There are days when the weather seems to have blown a fuse, and everything’s skin temperature and slightly damp, and your mood mimics the atmosphere: malaise.
But then something shows up in the post to cheer you up. I received a delightful piece of hate mail yesterday. It’s nice to see people making an effort.
The letter is from “Steven,” who claims to be a professor of English and Media Studies but wishes to conceal his real identity. This raises an obvious question: wouldn’t a professor of media studies know that his e-mail can be traced to the CUNY (CCNY) server from which he sent it? I’m no Steve Jobs, but even I get that.
I actually sympathize with Steven’s technological pratfalls. The internet remains mysterious to me, too. It feels like a sentient yet alien creature living in my house, even inside of me. We sometimes forget the uncanny nature of modern electronic communication.
Gregor Samsa, having a bad morning
One of the unpleasant uncannyness-es of the internet is its ability to blow past all the social barriers that once defended against unwanted intimacy. The last thing we need today is more intimacy: we are already practically living in each other’s tonsils. A dear friend of mine who went a little unhinged while writing her dissertation (an entirely ordinary thing, and she did it charmingly) took to calling language “a virus.” For a long time, I politely nodded at this, while secretly wondering what the heck she was talking about. But I think I finally get it.
I am a quotidian thinker: un-theoretical, literal, plodding, and slow — a soil person, not a fire or light person. In my earth-clumped mind, Language is a virus means that the antibiotics we currently have won’t work against it. This is all the more reason to long for the days when one could live like the characters in I Know Where I’m Going!, a movie I recommend to “Steven” to cheer him up, because the very fact of my existence appears to have gotten him very, very, very down.
It’s a nice movie to watch when you are tired of words, because, throughout the entire film, the characters can hardly hear each other, for the wind is howling so loudly.
Among its many virtues, I Know Where I’m Going! introduces the uninitiated to the existence of the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Once you know that the Corryvreckan Whirlpool exists, the earth feels like a different place. Here is some interesting trivia I did not know until I consulted Wikipedia. If language is a virus, Wikipedia is the herpes of the internet. But, a good herpes:
In mid-August 1947, the author George Orwell nearly drowned in the Corryvreckan whirlpool. Seeking to focus his main energies on completing a novel destined to become the dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell had fled the distractions of London in April 1947 and taken up temporary residence on the isolated island of Jura in the Inner Hebrides.
On the return leg of an August boating daytrip to nearby Glengarrisdale, Orwell seems to have misread the local tide tables and steered into rough seas that drove his boat near to the whirlpool. When the boat’s small engine suddenly sheared off from its mounts and dropped into the sea, Orwell’s party resorted to oars and was saved from drowning only when the whirlpool began to recede and the group managed to paddle the distressed craft to a rocky outcrop about a mile distant from the Jura coastline. The boat capsized as the group tried to disembark, leaving Orwell, his two companions, and his three-year-old son stranded on the uninhabited outcrop with no supplies or means of escape. They were rescued only when passing lobstermen noticed a fire the party had lit in an effort to keep warm.Orwell completed a first draft of Nineteen Eighty-Four about three months after the Corryvreckan incident, with the final manuscript not finished until late 1948.
And here is an excellent story by Robert McCrumb that goes into more detail about Orwell’s encounter with the Corryvreckan Whirlpool. Every detail of this event grows more interesting as you examine it: the great author misreads a text and nearly drowns for it; Homeric oars must be resorted to when the engine falls off. Don’t you feel better about the world knowing that passing lobstermen are responsible for the existence of a great literary classic denouncing totalitarian intellectual oppression? Lobstermen plucked Orwell from the sea!
Somewhere inside, a tremendous unifying metaphor lurks.
Anyway. Onto Steven. I think I finally understand why reading his letter made me think of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s the tone. One of the difficult things about reading Kafka is the unpleasantness of his main characters. Even as you witness them suffering horribly, you find yourself inching to the door to escape their elemental whininess:
I’m wondering, Dr. Trent, whether this is blog is a template or if you penned the directions for comments: “Please be nice and tolerant, don’t offend. Thanks!”
I ask because the level of vitriol in your writing seriously undermines your arguments. The problem with allowing emotion, especially anger and contempt, to drive your arguments is that it conveys your fanaticism and leaves your readers convinced your mind was made up before you even began your research.
Now, I have to thank Steven for bringing this information to my attention. I am obviously deeply opposed to niceness and tolerance, and I had no idea that my readers were being subjected to such a demand when they deigned to weigh in. Yes, Steven, this blog is a template. And I intend to obliterate those comment directives as soon as I figure out how to use the internet .
I also like the use of the word “vitriol” here, but I wonder if the sentence wouldn’t have been stronger if Steven had left off the word “seriously.” Merely undermining my arguments seems work enough, and I don’t think there is such a thing as unserious undermining.
Or is there?
I do not, however, intend to abandon fanaticism, anger, or contempt. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with them.
Here, that strange and creepy thing about the internet rears its head: Steven assumes a troubling intimacy with me. It would be easy just to make fun of his hapless efforts to sound rational and objective — allowing emotion, especially anger and contempt, to drive your arguments — but there is something darker underneath all the academic foppery. There is an ugly need to control people, to get into their heads and classify thoughts as appropriate and inappropriate, politically correct and incorrect. Orwell would have quite a bit to say about Steven, if he stooped to bother, but my immediate thought upon reading his letter is of the quotidian, earth-clot sort:
Do not date this man. He is an asshole.
Or maybe he’s just a tenured professor of media studies. Some jobs, my clever husband said to me, warp all but the strongest personalities. Steven continues:
It’s quite possible that your opinions about the people and events you discuss have serious validity, but the value I attach to your blog is not one you will likely appreciate: I’m going to use it to teach my college media and English students the perils of attacking your readers with furious opinions and political agendas while you call them “facts.” Over the years, I’ve learned how easily they see through hysteria and propaganda, so I expect they’ll have no trouble deconstructing and discrediting a significant portion of your postings.
Again: would anyone want to date this man?
I am worried about the literacy of university professors. Steven says he teaches media studies and English. I certainly wouldn’t sign my name to something this inflated and vapidly aggressive and sanctimonious; then again, I wouldn’t write it either. But stepping back from — oh, content and intent — shouldn’t university professors be a bit better than this at expressing themselves?
In the third brief paragraph of a tiny letter, Steven commits the “serious” redundancy again. Doubling a redundancy does not minimize it, for good diction does not operate like the Federal Reserve. What is “serious validity”? Something is valid, or it is not. I should note here that the post Steven criticizes is about terrorist Judith Clark and her apologists at the New York Times. In the imaginary universe of the Times, and apparently Steven’s CCNY classroom, murderers like Clark are actually love-muffins spreading sunshine from their prison cells because the people they killed were pigs who aren’t really human, just cops.
You have to trot a bit to keep up here. Shedding your moral consistency helps.
the value I attach to your blog is not one you will likely appreciate
I’m going to use it to teach my college media and English students the perils of attacking your readers with furious opinions and political agendas while you call them “facts.”
Steven is going to teach his students about journalistic ethics by anonymously attacking a stranger with inappropriately personal comments. Do you want to know more? I know I do:
I’ll leave an additional observation here as well. How many times have you addressed poverty and molestation as a cause of crime? How many articles have you written on police deceit, abuse and corruption? How often have you criticized corrections policies designed to exact revenge and ignore abuse instead of combat recidivism? Until your perspectives prove a more balanced approach to these issues, I will assume you argue for a rigid and unforgiving and, incidentally, deeply anti-Christian approach to crime.
Apparently, I have not criticized policies the appropriate number of times, nor have I scribbled enough on deceit. I have failed to balance my voice in ways that satisfy our Steven. He will punish me for being rigid and awaits my rehabilitation.
Sounds like someone needs to spend a little less time pawing over Fifty Shades of Grey.
It is sad to imagine anyone spending classroom time performing coarse and hysterical deconstructions of blog posts. And I say that as the author of blogposts. So, on the off chance that Professor Dunderpants’ students are reading this, let me offer a gentle suggestion: Your school is not giving you a quality education for the money.
If you want to get really depressed about how much money and time you are wasting, I suggest you read an actually unnerving (borderline uncanny) blog — The Last Psychiatrist, specifically his two-part posting, Hipsters on Food Stamps, ought to bring the sensation of malaise barreling down on even the cheeriest sort.
I realize that it’s getting late in the post, and I haven’t said anything yet directly in response to Steven’s criticisms of me. In keeping with his tone, I suppose I could just argue that I’m being a very disobedient little girl today, but I’m going to offer a bit more.
It doesn’t seem as if Steven actually disagrees with the serious validity of the people and events I discuss. What he seems to want to do is to ignore my arguments about people and events and deconstruct my writerly identity instead. This is what far too many people in the academy do all day long. Rather than teach their students valid things about people and events, all of which takes work, they engage in the masturbatory rituals of deconstruction, which — despite the magic vocabulary involved — generally boils down to one very simple chant:
I am better at social justice than you are.
This is all Steven was writing to me to say. He felt entitled to say it anonymously because he was speaking for a mob. I am better at social justice than you are is the only intellectual contribution some tenured faculty make throughout their entire careers these days.
Here’s something else Steven’s students should know: education should be about things that exist somewhere other than your phone, or your professor’s warped and outsized ego.
Beware the Corryvreckan Whirlpool.