The End of Semester, End of Year Post that Indicates the Continued and Likely-to-Continue Awfulness of Everything
I Spilled My Thoughts on This Page and This Horror is the Result
By now, an awful lot has been written about the election and why it is that Trump won. Much of it is horribly reactionary (like Trump himself), much of it inane, and much of it written in the very spirit that persuaded enough of the country (most of it, by landmass) to vote against the various ideals which Hillary represented. Other pieces have been quite good and insightful, critiquing that very hyperbolic tendency which has been the chief failing of the regressive left.
None of this writing, of course, changes the fact that the United States of America elected a man who is a notorious liar, a braggart, someone who readily flip-flops on any position to his advantage, and who, in the course of this unprincipled behavior, may have shackled himself irrevocably to white ethnonationalists who share deeply disturbing commonalities with the German Nazi party. I would not be surprised if Richard B. Spencer saw himself as in the mold of Adolf Hitler, and hoping to follow in his path to positions of leadership.
But this essay is not about the election, nor about white supremacists, or nationalism, or the deplorable state of our political system, its parties, or any such temporal and (it is to be hoped) changeable phenomena. Rather, this essay is about habit.
Something about Perspective
Most of us, upon hearing the word “habit”, think of some mundane daily routine or action. I have a habit of going to bed late. I have a habit of scratching at my beard while I am thinking. I habitually drink two cups of coffee in the morning. Habits may range from the most trivial–cracking one’s knuckles, say–to the most important routines of a life: prayer, saying “I love you” to a spouse, charitable giving, or how one goes about working.
Like many of our English words, habit comes from Latin: proximately habitus, meaning a thing’s condition, and more remotely, habere, the verb meaning “to have, to hold”. The Latin habitus was often used to translate the Greek ethos–connected to ēthos (character) and ethikē (ethics)–meaning something much more like our English habit, although narrower in focus. Many of our habits begin and persist without conscious decision. For the Greeks, especially Aristotle, habit was principally and primarily the result of consistent and deliberately-chosen action, to the point where it became automatic. But much like the modern appropriation of the word ethos, habit also means having a kind of worldview: for the kind of person you are, the individually developed persona of the common human nature, determines the way in which you view the world.
So when I say that ours is a society of really bad habits, I do not mean that we chew our nails or smoke cigarettes. Rather I mean that we have formed ourselves poorly in regards to how we both view and hold ourselves in relation to the world.
These poor habits appear as emergent from what I can only describe as an insipid attitude towards pleasure and pain: namely, that the former is the end goal of all our actions and the latter an evil to be avoided at nearly any cost. But press the average person in conversation about what he or she means by the term “pleasure”, and you are likely to hear little more than some vague description of a “good feeling”; conversely, “pain” receives little more verbiage than “a bad feeling”. Despite this amorphous understanding, we spend a great deal of time pursuing pleasure and striving to avoid pain, or its lesser cousin, discomfort.
I may be in the minority in this, but I think directing our lives by principles we do not really understand is a bad way to live.
Pleasure and Pain
What is pleasure? Some may say a good feeling; more advanced sophists may say it is the result of dopamine’s activity in the brain. The latter explanation actually tells us less of importance than does the former. “Feeling” is a deeper and richer concept than a neurochemical reaction. The feeling typically called pleasure undoubtedly incorporates such a reaction–but it is a part, and to take it for the whole is simply asinine.
Pleasure is, rather, the immediate subjective occurrence consequent to something experienced as good.
What is pain? Some will likely say a bad feeling–or perhaps, the result of a “chemical imbalance”, the body’s notification of a wound, or the feeling of loss. This lattermost is the best, as it comprises all the rest: for pain is the immediate subjective occurrence consequent to something experienced as bad.
At a certain point in the hunt for an academic job, it becomes difficult, for many (like myself), to maintain the belief that you do not suck at what you do. Since late 2014, I have been turned down or ignored for over 30 professor or instructor positions and fellowships. In the past year, I looked outside academia, applying to roughly 35 companies for positions roughly suitable to my skillset and experience. One of them offered me a job–sort of–but wanted me to start at an impossible date. I recently put in 2 non-academic applications (they take so much less time) and have 5 academic openings on my “to-do” list.
Between both academic and non-academic, I have had fewer than 10 interviews. Those 5 openings will sit on my list till the last minute, partially because they’re tedious, but also, I must admit, because I’m a bit afraid of another 5 rejections. After all, maybe I suck.
At the same time, I am a published author, with 1 and likely 2 books soon under contract with reputable academic publishers, as well as a sprinkling of articles and recently a book review. I wrote the majority of my highly regarded, well-praised, 187,000 word dissertation in less than a year. Maybe I’m actually amazing.
The truth is likely somewhere in-between. More importantly, even if I am amazing, I am also unwanted. My dissertation was on a medieval thinker’s metaphysics and epistemology. I’m currently working in phenomenology and semiotics. I don’t play with the hot topics: feminism, ecology, social and political theory, bioethics, non-Western thought, or any other such. They are not interesting topics. They are movements. I am fixated on the fixed, looking at the currents only insofar as they help us to see the regular patterns.
But still I wonder–am I maybe not that good at what I do? So bad, in fact, that I cannot even be trusted to do competently things vaguely related to what I do?
The Slippery Slope to Self-Importance
For those of you unaware, academia currently produces roughly 400-500% more job-seeking PhDs than there are full-time jobs open every year. We are the architects of our own demise.
“Don’t tell me the U.S.A. went down the drain because of Leftism, Knotheadism, apostasy, pornography, polarization, etcetera etcetera. All those things may have happened, but what finally tore it was that things stopped working and nobody wanted to be a repairman.” – Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins.
Every academic I know hates grading. It is a popular time for academics to get on Twitter (or write a blog post) and spend hours complaining about how much they hate grading, especially how long it takes. A professor with whom I used to live would often remark that students have always known less than they ought, but that nowadays they know nothing. They consistently provide ample proof of this, especially in their essays.
This semester, as usual, I tried to leave some of the best final essays for last. It is nice when your grading can end on a good note. To my disappointment, the final two fell below expectations. This was actually true of nearly every essay I graded in the past week. One exceeded what I anticipated, marginally, but the expectations were pretty low to begin with, so little cause for celebration there.
In fact, looking back at the whole semester, the disappointment was consistent. It is not my students’ fault–they have been poorly educated in the kind of thinking necessary to doing well in the humanities, likely, their whole lives–but it is certainly their problem. And yet, if I grade them justly, I will undoubtedly suffer blowback, either directly from the department or indirectly from student evaluations and online reviews.
It is frustrating to me. Here, I see the problems so clearly. For instance, it is evident that if my students were ever taught grammar, it was long ago, and the lessons were not taught in a way that stuck. I do not expect explicit knowledge of grammatical terms–say, a dangling modifier, or to be able to understand me if I say, “the appositive construction”–but it would be nice if they had, at least, the habit of not writing with ubiquitous and poorly-used comma splices. But what can I do?
“Seeing problems clearly” may be the universal curse of the academic. We all do really know things, and more often than not, this leads us to believe that we know a great deal more than we do. I say to myself, quietly, in my head, all the time: “Ah, but you are a philosopher. You are not like those other ‘experts’ out there, overly-specialized, attempting to reduce all things to the narrow paradigms of their own specialty. You study wisdom!” and so on. All true, really; but just because I maintain the openness innate to true philosophical inquiry and I study wisdom (whatever that means) does not mean that I have attained it, or that the solutions I envision to our complicated problems will actually produce results truly good. I like to think they would. But we will never know until someone puts me in charge. So we will never know.
So even now, I sulk, like Achilles in his tent (Read a book!), frowning over the injustice of lesser academics having been awarded higher places.
Bad Professor Club
While in grad school (oh hey, I can say that now…), my fellow students and I referred to ourselves as the “Bad Grad Students Club”–largely because of an overpreening peer who insisted that unless you were reading a bare minimum of three scholarly articles every day, you were not really being a good student. As most of us transitioned to being ABD adjuncts, we became a Bad Professors Club–mostly because we would decide to more-or-less wing our classes, rather than prep, so that we could go drink at the bar up the street, instead. What can I say? They had a terrific happy hour.
Nowadays, I find myself a bad professor of another sort. For one thing, having relocated, I no longer have the familiar cadre of fellow delinquency and booze enthusiasts. This has much improved the lot of my liver, I imagine. For another, I formerly taught at a school that, though moving in the STEM direction, was still predominately a liberal arts institution. Though most of the students I had in my classes were not majoring in the humanities, a strong-enough core curriculum meant that they were suffused with enough education and atmosphere of the humanities to attain (at least on occasion) a deeper-than-superficial grasp of the issues discussed.
Meanwhile, I spend my non-teaching-duty days consumed in the writing of a book likely to end on a handful of shelves and cracked open only half as many times, a book dealing with the sophisticated topics of semiotics and phenomenology, slipping through Latin and German technical terminology, exploring the esoteric writings of a never-fully-repentant Nazi and a manic depressive (both of them with notorious adulterous affairs) as an antidote to both the materialistic neuroreductionistic and the angelistic deus ex machina explanations of human knowledge.
I am a bad professor. Not because I do not know my material, not even because I am not interested in it; but I am a bad professor for these students. They need a disciplinarian. They need someone to break their bad habits, habits grown in an insular and truthless (not “post-truth”) world. Instead, I ignore their bad habits, and continue to pass them along (albeit begrudgingly, and with a low grade), because I am convinced that some day, I can become the “successful” academic I have long awaited myself to be.
A bad habit.
The Intoxication of Mild Pleasure
I am no stranger to indulgence. I have gone too far with alcohol, tobacco, even some of the gentler illegal substances–and more, besides. But these pleasures are typically laden with a context that gives them purpose. For a time, I drank not to feel; but mostly, I drank (and smoked, though that takes on a life of its own) to enjoy better the company of others. Even sex can–and I think ought to be–a means for mutual betterment.
Where I lapse mostly into the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake is in those pleasures more mild. I may swallow my fire, but I take my poison slow. By this I mean: the feeling of a girl’s thigh under my hand, a marathon of mindless TV, an engrossing video game, hot showers, the incessant music by which I block out the noise of the world, and always the ability to control the objects to which I am exposed.
This, I think, is common. I am no exception to the rule. These mild pleasures, in themselves–really, they are comforts–do no grave ill to us, in moderation. But we are drunk on them, all the time, and find the sobriety of discomfort horrifying.
We find a prominent example of this discomfort and its attendant horror in the vocal Left’s reaction to the Trump presidency. No pleasure has yet been deprived yet the mere thought of its possibility is enough to discomfit to near the level of garment-rending and hair-tearing. Infantile wailing and gnashing of teeth remains a perfected and oft-practiced art.
I think that so much can be made of the presidential election shows a deep problem: a nation of 300+ million cannot reasonably agree on the wide bevy of issues we have placed in the hands of Washington and a return to governmental decentralization is necessary. But that is another issue altogether; indeed, interruptions to our comfort seldom take so dramatic a form. Typically, they may be assuaged, smoothed over, and our comfort restored in a day, an hour, a minute, a few seconds. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed; just get a good night’s sleep, and tomorrow usually improves. Internet service is out; use your phone’s 4G service until restoration. Noisy neighbors? Use your headphones (okay, sometimes that doesn’t work). Need a new coat? You can get it for 50% less than anywhere else, from Amazord dot netweb, delivered to your door in two days–or less!
“But why not?” you interject, borderline indignant at the perceived slight, “Why, Mr. Dr. Prof. Krampus, should we not enjoy these things, should we not be comfortable? Aren’t you writing this from your Macrohard Expanse III, while pumping Amazord Muzak into your ears to block out noisy neighbors and city business and such?”
Indeed I am–as stated, I am no exception. For I am soft and fragile like the rest of you, wrapped in my cocoon of comforts; if I am in any way an exception, it is that I have taken to hanging mirrors on its interior walls. Self-absorption does not mean becoming lost in some introspection; rather, it means becoming ultraselective about the boundaries put upon one’s own “world”. I am self-absorbed, and the boundaries, the walls, of my world, are mortared by bad habit.
Locating the Source
Where do these bad habits come from? Are we victims of circumstance, of nature? Genes, family? Upbringing, destiny?
There are certain unverified stories said to be so good that, if they aren’t true, ought to be. One such story concerns the Catholic writer and apologist, G.K. Chesterton, an Englishman who wrote in the early part of the 20th century. When asked by the Times of London, among other authors, to write an essay on the topic of “What’s wrong with the world?”, his response was:
Put less civilly, we could also quote an inexplicably insightful madman in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins: “You want to know your trouble? You don’t love God, you love pussy.”
It is a philosophical claim the defense of which stands outside this article’s rambling ken, but the self and the source of one’s love are about as closely identifiable as any two elements in a human person can be. What is my problem? I don’t love God. I love pussy.
God or Pussy?
First of all, “pussy” isn’t always sex. It may be a video game. It may be art. It may be the cause of racial equality. It may be the warmth of comfortable surroundings. “Pussy” is that which distracts us, diverts us from a fuller, better way of being human. “Pussy” is that out of which we build our cocoons. In contrast, “God” isn’t always God, though one might argue that it ought to be. God is, to paraphrase Christ, the Light, the Truth, and the Way.
How are we to walk that Way? How can we see by that Light? How might we grasp that Truth? The first step, I think, is to muster the courage to poke a hole ourselves in the fragile walls of our cocoons and make ourselves look out.
And keep looking.