Saturday, January 29, 2011

this medium wasn't made for my message

[continued from yesterday]

I ain't studing you also brings up the difficulties that arise in trying to communicate--difficulties that, in this moment, arise because of the irreconcilable differences among speech, writing, and html code. When she was dismissing her sanctimonious neighbor, my grandmother certainly did not say: I'm not studying Miss Jenkins. But if I entitled my blog "Ain't Studing You" -- it would look like a typo, and you wouldn't trust that I'm particularly bright. That is, you'd be dismissive or disoriented at the gate. After deciding to spell studying with its stutter-inducing y, I found that even the apostrophe in "Ain't" was causing problems, resulting in some renderings of my title as something like "Ain't Studying You."  That is worse than a perceived typo; it's inhuman.

So, the title is a kind of compromise with blog technology, which isn't quite speech but isn't quite print publication, either. In fact, it proves that favorite insight of the poststructuralist branch of philosophers: we don't speak language; language speaks us. In other words, the codes or conventions that determine what I can represent on this blog came before I came here to write and, therefore, in order to be understood, I have to fit myself within them. What I write is not my will alone, nor my individual expression. Or to paraphrase one of Marx's insights, people make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing.

For example, in my first post, I wanted to take two of my points and relegate them to footnotes. As an academic, that's what I do with ideas that I can't let go but that interrupt your reading experience. It's just a great visual way to subordinate information without destroying it. Now, I might just be too inept to do it, but I can't for the life of me figure out how to make footnotes in html.

First, I tried to append my extra thoughts as makeshift endnotes, but those seemed too far from the original interjection. So I decided, instead, to stick them at the end of the paragraph. This is one of the disadvantages of the screen, as opposed to the page. It makes me wonder if ancient scrolls posed a similar problem. It seems I'll have to read Grafton's history of the footnote to find out. And before you pity me for what can only seem a most unenjoyable task (even though Grafton is quite the storyteller, the topic of the footnote cannot thrill you) -- rest assured, I will only read it until I find out what I need to know. There is too much to read and write for me to get hung up on it forever.

Just so you know, my academic work focuses on precisely these types of questions. I discovered, in researching the history of character that this term that we use for the letters and numbers in our alphanumeric system actually began as charagma, the tattoos applied to denote slave status in Ancient Athens. The notion that there are a fixed set of symbols with a fixed set of meanings seems to me very useful in arguing that there are a similarly limited number of social types, easily deciphered, as one would read a text. The problem of achieving some freedom, I suspect, is not just speaking up for oneself, it also has to do with being encased in a body that already speaks for you. The interesting ways in which constrained people have used forgery, fashion, and impersonation to get some freedom for themselves is fascinating to me, from the cross-dressing and face-painted actors of Elizabethan England to Joni Mitchell, who actually re-characterized herself as her own pimp (check the two Jonis on this album cover).
Joni Mitchell, Don Juan's Reckless Daughter, 1976

I have not decided how much of my academic manuscript will make it here because I am not yet sure whether this blog is going to help me think through that work or constitute a break from it. But I thought I'd let you know a taste of what the forthcoming my work on the long history of the production of black character is about and how it relates to the work here.

Friday, January 28, 2011

if you have to ask

When jazz was on the border between subcultural pleasure and mainstream commodity, Louis Armstrong was asked to define it. Although perhaps apocryphal, the story goes that he replied -- if you have to ask, you'll never know.

Nevertheless, I did think that, as a second post, I might try to explain why the phrase I ain't studying you appeals to me. The task poses a bit of a dilemma. That is, it forces me to confront two (of many) opposing forces in the stalled cultural "dialogue about race" in the United States. At one end, we have the proponents of cultural diversity. Put in charitable terms, these are cultural relativists who believe equality and understanding can come from a sharing of "perspectives" and-- usually--food and dancing. Although in theory this sort of ethnic sharing is supposed to avoid making any one culture central, diversity in the United States means "divergence" from a presumably white American-ness. This tendency places an undue burden on non-white people to explain themselves to what can only seem like a mainstream culture suffering from Alzheimer's. We remember white granddad, but he doesn't seem to remember us. So we have to let him feel our hair, nose, and face and sing him one of our people's traditional songs in the hopes of a brief flicker of recognition. The product has been the other pole--a group of deservedly exhausted non-white folks who are tired of explaining themselves and, in fact, refuse to do it. Their credo would be something like: To hell with explaining myself to you. Read a book!

Finding the middle is not always a virtue, especially if the poles keep moving (as they do with the two major parties in US politics). So, even if I make the wishy-washy concession, as I will here, that "both sides have a point," you can rest assured, it will not be my habit.  I still believe one has to choose in order to avoid paralysis. Luckily, we get to make a series of choices and correct for past errors.

In this case, though I do tire of having to explain myself to a white majority that always has the choice to listen or to stop their ears, I also chose an explaining profession. I am an educator. So, for me, the question is not whether to explain things across cultures, it's when, how, and with what amount of my energy. Of course, there is the larger question of why--to what ends do I explain? For me, that answer has two parts. First, there is the human desire to want to be heard and understood by somebody--anybody. The second aspect is a bit more specific to African-American life. To quote James Baldwin:
A people at the center of the Western world, and in the midst of so hostile a population, has not endured and transcended by means of what is patronizingly called a 'dialect.' We, the blacks, are in trouble, certainly, but we are not doomed, and we are not inarticulate because we are not compelled to defend a morality that we know to be a lie.

This is not to suggest that I am interested in donating my time to be the earthy black conscience of whites who, by their elevation, have lost touch with their--you get the drift. No Jimminy-Cricket in blackface for me. I'm not that altruistic. I am willing to "explain" to white people not for their own moral betterment--although that's a perfectly acceptable by-product. Instead, I am hoping to ensure more just treatment. I am hoping to inspire not a personal conversion but a disposition toward decision-making that does not immediately rule out the voices of the very parties who are most adversely impacted. In a deliciously precise and understated gloss, Toni Morrison calls this "studied indifference." Think about that. She means that people got diplomas and degrees, filled libraries, and funded research on not studying you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

100,00 STEM teachers. What am I, chopped liver?

As I read the transcripts of President Obama's Second State of the Union, I found myself--and not for the first time--suppressing the feeling that my chosen profession has a limited future. However, this will not be another wailing lament from those who placed their chips on an academic career in the Humanities. There are enough of those robotic dialogues on to satisfy anyone who wishes to familiarize herself with the unappealing side of academic life, laugh uncontrollably at the first few scenarios, and then be over the whole thing. (1) Instead, I want to talk about  the way the President praised education but then created a very narrow sense of it, one that would not, in fact, recognize or value his own educational path or current public role.

(1) Believe me, I was sad that the recent one about ethnic studies, starring computer-generated person of color, was the first one I saw that I found too derivative and predictable to chuckle at. Getting there first means everything! The standards, alas, go up for latecomers who have the benefit and the weight of their predecessors' example.

Any educator still dedicated to the vocation would have been moved by this moment, a portrait of teachers as everyday heroes: "If you want to make a difference in the life of our nation; if you want to make a difference in the life of a child -- become a teacher. Your country needs you." However, in calling for a new level of "respect" for teachers, the President then proposed to allocate of resources (and the respect that accompanies them) to "100,000 new teachers in the fields of science and technology and engineering and math"  (STEM, for short).

I found this emphasis especially strange when placed alongside the jingoistic claim near the beginning of his speech that American students are set apart from those elsewhere (implicitly China and India) by our educational system's attempts to elicit their creativity: "It's why our students don't just memorize equations, but answer questions like 'What do you think of that idea? What would you change about the world? What do you want to be when you grow up?'" 

Let us put aside for the moment the Amy Chua phenomenon and the mistaken paranoia that every Asian parent is engaged in tyrannical parenting (and every Asian child is successfully ruled by its rod) to focus on another question: where else, but in areas such as history, philosophy, literature, political science, anthropology, and sociology does one best engage and evaluate ideas and the state of the world? I dare say that without these areas of inquiry, those questions are impossible to ask, let alone begin to answer. In fact, the very man uttering these words was not shaped by a curriculum restricted to math and science, but, memorably and ultimately, by a law school. Certainly, we are not to dismiss our own President because the study of law is about precedent (history) and interpretation (hermeneutics, narrative, and argumentation).

Even if these activities were considered mere leisure pursuits, idle philosophizing distinct from the urgent priorities of the work-day, it is also true that they complement and sharpen the very enterprises the President wishes to support. Though it is now viewed by most as needless tedium, grammar is nothing but the study of logic. If one understands the logic of a sentence or a longer paragraph, one is learning the same kinds of mechanisms that can be used to describe forces in physics or reactions in chemistry. (It is no coincidence that I excelled in describing the behaviors of catalysts, vectors, friction, and sound waves, as there were corresponding notions in my favorite areas of fiction and music). 

I also recall being told (forgive the anecdote) that a large number of those who go on to medical school did not just study anatomy and physiology but also practiced a musical instrument. So, beyond the normal argument that the fields beyond the hard sciences make us better citizens or bring us wisdom, one should add, loudly, that the key questions that our President says make American students unique, and the crucial professions that he says will make the nation prosper, cannot be pursued without the social sciences, arts, and humanities.

Now, I realize that my friend and mentor Robyn would hasten to add here that the Office of the President is speaking through President Obama. That is to say, he is not speaking his own independent thoughts, but rather trying to inflect and hopefully direct a public discourse that he did not create. A President has to occupy its clichés and assumptions and try to marshal them to his ends (I use the pronoun only because we have not yet had a female president). So, the contradictions that I am speaking of do not fall at the President's feet. Rather, they indicate something about the prevailing common sense in the US, a set of assumptions that attempts to force certain decisions by rendering preposterous other options. The common sense of neoliberalism (trickle-down Reaganomics, for the uninitiated) has a grip over the mainstream conversation and, unfortunately, its assumptions are actually blocking new answers to questions about the validity of ideas and the direction of our world far more than any deficiency in math or science.