Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Sinister ergonomics

Does anyone still read this? I apologize for my long silence, but anyone who reads this has probably been in contact with me otherwise so it doesn’t really matter. I’m on a train right now and have finished reading the book I brought so I’ll write something.

Wow, it’s been like two months since I’ve updated this. Shockingly little has happened to me in this time. I’ve been pretty stationary, living in Paris, doing research, etc. I don’t have much to write about except for my actual research, which I don’t want to get into here. If I had a way to make it seem interesting, I wouldn’t waste it on a blog. There were only two real events of note during my tenure in Paris. I organized a conference, which brought a handful of Columbia students to Paris, and then my girlfriend came to visit. Both of these events were marked by exceptionally ill-timed bouts of food poisoning, but otherwise went well.

The past two weeks, though, have been a whirlwind of activity: I left Paris for Belgium, then for Montreal, then for Paris, then for Cambridge, then for Florence, and then back to Paris. I was supposed to go to Caen, too, but that was pre-empted by the Volcanic Explosion of 2010. It goes without saying that this could not have happened at a worse time for me. If it had happened when I was not supposed to travel, I would have sat back like everyone else and thought smug thoughts about our over-reliance on air travel, etc. And then I would have enjoyed airplane-free skies. Instead, what I did was sit in Montreal all by myself, in misery, waiting on hold to talk to airline personnel. I don’t even know why I kept calling; I sort of assumed that the airline people had secret information about the eruption that would only be revealed if you were willing to wait on hold for an hour. In fact they did not, and seemed to have less information than the average reader of In the end it turned out relatively OK, and I even Had A Beer with a guy I met at the airport, which is the kind of thing that I never do. The reason I don’t do it is because it’s awkward and you’re charged $12 for said beer, but still I felt like A Real Boy for doing it. Also on the airplane I watched “Twilight: A New Moon”, which was even dumber than I had allowed myself to hope.

All of this has led me to reflect on three things, in decreasing order of interest.

First, I really hate to travel. This isn’t news, but it’s reached a new level of loathing, and I am essentially in existential despair from the moment I enter the airport until I arrive home. Sometimes this has been many hours: I spent a desperate night on the floor of London Luton airport, which is less fun than it sounds. Europeans have the ability to sleep anywhere, like dogs. People all around me were just laying on the ground and falling asleep. I worked very hard to create a comfort-nest, made of my belongings, on the linoleum floor, and still could not sleep, and then this guy came up next to me, just laid FACE-DOWN on the floor, and started sleeping!

Part of the reason for my renewed vitriol is that I’ve been flying budget airlines, and have had lots of flights cancelled, both of which reveal the cold black heart of the airline industry, which gets papered over by most American airlines, who at least pretend to care about your comfort or well-being. I flew from Paris to Montreal with an airline called “Air Transat”, which might beat out “Air Tran” for least appealing airline name. This was a night flight, and the innovation here was that they don’t give you pillows or blankets or earplugs anymore. You have to buy them, for $7. They justify this in two ways: first, it is unhygienic to share blankets (by this logic, you should have to purchase your own seat). Second, the blanket serves as an “Air Transat keepsake” (by this logic, everyone likes to commemorate their worst experiences with cheap blankets).

And then, on Easyjet, they have a very strict rule: you can have only one carry-on bag. Not a bag and a personal item, but one bag. In preparation for Easyjet regulations, I had even purchased an extremely small rolling bag for 12 euros, but was forced to check it for 22 euros, even though it is essentially lunchbox-sized (keeping in mind that my ticket, from Paris to London, cost 20 euros). This made me furious. My solution for my flight from London to Florence, which seemed ingenious at the time (this after 36 hours with no sleep) was just to wear all of my clothes at once, and then I could fit my computer bag inside my rolling bag. So I put on two pairs of underwear, two pairs of pants, one T-shirt, two button-down shirts, three sweaters, and a hoodie. Although I did save 22 euros, there were some problems with this plan. The first problem is that the plan is stupid, and 22 euros is not very much money anyway, especially as I probably ruined some of my clothes in the process (through stretching). Second, it made me even more miserable during the flight. It was quite hot in both London and Florence that day. I was too tired and out of it to read or work, so I just sat there in agony, breathing heavily and sweating profusely, through the flight and the two-hour journey from the airport (Pisa, actually) to my hostel.

OK, second, I kind of like hostels. I criticize them a lot, and they make me nervous, but I’ve stayed in probably ten of them over the course of the year and have had a surprisingly good time in each. For much of this, granted, I’ve had a room to myself: I’ve been traveling in weird times and places (Montreal in April, Düsseldorf in January, etc.). But when I’ve had roommates they’ve always been surprisingly nice. Whenever one comes in, I am deeply suspicious and for some reason convinced that all they want to do is steal my passport. Like, when I go to brush my teeth and my passport is still in my bag when I return, I’m pleasantly surprised. But not only has nobody stolen my passport, everyone’s been pretty great (except for one guy in Montreal who snored like I have never heard, and then woke up early for an outrageously long vomiting session). As a proper historian-in-training, I have a primary source document about this. When I was in Bonn, I shared a room with a youngish German librarian. We talked about only mundane things, focusing for some reason on the vicissitudes of the hostel shower. One day, when he left before I had even woken up, he left me a LETTER, in shaky English, detailing the proper means of shower operation (with a proper salutation and everything)! And then last night, in Florence, the potential passport-stealer was an Armenian guy who offered to walk me to the train station and help me buy my ticket. I don’t care what the Bible says, people are good.

Third, academic conferences are a joke and almost uniformly a waste of time. Most of them, at least. I’ve been to three this semester: the German one I wrote about before, and then two huge inter-disciplinary conferences, one in Ghent and one in Montreal. The German one was pretty good, academically speaking: there was plenty of time to discuss each paper, and there was only one panel at a time so there was a healthy audience of knowledgeable people. But these things are not true at the big conferences, at which the audience is usually exceedingly small, and the panels are packed so tight that there is essentially no time for discussion, which is the only thing that would possibly justify traveling for several days in order to read a 15-minute paper. I was on a panel that had five papers, in one hour and forty-five minutes, which is absurd. We had come from all over the place, just to read a paper for 15 minutes to an audience of about 5, and then receive no questions. I can read out loud and not receive questions at home, for free. This was, I should say, not a problem with either of these conferences as such, but with the organization of academic conferences in general. I had a great time at both of them, and they were good for “networking,” I guess.

Another insight from attending these inter-disciplinary conferences: inter-disciplinarity is not really happening. I guess that historians read philosophers sometimes, but not really; normally we just employ some sort of Foucault-lite to prove that “context matters,” and anyway we read the late Foucault who wasn’t trying anymore to be a “philosopher” as normally construed (show me a historian who has dealt with “The Order of Things” in any serious way). I don’t think I had ever really seen a political science presentation before last week, and it was like entering another world. Not only did it seem wrong, it seemed absolutely crazy, as though she was using tea-leaves or entrails instead of actual argument. And as became clear in the Q&A part (in this panel, there was one because two of the presenters didn’t show), the fault was my own; the poli-sci people in the room treated me like a deluded child who did not understand the rigors of social-scientific thought. One of them came up to me afterwards and said, “So, you don’t know much about social science, do you?” (translated: “So, you sure are a big idiot, aren’t you?”). Then he recommended some panels later that would have “stories”, which he assumed I would like, because I am a historian and I like fun little stories, full of intrigue and derring-do (sp?). I think everyone assumed that historians spend their time debating what kind of cherry tree George Washington chopped down, and doing voiceover for History Channel specials about the Golden Gate Bridge, while the real work is done by sociologists and political scientists.

Then again, this sort of blanket dismissal on my part isn’t going to further inter-disciplinarity. Maybe we should just give up that ghost: what it does, perversely and paradoxically, is allow the disciplines to exist independently, because the veneer of interdisciplinary centers, etc., allows us to assume the necessary dialogue is taking place, even when it’s not. What we need is DISCIPLINARITY: a real sense of history as a discipline, in which we stand up for, and fight for, its epistemic superiority vis-à-vis the other disciplines. Only a lazy gardener lets a thousand flowers bloom.

And ANOTHER thing (this is turning into a rant; I think that my upcoming flight is making me bitter): the sort of triumphant disciplinarity that I want will require historians to stop saying that “all truth is relative” or “all history is political, so I can't claim absolute authority for my interpretation,” or whatever. None of us truly believe that, it’s just a thing that we say, and it's become depressingly boilerplate. If we really believed that, we wouldn't be historians; the discipline assumes a "fidelity to the facts," whatever we might say to ourselves in our brief moments of methodological reflexivity. The move we need to make, though, is not towards boring-old empiricism, but a recognition that THE TRUTH can be political. The equation of the political with the fictional is debilitating.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Back in the Habit

So the German conference about which I was so apprehensive turned out to be really awesome. In a way that’s almost sad: confronted by increasing evidence about the impossibilities of the job market (I just heard a story about a bright young literary critic who was forced to take a job in Omaha and lives in snow-shoveling misery), I’ve been thinking recently that I wouldn’t mind leaving academia that much, if it came down to it. But the reason so many people are drawn to it is that it can sometimes be pretty great: everyone at this conference was extremely bright and fun and nice, I got to go for free, etc. I felt like one of those people playing their violins while the Titanic sank.

The monastery was pretty cool and, as expected, a bit creepy. The nuns were nothing like my only other experience of nunnery:

When I first showed up I barged in the front door with my bags expecting to find, I don’t know, a lobby or something, but it was actually the front door of the church and there was a gaggle of nuns chanting. It’s not really a hotel in the normal sense; there are just a few rooms that are, I’ve since learned, primarily for pilgrims. Each room is complete with a large crucifix. Nuns care for your every need with fearsome efficiency. Once I left my room and walked about three minutes before realizing I’d forgotten something and went back. In this 6-minute interval, a nun had been in my room, cleaned everything up, given my new towels/sheets, and disappeared. Maybe she was hiding in the closet. It did seem, though, like the kind of place where there might be a murder which would be covered up by the crooked town police in cahoots with the wicked head nun (the town, which has under 20K people, was quaint in that sinister kind of way).

The conference itself—my first in Germany—was pretty different from an American one. Instead of having a panel of several papers that would then have a response and questions addressed to the group, people presented one at a time and then stood up there all alone while people fired questions at them. When this firing is taking place at rapid speed in a language that is not your own, this yields maximum stress. Thankfully, there was not much actual question and answer; usually the handful of prestigious older professors would make a long-winded comment that did not require response. I was hoping that nobody would ask me an actual question, and I almost lucked out. The first two talked quickly, and while I got the gist of what they were saying, I was not sure whether or not it was taking the form of a question, but they finished with a declarative and not an interrogative ending so I was spared. The last guy, who talked at such a blistering pace that I actually had no idea what he was talking about, unfortunately ended his babbling with an interrogative lilt and a look of expectation. When I responded with only a look of horror and shame, he caught himself and repeated himself slowly, and overall the whole thing was less humiliating than expected.

My favorite part of the weekend was this one older guy who stood behind the Powerpoint screen while his introduction was being read (you could see his little legs sticking out the bottom). And then he tottered out when the chairperson said his name. I thought this was so funny. I expected a burst of steam and “ARE YOU READY FOR THIS?!!” Also an older woman who came up to me and said, “It was so nice to hear a real Boston accent!” As she had clearly been prepping this sentence (in English) in her head for some time, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I had only been to Boston for about 48 hours in my life.

And another thing: I am currently in the Munich airport where, loyal readers might recall, I have written before (the Munich airport is my cork-lined room, you might say). I got here two hours early, sailed through security, and was feeling pretty good that I had bested the airport that had so destroyed me a few months ago. But this was hubris. What I did then, in my ecstasy, was enter the wrong terminal: the one for true international departures, and not intra-EU travel. I thought it was a little weird that I was getting my passport checked, but EU regulations are mysterious to me so I didn’t think much of it. After wandering around the duty-free shops for a while, I noted that my gate was not there. So, 30 minutes after legally exiting Germany, I had to legally enter it again, and explain this to the passport man and get a new stamp. This then spat me out in international baggage claim so I had to rework my way through the whole airport and go through security again. And this time the line was long, there was a large family w/ baby in front of me that seemed to have bones made of metal, and the kid right in front of me: a) had a Zippo lighter, which had to be completely disassembled by a squad of Lufthansa people for some reason; b) was trying to travel with some kind of big metal thing that is used to soup up car engines. I don't know what it was, but it looked just like a bomb from a movie and is definitely not the sort of thing that belongs in one’s carry-on luggage. This caused a great to-do. So anyway, despite all my precautions, I almost missed my flight.

Damn you, Munich Airport! You may have won this time, but we will meet again!

[update to the above, which was written at the gate: Actually, Munich Airport was not done with me yet. The flight was delayed by two hours, I was seated next to a violently ill ten-year-old, and the train into Paris was closed for repairs, so everyone had to wait in the rain for a very long bus ride]

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Masses of fun

One of the perks, I guess, of studying Catholics is that you get to stay in weird Catholic places like that place I wrote about earlier, next to the Church in the middle of nowhere. Tomorrow I'm going to another place in the middle of nowhere for a Catholic conference, in Germany this time. The organizers have booked me a room in a monastery. On the website is the following photo:
Is that creepy or what? What is that nun doing? Maybe she comes with the room.

I've been careful thus far to restrict myself to events that are about Catholics in an academic sense, instead of the infinite number of events that are actually for Catholics, and are more religious than purely academic occasions. Judging from the other papers, and the nun in my room, I think that this time I have misjudged. I am slightly alarmed about this because my paper is about conceptual links between Catholicism and Nazism. Might be a tough crowd.

Monday, February 22, 2010

linguistics part deux

The same phenomenon is not unknown when speaking in your mother tongue. For instance, I was speaking on the phone the other day with someone (let's call him or her "Larry Paddocks"), and this person fell asleep briefly, had a micro-dream, woke up, and said, "One million pictures of Gerard Depardieu."

For bandwidth reasons, here's just one:


One thing that happens when you are uncomfortable with a language is that, when people tell you something weird, you assume that you are misunderstanding even when you're not. This has happened to me twice recently.

1. Today, an old man came up to me in the library, where I was using a microfiche machine. He held up his library card and asked me where to put the card to use the machine. I stammered that I didn't understand, because microfiche machines do not require you to insert your library card. They are extremely primitive; essentially it's just a piece of glass and a flashlight. And then he made a quizzical face and started, like, rubbing his card on the machine to find the slot.

2. A few days ago, my roommate/landlady was telling me something very complicated and then asked, "Do you understand?", and I did not, but I said yes anyway because normally these things aren't important, then I felt guilty and asked for more clarification. It turns out I was right the first time; the message was, "Next week a scientist is going to come and measure the angle at which the sunlight hits your window. This is on account of a lawsuit being waged against the neighbors and their outdoor movie screen."


In a thousand years, aliens will visit our planet and, upon seeing the tips of golden arches peeking out of the glacial mass covering the remains of Florida, will wonder what could have happened to such a civilization. Then they will see the following video, and they will think, "Oh, that's what."

Justin Bieber, for those who do not use Twitter, is some sort of teen heartthrob.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dissertators, of the world, unite!

We have nothing to lose but our fellowships!

"It is not enough to declare a political commitment for or against capitalism. One has to declare one's theoretical commitment also. One has to choose: either to regard the whole history of society from a Marxist point of view, i.e. as a totality, and hence to come to grips with the phenomenon of imperialism in theory and practice. Or else to evade this confrontation by confining oneself to the analysis of isolated aspects in one or other of the special disciplines. The attitude that inspires monographs is the best way to place a screen before the problem the very sight of which strikes terror into the heart of a Social-Democratic movement turned opportunist."
--Lukács, History and Class Consciousness [emphasis added; that sentence was obviously a nightmare for the poor translator]

Even more guilt-inducing than Tony Judt. Does this explain the special love of monograph-writers, myself included, for Barack Obama? Is there petty-bourgeois opportunism hiding in the form of my academic specialization?

But, as sagely observed in the NYT, "The library is a place. A learning place." Not a place for staging revolutions!