Several (probably nigh on a half-dozen) years ago—when I was first applying to grad school, actually, a round of applications that were all rejected (edit: I think it was before this, but really I have no fucking idea—who remembers shit like that? Not me)—I’d purchased a few cases of Jones Soda for some party or other that we were having.
A bottle of Jones Soda has a fortune printed inside the cap, but since cans don’t have bottle-caps, Jones prints (or printed at the time—I think the packaging has changed?) the fortunes on the cardboard case the cans come in.
On this day, whenever it was, two of the fortunes jumped out at me as particularly significant (though I know, of course, that their significance is primarily a function of my decision to see them as significant—as relevant to my specific situation, &c, whatever).
They were: “You are headed in the right direction” and “Ask yourself why.”
I cut them out. They went, as a pair, onto my corkboard. They helped me get through the application process and the soul-crushing stack of (six) rejection letters that the process resulted in. They were, also, a factor in my decision to go through the application process again—successfully, this time.
At some point, I took the corkboard off the wall, took everything off of it, and bagged it up: the wall space in the room it was in had been … redistributed.
When I got (more-or-less) permanent office space on campus—in the fall of 2010, a full nine months before I started writing this post, and more months than I want to count before the actual posting (with some revision) of this post—the corkboard had a new home, and (almost) everything went back up on it. New things, too, as I acquire or unearth them (like a one-armed LEGO ninja that I found on the sidewalk, and a Return-of-the-Jedi-era stormtrooper action figure from my childhood).
One thing that didn’t make it was the “You are headed in the right direction” fortune: it disappeared somewhere, into the æther, into nonbeing, into the trash, who knows. I no longer know if I’m headed in the right direction—most days I’m not even sure what direction I’m headed in at all. I still have the other one, though, and it’s still on my corkboard. “Ask yourself why.” I try to, and I try to teach my students to do the same. Never stop asking, even when you get answers—the answers should just produce new questions. Ask yourself why.
It’s fucking exhausting, just like when a kid does it to you.
Man, I don’t ever not read between the lines. Reading between the lines is what I get paid for. Not only that: I get paid to teach other people to read between the lines.
For example: remember this Budweiser commercial from the 2010 Super Bowl? The one where the dude has a house made of Bud Light? It’s not particularly impressive the first time one watches it: “Ha ha, silly man, doesn’t realize that the house is going to get deconstructed a can at a time in a round of good clean American fun and responsible drinking.” Something like that.
That’s not what the ad is about, though. It’s actually an anti-alcohol advertisement, and a fairly poignant one at that. The house: not only a primal symbol of domesticity and family life, but also a symbol of the American dream, with its neatly manicured lawn and Georgian-Colonial-Revival facade. The owner of this home – who, the ad implies, is also the builder of the home, further emphasizing that he is a man to be admired, respected, emulated – the owner has it made; he is living the dream; he is Homo Americanus Suburbians.
And yet: his house is made of the devil’s brew, and with each drink – each one so small, so insignificant – a mere twelve ounces of watery, flavorless malted-barley beverage – the house becomes more unstable, more un-homely, bleaker and sadder and less welcoming, until it collapses into a pile of empty cans and broken dreams, and the owner – once a beacon of virtue, uprightness, and the American Way – is homeless, a broken man, a shell of his former self.
We don’t see any of that in the ad, of course, but that’s part of its power: we’re shown the initial stages of the downward spiral, when everything is still “fun” and “harmless” and nobody’s thinking about the consequences. That’s all we’re shown, but it’s enough; the image lodges itself in our brains, and we ruminate on it, and soon – the next day, or the day after that, or the next week – we realize what the ad is really telling us, and we weep.
At least, I weep. In class, when I walk my students through this. They just look at me like I’m crazy, and I have to end class early because I can’t get my shit together. True story.
When Robinson Crusoe found himself alone on an uninhabited island, he quickly declared himself king, lord, emperor of all he surveyed. He had no subjects for two and a half decades, but he was still the king, dammit.
He eventually acquired a savage – plucked from the jaws of
death cannibals – and, a few years later, a Spaniard. He sent the Spaniard off in search of other subjects, and then skipped town when an English ship happened by his island. He quickly took command of the vessel – though he let the former captain pretend to still be in charge – and left a few mutineers behind with a letter for the Spaniard. Then they all sailed back to England.
Even though he was absolutely alone, Crusoe couldn’t resist putting himself at the top of a hierarchy. It’s human nature: we want a pecking order, we want someone to be the alpha male, we have to know who the leader of the pack is, we want other animal metaphors.
In general, people defy hierarchies with the goal – reasonable or otherwise – of instituting a new hierarchy with themselves at the top. This is why we have coups and revolutions and hostile takeovers and homeowners associations and office politics and aggressive salespeople and dudes who talk too loud at the coffeeshop about whatever the fuck it is they’re talking about.
This sort of defiance is directed toward the current system, the current hierarchy – sometimes justifiably, certainly – but it doesn’t call in to question the coercive and power-hungry nature of hierarchical systems as such. This sort of defiance seeks to replace, not to dismantle. Even when the defiers talk about dismantling, it is always with the unspoken assumption that something new will be built from the wreckage of the old.
A true defiance of hierarchy requires a rejection of power, a rejection of position and advantage and benefit – it requires a rejection of action itself. It requires one to say, with Bartleby, “I would prefer not to” – and to then walk away, and not give a fuck about the consequences.
Because there are always consequences: one doesn’t just defy a particular hierarchy, or a particular representative of a particular hierarchy; rather, one defies all particular hierarchies, and Hierarchy itself, in defying one of them. What you do to the least of these…
Hierarchy does not like to be defied. It will break you, and put you back in line, if there’s enough of you left to stand in a line. The only way to keep from being broken is to be utterly passive: like water, like the Tao, like Bartleby. Yield and overcome.
Of course, you have to sleep in your office, eat nothing but peanuts and stale cookies, and wear the same shirt all the time in order to pull this off – so, maybe not worth it?
The Book wants me to start a rumor at the office – which, in my case, is a university English department.
This is a very, very bad idea.
Office gossip is bad enough at a regular office, where people leave their work behind them and go home to their normal lives. Academics don’t have other lives, though, and so the gossip is serious business.
Academic departments are festering cesspools of gossip and rumor-mongering and petty vindictiveness. Introducing a rumor into the wild of the department would be like stomping a fire-ant mound with your shoes tied together, or like pissing on a honey badger that you’re locked in a small room with, or like throwing raw bacon at the patrons of a vegan restaurant. That is: it would be stupid.
Feelings don’t just get hurt, they get trampled. Relationships get destroyed, grudges get held for decades, office doorknobs get greased, cars get set on fire. Violence and bloodshed break out, like in Romeo and Juliet or Full Metal Jacket or Fargo. Snarky emails get sent – accidentally – to the whole department.
People spend their office hours sobbing quietly, or drinking heavily, or both.
This all happens of its own accord, too – there’s no reason for me to stir up any more trouble, especially when it’s likely to come back and bite me in the ass. I try to keep a low profile, and this sort of thing is against my “don’t draw attention to yourself” policy.
All of which is to say: if I’m going to start a rumor at work, I’m not going to talk about it on a blog some of my colleagues read. I’m stupid, but I’m not that stupid.
Yesterday morning I had one of my moments of despair — an hour or so of gnawing, crushing hopelessness, of absolute certainty that I will never be able to get done all the things I have to get done, and will therefore be politely asked to leave the PhD program that pays my bills and makes my life worth living.
I have one or two of these a semester. They’ve gotten easier, in some ways, because I know that they will come and pass; I can usually see them coming, even, and sort of brace myself. Of course, each time there’s more to lose, because I’ve invested another half a year each time.
It all got done: the paper proposal, the reading, the writing of the response to the reading, the grading, the writing of the response to the paper presented in class today by the dude who’s teaching the class (which went well, so that’s good). Didn’t sleep much, and by that I mean I went to bed at 5 a.m. and got up again at about 7:45. Listened to the final round of presentations my students did, handed back their papers – some of them freshly graded – and called that unit of the course over, finally, and good fucking riddance.
Anyway. A long two days, at the end of which I was tired and drained, and in need of some primal screaming (I had, in fact, been looking forward to it since Monday morning, when I flipped ahead a bit to see what the week had in store).
I like a primal scream now and then; I do them almost exclusively in my car, and usually when I’m stuck in traffic. They’re usually of the “AAAAAAUUUUGH” variety, though there’s also an occasional “FUUUUUCK” that is mostly the “uh” sound.
I expected traffic, today, since I was driving home at rush hour; I needed it, really, to give me the energy to let out a few primal screams, because I was content to just zone out and smoke my pipe on the way home. There was no traffic, though – amazing! stupendous! wonderful! – so I had to make a conscious effort: take a deep breath, brace myself with both arms against the steering wheel, and scream.
It felt great. I’m going to start doing it more often.
I do not have biceps like the Batman at right. Hell, that Batman’s biceps are nearly as thick as my torso. At 6′ and 150 pounds, I’m what people call “lanky.” Michelangelo’s David has a few pounds on me, sure, and better hair, but I can swing a sledgehammer and wield a post-hole digger (and thank God I don’t have to do either for a living).
I lacked the two things that would have made my doing of this task more accurate: a measuring tape of the sort used by tailors, and someone to do the measuring for me.
So, I improvised: I used a sheet of paper – 8 1/2 x 11 inches – and from an article on the “awry and squint” nature of Donne’s “Holy Sonnets,” no less – to estimate the girth of my biceps. It was awkward, sure, and not as accurate as it could have been. I’d say that it was the most creative use to which anyone’s ever put a printout of this article – written by Richard Strier, published in the May 1989 issue of Modern Philology, if anyone cares – but that’s probably not true, both because it wasn’t particularly creative, and also because people do strange things with academic articles. We don’t need to go into it here, though; just use your imaginations.
…right, moving on. The approximate measurement of my biceps (the right one, by the way) at which I arrived? Between eleven and twelves inches – which, according to the Book, puts me comfortably in the “normal” range, at least in terms of girth of biceps, for males. Apparently one goes from “sand-in-the-face wimp” to “normal” at nine inches of biceps – then there’s a range of “pretty damn impressive” in the twenties of inches range – and then, above 30 inches, one gets into “huge arms but small penis” territory.
I don’t think I’d say that to Batman, though.
Office space in the department is at something of a premium, and grad students are at the bottom of the pecking order – which is, I suppose, as it should be. I currently share an 8′ x 10′ office with two other people – or, rather, I shared that office with two other people until today.
The group of grad students who started back in the fall have been without offices up to this point, because there hasn’t been (and, really, still isn’t) room for them – but, since they aren’t teaching, they’ve been able to muddle by without a permanent place to stack their books. But they will be teaching next fall, and a new group of bright-eyed, as-yet-uncynical students will be taking their places as the departmental nomads, and so the current nomads will soon need office space – and that soon is now, apparently. Why this couldn’t wait until the summer, I’m not sure, but nobody asks my opinions about anything.
We all got an email from the departmental secretary to this effect this morning – “blah blah blah, limited space, appreciate your cooperation, &c” – and I scanned it briefly and moved on, having more important things to do (like catching up on Dinosaur Comics).
But then I got another from said secretary, informing me that I was going to have to move out of my office, because one of the soon-to-no-longer-be-nomads was moving into it.
Not “downsized” in the sense of being asked to leave the program – nothing that bad. No, I’m just being asked to move out of my office, and into a closet. That’s right: a closet. It’s so small that I can touch one wall with my right elbow and the opposite wall with my left elbow. There’s one shelf, barely deep enough for my laptop and too low on the wall anyway, that will serve as a desk. No room for a chair, obviously, and no way to hang more shelfs, as the walls are cinderblocks. There’s a door, but it doesn’t lock. It’s unbearably hot with the door closed, and there’s an unidentifiable and incredibly, pungently unpleasant odor that seems to be coming out of the walls themselves.
Also, did I mention it’s in a building on the other side of campus?
It is at least in a building, though; I heard that a few people will be officing in tents on the lawn.