Monday, November 19, 2012

addendum

If I was unclear about this, my point yesterday was not to say "everything in our culture is so trivial, man." I don't know what inherent triviality is, at least when we're talking about art or media or social interaction. My point is that some people treat everything as trivial, and I don't think that's a recipe for feeling good about stuff. Politics, clearly, are not trivial. They have huge real-world flesh and blood consequences. But it's my observation that many people, including and especially people who follow politics as a profession, treat them as trivial or comic all the time. And that combination of things-- obsessing over something that you regard as a joke or waste of time-- it just doesn't strike me as healthy. That makes sense, right? I'm a man of obsessions myself, and like a lot of my friends I'm constantly chasing stray thoughts and interests down rabbit holes. But even when the subjects seem silly or small, I'm thinking about them because I think they're worth thinking about. Why else would I spend any time on them?

There's things that I imagine are easier or harder to take seriously. My guess is that it's harder to feel like your time is well-spent if you're spending it on, like, the latest Justin Bier metacommentary. But that's just a value judgment of mine; it's totally up to you.

Somebody on Facebook posted the link to the Wampole piece and just quoted the bio at the bottom, "Christy Wampole is an assistant professor of French at Princeton University." The quote was meant as being dismissive in and of itself, and several people commenting on the Facebook post took it as such-- "LOL," "eyeroll," etc. This seems really wrongheaded to me. First, it would be hard to do a better job of confirming Wampole's points through disputing them. (A lot of people seem to be falling into that trap.) But second, let's just unpack the idea that being a professor of French is somehow inherently ridiculous. If you think that studying French is not a worthwhile pursuit, you're entitled to that position, but you should argue it and not let the assumption that everyone will see that profession as ridiculous do your work for you. This is especially true because counterarguments are available and potentially compelling. About a quarter of a billion people speak French! Seems important.

But more to the point, Christy Wampole certainly thinks French is worth studying, and she's found an institution that thinks it is worth hiring her to research and teach about it. For the conversation at hand, her own attitude towards her work is what's really important. It seems to me that being the person who is passionate enough about something to dedicate her life to it is better than being the person snarking at the other person for that passion. It's the "dancing at a wedding*" effect. Being a grad student, I am naturally defensive about how often people snark about grad school. But if I'm being more thoughtful about it, I tend to let it go. People who go to grad school because they've genuinely made an informed choice (as opposed to using it as a delaying mechanism or career avoidance) almost always are fulfilled by being there. So who cares about the snark? I'd rather be the grad student who spends his day doing what he enjoys and values than be the person making fun of grad students who hates his or her job. The assumption that everybody will agree in thinking that Wampole's profession is ridiculous speaks to the false idea that what matters in life is what other people agree matters. Personally, from my own particular vantage, I'd rather be Christy Wampole than somebody making fun of her. I think her piece was partly right and partly wrong, but I don't doubt that she holds the values she says she does.

*The Onion here uses irony in a critique of knee-jerk ironizing and a defense of behaving unironically. Irony is not the problem. Its application can be a problem.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

Freddie, I think the "joke" of the Facebook post is that a terrible essay came from a professor at an esteemed Ivy League institution. Not that, uh, studying French is somehow worthless?

paul h. said...

I imagine that you don't really care about my opinion, but I feel compelled to write nonetheless:

For the past year or so, you seem to be lapsing into something that Digby is often guilty of, i.e., expending most of your energy doing media critique, rather than writing anything new (or especially interesting). I think your blog post from a few months ago, "The Resentment Machine" or whatever it was, along with a couple other long-ish posts recently, cover this "Twitter/irony/etc" topic extremely well, so why keep writing about it?

I guess I'm just thinking of your blogs (and comments on other blogs) from like 2008-2010; like when you wrote about postmodern art/film/literature, and made really interesting points and arguments about various topics. Whereas in the past year, whenever I crack open my RSS feed it's more whining about Twitter, whining about discourse among a few insignificant people on the left. I follow blogs/politics reasonably closely and literally have not even heard of half the people you're mentioning ... why expend so much effort attacking some LGM blogger? And why do it over and over?

They're wrong and shallow and etc, we get it; it would be great if you could use your talents for something else.

Freddie said...

No, that's not the joke-- as confirmed by the person who made it.

Paul, we've done this dance before: I write about what I write about. You can exercise your privilege to not read it. Which I've said to you probably a dozen times. Because it's just you whining about me writing about Twitter, whining about me writing about discourse among a few insignificant people on the left... why expend so much effort attacking me? And why do it over and over?

I'm wrong and shallow, I get it; it would be great if you could use your time and attention somewhere else.

ovaut said...

it signals a deep aversion to risk. As a function of fear and pre-emptive shame, ironic living bespeaks cultural numbness, resignation and defeat.

Good. Yes. It is affecting not to mean what you say because you don't have anything to mean. It is a mask for hollowness.

JK said...

That Wampole piece was a really atrociously bad piece of writing on a prose level. Secondly, it proceeded from a number of ridiculous unexamined premises ("Nonironic models include very young children, elderly people, deeply religious people, people with severe mental or physical disabilities, people who have suffered, and those from economically or politically challenged places"? - I can think of easy counter-examples to almost all of those. People with serious physical disabilities or economic and politic problems tend to use irony quite a bit, in my experience). While we were making fun of this on Facebook, my entire feed was about Hostess laying off workers and babies being killed in Gaza. She's describing a world I simply don't recognize at all, and it's telling she provides not one single concrete example or smidgen of quantitative analysis. There's not even a news peg. Just some weird thing about how irony is so bad, after an endless election, OWS, a continuing economic crisis, etc. I think people are pointing out the - WAIT FOR IT - irony of her being an Ivy League literature prof because it underscores how out-of-touch she is.

Freddie said...

I have breaking news for you JK: a vast literature exists examining superficially unimportant aspects of the human condition. Why? Because people read it; my previous post got several times the hits that any post I might write on Gaza would likely receive. Why do people read about seemingly obscure subjects? My guess is because the experience of living human life leads people to ponder the smaller things as readily as the bigger things. Maybe a movement could be started against it, I don't know. But I believe it's ubiquitous. Wampole's piece has done huge numbers. That alone should be an answer to both you and Paul.

What was my point? That Wampole is wrong to locate a certain kind of existential exhaustion or perception of meaninglessness in irony rather than in a choice to view most everything as meaningless. A minor point, sure. But I know many people who feel they are choking. Choking. And they can't say why.

Here's the real irony: you sound much more like Wampole than me. It's Wampole who laments hiding from the deep subjects. I'm saying that depth is in the eye of the beholder, and that the choice to identify everything you think about as shallow is a form of self-punishment, masquerading as a kind of self-aggrandizement.

Does it matter? Pointless question. There is no alternative to considering your own condition. That's a product of consciousness, I'd wager.

Freddie said...

I mean I'm not closing off your perspective, JK. I just don't know how one can hold it without being opposed to the entire genres of sports journalism or media criticism, etc. You know?

JK said...

It's fun to comment on here because the author of the blog always over-extrapolates from my comments in really odd ways and then also infers stuff about my life and larger philosophies.

So no, I don't know. But I don't read sports journalism, since I find professional sports boring. Anyway, one can like and enjoy ostensibly "trivial" things in a serious, un-ironic way, and I actually think that's kind of important in life.

Her article probably did big numbers because it's on the front of a section of the New York fucking Times and was written by a person roughly "our" (the twitterati?) age and cohort, and it's breathtakingly dumb, and people want to dissect that.

Freddie said...

When did I overextrapolate anything? And you've just directly contradicted yourself, duder. If it's okay to write and care about trivial things, why isn't it alright for Wampole to do that too?

I mean, I know it's nice to wall off the consideration that maybe someone who's work is receiving attention is because it actually speaks to people. But you sound particularly defensive about all this. The New York Fucking Times ran her piece for a reason.

JK said...

Sure it did! Whether it was a reason I find credible I doubt. Or whatever, it speaks to people. So does Lady Gaga. So does Obama. So does Mitt Romney. Not really sure why I have to particularly give that credence.

Would appreciate if you used quoted me to illustrate where I contradicted myself.

And I never said Wampole can or can't write about whatever she wants. I'm saying literally every paragraph of her piece made me wonder what world she lives in, as I related to precisely none of it and recognized precisely none of it. Do you know people who get their dress cues from "the flapper, the hobo"? I do not.

Freddie said...

Well know we're getting somewhere!

I thought you were accusing Wampole of paying too much attention to the trivial when you contrasted her piece to discussion of Hostess or Gaza. And while I understand that critique, it's a slippery slope. As you say, it can't all be serious stuff.

If you just think she's wrong, well, yeah, she's wrong about lots. And she constantly hurts her own argument with examples and arguments that seem designed to annoy. But then maybe that's exactly why she's getting so many hits.

Freddie said...

Well know we're getting somewhere!

I thought you were accusing Wampole of paying too much attention to the trivial when you contrasted her piece to discussion of Hostess or Gaza. And while I understand that critique, it's a slippery slope. As you say, it can't all be serious stuff.

If you just think she's wrong, well, yeah, she's wrong about lots. And she constantly hurts her own argument with examples and arguments that seem designed to annoy. But then maybe that's exactly why she's getting so many hits.

JK said...

Ok, maybe that's not over-extrapolating; that's just incorrect interpretation. I'm saying she's telling everyone to speak directly and not wear silly clothes while the world is literally and figuratively on fire, and pretty much everyone is talking about that. Come on, this piece does not sit comfortably even in the NYT Sunday Review. I mean, maybe college kids are "like this," but are they like this in a way they weren't 10, 20, 30 years ago? Maybe it's some kind of ouroboros effect, but I think her piece is getting attention because it's getting attention, and nobody right-thinking really knows why. It just seems dropped in from planet bananas, and nobody has any clue why it's taking up prime NYT real estate. Yes, of course I feel the same way about most of their op-ed columnists and half the other sections, but at least I'm inured to that now. Could they at least be less patronizing to their audience to where they could get some schlocky sociologist to cover this?

If one of your students pulled this, you'd dock the grade, no?:
"Throughout history, irony has served useful purposes. . ."

Freddie said...

I tell you what, Paul, you'll get some focused artist commentary later this week. Because I'm a man of the people.

Freddie said...

Sure, I'd dock the grade. But I'd also admit that many, many people I know have a profoundly hard time expressing their emotional selves or the contents of their conscience because they have wholeheartedly embraced an idiom that presumes the ridiculousness of those things. And I think that human beings are both emotional and moral creatures, and that we need to express ourselves, so that is a really tough condition. And if it takes a Christy Wampole to provoke a little discussion of that, I'll take it.

JK said...

anyway, time for bed. i started a bit drunk and now i'm just tired and got rambly. 'night!

Also, the entirety of that last comment made me hear "If it takes a Christy Wampole" in a kind of soft-rock, "We are the world" cadence.

paul h. said...

lol, thanks. Also, for the record, I don't think you're wrong and shallow, and I certainly wouldn't call a friendly suggestion "whining" (let alone something that I'm doing "over and over"). Your reactions to commenters tend to be somewhat over the top, imo; I come in peace.

Freddie said...

I have a simple rule when it comes to interacting with commenters: meet force with force but be quick to forgive and quick to ask for forgiveness.