Iris Murdoch on reading Homer aloud to oneself on the underground

I’ve been reading Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch edited by Avril Horner and Anne Rowl. Murdoch’s letter show the same fierce intelligence as her novels, there are so many moments of delightful weirdness and unapologetic bookishness that I am enjoying the book very much, particularly for the “I’m clearly crazy as a bedbug” asides in the letters, written in language simply bouncing with energy and intelligence, such as:


(I am going to the zoo this afternoon, chiefly to see the zebras–I have an intense occult passion for zebras)

Who doesn’t have an intense occult passion for zebras, I ask you?

In the same letter as the zebra discussion comes this little gem, which in my tendency to copy people I admire may lead me to become decidedly unpopular on the Expo Line:

I haven’t written anything since Schools–or even read very much, except a little Proust and some poetry (my latest pastime is reading Homer aloud in the underground. There is such a racket that non one can hear you–and the hexameter goes very well with the rhythm of the train.)

Charming on multiple fronts: reading Homer, aloud, train.

My design for Trump’s Wall

Ok, before anybody yells at me: think about it this way: Trump made a lot of big promises about “bringing jobs back” to rural America. Well, in addition to hiring people to clap for him at press conferences, the wall is another way to make jobs. But a wall just between Mexico and the US is really short compared to mine, and members of noble, wonderful, real America in the heartland would have to travel really really far to get a job building the wall. Steelworkers upset that they are not getting jobs…well, my wall is MUCH longer, would require more steel, and is much closer to the folks who need jobs in middle America.

I’m just saying.

US map Google Search

I am getting you the biggest special issue of JAPA on planning ethics ever. The BEST special Issue. It’s HUGE. You’re gonna love it.

I have the best special issues. The best. Really. We are also bigly ethical. (No, the me part of we is not, but my other writers probably are.)

I have been out of commission blogging for a bit because every spare minute was spent trying to get these papers lined up and put to press.

Ok, sometimes your mentors say things like “Do you really want to take on that project because it is way more work than it seems like” and you (if you are me) bull-headedly go forward, and then, too late, you figure out, again, that mentors tell you things because they are trying to warn you away from trouble, not because they have nothing to do and want to mess with you.

So that’s all by way of saying that THIS WAS WAY MORE WORK THAN I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE HOLY CRAP.

Nonetheless, I think we wound up with some very useful papers. We have:

  • a paper from Bonnie Johnson, Mary Kay Peck, and Stephen Preston on the differing ethos between city management and urban planning;

  • a paper from Carolyn Loh and Arroyo on the special ethical considerations of planners in private practice;
  • a paper from Mickey Lauria and Mellone Long that is an update and extension of a practitioner survey first conducted by Kauffman and Howe in 1979 (I love both these papers, and I super-love updates to date papers;
  • a paper from me and Nader Asfalan on why AICIP needs an open data ethic; and
  • a planning note from Orly Linovsky on the ethics of pro bono work and urban design and planning.

A new conservative cultural cosmopolitanism?

Global media theories are not my specialty, obviously, but they are a interesting set of ideas. What happens when with social media and global corporate media in pluralistic world? Do you start to get erosion of specific cultures, and a subsequent hybrid? Heidegger viewed global communications with suspicion for that reason, though in his case it probably reflects a knee-jerk anti-modernism. In Athens, arguably, the cosmopolitan nature of trading city got people thinking about νόμος and φύσις–or man’s law, custom versus the laws of nature/universe. After all, if you are surrounded by different people from different places who do things differently, then which set of laws/customs is the right one? I think it’s fair to stay the west has struggled with that a bit. In a world of global media, it’s likely that similar questions might arise.

Or not.

Alternatively, when media are customized and delivered according to taste like other consumer goods, globally, you might see global pluralism reinforced rather than any unity or standardization.

And I think that’s what I see. When I see Trump supporters shrugging their shoulders at the possibility of Russian influence, I get to thinking that allegiances are shifting in important ways. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not into getting too het up about Russian hacking unless we can show they did something to influence counts. I’m assuming that just about all our political enemies have tried to influence elections, and this was not the first time, just as we rather routinely do it to other places. And as a scholar interested in media (urban media, but still), my read of the influence literatures suggests to me that it’s harder than intuition suggests to influence political behavior, like voting. Just because people see a message or a story doesn’t mean they believe it, and even if they do believe parts of it, it’s hard to predict how they will interpret it and apply it to their voting preferences.

I am getting a little annoyed with people I normally respect like Corey Robin overstating the Left’s response to the Russian actions. No, “half of America believes the Russians fixed the elections” is not a fair read, just like half of Americans believe Barack Obama was a Muslim born in Kenya. I really have no idea what half of Americans believe and neither does Robin. Yes, people are upset, and yes there are people who are concerned–as they should be. But mostly, it’s another straw on the camel’s back of Donald Trump’s presidency. He won the election by a procedural vagary; I have hardcore Orange County Republicans telling me that they think it’s BS that a president can lose the popular vote and still become president. If those folks–Trump voters all–have their problems with procedure here, we got problems with procedure, no matter how long and loud Trump’s mob (distinct from Trump voters, some of whom undoubtedly did so with fear and trembling) yell “them’s the rules, so nyah nyah boo boo!”

I’m torn between wondering if the people who think the Russian thing is “no big deal” do so because a) reasoning not unlike mine; b) they just wanted him to win because they are so vested in what he represents to them (which, since nothing he says makes any sense, is likely a projection of what they *want* him to be) that even if the Russians put him in power they are ok with that; or c) there is a new global cosmopolitanism in play (which is not incompatible with either a or b) such that a certain brand of American conservative thinks that Russian conservatives are better, more worthy of power and political authority the despised American liberal. After all, Putin has repressed religious difference and promulgated anti-LGBTQIA laws. Speaking of the “real” America strikes me as a way of making people amenable to this type of cosmopolitanism; after all, if being an American citizen and serving in the army (John Kerry) is not sufficient to qualify as authentically American, and authentic Americanism is a set of values and cultural markers…then anybody who shares those gets in the club. If that’s the case, the world is becoming more integrated in some ways even as isolationism has reared its head again.

Or this is all bullcrap, and I don’t know what I am talking about. But that’s what I have been thinking about.

I feel no obligation to indulge bad reasoning to defer to “anti-elitism”, whatever that really means

I’ve written here before about how class in the United States is horrendously distorted in our dialogue, which makes it more about what you consume than wealth and power. This idiotic hit piece about Meryl Streep over at Jacobin is a prime example. OMG, Streep used to be from Jersey, but then she started playing WASPs, what a traitor to her class! Her speech was the worst thing that happened since Trump’s election! (When, btw, did simply being from New Jersey become a marker for working class? There are wealthy people in New Jersey, too, people. Come on.)

Um, no, I’d say dead Syrians are worse maybe than Meryl’s speech, wouldn’t you? I know that’s a cheap shot; you can always find more suffering, but if there is one thing I have had fully enough of, it’s celebrity politics of all kinds, and that includes celebrity take-downs like this one, which have nothing–nothing–constructive or substantive to say other than to denounce a successful woman in an industry where many, many people do not get desert. Point out those things? Nope. Jacobin just wants the clicks. How market-oriented of them.

Streep, had she said nothing, would have been vilified. She said something, she got variously celebrated and vilified. None–absolutely none of the blah-blah about “out of touch Hollywood liberals” or the “Yay, way to go, Meryl” discussion changes anything. There are no new things to learn here. It’s still a conversation centered on one of the elect that got a reward in a vicious, star-based system. Why we’d expect anything from anybody else in such a system is, frankly, astounding to me.

And, even more perversely, critiques of the winners in that star system fall too readily into sounding like sour grapes, and that Jacobin piece reeks of it.

Streep is, via her success, part of the 1 percent in an industry dominated by people struggling to make a living. The academy (my world) and the entertainment industry are both star system economies, where the winners make economic rents and everybody else…barely keeps body and soul together. I’m sick of celebrities and branded people of all types, and if nothing else, I’m sick fo the rest of us playing by those rules.

I’m sick of people saying things like scientists are “elite.” Um, no. They may be educated, and there are elite scientists. Neil deGrasse Tyson is an elite scientist, and I think he does try to do some good with his influence. But he is also financially doing jes’ fine. Plenty of other astronomers are teaching endlessly and doing grunt work in labs with little hope of getting out. We’ve stupidly assigned the characteristics of celebrity to the entire class of people “Hollywood”, and it’s terrible reasoning, and I very much doubt that’s the way to a more humane way of relating to each other either politically or economically. I’m not worried about Streep per se or any of the people who manage to make themselves darlings in these systems; I’m more worried about about collective inability to see what pulls the strings behind the large, loud image speaking and the way media just feeds and feeds that inability because it makes journalism and content cheap and easy to find.

The difficulty with squashing free speech in my classroom is that it takes a cattle prod to get them to say anything

Making the rounds on social media is this piece from the Chron about how state legislators are far more likely to be a threat to free speech than professors. I’m sure that’s right. Here’s my question:

Are you pipo high?

Not just the legislators, who are super vested in making symbolic, culture war gains that don’t really amount to a hill of beans. But everybody who is imagining classrooms full of eager young people just BURSTING with ideas that they wish to debate. All y’all.

Because this is what my undergrad classroom looks like day in and day out:

My students never want to say anything ever. It may be that they are terribly, terribly frightened of mean, mean, bad old me, or they just don’t like speaking extemporaneously, haven’t gotten around to the reading, or any other rationales, but students don’t volunteer to talk much. Some super-keeners do, but that’s just because they feel pity for me.

Undoubtedly all you poco/pomo education folks are just chomping at the bit to tell me that I’m doing it wrong, that if I just make learning INTO PLAY with games! Activities! Embodied learning! Yeah, I do all those things. Some students like that. I would have hated that shit as a student. There was NO faster way to make me shrink to the bottom of my seat than than some hippy dippy prof announcing “Form groups! Today we are going to simulate therapy!!” Retch, puke vomit.

And I know that isn’t a fair characterization of pomo/poco thought. But neither is condemning things as “drill and kill” or “sage on the stage” fair, either. Some of my happiest learning memories were with brilliant lecturers and devising clever systems to memorize things…rather than shifting the burden onto the professor to devise a clever system for me.

I’m sure that mechanization is a big deal, but has anybody measured the jobs impact of dematerialization?

Because my bet is that dematerialization has already had a big effect on jobs. Brilliant friend Kevin Holliday and I were at lunch the other day, and we got to talking about all the thing-things that people don’t really need to buy anymore because everything is consolidated into one device.

  • Radios. (we buy speakers, maybe)
  • Television sets. (we buy screens)
  • Watches (ok, I supposed wearable technology watches are thing, but my students think I’m just adorable with my little Timex)
  • Notebooks
  • Books
  • Film
  • Cameras (yes, those of us who publish photos do have to buy digital cameras, but how many people just have their phone camera now?)
  • GPS devices
  • Magnifying glasses (yes, there is an app for that)
  • Keylights (yep, phones)
  • cds and discs
  • DVDs
  • VCRs
  • pens, pencils (I know, still used, but you would not believe how many people though it was just *adorbs* that I needed a new pencil sharpener)
  • newspapers
  • puzzles and games (they seem to have become a niche market. When my students see a picture of me with puzzle, they say “have you ever done a digital jigsaw?) Why??? Why would you do that?
  • carbon paper
  • calculators
  • kitchen timers
  • alarms clocks
  • clocks in general
  • Levels
  • Recipe cards
  • Rulers
  • atlases, maps, globes
  • phone books
  • planners, address books, desk blotters
  • ledger books
  • checkbooks
  • passbooks
  • analog phones

etc. I’m sure there are things that I am missing. Certainly, old-timers like me, with my broadsheet newspapers and clocks in every room, still exist. But there going to be niche markets for various things just because people like the objects. Will that be enough to employ people? Will there be enough jobs making artisanal cheese to make work for folks displaced?

I’ve been reading the Universal Basic Income material for my social policy class next fall, and I have to say I am not convinced by any of the arguments on the pro or the against side. On the pro side, we have the technophiles breathlessly telling us about how great it will be for people to be free from poverty (it would be nice). On the “no” side, you have free marketeers absolutely convinced that people will begin a life of indolence and sloth, thereby killing off all innovation and productivity. There are things I very much like about the universal basic income, including the universality: by making it available to everybody, I would have to hear less whinging about “teh Blacks on welfare” and we would not have to deal with all the means-testing and deservingness nonsense. I do not buy the argument that productivity and innovation will halt; it could even go up. Freed from the necessity of working two jobs, somebody might pursue their interest in small-scale robotics in a home workshop, for example, and come up with something nobody has thought of before. And it’s not like people who inherit wealth never do anything productive. Plenty of people from moneyed families get out and find a profession or a set of causes to work for even though they do not have to do so, financially. We could have more poetry and art, and I see little wrong with that. What if there are diminishing marginal returns in innovation anyway, and we’ve gotten as far as we are going to in all but entirely new directions that right now we can only dream and tell stories about?

Anyway, I’m arguing myself in circles on it, and I’m sure there are other macro factors I’ve not thought about. And I do understand that we can’t just experiment with it, as taking away would be a disaster once people got used to it.