Media, Sports (NBA) and the Order of Things

It’s truly uncanny how popular, mainstream media willingly refuses to investigate what is really behind the accepted story, usually promoted by the likes of The New York Times, chronicler of the official story.

Here I’m talking about the NBA Lockout, which began last night.  A student of mine that took my Media, Sports and Identity class (students are now always on the lookout for what’s behind the accepted version of stories), sent me an exclusive from Deadspin: How (And Why) An NBA Team Makes $7 Million Profit Look Like a $28 Million Loss. Deadspin has obtained the financial records of the New Jersey Nets.  These records show how major corporations work:

The hustle: The first thing to do is toss out that $25 million loss, says Rodney Fort, a sports economist at the University of Michigan. That’s not a real loss. That’s house money. The Nets didn’t have to write any checks for $25 million. What that $25 million represents is the amount by which Nets owners reduced their tax obligation under something called a roster depreciation allowance, or RDA.

As my students learn in our course, mediated sports nurture today’s culture of spectacle; it is a culture more comfortable with illusion then reality.  In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry tells us that “People whose governing habit is the relinquishing of power, competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders.” Thus, says Berry, “They are ideal consumers. By inducing in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is ‘attractively packaged.'”

Media is the tool that attractively packages  the boredom, paranoia, powerlessness and sexual failure, as every commercial during any sporting event suggests, from Viagra to fast cars and blonds with beers tell us.  It’s also, following Berry, how and why media — and mediated sports — engage in the attractive packaging that ensures we have blind faith in illusions.

The grand illusion is that NBA franchises are loosing money.  This parallels the grand illusion orchestrated in Congress, namely that if tax breaks for “fat cats” are closed, this somehow won’t alleviate the debt and make us all, particularly those of us that are middle class and can read and write and fully understanding are dwindling presence in society feel a bit better.

Mitch McConnel (R-KY), for instance, who will not go along with the President and is opposed to any revamping of the health care system, has, of his 5 top contributors to his campaign, 2 health care companies, 2 energy companies (also opposed to alternative energy sources and ways to reduce dependencies on fossil fuels), a bank, of course, Citibank that cleaned money of Mexican drug cartels, and a marketing firm.  The top 5 corporate supporters for McConnell are securities and investments, lawyers, health professionals, retirees and real estate.  Who is he protecting?

These deceits are best mirrored in our professional sports where players are routinely viewed as chattel or cattle, machines that can be depreciated and are expendable, as we are.  How many men do any of you know, between 50 and 60 that are today either unemployed or under employed?  “The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power,” Chris Hedges tells us in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (a text I will continue to cite over and over), “means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”

Of course we fear being “instantly disappeared.”  So it’s a lot better to go along with the coverage of the NBA lockout that suggests that somehow the poor owners are at a loss, the players greedy bastards making way too much money for shooting a ball.  Some of this is true: there are far too many players making millions and warming the bench.  There aren’t marque players on every team; every team is not in New York, L.A., or Miami and Houston.  Fans understand that.  But as we study the lockout and begin to see a long history where the player is merely a cog, a body, we begin to wonder, as David Shields does in his wonderful book, Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine, “Who owns this body, this body of work?”

We no longer own the United States; we no longer own or direct the narrative — it is a singular narrative — we see on TV and in the press, the pop media; we no longer own our schools, our government, businesses; we no longer own the direction of the country; we don’t even own the direction of our lives.  What’s left but illusion?

It’s best to let Hedges end this post:

Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate.

We are indeed apostates; we have been well thought out; we are simply witnesses to our apathy, to our allegiance to deceit. But in doing so, we are also holding hands with the destructors and deceivers. We are accomplices. We may never recover.

At Play Behind the Ivy — or the Late Confessions of a Weary Prof

It’s the beginning of another academic year — my 25th.  I’ve often said to students who ask how and why I do what I do that the day I start looking over my shoulder and second guess myself and wonder about purpose, it may be the beginning of the end.

I’m feeling that I’ve been totally unsuccessful and that I’ve done nothing, nothing at all to  leave this place we all live in a bit better.  Certainly within the institutions where I have worked, I’ve been totally unsuccessful at inspiring any meaningful change focused on what Edward O. Wilson calls consilience.  This is very difficult for me to say. It’s very difficult to admit that I’ve been totally ineffective at teaching college students; that I may have done more harm then good.  Added to the emptiness.

Take a look — corruption, graft, violence, intolerance, a lack of dialog, little to no communication in a world completely “hooked” in and “linked” and the ongoing competition to get ahead by any means necessary define the malaise we’re all feeling.  This is profound evidence that education has failed humanity.  It’s evidence that the books and ideas and essays and conversations I’ve been involved in over 25 years have made no impression on the students I’ve had.

For the most part, the work has been solitary.  Feelings, ideas, the search for meaning is done with no one.  When we do gather in this ivy world where nothing ever seems to be at stake, we gather to hear ourselves talk, to pontificate on how wonderful we are at attracting students, when in reality it’s a sellers market everywhere in higher ed — the blind leading the blind. Parents looking for status for their children — better lives or at least lives equal to theirs.

But the world has changed — it has been changing.  And no one is really safe anymore and there are absolutely no guarantees, especially when we think about tomorrow.  We are still grasping at old models, the models that have gotten us to this lost point.

It’s not surprising that colleges and universities, today, begin their 2009-2010 academic year in debt, having lost millions from the economic downturn, primarily because for the past 10 to 15 years, we have competed with each other at the surface level — gyms, restaurants, new buildings, extensive IT; the look and feel of schools prevailed over purpose.  The importance of the US News and World Report list, which we deny, but rush to immediately upon publication.  Now we begin the year wondering about the “future of education” and the “future of the humanities” and “the future of the liberal arts.”

But the real question is this: Why are we asking this question now when this conversation began as early as 1996 when Bill Readings published University in Ruins?  Where have we been?  Is it a bit late?

“It is no longer clear what the place of the University is in society nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something intellectuals cannot afford to ignore,” wrote Readings 13 years ago. We ignored his call.  We built buildings, invested in wild economic vehicles and now we’re wondering where we are.  The academic year begins in ruins and we’re charging more for it.

I look at my syllabi and wonder what the purpose is to what I’m doing.  We wonder what students are doing too. I heard a talented student give advise to students the other day. She said that there are at least 3 readers in every course with every book.  The student who skims for facts and ideas; the teacher who lectures and highlights and points to facts and ideas and themes; classmates who lend their reading, perhaps helping you adjust — maybe you missed something.  This method is survival,  not learning; it is a denial of the most fundamental aspect of a meaningful education, which is contemplation, necessary for ensuring that students — and the teacher — spend time realizing how what one reads and learns “enters” or is synthesized with one’s life.

I worry that I’ve been part of an assembly line.  I feel responsible for the world I’ve helped create.  I can’t help but think that, like global warming (we have to reduce CO2 emissions), education has likewise contributed to the privileging of larger, fatter, richer lives founded on more voracious competition that inspires callousness.  Should we, in education, not be asking what we’ve done?

In the next few postings, I hope to re-examine how I got here, using this space as a mirror that might help define how I got to this uncanny place.

Amsterdam Revisited

I revisited Amsterdam this past week and spent Easter Weekend, along with countless Spaniards, Italians and Germans, in the early spring sun. Last time I was in Amsterdam was in June of 2008 and I went alone for a conference. This time I went with my wife and we lived in a delicious and charming apartment in the Oud West, on Douwess Dekkerstraat, owned by the artist Patty Schilder.

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

Oud West Apartment --looking toward Farmers Market

From our balcony, looking out over the Buurtcentrum De Havelaar, we gazed at the Baarsjesweg Canal, especially beautiful in the evening when the sun sets and the large barges slowly make their way up and down after a long day’s work. Two blocks away, in the early morning, the farmers market gathers steam. Here, the true ethnic diversity of the Oud West comes alive–Middle Eastern women in their hejabs argue prices with their favorite vendors, breads and cheeses abound, fish and meats, too. The color and smells and sounds are soothing, seductive. There is no excuse here for not eating right. The food is fresh, beautiful. The difficulty is in buying only what you need, something the Dutch are very good at doing, it seems.

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

Oud West Apartment looking toward canal

The difference between this trip and my last one is the bicycle. The only real way to experience this culture is on the bike. Though a modern tool, the bike is the heart of Amsterdam. Many consider Amsterdam “the biking capital of Europe.” Amsterdam bikers have the right of way, not pedestrians. The flow and energy of this city is dependent upon how well the biking moves the energy along. The Dutch are great bikers, they weave in and out of crowds, move effortlessly through traffic, grinning or smiling and never (apparently) frustrated. This is Amsterdam. I’ve seen youngsters txting and biking, talking on cells, with passengers, children, sometimes two, one in the rear, the other up front. Much of Amsterdam’s life happens on the bike.

Biking in the north

Biking in the north

We rented our bikes from Bike City. The added bonus being that the only hint that this is a rental is written in small, elegant print on the black carry bag on the handlebars: Bike City. Otherwise, the bikes were like all others. Most rental bikes are loud reds or yellows and have huge insignias. Would you want to call attention to yourself like that? We didn’t. We found the best bikes to rent are the 3 speeds with hand brakes. They’re comfortable and sturdy. Our first trek took us through the city, to the ferry landing behind Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station, and up through the farmland of the north country all they way to Slot Ilpenstein. We biked through pasture land, in and out of canals. Sheep nearby. The famous Frisian horses, too. And we managed a glimpse of some drafts.

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam

From that day on, we rode everywhere, including another “out of the city” day trip to Haarlem, a municipality and a city in the Netherlands, and also the capital of the province of North Holland, the northern half of Holland. The bicycle lends for a particular order to things, a graciousness and decorum we like to call civilized or civilization. It’s interesting because if one examines the history of the Netherlands, we see that this living has come at great human cost. Many fell to the strength and power of the mighty Dutch will. The rise of the Dutch Empire is extensive and dramatic. Out of this, comes Amsterdam, an important port city and center of commerce. What we see in Amsterdam today is a result of this history so as we ride through the city and sit comfortably in cafes adjoining canals, we have to weigh the awesome power that began somewhere around the 1540s and that conquered so much. To the victor belongs the spoils is quite evident in Amsterdam. These spoils are Amsterdam’s gift to humanity. But these spoils also bare an awesome responsibility that Amsterdam’s inhabitants are trying to understand. The story is complex.

Perhaps this is why we can describe Amsterdam as an incredibly important human experiment that’s ongoing. And just maybe, this is why the moral structure of this great little city is experimenting with an unbound secularism founded on an unprecedented egalitarianism, which, in turn, depends upon freedoms of expression and a tolerance for difference. But this is the idealized version, the romantic view. It’s not surprising, then, that when the world is exhausted by the constant chimes of terror, from the Netherlands explodes the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy. It’s also the place where Theo Van Gogh, the great-grandson of Theo van Gogh, the brother of painter Vincent van Gogh, was murdered by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim extremist, after van Gogh, with collaboration from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, released the Anti-Islam film Submission.

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

Middle Eastern Women in the Oud West, after shopping

Amsterdam is not without controversy. It is an extraordinary diverse place; however, diversity brings contention, even among the most enlightened. When differences are thrust together, the potential for an explosion is always present. Before 1965, the Netherlands were totally a monoculture–all white Dutch and no threats. This changed with a very liberal immigration policy. Effectively, the society is now segregated. On the streets, we can see the diversity, but where it counts–schools, neighborhoods, business and so on, we don’t see it. There is resentment that what Dutch culture was is no longer–this is true. The monoculture safety net has been taken away. Now the struggle is different, particularly on religious grounds where the Christian and the Muslim, along with the Jew, have to live side-by-side in a society that is increasingly secular.  What is Amsterdam turning into? What is it becoming?

I wonder whether Amsterdam today is the “new” Al Andaluz? It has the makings.  Why not, why can it not be the “new” place where the three central religions, Christians, Muslims and Jews, live in relative peace and harmony? Only now we are called upon to protect the Muslim, not the other way around as it was when the Muslim protected the ahl al-dhimma (the people under protection). Maybe the tides have turned, though the challenges and the conflicts are as they were in the period between 711 and 1492. What we don’t want is the devastation and the destruction brought about by the Christian King in 1492–in the name of God and love! Al Andaluz was a beacon of learning, and the city of Córdoba became one of the leading cultural and economic centers in both the Mediterranean basin and the Islamic world. Why can this not be the fate of the Netherlands, Amsterdam leading the way?

The Amsterdam I see today is in transition, in flux, pained by both its past and its future. But it’s how it negotiates its day-to-day where the mystery and awe exist. The seeds of tolerance are there–a young Muslim woman on a bike or a Vespa waiting for a light to change and waiting next to her is a tall Dutch blond, also on her bike, and they look at one another and smile. This is the new Amsterdam.

So perhaps the Dutch are such great bikers because they have been learning to negotiate obstacles all along. Whether by conquering territories for their wealth during the time of the Burghers or changing from a monoculture to an ethnically diverse culture, they have been challenging boundaries–national, ethnic and tribal, as well as economic and educational. Amsterdam could be the first small city that will evolve–or not–according to how well it enables those who reside in the margins of life to exist without threat; where once there was a singular uninterrupted culture, as is evident in the architecture and the museums, now there are only threads that are struggling to keep humanity together. And holding these threads are exiles. Amsterdam is a perfect example of a city of exiles, of histories that come from colonization, and newer ones that come along because they have been following the great human migration for survival, for subsistence.

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

Bikes, Canals, and their Bridges--the web

The Amsterdam of tomorrow will be built on the shoulders of mindfulness and tolerance. And if successful, Amsterdam, as Al Andaluz before it, will hold a noble place in the continuum of great histories that have given humanity, even if for a moment, a ray of hope that we can live together and relish in our differences.

Women and the New World Order

CATHERINE RAMPELL reports in The New York Times that, “With the recession on the brink of becoming the longest in the postwar era, a milestone may be at hand: Women are poised to surpass men on the nation’s payrolls, taking the majority for the first time in American history.”

In “As Layoffs Surge, Women May Pass Men in Job Force,” Rampell says that, “The reason has less to do with gender equality than with where the ax is falling.”  The ax is falling on jobs that have been dominated by men.  “Women tend to be employed in areas like education and health care, which are less sensitive to economic ups and downs, and in jobs that allow more time for child care and other domestic work.”

This, I believe, is a major shift in our cultural construction of how power is controlled, even determined.  In fact, this bit of news can be seen as  a last breath of the old hegemony that has nearly driven us to the point of complete destruction.

The jobs typically held by women–education and health care–are the fabric of society; everything else –finance, construction, high-tech, etc–is crumbling.  The old guard is indeed falling apart, but the fabric of society, patched together by women, is holding.  And with the Obama stimulus package, even increasing its strength.

According to Peter Sloterdijk, the renowned German philosopher and a professor of philosophy and media theory at the Karlsruhe School of Design, there have been 3 phases of globalization: (1) the metaphysical globalization of Greek cosmology; (2) the nautical globalization of the 15th Century that creates global provincialism; and, finally, (3), the overcoming of distance.

It is this last phase–our age–that is extremely interesting from the perspective of a new world order and the emergence of women in powerful positions.  For the past 10 to 15 years, women from traditionally male-dominant cultures have found their way to Western colleges and universities.  It’s an amazing ratio.  Women from the East, especially China and Korea, accompany women from South Asia–India and Afghanistan , for instance–and mingle with women from Africa and the Middle East and Latin America.

These young women, to use Homi Bhabha’s term, choose to be “unhomed” in order to advance.  This, for them, is where “presencing begins because it captures something of the estranging sense of relocation of the home and the world–the unhomliness–that is the condition of extra–territorial and cross-cultural initiations”, says Bhabha.  It is a form of exile apprehended so as to better themselves.  In this condition, women are shifting, apparently always in movement, and challening deeply held beliefs about what has been accepted–to a fault–as the location of women in culture.  Women are re-articulating boundaries. They are redefining material reality.

This re-articulation of boundaries increases the potential for the feminization of cultures.   The current generation of women in our colleges and universities and heading into the (traditional) world is searhing for interconnectedness, though they suffer a sense of estrangement in doing so.  These are the women of the Third Wave of Feminism: the overcoming of boundaries, I call it, which is consistent with the movement’s history. Following Bhabha,  women are inhabiting a space “narrower than the human horizon” that provides an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  This is something new, different.  Michelle Obama’s planting of a White House garden, which follows Elenor Roosevelt’s garden historically speaking, is a case in point.  The First Lady’s garden implies the need for a healthier nation, one that grows foods locally and that eats healthier–challenges to health care, the food industry, and the psychology of dependency of American citizens.

Moreover, Michelle Obama is a new model.  Gracious, elegant, classy and beautiful, she is also in shape, as our obsession with her arms shows.  Mrs. Obama is the Third Wave of Feminism, as opposed to Hilary Clinton who represents the Second Wave.  The difference is fundamental: the professional women of Mrs. Obama’s generation did not give up men or family; they pursued careers, but also kept the hearth moving.  This Third Wave comes with an “ethical entitlement to, and an enactment of, the sense of community.”  Women are demanding very different things of the social structures and the institutions that support them.

Women are negotiating languages used in the past to (pre) define notions of reality–and truth.  Nationhood, we can see by how women are stretching themselves across boundaries, is a morally arbitrary notion, a necessity of the post-colonial state, for instance.  Rather, women are more concerned with an “insufficiency of self” and the needs of new urban communities of interest.  Women fully understand the precarious sense of survival we are living today since this has been women’s historical position.  They are best qualified to guide us through.  Women are therefore the agents of change we need.  Women working through their identities, as these come into conflict with ancient–and broken–models, discover their agency and, in turn, transform formally oppressive ways of thinking and being.  It is a slow process, historically, but we are on a path we cannot now change.

What in the past has been perceived as less valuable and thus exploitable, disposable and forgettable in the global political economy, now is no longer.  Opportunities are shifting.  We may be in fact witnessing the emergence of the Fourth Wave of Feminism–matriarchal societies.

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat ~ or What Alex Rodriguez, Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez, R. Allen Stanford and Bernie Madoff Have in Common

Illustrator Barry Blitt has done it again. He has created yet another great New Yorker cover that parallels the one he did of Obama back in July of 2008. Only now, in the February 23 issue, we find a muscular Alex Rodgriguez signing autographs for steroid pumped children.

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

Blitt New Yorker -- Rodriguez

The illustration captures the conflicting drama of sports in America today: while we’ve been taught that sports–and particularly baseball–are about community, fair play, honor and courage, the notion that a player works as hard as she and he can for the benefit of the team, we find instead another reality–selfishness and hubris, egotism, deceit, cheating and scandal. And all of it the design of a production system that suggests that winning at any cost is what matters most.

The fundamental American principles of self-reliance, experience and pragmatism are nowhere evident. It’s no wonder we’re all confused.

Baseball was about redemption. It is a forgiving sport for players and viewers; it is also a contemplative sport. The point of baseball is to “come home”–round the bases home. It’s a space game. There’s plenty of time in baseball. But none of this is true anymore. Baseball is as harsh a sport as any other. Home is where the gold is. Possibilities are gone, as is the imagination. Like football, our current national pastime, baseball is now a finite game, about end results. And the end result is not winning, but rather, profit and loss.

In 2008, the 33 year old Rodriguez had a .302 average (.306 lifetime) and earned $28 million dollars. Coming into the 2008 season, the Yankees were valued somewhere between $200 million, to $1.2 billion; their revenue was $302 million (with $28 million in losses); and player costs, the largest expense, was approximately $200 million a year.

“The Yankees—read Steinbrenner—also own more than a third of the YES network, which broadcasts Yankees games to 8.7 million subscribers. The network’s revenues top a quarter billion and its profit margin is 60 percent. Though a completely separate business from the Yankees, YES’s value is directly tied to how much interest people have in the team, making a $200 million payroll a very easy decision.”**

The system corrupts. The profits for many owners, staggering. And players like Rodriguez are used to ensure that a franchise’s tentacles are many and reaching far and wide. It’s not surprising, then, that “A top baseball prospect from the Dominican Republic who received a $1.4 million signing bonus from the Washington Nationals lied about his age and name in what team president Stan Kasten called ‘an elaborate scheme.'”*** The Nationals signed a 16-year-old shortstop named Esmailyn “Smiley” Gonzalez. He was compared to U.S. Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. “But while the Nationals have been listing his date of birth as Sept. 21, 1989 — which would make him 19 now — Kasten said on Wednesday that a Major League Baseball investigation determined Gonzalez was actually Carlos David Alvarez Lugo, born in November 1985 — meaning he was really 23.” ****

Money corrupts and the prospects of a lot of money earned early and fast corrupts even more. That’s the game now. That’s been American life for quite some time. This is why we can’t see ourselves coming out of this black hole for quite some time.

We learn from the historian Richard O. Davies, in Sports in American Life, A History, that “to be a sporting man in the mid-nineteenth century was to be someone who flouted rules of social acceptability by gravitating toward activities deemed inappropriate for a proper gentleman.” By mid-century this changed and sportsmen had good social standing and created outlets such as boating, swimming, horse racing, baseball, and so on. And by the end of the century, spontaneity is gone from sports and we find “formalized structures, written rules and bureaucratic organizations,” Davies tells us. Professionalism in sports is in–and it comes in with industrialization. Money–read profits–becomes central to the American experience.

Now in 2009, we have incredibly lavish sports venues, extraordinary media contracts and more highly paid stars than ever before. The stakes are high. So so much so that sports venues are sometimes created at the expense of communities nearby–the old Yankee Stadium and the South Bronx is a case in point.

The athlete as role model, in this system, is supplanted by the owner as king. The owner as plantation owner in a vituperative economic model dating back to slavery (see: William C. Rhodan, sports columnist for The New York Times, in Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete /a star like David Beckham, at the time of this writing, is about to be traded–not loaned–to AC Milan). Money is privileged above all else. The premium placed on performance is extensive because the faster, bigger, and more powerful athlete has to hold the viewer’s attention. Salaries and on and off the field mayhem (Phelps’s pot smoking theatrical) are all part of the mediated experience of sports in America. Without it we don’t know what to make of our sports. We need the disjointed narrative to make sense of our oppressive lives that, with every day, appear to hang by a thread.

Phelps + Bong

Phelps + Bong

Professional sports mirror American life and the reflection is bleak and dark. The American athlete is central to our collective experience. The professional athlete is a metaphor for our sense of self, our desires–but also our foibles, our darkest selves. It’s not surprising, then, that during these the darkest of times Mixed Marshall Arts, which used to be called caged fighting, extreme fighting, and no holds barred fighting, is one of the fastest growing spectator sports. Anything goes.

Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford believed this–anything and everything was for their taking. Not unlike Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo, Madoff and Stanford, who lived in an elite system, a bubble, sensed that they were somehow immune to the morals of our society and our socioeconomic systems. Rodriguez’s ready-made narrative is that he was young and naive, a stupid kid. Unknowingly he took steroids. In the case of “Smiley”-Lugo, MLB, agents and owners are all passing the buck, no one really taking responsibility, though there is a history of age irregularities in the league.

Why a 70 year old Madoff, so respected by Wall Street, would create a Ponzi Scheme, your guess is as good as mine. And why would Stanford involve himself in fraud is yet another mystery. But most distressing is the information we’re getting that some of the Madoff money comes from organized crime, while some of the money in the Stanford case comes from a Mexican drug cartel. Madoff and Stanford have allegedly been involved in money laundering. Anything goes, including the taking of people’s lives.

Madoff and Stanford, and Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo are one and the same, born in a time where hubris reigns supreme; where what children see and experience is irrelevant–some will suffer, others will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and survive, and yet others, like those kids in the Blitt New Yorker cartoon will imitate Madoff and Stanford, Rodriguez and “Smiley”-Lugo. This is the most corrupting tragedy of all. Everyone is expendable. And when everyone is expendable, everyone is also a commodity.

Steroids, graft and corruption, these are the symptoms of a lost humanity.

In “Money for Idiots,” David Brooks tells us that, “Our moral and economic system is based on individual responsibility. It’s based on the idea that people have to live with the consequences of their decisions. This makes them more careful deciders. This means that society tends toward justice — people get what they deserve as much as possible.”

This is the ideal, not the reality. We find ourselves in a moment of real moral oscillation. We don’t know which end is up. We can only look at ourselves, though, and determine who and what we value,what’s closest to the human heart, what’s important. It may mean that in order to balance ourselves out, we have to also balance out idiots–but not criminals–as Brooks contends in his editorial piece.

In the meantime, in the South Bronx, within view of Yankee Stadium, a little girl, Pineapple is her name, Jonathan Kozol tells us in The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, looks out towards Manhattan and describes us as “other people.” She fully understands that we live differently than she does–and she’s only in elementary school. What she sees–the Rodriguez’s and the Madoff’s and the Stanford’s–are what she calls “other people,” and they live different lives, touted as successful, luxuriant, wonderful. Just to get to school, Pineapple and friends have to walk through all sorts of dangers. As she looks outward past Yankee Stadium, how will she learn how to choose? Who will she be given who we are?

Gaza, Israel and the Memory of Edward Said

for the martyrs, Kassab and Ibrahim Shurrab

for the suffering, Mohammed Shurrab and his family

and for the future, Amer Shurrab, Adriana Qubaia, Mahmoud and Nisreen

Our world today is evidence that those who profess to speak for God or Allah or a personal Other focused on a single, supreme nature-transcending will have unequivocally erased this almighty power’s truths, a core reality found in Christianity, Islam and Judaism–humility, compassion and love.

At approximately 1PM on Friday the 16th, Mohammed Shurrab (60) and his two sons, Kassab , age 28 , and Ibrahim , age 18, fleeing the family farm in the village of Fukhari, southeast of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, were struck by a hail of bullets from a group of Israeli soldiers in a house about thirty yards away, according to Yasser Ahmad and Ashraf Khalil of the Los Angeles Times. (see also Day 22)

The Israelis issued a statement: “Given the difficult combat circumstances, complex battles and fighting in urban settings, uninvolved civilians are unfortunately exposed to danger.”

Kassab died after staggering out of their Land Rover. He lay on the street for 20 hours. Ibrahim bled to death waiting for help.  Mohammed, a desperate father, could do nothing as his cell phone battery died. In the face of great suffering, no one had the compassion to assist the wounded, the suffering. Thus is war. Thus is violence.

Some of us learned of this tragedy by email because Mohammed’s other son, Amer,  is a Middlebury College graduate, ‘08.5. The original email was followed by a desperate string, anguished and outraged, and a Shurrab Family Group quickly formed on Facebook. We could do nothing.

I sat in my living room staring out at the gusts of snow. It was gray and freezing and the wind blew hard. I felt totally useless and alone. I thought of my three sons and what I might do should I ever be called the way Mohammed Shurrab has been–and I wept. I was paralyzed by the events in Gaza and the violence in our world.

I longed for the humane voice of Edward Said, how he is always able to make sense of things like this. I pulled him off my bookshelf, something I do frequently with some writers dear to me because they go head first into matters of the heart.

We find ourselves in the era of mass societies that dominate by “a powerfully centralizing culture and a complex incorporative economy,” says the remarkable Edward Said in his “Movement and Migrations” chapter in Culture and Imperialism. In 1993, following the French urban sociologist Paul Virilio, Said suggested that this form of domination is unstable. Powerfully centralizing cultures and complex incorporative economies are unstable and create instability everywhere. Yet instability is believed to be a means to an end, the control of economies, resources and production.

The fundamental premise of terrorism, also instability, is likewise the foundation of mass societies. They feed each other–and there is no end in sight. Make no mistake, Hamas will survive, this is already clear.

“Israel has succeeded in killing everything except the will of the people,” said Taher al-Nunu, the main (Hamas) government spokesman. “They said they were going to dismantle the resistance and demolish the rockets, but after this historic victory, the government is steadfast, we are working and they were not able to stop the rockets.”

“I think Hamas is stronger now and will be stronger in the future because of this war,” said Eyad el-Sarraj, a psychiatrist here who is an opponent of Hamas. “This war has deepened the people’s feeling that it is impossible to have peace with Israel, a country that promotes death and destruction.”

Iraq, Afghanistan, the global deterioration of economies and the tragic horror that is Gaza’s occupation by Israel all point to the notion that “insecurity induced by mounting crises” leads to destruction, violence and war. The innocent die, wounds fester, hatred builds. “Insecurity induced by mounting crises” builds identities reliant on an Other who is hostile.

Israel’s identity is defined by having scripted the ideals of freedom and justice for Western civilization, yet Jews now find themselves withholding these rights–for security reasons, forced to withhold them, many Jews believe–from Palestinians.

Hamas and Hezbollah have identities defined as the maligned Other, even the absent Other that is always already determined by armed aggression. Tragically and ironically, the Prophet Mohammed–and the Qur’an–teach respect for the world’s incontrovertible order, preaching a message that is intensely democratic. The Prophet, “The True,” “The Upright,” and “The Trustworthy One,” withstood severe criticism and ridicule, relentless persecution, and physical abuse and incarceration, and insisted that in the sight of Allah all people are equal.

We are in the era of mass disintegration. Israel’s occupation of Gaza is an example–and hopefully a last breath–of a global pattern attempting to occupy and inhabit all “normally uninhabitable,” the institutions integral to a culture–“hospitals, universities, theatres, factories, churches, empty buildings”; in essence, the occupation of language, speech, consciousness. (The first instance or example is the Presidency of George W. Bush, especially his first election; the second is 9/11 and the repression of Afghanistan; and the Third is Israel’s occupation of Gaza.) Israel’s occupation of Gaza is modern colonization, the “central militaristic prerogative” of mass societies. And the media accommodates, as it has in Iraq.

The alternative to state aggression is a liberation of speech in critical spaces, the integral institutions, and represented by contemporary movements “as a consequence of decolonization (migrant workers, refugees, Gastarbeiter) or of major demographic and political shifts (Blacks, immigrants, urban squatters, students, popular insurrections, etc.). These constitute a real alternative to the authority of the state.” One of the most impressive “crowd-activated” sites is the Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine. This is why Hamas and Hezbullah will thrive. We approach difference and tensions with aggression, where the opposite approach is calling out. We can hear the screams of the suffering, the innocent buried in rubble, bodies decomposing. Our inhumanity is extraordinary.

At least in Gaza, right now, Hamas represents something unique, a “freedom” from the usual “exchange”; that is, Hamas represents a firm antidote to Israeli domination. Israel’s Gaza operation is not meant to stop Hamas’s rockets; it’s meant to shore up a doctrine on which Israel thinks its safety must be still based–immediate response to any signs of a punitive raid, by Hezbullah or Hamas, armed by Iran.

“Those people compelled by the system to play subordinate or imprisoning roles within it emerge as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute the totalitarian compulsions of the world market,” says Said. “Not everything can be bought off.” This is the war cry of Islamic Fundamentalism, a notion that has fallen on deaf ears. At the heart of Islam–the Prophet Mohammed is the example–is resistance to threats to its existence, even expansion (see: The World’s Fastest Growing Religions)

The problem is that we in the post-modern West fail to understand that in many parts of the world–Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan, some parts of the Arab world and Africa–people, governments and religious leaders are still trying to come to terms with Modernity. There are people and cultures in the world struggling with a singular notion, how are we to modernize?

“The major task, then, is to match the new economic and sociopolitical dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale,” says Said.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism are interrelated, philosophically and geographically. We have to begin here, in this singular fact.

Islam is derived from the root s-l-m, which means primarily “peace” but in a secondary meaning, “surrender”; its full connotation is “the peace that comes when one’s life is surrendered to God,” that is a surrender to the totality that are humility, compassion and love. Adherence to humility, compassion and love enables creative and virtuous actions. We can’t have peace without this.

Judaism affirms the world’s goodness, arriving at that conclusion through its assumption that God created it. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1) and pronounced it to be good. Judaism is a faith of a people, and one of its features is faith in a people–in the significance of the role the Jews have played and will play in human history. This faith calls for the preservation of the identity of the Jews as a distinct people.

The only way to make sense of Christianity–and to make sense of Jesus’ extraordinary admonitions as to how people should live–is to see them as cut from the understanding of the God who loves human beings absolutely, without pausing to calculate their worth or due. We are to give others our cloak as well as our coat if they need it. Because God has given us what we need. We are to go with others the second mile.

Humility, compassion and love–Islam, Judaism and Christianity are one in these principles.

But given the hostile conditions of our world, we can only seek–and find–these principles in the margins, in the shadows, in-between boundaries and lines of demarcation that are always already blurred, stretched, even erased, for better and for worse.

Says Said, reminding us,

Yet it is no exaggeration to say that liberation as an intellectual mission, born in the resistance and opposition to the confinements and ravages of imperialism, has now shifted from the settled, established, and domesticated dynamics of culture to its unhoused, decentered, and exilic energies, energies whose incarceration today is the migrant, and whose consciousness is that of the intellectual and artist in exile, the political figure between domains, between forms, between homes, and between languages. From this perspective then all things are indeed counter, original, spare, strange. From this perspective also, one can see ‘the complete consort dancing together’ contrapuntally.

Historically then it’s not surprising that a new era is upon us, a new stage marked by the inauguration of a Black man of mixed race–and who has come to be following the compelling history of a movement totally dependent upon non-violent resignation and protest. President Barack Obama offers “something unique” and “even against his will,” represents “freedom [from the age old forms] of exchange.”

People forced to play subordinate roles always emerge “as conscious antagonists, disrupting it, proposing claims, advancing arguments that dispute totalitarian compulsions.” Barack Obama represents this historical reality.  There is no other way to look at it.  This is why in the last week or so there has been such an uncomprimising allegiance to history. Today, we finally have soul in the White House.

Israel’s occupation of Gaza–and Hamas’ and Hezbollah’s, as well as Iran’s, hostilities–represent an anti-historical approach based on the violent dislocation of language, speech and consciousness. This has always failed.

Enough. Enough is enough! We can suffer no more like this. Let’s then join Karen Armstrong and sign a Charter for Compassion instead and help make religion a force for harmony.

Pushing Afghans Away: A Misguided American Policy

for the Afghans of Middlebury and Simons, the Afghan Writers (in Afghanistan), and friends of Afghanistan in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and in Kabul

I received a text message a few weeks back from one of my Middlebury students. She is an Afghan and she texted me from Pakistan where she had entered illegally. She and her two sisters, one younger and one older, snuck across the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to obtain American visas from the US Embassy in Islamabad. Many Afghans–our allies–risk their lives to obtain visas to the US. It’s a way of life so far from our own.

Police in Islamabad held them. No documentation. They talked themselves out of the mess without even paying a bribe, she told me with a “ha ha ha” and a “;-)”, her texting forms for a special–and delightful–grin she has that always says, “I can get out of this,” something in her special DNA that has evolved from confrontations with war and aggression, the reality that someone is always looking, especially if you’re a woman; someone is always coming after you.

They hid in Islamabad for three days waiting for their visas. This is American diplomacy in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, two of the three young women did not receive visas. They applied as “tourists.” Now they must re-enter this process, only this time with their I-20’s in hand, the only conceivable way to begin their dreams of being vital citizens contributing to the rebuilding of Afghanistan.

Let’s not forget that we’re speaking about women, here, who are routinely deprived of basic rights and necessities. (See also: the Plight of Women in Afghanistan and (very disturbing) Images of Women in Afghanistan). We know from studies done by the United Nations that when women are educated, the quality of life increases.

Why do we advocate for women’s rights on the pulpit but act in contradiction when called to action?

It’s always innocence that suffers most in times of war and violence. The main function of war is to suppress, even destroy the organic process–and promise–of change brought about by the basic human rights of education and knowledge. War turns allies away, the opposite approach we need in Afghanistan.

This past summer I received an email from the same student, this time she was guiding an Afghan-Middlebury freshman into Pakistan–same thing, visas (before the US Embassy began issuing visas in Kabul). Anything can happen on this treacherous border crossing. “We saw the Taliban waiting in Pakistan,” she said. The young women scurried, eyes down and heads covered, and got as close as they could to a family, making believe that they were all one group. The Taliban let them through.

Then comes the very dangerous job of choosing a driver to take them into Islamabad. “You never know where you’ll end up,” she wrote.“They ask for money. They can hold you hostage.”

An American Embassy exists in Kabul and this past summer began issuing single entry visas to Afghans coming to the U.S. to study. Students from all over the world obtain multiple entry visas. Not Afghans. When I wrote to my representatives in Vermont about this—Leahy, Sanders and Welch—I received a long letter from the US State Department saying that the reason for not issuing multiple entry visas to Afghans is security but that they were doing their best.

Presumably, a terrorist can enter the US from any point of entry, no? Terrorist cells can exist anywhere, yes, that’s the definition? Three years ago when I was in Buenos Aires Argentina doing some work with Middlebury students at the AMIA, bombed in 1994 by Iranian terrorists, it is now known, I learned about the triangle, a lawless tri-border region in Northern Argentina, Iguazu Falls , a hot bed of potential terrorist threat, where Islamic fundamentalist groups–Hezbollah profiting from the drug trade–exist in the jungles of Paraguay just a short walk across the water where it’s knee high in spots. It was believed then that at least one 9/11 terrorist crossed that border. I stood and stared, almost touching Brazil and Paraguay beyond the dense subtropical foliage, the wild sounds of exotic birds high in the trees.

Al Qaeda and the Taliban train in Pakistan9/11’s evil seed was grown here and in Afghanistan but we turned to Iraq instead and left causalities behind. (see also: Pakistan Loosing Fight and Pakistan Surrenders — the paper trail on this issue is extensive). Pakistan’s government and military are rife with rogue elements. We’ve turned a blind eye and we’re living with the consequences, deceit and confusion–and corruption in Afghanistan (see also, “Winning the Battle, Losing the Faith“).

We need to collaborate with the Afghans; we need to work closely with them at the village level, helping with governance and infrastructure, education and healthcare, otherwise we’re not going anywhere. Afghans need to come here, too, this way honing skills and gaining knowledge that will serve their society–and on their terms, not ours, such as we’ve learned from Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea (see, for instance, “Military Finds an Unlikely Adviser in School-Building Humanitarian | by Yochi J. Dreazen“.)

In “The Other Front,” Sarah Chayes, the former NPR correspondent, author of The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan After the Taliban and living and working in Kandahar where, in collaboration with locals, she has created a cooperative, Arghand, as a means to fight back the poppy business, wrote for the Washington Post that, “The solution is to call to account the officials we installed here beginning in 2001 — to reach beyond the power brokers to ordinary Afghan citizens and give their grievances a fair hearing.”

Not being able to enter the United States with multi-entry visas is a grievance–as is the humiliation experienced at the hands of Homeland Security, particularly by women.

Our policy has been to force Afghans into the hands of the Taliban. (We did this 50 years ago when we drove Fidel Castro into the hands of the Russians.) “More and more are severing contact with the Karzai regime and all it stands for, rejecting even development assistance,” says Chayes. “When Taliban thugs come to their mosques demanding money or food, they pay up. Many actively collaborate, as a means of protest.”

The solution, says Chayes, is to bring perpetrators who want to carve up Afghanistan to the table.

But in order to do this we Americans must take responsibility for the way we treat our friends, the Afghan people. We cannot want protection from illegal immigrants in our country while then creating illegal immigrants in other parts of the world. The consequences of war are exile, differenchisement and the creation of helpless nomads looking for subsistence–all fodder for extremism. “Existence today,” says Homi Bhabha in The Location of Culture, “is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the present…” This is our method, to make survival dark and the world wide and foreboding.

The way we treat Afghan students that come here to learn so as to be better equipped to lead Afghanistan’s rebuilding efforts is nothing short of immoral. Three weeks ago, I accompanied yet another Afghan student to the airport and witnessed a Homeland Security officer look at her passport, then ask if her last name was Islamabad, written on a line that reads, “Country of Origin”! This was followed by a humiliating and extensive search–everything, all personal items strewn for all to see, her arms spread wide. I stood on the other side of the glass nearly in tears. “This is a person I care for,” I was screaming through the glass. “A Muslim woman, for God’s sake!” No one heard. A woman walked past, noticed me, looked at the student and shook her head in shame as if to say, “No. No, this can’t be. “

In our zealousness and fear we corrupt ourselves and others. Slavery worked this way; colonialization works this way, too. “The ‘middle passage’ of contemporary culture, as with slavery itself,” says Bhabha, “is a process of displacement and disjunction that does not totalize experience.” We therefore guarantee that those that come to us from Afghanistan–or try to–are disenfranchised because we deny them their “totalize(d) experience(s),” which requires that we acknowledge our role in their lives.

In the “Fate” chapter of The Conduct of Life (1860), Emerson’s most prodigious work–and most difficult–the sage asks, “How shall I live?” And then exerts the challenge, “We are incompetent to solve the times. Our geometry cannot span the huge orbits of the prevaling ideas, behold their return, and reconcile their opposition. We can only obey our own polarity.” That is, our limitations. Once we accept our limitations, the only recourse is to reach for the heart, which is where we live, what matters most. Our hearts.

We have to first grapple with our own demons, ask ourselves why we make the most vulnerable and good hearted suffer, and then change our ways. “We are sure, that, though we know not how,” says Emerson, “necessity does comport with liberty, the individual with the world, my polarity with the spirit of the times.” I trust he’s right. And hope we can come to this in time for all my Afghan students to return to classes this spring–one more remains in Afghanistan still. I’m holding my breath for him. And he’ll arrive, Inshallah.

Writing at the End of the World: Academic Writing and the Struggle to Define the Humanities

Delivered at the 11th International Conference of the EARLI

Special Interest Group on Writing, 11th to the 13th of June, 2008

Lund, Sweden*

Richard E. Miller in Writing at the End of the World (Pittsburgh, 2005) asserts that, “We live in the Information Age and all the information is telling us that whatever we have done, whatever we are doing, and whatever we plan to do will never have any lasting significance”. This is how our students and many teachers feel, bringing us back to the debate that began in the 1990’s about the nature and purpose of academic writing. On the one hand, we’ve had the school of thought that follows Michel Foucault’sThe Order of Discourse,”* most notably lead by David Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University,” suggesting that the very syntax of college writers is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces, and Kurt Spellmeyer’s “Self-Fashioning in Discourse: Foucault and the Freshman Writer,” where we are told that Foucault’s work “reminds us that learning is the process through which we deliberately fashion our lives—and that the outcome of the fashioning, this ‘assaying’ of ourselves, is always an open question”. And on the other hand, we find Nancy Sommers’s “Between the Drafts” where she realizes that only by getting out from beneath Foucault’s influence, and by implication the demands of academic conventions, can she begin to gain authority. In Sommers’s camp is also Nancy Welch and her often cited “Resisting the Faith”: only by returning to “University A,” after being repulsed by the learning process in “University B” where Foucault is required reading, to where “freewriting and stargazing” are encouraged because “we write and learn in an environment that is safe and supportive” is she able to compose.

A writer determines the ways culture is actually present in the very act of experiencing the writing process. Writers therefore come to understand how and why the academy needs them, says Miller, “constructing a more humane and hospitable life-world by providing the very thing the academy is most in need of at this time: a technology for producing and sustaining the hope that tomorrow will be better than today and that it is worth the effect to see to it that such hopes aren’t unfounded.”

Our job is to provoke—to enable ways to move between worlds and balance the incongruities we experience. The postmodern mission of academic writing is nothing less than to define the practice of the humanities.

In The Art of Teaching Writing, Lucy Calkins writes, “James Dickey’s definition of a writer—‘someone who is enormously taken by things anyone else would walk by’—is an important reminder to those of us who assume that we begin to write by brainstorming ideas, listing topics, and outlining possible directions for a piece. Writing does not begin with deskwork but with lifework.” Lifework begins with awareness. Awareness leads to knowledge. To think and see like a writer, someone who is sensitive about things around her, we have to slow down and realize we are part of a living web of interactions. Life is there, in the in-betweens, the tiny yet powerful transitions that spring from moment-to-moment, thought-to-thought, whether we’re stepping off a curve, ordering a pizza, or waiting in a theatre to see a movie. A writer captures the significance of these moments; she takes note of the vast world, its significance. Writing is discovery, unfolding. It is a way of giving life meaning. Nothing today is more essential than writing well. Writing helps us see, understand and realize ourselves.

Disorder and uncertainty are the guiding principles of our world today. It is the writer that sets our lands in order, giving us a vocabulary to define our condition. Perhaps at no other time in history, has the writer been so critical. Working towards achieving the writer’s sense of awareness is therefore a worthy cause and a useful discipline, whether we end up as professional writers or we write for ourselves in private journals. Writing assists our quest to find ourselves in the windstorm that life sometimes seems to be.

In sociology we learn to read, write and speak as sociologists—a process that studies the origin, development and structure of human societies and the behavior of individuals and groups; in mathematics we examine the world through the relationships among numbers, shapes and quantities using signs, proofs and symbols; in history we record and analyze past events, the development of people, and create accounts related to phenomena based on observation and investigation. Writing is no different; it too requires a particular approach—a discipline. Writing is an activity beyond merely setting down letters, words and symbols. Like sociology, mathematics and history, writing has aesthetic principles by which it adheres. The first is awareness. It is followed by exploration—that is, delving into inquiry. And finally there is voice, the determining of style, a way to speak what one uncovers and experiences in the act of setting down letters, words and symbols; it is the sound that comes from our inner most recesses. It takes time—and experience—to achieve voice. In between awareness, exploration, voice and style, a writer will create a routine to help her along—reading, studying, writing and revising. A writer knows how serious it is to set letters and words down for others to read because, in the act of writing, we see ourselves, we create an identity and uncover ourselves. Writing requires that we speak about what excites us, though, as Dickey says, others may walk by these same things. A writer notices—but we need courage to do so because, as we observe and consider, we are vulnerable. A writer learns that vulnerability is strength; it is where truth lives. Writing is a dialog with the world; it’s deeply personal and passionate.

Awareness—consciousness, responsiveness and attentiveness—activates inquiry, a formal investigation to determine the facts that exist in our struggle between sense and reason. Awareness is the first step to truth. And writing is a way to find a crossing towards truth, only that. Writing, we see ourselves. We imagine; we notice how we breathe—deeply, slowly so as not to miss a single thought; how our hands move gracefully about the keyboard, like Chopin at the piano. First, just letters, then entire words, and eventually a world emerges. We move forward and backwards across this world—deleting, revising, adding, scrutinizing. Trying to make something whole out of thin air, this is what we do. Stopping to think about how awesome this really is becomes so daunting that it’s easier to just keep going. We press on. We write on.

It is difficult to think like a writer and to see like one too when our experiences are defined by disunity. For those who work with writing, who teach how to read and write, as Richard E. Miller says in Writing at the End of the World, “there’s no escaping the sense that your labor is increasingly irrelevant”. This is because, Miller tells us, “so much of the critical and literary theory that has come to dominate the humanities over the past two decades is to see this writing as the defensive response of those who have recognized but cannot yet admit that the rise of technology and the emergence of the globalized economy have diminished the academy’s cultural significance”. If the cultural significance of the academy has indeed been reduced, then more so than ever, the academy needs writers—not the other way around. This is a great challenge: finding the relevance of writing means we are finding our bearing in the world. To write is to live.

To extend this a bit further, to help out a bit and perhaps to stimulate writing, thinking and dialog, Lucy Calkins is once again useful. She says that, “Writing allows us to hold our life in our hands and make something of it. We grow a piece of writing not only by jotting notes and writing rough drafts, but also by noticing, wondering, remembering, questioning, yearning”.

What a wonderful word, yearning—to yearn: to want something or somebody very much; to feel affection, tenderness, or compassion; to desire, long, crave, hanker, even ache.

What is the relationship between lifework and yearning? Or for that matter, what is the relationship between lifework and noticing, wondering, remembering and questioning?

Lifework is consciousness, a realization that collective intelligence exists in the multifaceted networks of historical ideas, in human and cyber systems, and in the symbolic expressions—the arts—that try to explain our condition. Writing is voicing an awareness based on what we glean from what we experience, what we read and study, what we fantasize. When our texts come together—collective intelligence—we see before us life itself, the pulse that binds us through symbols. This is the primary reason for going to school—to realize ourselves in a community of thinkers. Consciousness is also the understanding that creating a figurative language to give meaning to the connections between material reality and ideas is hard work, but it is essential, particularly today. This is where lifework begins—the state of being aware of what’s going on around us, sensitivity to issues, ideas and thoughts, feelings and the environment.

The seed for all patterns or systems of interconnecting lifelines is language. Language is subtle, powerful and yet vulnerable. There are of course different language types—music, painting, graphic arts and digital media, movies and film and photography, dance and theater, and so on. Nevertheless, lifework demands that we first become more closely associated with the critical language used in writing. A reasonable—and personal—understanding of this language is how we come to see ourselves in the continuum of writing, and ideas. Again, such as we do in other disciplines—sociology, mathematics, and history—we must establish a common language, a way to understand ourselves, a way to speak to one another. Understanding through our interpretation of a common language brings us together; it lets us know that we are all in this.

The figurative nature of language, and its relationships to material reality enable our imaginations to develop with it, breathe. It’s one of the most natural things to do, write.

One of my students, Amanda, wrote that, “the following words jump out at me: ingredients, combining (mixing) and creation. To me these words can be used to summarize what life is, because in effect life is a creation comprised of a great combination (mixture) of different intricately connected ingredients. Life is the most beautiful composition there is and depending on what one believes one is a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we as human beings live it. Life is in effect a composition and compositions are life.”

We can’t help but notice how this writer is immediately associating the notion of composition with “what life is.” We can also see how she is interested in the bind between “what one believes is … a story (creation) either written out before it began by some higher entity or written out as we … live it.” Already we see how writing works: it helps us discover ourselves, the way we think. In our harried lives, only when writing can we begin to understand how we see our world. Our instinct—as we see in this writer—is to find ourselves in what we read. We will recognize what we know; we will twist and tweak what we gather so that it fits our view of the world. Writing is a way to capitalize on our vision, order it.

Following this thinking, another student, Christy, writes:

It seems to me that composition has to do with the process of building something (writing, art, etc…) and its result(s) as a whole. Not only does it matter where the beginning, middle, and end steps in the creation come from, but it is important to think of where they are going as well. It is, as one of the definitions states, an “arrangement,” but not a random arrangement, one that has a pattern, or is organized in a certain matter where it is somehow evident that it has been mulled over in someone’s mind. This is to say that the “arrangement” is purposefully done a certain way because of the importance and significance of the composition to its creator. This, in my mind, relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is “successful”(in whatever way a person chooses to rate “success”).

In this case, Christy sees composition as a “process of building something” and “[t]his … relates to how to live life meaningfully, and is parallel to how to create a composition that is ‘successful.’” Here, again, the student sees composition as composing a life—as does Calkins. This is quite an assertion, a commitment the student writer is making to herself, to learning. She is going to define her education—not the other way around. We need this for a healthy and safe teaching and learning environment. Students like Amanda and Christy strengthen our institutions of higher education; they’re on their way to being citizens of the world.

In both cases, though the writing is not polished—it’s purposefully meant not to be so as to ensure that we are writing freely, unconstrained by the usual assessment-success paradigm that hovers over students when they write—we can see these students’ devotion, their sense of obligation.

The same writer as before, Amanda, in a reflection after her writing, tells us quite a bit:

This exercise has helped me see myself for who I am, a perfectionist. This is however not in every sense of the word. I do after all have a very messy room. I desire perfection in my personality. As impossible as it is I want everyone to like me so I try to be perfect for everyone. I have discovered that I am quite expressive in my writing, but I do think I need more help organizing my thoughts around certain issues. I have discovered also that I need to repeat things constantly in order to understand them well enough to write about them well. I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas, but I also need to be on a strict deadline in order to finish and minimize dabbling with ideas in the quest for perfection in my opening lines or paragraphs.

Quite extraordinary—from “composition” to “composing a life.” Without any prior knowledge of what she would put out for her colleagues in the class, though I’m sure she has had this conversation with herself before, Amanda discloses a lot about herself, suggesting to us what she needs to learn and, more importantly, reflects so as to know she is learning—“I need time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas,” she says. She is a typical student—a writer. She is like all of us, negotiating our needs versus our demands. Amanda then surveys the landscape: “In examining my writing now I seemed more focused now than I did earlier. I got straight to the point of what I wanted to say. Whether that is better writing I am not sure.” The uncertainty of the last line is, of course, the novice writer wondering about how to be in a world dictated by expectations determined by institutional forces; she has to perform, this we know by the rather terse rendering of her “need to be on a strict deadline to finish.” This is what makes writing—and all learning—in the academy difficult: semesters privilege the product over the process, giving students the sense that they’re being processed through an assembly line. In education, we are always working against time, an irony, of course, since learning takes time. Momentarily, while writing, we can provide a respite, a way to begin to learn how we learn, how we see ourselves. This only happens when we have time to think. The semester, and the course schedule that comprises the semester, work against true, meaningful exercises that enable learning about one’s place in our complex world. Writing, we create ways to combat this disabling constraint.

Finally, Amanda says, “Though we may struggle with language as a way of determining our identities, writing allows us to voice our opinions and express our views. Writing is important because it drives us to be the best that we can be. It transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” It’s the idea of “endless possibilities” that will remain in Amanda’s mind—as it will in other students’. These are her last two words in an exercise that began by noticing what she could about “composition,” extracting from definitions that meant something to her about how the world is constructed.

Citing Michele Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” and David Bartholomae’s often cited essay, “Inventing the University,” Richard E. Miller says “that the problem basic writers face when they sit down to write in the academy is that the very syntax of their thoughts is defined by cultural and discursive commonplaces”. That is, writers face the daunting task of untangling themselves from the cultural-institutional binds that regulate identity—the structure of the semester is but only one.

We note this in Amanda, for instance: her insistence on needing a “strict deadline” is in conflict with her understanding about herself, that she needs “time to think, contemplate and formulate ideas.” And she realizes perhaps a greater bind, that writing “transports us to places hidden in our minds. It allows us to go beyond reality and to conjure up endless possibilities.” The “cultural and discursive commonplaces” Amanda defines place her in a quandary—and this will define much of her academic career, as it will for other students. In fact, we can arguably say that higher education is where one learns to negotiate the emotional and physical constraints placed on one’s body and on one’s desire.

This is lifework—the emotional and intellectual labor that defines discovery. The discipline of writing, we all realize, is about life itself; it is about making sense of how and what we see. It is natural to investigate ourselves; it is likewise impossible not to want to ponder the complexities that affect us.

In A Writer’s Reality, the Peruvian novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa says, “The process of writing is something in which a writer’s whole personality plays a part. A writer writes not only with his ideas but also with his instincts, with his intuition. The dark side of a personality also plays a very important role in the process of writing a book. The rational factor is something of which the writer is not totally aware”.

This is how we come to know the relationships that exists between our ideas and our instincts; where we come to find what is truly our own and what is culturally constructed. As we work with every word, every sentence, we recognize the significance of our syntax, the ordering of and relationship between the words and other structural elements in phrases and sentences. We see the sets of rules that belong to the English language, as well as the rules that belong to our culture, what informs us. We inhabit syntax to expose ourselves. We find logic to our being.

In French, the word for essay is essai—an attempt; one who writes essays is therefore an essayiste, one who attempts. To attempt is essayer. This is what Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) did in becoming perhaps the greatest essayiste we know. Montaigne popularized the essay; his effortless ability merges serious intellectual speculation with casual anecdotes and autobiography. His massive volume Essais (literally “Attempts”) contains some of the most widely influential essays ever written. Montaigne’s goal is to describe man, and especially himself, with utter frankness. This is our model. When we write what some consider the dreaded college essay, we are in fact entering a historically situated occasion for writing. It is, as Montaigne realized, simply an “attempt” to make something understandable; any changes that have been brought forth to the form—and that may have sucked the lifeblood out of it—have been instituted by education’s need to adhere to a corporate structure.

I bring up the notion of the essai and the essayiste to reinforce the notion of attempt. Too often in writing courses we emphasize the finished product, the end. And too often students see writing in much the same way—to prove themselves against arbitrary benchmarks, to get done, finish, and move on to the next stage where they begin again with the same routine. The joy of discovery is taken out of the process. Predictably, we assign writing at the end of a reading, for instance; at the end of a particular section of a course; as a final exam; a final research project, complete with stale and fabricated topics. This takes spontaneity and instinct completely out of the attempt, of the essayiste’s heart and soul. In effect, we eliminate learning. Seldom do we assign writing to reinforce the need for meditation, to think about the ideas floating about our minds. We also seldom create writing situations where a writer can sit with the germ of an idea and grow it slowly, enabling her to see—take notice—how a singular idea may be the way into an entire semester’s work, even the curriculum itself and, I dare say, life. This is, of course, effort fraught with challenge; we are endeavoring, taking stabs at something or other.

Sharing our thoughts—as I have here, exploring, dwelling, inquiring—we realize that we are all immersed in our writing; that writing, whether we’ve been aware of it or not, has been and will continue to be an integral part of our journeys. We write emails, IM, notes in school; we write shopping lists, to do lists, and notes to friends; we write applications for jobs, grants, advancement of one sort or another. We are continuously writing. We are essayistes forever wanting to connect with another. It’s one of the most natural things we do, turn to writing in its varied forms and thus bond with others through our deepest, richest thoughts.

Examining our writing practice, we compose stills—images of our writing selves filled with life. The implications bring us closer to the significance of our thinking lives. We are naturally invited to explore and expand. Writing becomes a personal view from which a philosophy can emerge.

A teacher that writes, that understands how her writing emerges, will be forced to assess her teaching practice—it’s inevitable. Lucy Calkins suggests that, “when we teachers have known the power of writing for ourselves, when we’ve fashioned our own poems and stories and letters and memoirs, then we can look at the resistance in our students’ faces and clenched hands and know it is there not because writing is inherently a dreaded activity, but because writing has been taught in ways that make it so”(emphasis in original). This is true, particularly at the college level where writing is a performance, presumably a ticket towards upward mobility. Too often this methodology has nothing to do with the investigative, inquiry-based qualities of writing to find truth. Many of us focus on mistakes, what’s not said—and never look for and celebrate the uniqueness in the writer’s struggle to find voice. In fact, we never teach writing so as to help a student move closer to her voice. We do the opposite—move the student away from herself and towards our subjective reading of academic discourse, the rhetoric assumed in the disciplines and the business of schooling. In other words, rather then teaching writing as a vehicle for examining our interconnectedness, we teach writing in a way that departmentalizes students, bifurcates them, disperses them into the nooks and crannies of academia to fend for themselves. We are therefore working against the promises of a liberal arts education, teaching skills rather than thinking.

If writing doesn’t open us up, what’s the point?

Beginning with the stilted “academic essay,” the usual argument essay constructed for a teacher’s assigned topic, which pedagogically already suggests to students that what’s expected is an arbitrary understanding of excellence, not an educational term, but a business idea, guarantees that writers will not be committed to what we know to be the wonderful rewards that come from writing, what we glean from, say, Montaigne. As teachers of writing, it’s also deceitful to begin—and hammer away—at the academic essay. From Montaigne and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf to Harold Bloom, writers write because they’re looking for answers because they don’t know, because they need to see themselves think. This search dictates style, voice and an intimacy with grammar that stems from the writer’s deepest desires.

Writers write because they need to understand themselves amidst complexities. We are vulnerable beings—emotionally and psychologically. Writing helps us come to grips with our vulnerabilities and become stronger.