Life: There is no authority left edition

All modern thought is falsified by a mystique of transgression, which it falls back into even when it is trying to escape. For Lacan, desire is still a by-product of the law. Even the most daring thinkers nowadays do not dare to recognize that prohibition has a protective function with regard to the conflicts inevitably provoked by desire. They would be afraid that people might see them as ‘reactionary’. In the currents of thought that have dominated us for a century, there is one tendency we must never forget: the fear of being regarded as naive or submissive, the desire to play at being the freest thinker—the most ‘radical’, etc. As long as you pander to this desire, you can make the modern intellectual say almost anything you like. This is the new way in which we are still ‘keeping up with the Jonses’.

— Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.

The book itself is a hodgepodge of brilliance and incoherence / irrelevance, but the former outweighs the latter. The notion of defining the difference between “man” and “animal” seems to fascinate older philosophers in a way that I find bizarre or unimportant.

To my mind, the strongest part about American culture American culture’s meta ability to rapidly re-write itself in response to changing conditions and outside influences, including conditions related to Girard’s conception of desire.

Links: Collapse, economic behavior, vaccine success, academic nonsense, and more!

* “Preparing for the Collapse of the Saudi Kingdom.”

* “Divorce laws and the economic behavior of married couples,” an underappreciated point.

* “Vaccine Has Sharply Reduced HPV in Teenage Girls, Study Says.” This one verges on the obvious, but it’s worth reiterating. Vaccines really are a public health free lunch.

* A Long Game: On how California cities became as screwed up as they are, and how to fix them.

* Mindsets for Thinking about Innovation In — and Competition from — China:

China’s largest online/ebook publishing company, Yuewen Group, which has over three million digital books in its catalogue. More notable than the scale here however is how the company monetizes: Chinese readers can pay per every 1000 words (sort of like by chapter), and have been able to do so for more than half a decade.

Brilliant. This is one advantage of avoiding path dependence.

* The Smartest Book About Our Digital Age Was Published in 1929:

The key driver of change, as Ortega sees it, comes from a shocking attitude characteristic of the modern age—or, at least, Ortega was shocked. Put simply, the masses hate experts. If forced to choose between the advice of the learned and the vague impressions of other people just like themselves, the masses invariably turn to the latter. The upper elite still try to pronounce judgments and lead, but fewer and fewer of those down below pay attention.

* “Do teens read seriously anymore?” I can’t tell, but even when I was a teen reading seriously seemed like a thing that only I did. The default meaning of “reading” may also be changing.

* Academic Drivel Report: Confessing my sins and exposing my academic hoax.

Universities treat adjuncts like they do because they can

There Is No Excuse for How Universities Treat Adjuncts: Students are paying higher tuition than ever. Why can’t more of that revenue go to the people teaching them?” is well-summarized by its headline, but there is a very good “excuse” why universities treat adjuncts how they do: because they can. When people stop signing up for grad school and/or to be adjuncts, universities will have to offer better pay and/or conditions. Until that happens, universities won’t.

Markets are clearing.

“There Is No Excuse” keeps popping up in my inbox or in discussion sites, and I keep saying the same thing. The usual response to decry administrators (which is fine with me, although I’m not sure they’re the fundamental driver of cost) and to promote unions. On unions in universities I don’t have incredibly strong opinions; there may be some benefits to the people who get into the union on the ground floor, but raising the pay of some adjuncts will result in shortages of any work for others.

If the market-clearing price is $3,000 per class, and universities have to pay $5,000, there’ll be a large pool of people who can’t get those higher wages because there aren’t a sufficient number of jobs out there for them. So one can trade plentiful but somewhat poorly remunerative jobs for a smaller number of somewhat more remunerative jobs for those who grab them.

Universities will also be somewhat less reluctant to hire anyone, because those people who are hired won’t leave. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a series of court cases eliminated mandatory retirement policies. Those ruling, combined with lengthening life expectancies, meant that tenured faculty could stay on indefinitely—blocking the path forward for younger academics. Which led to… the explosion of adjuncts presently being decried in the media. Unions (usually) prevent their members from being fired, and, if lay-offs do happen, they happen on a “first-in, first-out” basis. So the youngest and freshest workers will be gone first.

Still, I find the rhetoric of faculty who argue that the job of grad students is to be students hilarious; at the University of Arizona, grad students in English taught the same number of classes for the same number of hours as full-time faculty. Grad students, like medical residents, are workers, regardless of what else you call them.

It’s also worth contemplating alternatives to academia, which has lots of barriers to entry, formal credentials, and unspoken rules. Marginal product of labor for academics is hard to measure. by contrast, technology employment works well in part because there are close to zero barriers to entry. Someone who wants to learn to code can type “Learn to code” in Google and start. Unions will make the existing barriers to academia higher, and will leave it less like the healthier parts of the economy.

Academics are not exempt from the law of supply and demand, and it turns out that tenured academics are savvy marketers, singing a song of the life of the mind to the unwary who throw themselves onto the shore of a barren island. Supposedly smart people seem to be doing a lot of not-so-smart things.

By the way, I also like teaching as an adjunct because the jobs are plentiful, the hours are flexible, and the work is quite different from what I usually do. On a dollars-per-hour basis the pay is much worse, but the work itself is sometimes gratifying, and one gets the usual and much-discussed pleasures of teaching (the joy of young minds, etc.). It seems like the online conversation around adjuncts is dominated by people who teach at five different schools and have neither time nor money. Like any job it is not perfect. I do it for the same reason everyone, everywhere, works any job: it beats the alternatives.

Life: Reading Houellebecq edition

“There has been something in my literature, from the first, that goes hand in glove with shame. To be honest, when I published my first books, I expected to bring a certain shame on myself (even though, as I said before, I’ve always hated putting myself forward). What actually happened, and it was a wonderful surprise, was that readers came up to me and said, ‘Not at all, what you describe are human things, some true of human beings in general, others specific to human beings in modern Western societies . . . In fact, we are grateful for you for having the courage to expose them, for having shouldered that part of shame . . .”

—Michel Houellebecq, Public Enemies.

It’s never fully possible to anticipate reader response, which Eco wrote about too.

Shame’s meaning and role does seem to shift with time and place, and yet it gets little airtime in contemporary Western culture.

Links: Rejecting the feminist label, freedom, fusion, reviewing the world, prison life, and more!

* “Why millennial women don’t want to call themselves feminists.” I think the second reason the most plausible answer. (Hat tip Michael Curry.)

* “Why GNU Emacs?” (I don’t use Emacs, though I have installed it at various points and then run away, to easier, friendlier text editors.)

* New finding may explain heat loss in fusion reactors.

* The headline is too polite, but: Left-Leaning Economists Question Cost of Bernie Sanders’s Plans.

* “What Expanded Light Rail Means for Seattle: With new stations opening in March, the city takes a crucial step toward a much-needed transit overhaul.”

* I don’t know if this story is on the level, but: “How schools around the country are turning dead Microsoft PCs into speedy Chromebooks.” See also our post on Geek Heresy and how technology is not going to magically save schools.

* “One Man’s Impossible Quest to Read—and Review—the World.”

* “Risky sex [writing],” though oddly it doesn’t mention The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers, which is pretty good but a smidge too politically correct. Still, overall “Risky Sex” is excellent and is just the right amount of funny.

* Craig Mod on the Leica Q; I’m skeptical and think the Sony RX1R or Fuji X100T are much, much better (and cheaper!).

* Scientists are floored by what’s happening in the Arctic right now.

* The rule of law enforcement, or, a journalist’s diaries / reporting from prison.

Links: Humanities papers, recycling, teachers, death, housing, sexuality and society, and more!

* 82% of humanities papers are never cited by another paper (pdf), which is another datum of evidence about the importance of what most humanities professors are doing.

* Inside the English Prose Factory. It is… not very pleasant.

* “Is it time to rethink recycling? If our current approach to recycling isn’t the best for the economy or the environment, why do we do it?” The short answer is, “signalling.” Recycling small items, like carrying re-usable bags to grocery stories, is a low-cost way of appearing to be environmentally conscious without having to do anything significant. I’ve had innumerable conversations with superficial environmentalists who are determined that every bottle go in the right bin, even as they discuss their last trip to South America and their next trip from one coast to the next. Flying is really, spectacularly bad for the environment, but most putative environmentalists are also in love with the idea of “travel” and “broadening horizons.” Still, to point out this dichotomy is to signal something negative about the person making the observation, so you should probably keep this to yourself, unless you are an anti-social person.

* Stop humiliating teachers.

* “How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the Internet,” a story I didn’t know, or didn’t know at this level of detail.

* “The poor are better off when we build more housing for the rich,” an underappreciated point—but when most people talk about affordable housing, they’re actually trying to signal how much they care, rather than actually understanding and then solving the problem.

* William Gibson: How I Wrote Neuromancer.

* “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” an underappreciated point.

* “Should you learn to program? Yes,” by Derek Sivers.

* The dubious effectiveness of D.A.R.E. and problems in nonprofits.

Submission — Michel Houellebecq

Like almost all Houellebecq, Submission and invites diagnoses of anhedonia (Page 1: “I realized that part of my life, probably the best part, was behind me;” Houellebecq rarely if ever writes of the “best part” of any character’s life). The weird mixture of ideas, from YouPorn (it is namechecked) to Huysmans, works and doesn’t work at the same time, and it is this paradoxical quality that I think attracts readers to Houellebecq.

Submission HouellebecqThat, and Houellebecq continues to be different in a way that almost no writers are. See also Adam Gopnik on Submission. Here is The Guardian. I mention Houellebecq in “All American fiction is young adult fiction: Discuss.” Here is Mark Lilla, in the New York Review of Books. All these pieces are excellent.

Oddly, almost no one has noticed Houellebecq’s attraction to Islam. Except for Elif Batuman, in the last part of the linked essay. In Public Enemies: Dueling Writers Take On Each Other and the World, Houellebecq writes:

It’s painful for me to admit, when I think of my atheist, politically committed friends, but I’ve never really understood the root of their commitment, it has always seemed to me to have more to do with a Christian tradition than they themselves suspected. I am speaking from pure intuition here, but in all the Christian groups I tried in vain to belong to, one of the things I completely understood was their commitment. It was very clear: they had accepted the idea that, being sons of God, all men are brothers, and behaved accordingly.

Which is quite close to what the idealized Muslims in Submission do, and, I suspect, quite far from what many real-life Muslims do (or real-life adherents of any high-commitment, high-demand creed). Commitment itself, to something, is appealing, and one characteristic of all Houellebecq’s characters is their seeming lack of commitment (even those seemingly committed to hedonism don’t seem to enjoy it that much, or as much as I would).

There are many of the weird juxtapositions one sees in classic Houellebecq: “Cro-Magnon man hunted mammoth and reindeer; the man of today can choose between an Auchan and a Leclerc, both supermarkets located in Souillac.” Or: “Even the word humanism made me want to vomit, but that might have been the canapés.” Is this no context or overwhelming context? François seems to oscillate between the two. He cares deeply about observing what’s going on and does nothing with those observations; the word “bored” appears repeatedly, almost a stand-in for “whatever.”

Plus, modern grocery stores are amazing: their convenience is incredible and price competition means that consumers win. Grocery stores means that the man of today can choose to worry about something other than where to get food from. Or, maybe, he can worry about nothing at all. Even access to pornography had to be fought for, over decades. Submission implies that maybe we’d be better off without it, but the term “revealed preferences” comes to mind (and there is a small but noisy movement for “no fap,” which is what it sounds like).

No one feels a sense of a job well done. The presence of absence is felt everywhere. François never emerges from a class feeling that he’s reached someone. Has he tried? Does he want to? The answers seem to be no. Even the attractive women he improbably sleeps with seem to move him little. We find this about Steve, his colleague: “He’d almost always invite me for a drink—usually mint tea in the Paris Mosque a few blocks from school. I didn’t like mint tea, or the Paris Mosque, and I didn’t much like Steve, but I still went.” Usually I don’t go out with people I don’t like, and I don’t think I’m exceptional in this regard, but I am capable of liking people, which François it would seem is not.

Houellebecq respects ideas as almost no contemporary novelists do, but he doesn’t do so in an academically trendy way (as, say, Alena Graedon does in The Word Exchange). If anything he does so in an academically un-trendy way.

Houellebecq does not seem to believe in Enlightenment ideas of progress. For François, private tutoring only “soon convinced me that the transmission of knowledge was generally impossible, the variance of intelligence extreme, and that nothing could undo or even mitigate this basic inequality.” The last couple centuries of relentless progress would seem to invalidate this claim, however true it may feel in the moment, at the micro level. François thinks that his “boring, predictable life continued to resemble Huysmans’s a century and a half before.” Odd. I don’t feel like my life resembles the lives of people 150 years ago. Perhaps François has this problem because education as a sector has changed very little. This contrasts with numerous other sectors.

Maybe the problem with Houellebecq narrators is that few if any discover anything or make anything—even dinner. The true hero of Submission may be the microwaved dinner. No one I’ve read more frequently mentions microwaved food. But if microwaved food signifies tedium, what signifies the opposite? Did making food from scratch, as virtually all people 60 years ago had to do for economic reasons, somehow better?

Houellebecq imagines a France in which large, politically active blocs call for Sharia Law. Yet people fleeing from many Muslim and Arab countries in the Middle East are getting fleeing from people who’d like to impose Sharia. To be sure the West imposes major culture shocks. But when you want to see whose ideas are winning, look at where people are fleeing from and where they are fleeing to. During the Cold War the number of French, English, or Americans who wanted to move to Russia was dwarfed by the number of Russians who wanted to get the fuck out.

In “The Sexual Misery of the Arab World,” Kamel Daoud writes of how

Today sex is a great paradox in many countries of the Arab world: One acts as though it doesn’t exist, and yet it determines everything that’s unspoken. Denied, it weighs on the mind by its very concealment. Although women are veiled, they are at the center of our connections, exchanges and concerns.

Daoud ends his essay by saying, “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” I’m not convinced the sickness is spreading: Ideas in the West about the right of individual to control his or her own body are winning. Terror in many Middle Eastern countries is a sign of weakness, not strength. Ideas cannot win on their merits; they can only be imposed via the gun. There are no real votes for Sharia, even in countries that practice it, or a modified form of it.

Other events have overtaken Submission’s world. It imagines Saudi princes lavishly funding French universities. As of this writing, in February 2016, cheap oil prices are roiling petro economies like Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Chevy Bolt will arrive in the U.S. later this year. Tesla’s Model 3 is going to be unveiled shortly. These cars may permanently cap oil prices by allowing most people to switch to electric cars as oil prices rise. France shouldn’t worry about radical Muslim takeover. Petro states should worry about what will happen when every Western economy is not wildly, wholly dependent on oil.

The previous paragraph may be bizarre in the context of a discussion about a novel, but part of Houellebecq’s world in Submission depends on the financial condition of radically Islamic countries. Those countries’ positions and stability depend on selling oil. Take away the oil and we’ll see how stable and popular many of them really are. Their leaders are able to lead lives of incredible decadence and sexual pleasure because they can afford to. That may not be true three years from now, let alone in the elections of 2022.

In another moment, François asks, rhetorically, “How could anyone argue that Europe wasn’t in decline?” Easily: First, look at where people want to go, as mentioned previously. Second, consider an article like, “Plasma physicist discusses the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator.” That stellerator, built in Germany, is an important step towards fusion power plants. It’s an incredible achievement that is primarily being accomplished by Europeans. If that’s decline then sign me up. And when was Europe in ascent? Robert Rediger notes that Huysmans “was living at at a time when the European nations were at their apogee.” Which led them straight into two insane wars, the lead-up to which can only be compared to mental illness. European temperament may be oddly negative and declinist, but the temperament and being can be further apart than Europe and Mars.

Many of you will dislike Submission. I see people on the subway and in coffeeshops reading Ferrante and Knausgaard, today’s perversely trendy writers, but none reading Houellebecq.

Houellebecq is the sort of writer who makes reading his entire oeuvre rewarding. Not all writers are like this.

It is sometimes hard to write coherently on a work that itself seems to lack coherence.

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