Saturday, January 09, 2016


There are two issues in this post.  One is complexification and the other is the hard meanness of so many scholars today.

First, complexification.  This is all coming from online conversation about an excellent and provocative article which I posted about in December (12/17/15).  The article in question is “The inhumanity of literary criticism”  by Lisa Ruddick. “Interviews with 70 young English scholars and a survey of papers published in a major journal reveal a troubling side of current literary criticism: academic norms scorn discussion of people’s inner lives, leaving critics hesitant to advocate for anything that smacks of “uncool” human feeling.”

At first, just after the post, comments were positive and plain spoken, but when a link was made to a specialized blog for psychoanalysts, comments soon went to this kind of thing:  

In contrast to reinvesting one's narcissism or power in the child, what is classically called a masochist, can invest her echoism or her goodness into the child. Her interest for harmony or unity in the world is played out in the child-mother relationship.    

Freud also refers to the baby as the 'erotic plaything of the mother.' This comes from how he pairs the two drives of aggression and affection (1933, p. 120). 

The echoist can fall away from sexual interest and self-assertion (at the phallic stage) and regress back to affectionate impulses. They like sentimental things like cute, fuzzy animals, babies, and want massages, comfort foods, or soothing.

I think what this Freudian is trying to say is that “cool” became a value in order to escape mushy emotion, which finds massages, comfort food and soothing childish.  (Watch this space for a post about “inconsolability” — the rejection of all comforting, which seems widespread.)  What strikes me even more is how devoted many of respondents were to their own particular interpretation of a system that goes far beyond what most people understand about Freud.  Rocket science as applied to the psyche.

In seminary (actually, Ruddick’s U of Chicago) I took a course in “Process Theology” from Chicago Theological Union, an affiliate.  It was soon clear that Process Theology was also dependent on what looked like the schematic of the wiring in a three-stage outer space rocket.  After months of building whiteboard diagrams to explain what was meant to be quantum physics applied to Christianity, the professor admitted that most Process theologians can’t quite figure out how to get Jesus into all this stuff.  So why do they think it’s Christian?

All the “post modern” systems, some of them psychoanalytical, seem to be based on “manning up", hardening for a coming culture war.  Challenging authorities.  I guess that’s what it actually was, but when do we get to the post-post modern phase, the “stand down” and reflection about what was accomplished?  Can’t we sit under a tree in the grass for a little while without being mocked?  And what do we use for reference points now?
Some of Lisa’s respondents confirmed her premise:   “Last year I set out to catch up on the psychological and psychoanalytic Shakespeare criticism of the past 2-3 decades and was appalled by the ideological stridency that has occupied the field.  Of course, the critical works varied a great deal in sophistication, and there were many astute post-modern perspectives.  But the reductive mischaracterizations of the so-called "humanist" critical tradition (of which I am a contributor, as are others who have responded to Lisa's essay) amazed me in their party-line consistency.”

Another laments:  “I have to give a paper based on the theories of Jules Weiss, who asserted that reciprocal love is dangerous to the self, since it compels a regression that threatens mental stability, while frustration and pain re-inforce the reality principle and make for mental stability.”   Even if "reciprocal love" is a delusion that would make a person weak, would we want to live without it?  Why aren’t frustration and pain a challenge to mental stability?

Of course, these are psychoanalysts who have spent their lives learning and elaborating systems of introspection and pathology, only to have it all swept away by happy pills and the new neurology research.  It turns out that much psychoanalytic theory is embroidery on the Emperor’s clothes.   If infusions of ketamine once a week can lift crippling depression, why obsess over your mother’s toilet training strategy? 

Our institutions and laws, our economics and education systems, are not keeping up with the human needs of many people.  Surely the answer is not to get more callous so as to ignore them comfortably, though that might save money in the short run.

But the daily complexification that drives me nuts is the Internet.  Not the big questions about how it affects civilization or mental health or how to guarantee the power supply or whether there is enough capacity. I guess it is a confluence of trying to attract customers by using the doctrine that adding new features will please them.  It’s the conviction that makes the breakfast cereal aisle a head-swirling riot of alternatives.  I was amazed a couple of decades ago when I was in Saskatoon and saw maybe only ten kinds of the stuff.  Same in other categories.

If it were a simple matter of settling on one stable OS, that would be all right, but instead every time I open my screen — not just when I am forced to switch to some new version or else lose my Netflix subscription — there are new bells and whistles, a whole new language, that I must learn in order to produce my daily essay.  It eats hours out of the day to re-locate functions, to establish that they’ve dropped something out that I depended upon, and so on.  Sometimes it means seining through forum websites where people have dozens of other problems.  There are constant impositions of new policies about privacy or connectivity and always the suggestions,  “Why not favorite us on Facebook?”  And worst of all, “Tell us what you want.”  Like a stupid lover who can't pay attention.

We have a circle, a sucking whirlpool, that forms when the tech is more important than the content and the content gets worse and worse because tech stuff drains off all the energy and desire.  So a website like starts out proclaiming that it will be plain, elegant and intuitive, and ends up playing some kind of three-dimensional chess with their features, until few who seriously write are still posting and Medium has to pay regular writers regular fees in order to have content.  People intent on standing out from the crowd indulge in cruel games of mockery.

The deepest irony in me writing about these harsh, possessive, rigid kinds of thinkers is that here in Montana I’m constantly grumbling about how shallow, middle-class, comfortable, assumed, commodified, predictable, most of the thinking and writing is.  It is so safely smug.  If it isn’t, it won’t sell, it won’t attract people.  That's not theory -- it's fact.  This is why (outside of professional groups that enforce their own internal standards) religion ignores theologians, therapists ignore hard-core psychoanalysis, publishing ignores challenging material, and all the “post” stuff seems of limited usefulness.  Why can’t we find a clear, user-friendly alternative to internet complexity?  There’s no use in expecting the kids to do it — they revel in all that intricate strategy of video-game style.  It takes wisdom to be simple.

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Here's a much tougher and ruder version of meanness that is not academic.

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