Monday, October 29, 2007

Little Epiphany

I only have twenty hours of quality time and I keep wanting to push grading and applications into my ten hours of shit time, but both require quality thinking. Doing these things, therefore, crowds out meaningful work, creating resentment on my part, especially for applications. Grading at least has redeeming value in that it helps students improve. But crowding out creativity makes my life bleak, which is why I am so resistant to applications. I need a very bleak term in order to get applications done.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fog, Part III

When I left off, I said that the most difficult and frustrating problem that I deal with is coping with meta-object fields, object fields designed to help you coordinate action between various object fields. Even further back, I wrote about not being the kwisatz haderach anymore—not being able to be in many places at once and the feeling of reduction in self that results from being able to carry out fewer simultaneous activities. My problems handling meta-object fields are at the very heart of that experience. This is also where my other cognitive damage comes into play. In addition to the short-term recall problem, I also have difficulty suppressing emotion. That always plays into my problems.

A Divided Life

Habermas tells us that under capitalism, our lives are divided into many spheres of action. So much of who we are is how we balance the demands of many different spheres of life. Each comes with its own unique set of symbols, its standards and values. Indeed, often these are converted to a literal discrete setting to give individual setting that help convey the intended effect of a sphere of action. This actually makes a strong difference for managing my illness. You may recall from the first part of this article that object fields that relate to real physical places with objects in them, e.g. my kitchen, are the simplest for me to deal with. If I leave the salad I am chopping to go the refrigerator to fetch the next vegetable and then forget what I am doing, I can glance back at the counter, see the salad, and this will trigger my memory. Purely mental object fields are more difficult, because there are no physical actual objects to which I can refer to trigger my recall. That said, most mental object fields are stored in long-term memory. I can teach you the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, how to write a good persuasive essay or how to speak Arabic because these things are in my long-term memory. My long-term recall seems to be completely normal. I discussed how developing new ideas takes me much longer now because a newly imagined idea is not part of long-term memory. I can’t critique the idea as I write it. I need to write it, look at it, and then criticize it.

Our central problem, according to Habermas, is integrating our lives in order to be fully human and not some mechanized automaton. He talks about the colonization of the lifeworld, a phenomenon in which one of the spheres of action takes over that space in which we imagine ourselves as a human being and where those values that are central to ourselves as an integrated whole. Systems can colonize the lifeworld because they can create an overwhelming reality by presenting a world in which the activity is manifest as the obvious function and goal. The error is mistaking the system for our integrated life. An easy example would be the behavior of German bureaucrats during the Holocaust. German bureaucrats were given commands regarding the slaughter of innocent people, which they carried out. Many did not like it, but they nonetheless obeyed. Habermas argues that this is because of the colonization of their individual lifeworld. They ceased being human beings who were employed as bureaucrats and became bureaucrats who from time to time allowed themselves to encounter others in human relationships. The imperative to be a good bureaucrat and follow orders overrode their human values that told them what they were doing was wrong. Their identity as bureaucrats trumped their identity as humans.

The balancing act that Habermas was concerned with was being able to know when to put aside the technical values of work and pick up those values that make us genuinely human, those values that should serve to integrate our lives. My balancing problem is far less profound and, to be frank, a little embarrassing.

Meta-object Fields

There is a single object field that is never part of long-term memory—the meta-object field. Under capitalism, a person’s meta-object field changes quickly from day to day. It is subject to constant revision. Day-to-day work is not usually done in one sphere at a time. Rather we do a task or two every day in the various different spheres of life in which we are involved. If you want to view each task in a given sphere of life as having a story, a narrative, the meta-object field really has none. It is simply a world of changing lists. Right now, I’m balancing between six or seven:

1. Self-care and maintenance: Washing, eating, doing the laundry etc.

2. Finances: Keeping up with my budget, balancing the checkbook (like that ever happens). This element is by far the most complicated task in my life, see the bit about “Shame” below for more details.

3. Health: I see several physicians and take several medications, many of which have different rules for both when and how I take them and for their renewal at the pharmacy. Moreover, because contemporary illness requires you to see many specialists, the patient must take a highly pro-active stance toward health, constantly integrating the information with which they provide you and asking questions to prompt new strategies. It helps to try to follow, as far as you can, the state of medical research on the illness. Being a patient, ironically, requires dynamism.

4. Teaching: This, of course, is my actual job, in the sense that this is the task for which the university gives me a regular, if paltry salary. This is the professional sphere in which I have the greatest success. Teaching is a very structured object field. Its patterns help impose order on my day. It also is deeply satisfying. Items 1-3, in contrast, have become a colonizing force in my life. These things used to be peripheral. Now they are dominant fixtures in my life that are big enough to shape my identity (see the posting about the saucer).

5. Research: This is the actual process of contributing to knowledge, not funding that process. I’m having a great deal of trouble getting to this. I’ve presented a single paper at a conference. That’s basically it.

6. Searching for funding: Contributing to knowledge needs time away from teaching. Getting this time requires you to prepare applications, a serious endeavor in itself, one that is going to take serious space on my saucer if I’m going to actually get anywhere with it. I missed six grant deadlines last year—a complete and total failure. I’m starting from scratch again this year, and yes, I’m late. We’ll see if I get any out this year.

7. Family and social obligations: There are myriad birthdays and holidays to be recalled. Nothing in any of the above spheres reminds you of this. Moreover, failing to recall the events and respond properly is taken as a sign of disrespect. There is no one in my family who I have not unintentionally hurt in the past seven years. It’s all well and good that people need to understand that this is not deliberate, yadda, yadda. It will never happen. This requires too much cognitive discipline around an important symbol. People are simply going to be hurt.

The challenge is to create a scheme of prioritization and then actually use it effectively. Each subfield has its list of “next steps.” My first difficulty is one of contextualization. My ability to contextualize a given context, leave it, flip to another context and recontextualize is very limited. Before the illness, I used to do this unconsciously. Now, I do it with a great deal of effort.

I have many tasks relating to many projects. It would be swell if I could just work on one project at a time. But as you can see, self-care, finances and health are things that I can’t just shove into a corner and ignore. Well, I did for the first several years after I was diagnosed. I lived in utter filth and ate badly. My life was basically whatever I got done in my office and going out with my friends when I got a chance. Well, I’m married now. I can’t live like that anymore. Needless to say, my social life has died. Even with a very loving and helpful partner, I can’t take care of a household, take care of school and get out and see people. My basic social outlet in the fall is I go and see the Packers play with Jenni, mostly because she is kind enough to help structure me to actually get to the bar to see the game.

Well, the trick any busy person uses is to divide and conquer. You prioritize each sphere’s to do list, pick a few items from each list and go from there. But to prioritize them, you really need to track two other sets of information. The first is a relative weighting of how important each next step is in terms of the “big picture.” Which front requires advancement first? What ordering of steps is best for the war? The second is a knowledge of how steps can be “tucked” into the greater scheme of the day. It may be in my best interest to go the library to return a recalled book. Well, I often have other business in areas near the library or in the library itself. If I’m going to the library anyway, I might as well add those steps in so that I can kill two or three birds with one stone. Those other steps may be relatively low priority, but as they have to be done anyway, it makes sense to do them. Creating the day’s “to do” list is a cognitively difficult sorting task. So not only are the mental objects in the meta-object field not there for long enough to ever enter into longer term memory and, as a result, be recalled clearly and instantaneously, they require extensive sorting. Moreover, my lists have to be very specially crafted. Because my recall is bad, my ability to sort items is highly constrained. If there are too many items on the list, I won’t be able to order them.

I can easily spend two hours trying to plan a busy day. This is, of course, ludicrous. But it’s really a very difficult trade-off. If I don’t go through the effort, I will go out and have a very inefficient day with very spotty performance. Maybe things will happen and maybe they won’t. Moreover, I won’t get any “kill two birds with one stone” effects and things will take much longer to do. But sometimes, the sorting is just too fatiguing for me and I just run out and do whatever I can that day, feeling that doing something is better than nothing. Intensive sorting of any sort is highly fatiguing because it is highly taxing for my sclerotic frontal lobes. It also creates an emotion that I find very difficult to accept: confusion. Recall that I can’t suppress emotion worth a damn. Pushing past fatigue and confusion is not particularly easy. Moreover, I really only have twenty good hours and ten shit hours in which I can actively live my life in a week, instead of resting. Sorting takes quality time, not shit time. When school is on, I don’t have any quality time. My finances, in particular, suffer.

Back to Integrating Life

In a sense, our day to day life, while not meaningless, rarely exists as a discrete unit of meaning. Little fragments of the meaningful units happen each day and you put them together in your mind. Routinized life, when it’s good, is like a montage. Story units are the units of meaning. It’s really only in terms of the bigger story that life gets meaningful. Habermas’ bureaucrats live colonized lives. They cannot remember their true selves when they need their integrity the most. They are taking the wrong value cues from the situation. They sign death warrants for genocides because they think as efficient bureaucrats and not compassionate human beings. I remember the right values. The problem is that I have too much life. There are more spheres in my life than my poor eviscerated brain can handle. I am like a computer with a powerful processor, a large hard drive and a pathetic single stick of memory. The only thing I can think of to balance the damned equation is to drop out of school, but I’m fucking ABD and I want my goddamned degree. I haven’t suffered through thirteen years of post-secondary education and two masters degrees to be crushed here.

I used to see the big picture all the time. But to see the big picture, you need lots of short-term memory. I see the smaller parts of the picture quite clearly because I live in those smaller parts long enough for the schema to sink into my long-term memory. The big picture for a grand theory is much harder to put together, but eventually I will know it well enough that it, too, will become long-term memory and I will know it. But the grand schema of a "to do" list will never be long term memory. To do lists change daily. This means I am always going to have a great deal of trouble living with my life divided between many spheres of action. I’m having a dickens of a time getting any applications out because I just can't get out of enough spheres to stay in application land long enough for that schema to become clear. If I can't stay there, I can't get the applications out. I honestly don’t know what to do.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Your TA's Executive Summary: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

A colleague asked for my notes from Steve Hanson’s 204 class on Friday. I wrote them up and thought, fuck it, I never write about the big ideas anymore. So, ta da! The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Like you really wanted to know.

* * *

According to Weber, the idea of rationalizing an action around a value has its origins in monastic life. Bit of background that I have having grown up Catholic: Monks and nuns were people who sought to follow the Bible's injunction to always be praying (having grown up Catholic, typically, I can't give you a chapter and verse—but I know it's in there).The most literal example of this was one of the saints (again, I' deeply embarrassed that I don't remember which one, but he was a monk) who actually strove to be literally praying all the time, having the prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner" playing in the back of his mind always the way pop songs get stuck in the back of ours. The idea is a soul that is always praying will have difficulty consciously sinning. But at any rate, monastic life, if you will is the "rational choice" expression of those who wish to live a life that maximizes holiness, a life in which all work and rest is suffused with prayer. For a Catholic to this day, the term "vocation" refers principally to a calling to religious life, i.e. being a priest, monk or a nun.

Martin Luther rejected this stance, deriding the monastic life as a cowardly retreat from the world of the living. A religious radical, he sought to break the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Church, but a political conservative, he had no intention of mobilizing the peasantry or leading political reform (which made him popular with kings who could then break the monastaries and confiscate their land and, in the process destroy the only system of social welfare in place in the medieval west). Catholics believe that being saved is a matter of baptism, a rite that is typically performed in infancy. Luther, in contrast, conceived that being saved required to be an individual experience of God's salvation (hence the ubiquitous evangelical question, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?"). God further called human beings to work in a worldly vocation, i.e. one in contact with the world. Not being a political or economic radical, that vocation was basically doing what your parents did. This, as far was Weber's theory is concerned, was the extent of Luther's innovation.

With Luther, then, two changes emerge. First salvation becomes an individual experience (the story of how one was saved) rather than a status ascribed to a sacred community (into which the individual is initiated shortly after birth through infant baptism). Luther thought that this community approach had created the sort of slovenly Christianity that led to the Reformation in the first place. The second change is that Catholic idea of a religious, monastic vocation, becomes a worldly experience in which faith is expressed not through a life of prayer but rather through hard work in the world (not that Luther didn't believe in prayer, but he didn't believe in monastic life).

Calvin essentially "modernized" Luther's stance taking it further. Not only was salvation an individual calling, but the choice of vocation was an individual calling as well. The individual did not simply accept what his or her parents did mindlessly as a traditional nitwit, but instead searched their hearts to discover where Jesus was calling them to go. This is fairly easily explained to students. While few are looking to Jesus to tell them where to go, they almost all are still searching their hearts for what they ought to do with their lives.

Calvin's own approach to the question of theodicy led him to espouse a belief in pre-destination. Simply put, an almighty and omniscient God knows, because He knows His creation, who is saved and who is damned. Indeed, God alone knows who is saved and who is damned. Being saved or damned in Christianity has always been as simple as a response of faith. The question for the individual living on earth becomes, "Do you truly believe?" This creates a type of "salvation anxiety" among the faithful. Doubt, and indeed, who among us is so confident as to avoid doubt, in a sense made them work all the harder. If nothing else, they needed to reassure themselves of that which they cannot know: that they are the elect. [Individual grad students have this problem "Am I brilliant or a fake?" dwells in each grad student's mind in much the same way. Admission to the grad school is never real proof.] So, like the monks who sought to make every part of life a ceaseless prayer, Calvin's Puritans sought to work every minute of the day, because the true response of faith is work. Hence, time is money, a la Ben Franklin.

Well, working this way accumulated a great deal of financial capital. The Puritans were the most austere sorts of Christians, so blowing the money on booze and hookers was completely out of the question. Charity was never really quite as big with the anti-monastic Protestants as it was with the monks and nuns of old (after all, by the new dogma, the drunk in the gutter probably belongs there, but maybe you give to the Salvation Army, just in case). So you reinvest, to show God you take the Word seriously, i.e. by working even harder, making the work even more productive, etc.

Well. most people don't want to work this way, but the problem is if they don't adopt the technique, they'll be driven out of business. The fading of Puritanism (their descendents the Congregationalists have a nice church north of campus with a gay couple as their ministers, to give you some idea of how much things have changed) did nothing to make a dent in this phenomenon. Once the pattern existed, it was available for use. People like Bill Gates find meaning in this sort of work, even if they aren't Puritans. Perhaps it's keeping score that drives them the way our students are driven to hit the start button every time they get a "game over" on their video games, even if it is two in the morning and they're bleary eyed. For whatever reason, a cadre of people are always internally driven to work this way. As they are, the rest of us are forced to work to their standards lest we be weeded out of the market.

Rinse, lather, repeat until the last ton of fossilized fuel is burnt.