Battlestar Galactica: We Give Up

The human condition is a wretched thing. We're "thrown toward death" (Heidegger), we're a "useless passion" (Sartre), "the kids all suck" (The Problematics.) Walter Benajmin's "angel of history" is blown forward by the wind of progress but faces backwards, witnessing the ever-growing carnage trailing behind it. "The fully enlightened Earth radiates disaster" (Horkheimer and Adorno.)


I'm serious! Battlestar Galactica started out strong, with great characters, fun sci-fi technology, Edward James Olmos being badass all the time. But it just kept getting more depressing. It wasn't enough that the Cylons had destroyed all but a fragment of humankind; what was left of humankind spent all of its time bickering! It was worse than it is on Lost!* We finally tapped out last night after making it most of the way through the first two episodes of the third season, at which point humanity lives in a prison camp on a bleak little planet, controlled by their Cylon guards and human collaborators. I'm not disputing that some of it amounted to a nice allegory about patterns of human behavior, nor that much of it (occuption, suicide bombings, atrocities in the name of higher principles) was topical considering this all aired during the worst of the W years. I'm just saying that you, the viewer, never get a break. No comic relief, no selfless characters, not even any cool sci-fi space ships blasting the bad guys! It made me long for Luke Skywalker to come swooping in and destroy the Cylon ships with force-guided photon torpedoes! In a word, real life is depressing enough. This is not the kind of thing we want to watch on our free time.

So we gave up on that shit and watched Waiting for Guffman again.

* Ok, so we're stuck on this creepy island and we're probably all going to die. Let's complain and squabble and try to one-up each other rather than working together.


Cheer Up, Everyone

Lets make two life-sized cardboard cutouts of our bodies and then pose them into sensual positions.
Ill paint the wallpaper pattern onto your naked skin, stand against the wallpaper and get off like chameleons.
Ill flip some clips on my lips
Ill clips some chips to your hips
I nibble chips off your hips, and watch the moon eclipse

Ill go outside and get some leaves and pretend to be a tree.
You can be a squirrel, and store my nuts for me.

I told you I was freaky
'He told you he was freaky baby'
You didn't believe me
'Take that off'
I told you I was freaky
Girl, I do this shit weekly

Ill steal my roommates pillow feathers and make some homemade wings.
Gonna fly so high on make-shift pillow wings.
Girl can you believe we're flying,
on home-made pillow wings


Owww, owww, owww

I told you I was freaky, I told you I was freaky baby
I told you, I told you I was freaky baby



I delivered my first lecture yesterday, on what intellectual history is, an overview of the major themes and thinker of the Enlightenment, and Immanuel Kant. The first two elements of this trifecta of fun went well, the third less so. Here's what I've learned:
  1. After complaining about how historians have no right to use images, since they (historians) have such an inadequate grasp of art-historical theory, I fully intend to use lots of images and to draw crude, unsophisticated connections between them and their historical context.
  2. My powerpoint skills are not skillful.
  3. I need to write narrative lectures - unless I'm lecturing on something I know a lot about, a bunch of notes and disparate paragraphs culled off of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy aren't going to hack it.
  4. I already knew this, but lecturing is an out-of-body experience. I lose track of time and it's like listening to someone else talk. I can hear myself fall off my train of thought and then climb back on, but it doesn't elicit any kind of panic reaction, just curiosity. It's weird.
  5. It's going to be tough to do this and work on my dissertation this summer. But I will persevere.


Mortified Teenagers, Vague Sense of Terror

Just a quick informational computational update. We're in Eugene now for a quick hit-and-run visit with the fam. We met up in pastoral Silverton yesterday to have lunch and go to the Oregon Garden, which was very pretty. It's basically this big, beautiful outdoor garden / arboretum that barely clings to existence by relying on volunteer labor and hosting as many weddings as it possibly can. It has a little tram thing that drives visitors around and shows off the various sub-gardens with a helpful guide talking about everything. While we were toodling along, admiring the begonias, it occurred to me that nothing, noth - ing, would be more mortifying to a teenager than to be on that tram, listening to that guide describe the water gardens. Of all the things I miss the most, snotty teenage irony is not on the list.

Anyway, today is basically given over to oil changes, necessary thing-buyings, and preparation for heading back to Cali tomorrow. It's B's and my 6th wedding anniversary tomorrow, so we're taking the 101 coastal route back to Novato rather than the grim boringsplosion of I-5.

I'm just starting to feel the pangs of terror about Tuesday morning's inaugural lecture. Pray for me.

P.S. It's 8:34am and B is still in bed. This marks probably the second time in our nine year relationship that I've been up before her by choice.



B+C chillin' at C's apartment before the BBQ yesterday.

We're about halfway through our PDX visit, having arrived at the House of Pants yesterday evening. The visit with the niece and nephew went as expected: cute, fun, utterly exhausting. We were relieved to get into town and spend a day doing many of the things we love and miss about Portland:
  • Sit around apartments with backyards drinking coffee and listening to tunes.
  • Eating really incredibly good Thai food for cheap (lunch for three w/ drinks: 23 bucks.)
  • Leisurely BBQ.
  • Beer.
This morning Sir and Lady Pants are at work. B and I are thinking about dodging California's 9.25% sales tax and buying some literal pants at the Lloyd Center Mall in a bit, then we're joining C for lunch.

Pics update on Flickr!.


On the Road Again

Tomorrow afternoon we're off once again for another lightning raid on the Beaver State. We're staying the night in Novato, then hauling our muscular asses all the way to Oregon City and the home of B's brother + the gang. My 7-year old niece will demand back rides for three days, I will comply because I don't know how to say no to her, and that will be that.

After that we have a couple of days in PDX to check in with the Best Looking Kids in the West and to have as much BBQ action as possible. Then we're back down to Eugene to see my mom and brother, then we're back to Cali, then the day after I have my first lecture to deliver at 9am. It just occurred to me that I never printed out the syallbi for my class, so I'll literally have to hit campus the same day we get back to SC to take care of that. Sigh...

We're breaking some policies with this trip. Two years ago we swore off driving to Oregon after a tire blew and misery ensued. We've taken a long enough hiatus, though, that we think we're up to the task. We've also been doing pretty well with compartmentalizing visits up till now; we saw just The Good Looking Kids in January and just my family in April, rather than running around like crazy people trying to visit everyone. This time...we're running around like crazy people trying to visit everyone. It'll be tiring, but I'm sure it'll be worth it.


Great Moments in Intellectual-Historical Facial Hair

One definite focus for me in this summer's intellectual history class is emphasizing the role that facial hair has played in the history of European philosophy and social theory (among the men, anyway; I note that great female thinkers like Woolf and Beauvoir wore remarkable hats.) Here are some samples:

Even though he's a bit out of order here, we have to start with money-making Friedrich Nietzsche. Like a nineteenth-century Samson, his facial hair gave him the strength to call out for a Promethean revival of fearless Germanic virtue.

It's possible that Nietzsche sported a 'stache and not a big-ass philosopher's beard because he didn't want to get mixed-up with the Marx crowd. If Marx had actually been a worker, that beard would have gotten caught in a thresher and his head would have been torn clean off.

While I don't like affording him the status of a great thinker, Dostoevsky could have still represented Russia at the beard olympics. In his case, crotchety Christian mysticism would have been considered a performance-enhancing stimulant and he would have been ejected from the games.

The lesser-known young Hegelian (note: Hegel was tediously clean-shaven), Feuerbach. Marx not only took issue with his philosophy, he out-bearded him, too, at least in terms of volume.

Now, I didn't know that Ibsen sported this totally fucking rad facial hair getup until just now, when I was googling images. Pioneering feminist playwrite! Norway's proudest son! Crazy spikey beard-master! Well played, Ibsen!

Of course, facial hair on intellectuals diminished through the twentieth century. Happily, Levi-Strauss was still sporting a trim anthropology beard during his fieldwork days in Brazil in the late 1930s.

And then there's Habermas. It's hard to tell if that's his lip or an actual mustache. After considerable research, I've determined that it's both.

And then there's mister SMOOTH OPERATOR himself, Albert Camus. Camus cracked the code early: smooth cheeks, about a gallon of grease in his hair, some black-market rations in his pocket, and the starving ladies of the resistance couldn't resist.


Work, the Passions, a Baby Bunny

Here's a picture of an adorable baby bunny, stolen off of some dude's flickr site.

My adviser's best-known work is his massive biography of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier. Among other things, Fourier believed he had "discovered" a kind of science of human passion, the internal drives for gratification and pleasure at the base of human behavior. Fourier created plans for elaborate communities ("Phalanxes") in which the activities everyone undertook in their daily lives would correspond exactly to their natural drives. In short, work would be experienced as pleasure, and everyone would be happy.

Right now, I could use more of a coincidence between labor and pleasure. I've had the worst lazy-ass academic block of my meager career for the last three weeks or so. In the past, I haven't been more or less of a procrastinator than anyone else, but of late, it's been painful. I just can't get myself to finish the lectures for my summer classes in a timely manner, nor to keep plugging away for more than a few paragraphs on my dissertation. I just want to go home and play video games until it's time to make dinner.

I await the return of my academic muse. I name him Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, and I need his help.


See You In Hell, Discussion Sections

I'm off very shortly to lead what might be my last two discussion sections, ever. EV-AR. Next year's lucky-kid grant exempts me from teaching (in fact, I'm not allowed to), and I'm finishing my degree come hell or high water within a year. After that, I expect I'll be teaching for the rest of my life, but it won't be in discussion sections.

What are discussion sections, the non-academics ask? They're the product of the would-be democratization of the university system back in the '70s, as far as I know. They're special meetings in addition to the lecture of a class in which an authority, formerly the professor but now almost always the graduate teaching assistant, "discusses" the readings and the lectures with the students. They provide a forum for exchange, a monitor on the progress of the students, a safe environment for constructive criticism. In theory.

In practice, they're a soul-deadening obligation. Students generally hate them, because they're as boring as death itself. More to the point, students hate them because students don't read anything, so students have nothing to contribute to discussion. The teaching assistants leading the sections hate them as well, because no matter how much energy they put into preparation, how many clever questions and activities they dream up, the students stare with dead eyes and tenured tumbleweeds drift by on the linoleum. They are, in short, a waste of time.

All of that being said, sometimes the theory does coincide with the practice. Our happiest memories as grads often revolve around that one really good section we had three terms ago, in which fully half (!) of the students participated and which were actually fun to lead. Those of us with an ounce of dignity left still pour ourselves into sections, trying our damndest to make the students wake up and take notice, to care just a little bit about the material, to fucking well learn something for once.

But it's tough. We're not supposed to lecture; we're supposed to facilitate conversation. All too easily, that leads to a big ugly version of the Socratic method, pitching questions to an uncaring audience until the silence gets uncomfortable enough for some long-suffering A student to finally pipe up with a response. What I'm looking forward to is not avoiding teaching for a year, it's returning to teaching after that with the right to teach, to lecture, to present, and then to respond to questions and then to discuss if there are actually students interested enough to warrant discussion. I've spent four of the last five years as a graduate TA, and I'm ready to be done with it. I'm ready to be done with being an assistant and just be a teacher.


It Ain't Easy

I may have mentioned that I'm teaching my first 100% me, 100% of the time classes this summer. On the docket we've got European Intellectual History, from Kant and the enlightenment through Gorz, Habermas, and postmodern political conundrums. During the second session, we switch gears to straight-up nineteenth-century European history, from the French Revolution to World War I. I'm responsible for lecturing on everything from German Idealism in the 1830s to the aftermath of the Crimean War to why Roland Barthes was not a very good semiologist.

Of the various things this makes me realize is how and why professors routinely crib so much of their stuff from really specific sources. My adviser regularly informs the students in his classes about which books he's used for that day's lecture, sometimes narrowing it down to a single definitive biography or study (last term's action-packed lecture on the Napoleonic Wars was from one crotchety old French military historian.) The root of the issue is the contrast between the hyper-specialization of research and the vast breadth of teaching survey courses: academics are supposed to focus like nerdy lasers on tiny little morsels of material in their research, but we're also supposed to be able to cover huge gallumphing swaths in our teaching. Thus, I think most of us find ourselves needing to power-read a single good book on a subject and teach from it, lacking the time or energy to read more broadly.

Mostly, what I wish I had more of are juicy anecdotes. Kids love anecdotes in history (Kant was short and only ate once a day, on the first Christmas during WWI French and German soldiers fraternized in between the trenches, Sartre had terrible personal hygiene, etc.), but historians often forget to include them. Here's hoping I come up with a few more zingers before I start the classes in three weeks...