetaFilter calls my name with critiques of steampunk from Charlie Stross and my friend Nisi Shawl. Charlie:

Forget wealthy aristocrats sipping tea in sophisticated London parlours; forget airship smugglers in the weird wild west. A revisionist mundane SF steampunk epic — mundane SF is the socialist realist movement within our tired post-revolutionary genre — would reflect the travails of the colonial peasants forced to labour under the guns of the white Europeans’ Zeppelins, in a tropical paradise where severed human hands are currency and even suicide doesn’t bring release from bondage. (Hey, this is steampunk — it needs zombies and zeppelins, right? Might as well pick Zombies for our single one impossible ingredient.) It would share the empty-stomached anguish of a young prostitute on the streets of a northern town during a recession, unwanted children (contraception is a crime) offloaded on a baby farm with a guaranteed 90% mortality rate through neglect. The casual boiled-beef brutality of the soldiers who take the King’s shilling to break the heads of union members organizing for a 60 hour work week. The fading eyesight and mangled fingers of nine year olds forced to labour on steam-powered looms, weaving cloth for the rich. The empty-headed graces of debutantes raised from birth to be bargaining chips and breeding stock for their fathers’ fortunes. In other words, it’s the story of all the people who are having adventures — as long as you remember that an adventure is a tale of unpleasant events happening to people a long, long way from home. 

* zunguzungu and Adam Kotsko take on the “So you want to get a Ph.D. in the humanities” video that’s been everywhere this week. Here’s zunguzungu:

Mostly, we’re identifying with the person in a position of power bullying the student, and we attempt to pass off  contempt and hatred as cynicism. That’s the thing that’s so striking about the humanities xtranormal video (compared, say, to the law school one): how clueless the prospective grad student is. The law school student at least stands up for herself, but the humanities cliche is just a clueless robot, babbling on in utter hermetically sealed envelope of idealism. And since so many of the things that abusive bully of a professor says are so completely true, her bullying gets passed off as realism. This accomplishes several things. For one, it allows us to contrast our own bitter cynicism (we’re identifying with the jaded prof, remember?) with the naiveté of the student. We would never be so naive, thereforewe are not her. Which is the same dichotomy between good cynical realism on the one hand (though not coded as male here, as it usually is) and stupid (as usual, infantilized and feminized) idealism, just as when Fish quoted Hemingway. And if we get off on seeing the cynical-realist-us attacking and flagellating the dumb-idealistic-naive-us, well, that says a lot about us.

It also, by the way, allows us to defend our own position (or the one we would like to pretend we will have) from the competition. After all, the glaring thing in both cartoons is the fact that the cynical prof figure is trying to deter the student from following his/her own example. Not that one shouldn’t be very careful about encouraging others to follow in your own example — sometimes tenured profs can encourage students to follow in their footsteps without telling them the whole story about their chances – but as someone I’ve been conversing about this on twitter pointed out, this seems much more like an attempt to demonize the faceless masses of competitors who make the likelihood of our getting a job so much smaller. In other words, we address to the “oversupply” of humanities PhD’s by trying to deter potential competition or project onto it the rage we feel about not getting the job and life we rightfully deserve.

And here’s Adam, very nicely describing my approach to graduate school better than I could:

My approach has been that the job market is apparently very random. We can follow all the best advice in the world, but it still comes down to the preferences of a handful of people at some randomly-chosen department and the outcome of a power struggle that probably no one outside the situation could ever fully understand or predict. So aside from broad guidelines (try to publish in good journals! present at conferences! get teaching experience! finish!) that 95% of PhD candidates are following anyway, there’s essentially no way of tailoring yourself to the job market.

Under such circumstances, the only thing you can do is be true to yourself. Use your grad school years (and as many years after as you can hold out without going crazy) to do what you want to do and what you probably wouldn’t be able to do under other circumstances. For me, that included language work, serious reading in the intellectual traditions most important to me, and serious writing that intervenes into debates I find compelling and important — and more recently getting the privilege of introducing young people to those intellectual traditions and debates.

All of those things are worth doing, and I wouldn’t have been able to do them otherwise. I maintain that they’re worth doing even if society isn’t willing to pay what they’re worth. I could’ve made a lot more money, or at least had a lot more job security, doing other things, but I don’t think those other things are likely as worthwhile, and having a full-time job takes up a lot of time, particularly in the kinds of professional fields that college grads try for — so that I wouldn’t have been able to do basically any of the things I’ve done during my time as a grad student and young academic. I would’ve kept reading regardless, and I would’ve wound up a well-informed person and a good conversationalist, but I never would’ve written the books and articles I’ve written, nor would I have been able to teach anyone in any kind of sustained way.

The fact that I chose what I did doesn’t make me a cynical badass, and I also don’t think it makes me particularly “idealistic” — after all, it’s not as though I’m making some noble sacrifice for the common good: I’m doing what I want to do and what I enjoy. I’m proud that I’ve been able to publish this much. I’m satisfied that I’ve done a good job of teaching and that students like me and my colleagues here want to advocate for me. Having made these choices might adversely affect my quality of life further down the road, but in the meantime it’s greatly enriched my quality of life compared to working 40-60 hours in some office.

There’s no sacrifice involved here, because I didn’t finally do all this stuff so that I could get a job — I want to get a job so that I can continue doing all this stuff! I want to get tenure so that I can finally stop worrying about where the next paycheck is coming from and have all that emotional energy freed up for my work. The fact that it might not work out doesn’t make me a jaded self-destructive badass, it makes me a person living in a world where we don’t always get what we want.

* Shock study: playing football is incredibly bad for you.

* Obama sits down with left critics to discuss DADT.

* And Obama defends his record on tonight’s Daily Show.

“What happens is it gets discounted because the assumption is we didn’t get 100 percent of what we wanted, we only get 90 percent of what we wanted — so let’s focus on the 10 percent we didn’t get,” Obama added.

Someday they’ll learn that this is a terrible messaging strategy. Someday.

7 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The transcript of the DADT talk with Obama you posted about is now up… It made me even more pissed at him him, frankly, but not by a lot…


    October 27, 2010 at 10:20 pm

  2. It’s fascinating listening to him twist himself into contortions in order to not say something that is obviously true:

    THE PRESIDENT: I think it’s a fair question to ask. I think that — I am a strong supporter of civil unions. As you say, I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage.

    But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships. I have staff members who are in committed, monogamous relationships, who are raising children, who are wonderful parents.

    And I care about them deeply. And so while I’m not prepared to reverse myself here, sitting in the Roosevelt Room at 3:30 in the afternoon, I think it’s fair to say that it’s something that I think a lot about. That’s probably the best you’ll do out of me today. (Laughter.)


    October 27, 2010 at 11:11 pm

  3. Quite frankly, who the hell does he think he’s trying to fool with this? The people who don’t like him wouldn’t dislike him any more if he just did the right thing, and he is losing the respect of people like me who, frankly, are trying *really* really hard to like him and are predisposed to sympathize with him. There’s a saying by a good Texas progressive (Jim Hightower) that I don’t think is always true, but I think is applicable here– “The only things in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” The sort of evasiveness and contortionism you see in the transcript are so cliched and dated– I honestly used to expect better from this guy. He did the exact same thing when he was talking about the Park 51 project…I swear, if it wasn’t for how completely horrible his opponents are, I would defend this guy a lot less.

    Please note the the preceding was a sleep-deprived rant fueled by homework and general stress. Still– there are two big issues where Obama has been a huge disappointment to me, and one of them is GLBT issues (the other is more generally civil rights in terms of detainee policy, etc).


    October 28, 2010 at 2:14 am

  4. The right’s control of the discourse in action:

    “Q Thanks for having us here, Mr. President. Just to start off, because the news of the day is obviously what just happened in Kentucky. What’s your feelings on the thought of a Rand Paul supporter actually stepping on the neck of a female MoveOn supporter?

    THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, I think that one of the things that I’ve always tried to promote is civility in politics. I think we can disagree vigorously without being disagreeable. And what we saw on the video was an example of people’s passions just getting out of hand in ways that are disturbing.”

    1) If this had been a Republican president, he would have given the same exact answer; 2) if this had been a leftist stepping on the neck of a right-winger, he would have expressed his shock and outrage


    October 28, 2010 at 9:40 am

  5. Stross is seeming to describe China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books — full of oppression and opprobium. Perdido Street Station pretty much defined the genre of fantasy steampunk — and one of its central themes was a lower worker caste who were physically violated in ways much more horrifying than zombification — so I don’t see how Stross wailing on lesser authors who followed the master with fluff is very fair.

    As for Barry’s sour grapes, yeah, maybe someday he’ll realize we didn’t care so much that he didn’t win that 10% (recently downgraded from 20%, I see) but that he didn’t even appear to fight for it. He said one thing on Stewart that sounded like fighting words — about the unprecedented obstructionism — that if he had been saying all along, he’d have a lot more friends on the left.

    Alex Chaffee

    October 28, 2010 at 12:11 pm

  6. […] * And Dylan Matthews criticizes the same useless gay marriage pander we’ve been complaining about in the comments. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: