Life as an Extreme Sport

A New Type of Work, An Old Type of Man

The socialization of the worker to the condition of capitalist production entails the social control of physical and mental power on a very broad basis. Education, training, persuasion, the mobilization of certain social sentiments… and psychological propensities… all play a role and one plainly mixed with the formation of dominant ideologies cultivated by the mass media, religious and educational institutions, and the various arms of the state…

It’s long been a criticism of our public education system that its function is primarily to create highly socialized factory drones. Following a Fordist model, children are raised to be comfortable in warehouse-like settings that accustom the child to working in factory life. Taking direction from the teacher easily translates into taking direction from a foreman, and the indoctrination of school pride (often played out via support for sports teams) can be seen as conditioning to support the company and instill habits of loyalty.

The probelm is, the structure of our public education system was set up during a very modernist period largely dominated by Fordism and scientific management. It was expected, as recently as 30 yeras ago, that you would work for a single corporation your entire life. You socialized with those you worked with, worked together, commuted together, attended church and backyard BBQs together. There was a very specific and distinctly modernist taste to life; your work and life were compartmentalized for maximum functionality. But today, the average person will change careers – not just jobs, but careers – something like seven to twelve times. Being a jack of all trades and master of none is becoming not merely a marketable job skill but the marketable job skill. Company loyalty is out the window – you look after your interests and the company looks after their own. Even IBM lays people off now*.

Our work environment and by extension our social environment has changed, but our educational system has not changed to keep up. There are certainly small attempts here and there – magnet schools, cooperative learning environments – but for the most part children are being educated in an environment that no longer prepares tehm for or even matches the postmodern working world that awaits them.

It was certainly possible to distribute and de-centralize the working world. Will it be possible to do the same to classroom environments so that children are actually being prepared for the world they’ll be lived in, and perhaps more importantantly, what will entail a postmodernist educational system?

Or, largely to humour Phillip – are we beyond consideration of a postmodernist classroom and towards a hyperreal or post-postmodern?

*I actually remember this massive lay-off; several of my parents friends were laid off, and I remember their loyalty extending well beyond working there. They had serious conviction that they would be hired back quickly, as soon as things turned around for the company. Some of them refused to look for work, they were so convinced the lay-off was temporary.

If Postmodernists Are Reacting Against Modernity, Are Fundamentalists Postmodern?

No one exactly agrees as to what is meant by the term, except, perhaps, that ‘postmodernism’ represents some kind of reaction to, or departure from, ‘modernism’.
– David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity

If modernity/modernism can be defined as a result of the Enlightenment and characterized by a seriousness of scientificism and rationality (empiricism), then literary critic Terry Eagleton’s definition of a playful and self-ironizing postmodernsim would play very nicely into the idea of postmodernism as a secular reaction to modernity, the flip side to the 1910s-1920s development of fundamentalism as the religious response to modernization. The editors of the PRECIS 6 architectural journal certainly plays into this idea of postmodernism “as a legitimate reaction to the ‘monotony’ of universal modernism’s vision of the world’ (Harvey 9). If modernism is an embodiment of the scientific revolution, “with the belief in linear progress, absolute truths, the rational planning of ideal social orders, and the standardization of knowledge and production” and postmodernism rejects this meta-narrative, could we place the fundamentalism movement (restricted primarily to Christianity for this thought-process, as it’s the one that primarily developed within the sphere of modernity) as a sister-movement to postmodernism? This “neither likes modernity” is also seen in the significant mistrust both ways of thinking have for scientific rationalism. (One actually has to wonder if the rise in postmodern thought in the 1970s and 1980s, combined with a huge upswing in fundamental Christianity is what has caused the growing lack of faith in our society, and the concurrent rise in strong belief in the Weekly World News and other such tabloid fair and bad science.)

Modernity seems to have done away with any real conception of religion/spirituality; Harvey notes on page 34 that during “the inter-war years there was something desperate about the search for a mythology that could somehow straighten society out in such troubled times.” Harvey goes on to talk about Sorel’s conception of inventing myth (first pointed out in 1908, which is interesting, as 1912ish is when you first hear about the ‘return to fundamentals’ movement); this also seems to be a corollary to what the fundamentalists did. They were searching for and inventing myths out of their literal reading of mythos; Karen Armstrong goes into beautiful detail of the concept of mythos and logos and the fracturing of the two that modernity caused in her book The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism.

I’m really interested in this idea of postmodernity being the secular sister of fundamentalism; it would have interesting implications, at least academically if not socially. It would also almost remove postmodernity from being postmodernity (or modernity from itself); while you can argue that Fundamentalism with a capital “F” originated at the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to modernity, there are older fundamentalist movements that are also reactionary movements that arise out of some need to protest, separate, or distinguish from the dominant culture of the day. If we can link fundamentalism and postmodernity together, could we go back to earlier eras of noted fundamentalism and find corresponding secular reactionary movements against the dominant paradigm? And if we can do that, does it play into Latour’s assertion that we have never been modern?

This is all very interesting, and bears further musings while I read the remainder of Harvey.

The Teaching Conspiracy

So, as I believe I’ve mentioned, I’m functioning as a teacher’s assistant (technically considered a peer facillitator, as I’m an undergrad) for CHID 390. I’m keeping a running log of my thoughts on this, largely because it’s my first time teaching at the university level, and I want to remember the lessons learned for future years of teaching (of which I forsee quite a bit).

I consider myself so very lucky to have Phillip as the professor I’m working with. He’s incredibly supportive and confident in my ability to do this, which is a great relief, especially as my own faith in being able to do “this” is still, for lack of better word, being earned. I might believe I can do this by the time the quarter is over.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned from Phillip so far, aside from the incredibly valuable “reading as an extreme sport” lecture, is don’t worry about the details. Don’t stress to death about preparing for class, because in a discussion situation the class is going to veer to areas you didn’t consider when you were planning. If you sit and overplan and worry about the details, you’ll simply make your life miserable by being focused on a single track, and likely share that with the students. Instead, stay loose and flexible. Let the students guide the conversation, because they’re going to talk about what excites them, what confuses them, and what they want to internalize.

This doesn’t mean that the discussion shouldn’t be moderated, or that certain ideas shouldn’t be planned on, only that you need to look for the opportunity in what is being said to bring up these ideas, instead of rigidly forcing the topic. For example, if you think it’s important to talk about gender politics and generalizations in Geertz’ article on the Balinese cockfights, wait until someone mentions something along the lines of “Geertz says that the Balinese do this…” and then ask “do all the Balinese do this?” There are so many hooks in discussions that give you the opportunity to turn the conversation towards the topic you want the class to cover that there is really no reason to do it any other way (at least in a discussion situation – I’m definitely not teaching a lecture class!).

I think another valuable thing Phillip shared with Kanna (my co-conspirator) and I on Monday is to ground yourself before class. Discover your moral center; ask yourself who you are, where do you come from and where do you teach from? Who are you and how do you want to portray yourself? My goal in this is to give the students their best class, one where they feel warm and safe and able to explore ideas that they might be afraid of elsewhere – I want to enable everyone to explore the tendrails and wisps of web that these readings create, but also to improve their ability to write, express themselves, and deeply engage with critical texts.

It’s a noble goal, and a good theory, and very challenging to actually practice. I had seven papers to read, and it took me nearly two hours to simply read through them once, then again to correct for grammar and other English style issues. I found myself paralized when it came to actually giving feedback, and had to talk to Phillip today before feeling comfortable doing so. After all, who am I to make these comments and suggestions, and to determine grade? Talking to Phillip helped significantly, largely because he validated what my concerns were. From that, I actually took away that it’s important to affirm the work the student has done before saying anything constructive – whether it was the most excellent paper in the world or the opposite, this is something that the student has written, and at least at the level I’m teaching at, has put something of themselves in. To not acknowledge that would be risking shutting that person down, turning them off creative and critical analysis, and be doing to someone what I’ve bitched about other instructors doing to me.

That is not my moral center.

…and in more practical thoughts, oh my god, how do professors do this? It took me 20 minutes per paper to offer constructive feedback and commentary, on top of the two hours simply reading. All for seven papers. My respect for teachers and their ability to do has gone up significantly in just this one week of instructing.

The other upshot to doing the commentary at the last minute is that I was quite literally working up until the start of class, and had no time to get worked up or stressed about how teaching was going to go. This was probably for the best.

A Brief History of Medical Knowledge

The Doctor’s Decalogue

For in ten words the whole Art is comprised —
For some of the ten are always advised:
Piss, Spew and Spit,
Perspiration and Sweat;
Purge, Bleed, and Blister,
Issues and Clyster.
– Edward Baynard, M.D. 1719

The body of medical knowledge has existed in three distinct phases. The first phase would stretch from the beginnings of history to about 450 BCE, the time of Phythagorus and Hippocrates. What we now consider Hippocratic Medicine took for granted that disease is caused by natural subjects and natural law (that the world is ordered and governed in a certain way). No one really knows why the Greeks suddenly shifted to this natural law, but it’s been the basis of our medical thinking ever since.

Pre-Hippocratic medical knowledge was interpretted in strictly supernatural terms, while Hippocratic medicine saw illness as a practical matter. The big differentiation here is what caused disease; Asclepian medicine assumed that all disease was a spiritual matter; you had made Asclepus unhappy, pray to him to heal, et cetera. Hippocratic medicine, on the other hand, took the effort to make medicine scientific; it assumed that you could understand and explain disease by natural law. The Hippocratic medical literature also developed procedures of examination that would not be significantly expanded on until the early 1800s.

In fact, the next major era of medical knowledge came about only a few hundred years after the advent of Hippocratic medicine, with the proliferic Galen. Until the mid-1500s, all knowledge of how the body worked came from Galen’s discections of pigs, Barbary apes, and cows. Looking at his anatomical drawings, it very clear that the only time he saw the inside of a human body was in the aftermath of battles. Regardless, his proliferic publication of material and his sheer intelligence made him the authority in medicine for the next 1000+ years.

Towards the middle of the 16th century, this steadfast belief in Galenism began to change, largely with the advent of the scientific revolution. People began to see that an understanding of nature is obtained not from authoritative texts but by observation, experimentation and quantitative reasoning. Medicine slowly became a scientific activity, one where you do and experiment and learn for yourself, as opposed to book-learning. (As an aside, there is a fabulous painting called Habit de Medecin that, for the life of me, I couldn’t find an image of – this is a pity, as it represented the mid-1500 view of what a physician was comprised of: primarily books.) But even with this shift in thinking and move towards experimentation and direct experience, medicine was still virtually the same in 1700 CE as it was in 200 BCE. The major advancements, and the third period of medical knowledge, didn’t begin until the mid to late 19th century.

modernity and the war on drugs

A quick entry (although I have a backlog of topics to write on, lucky me) before I lose the thought to my fried short term memory:

One of the reasons the so-called war on drugs never achieved its goals of stopping drug use is that it was fighting a war without an opponent. This is not to say that there was no opposition, but that those dealing in the drug trade were operating on such a different level than the government, the analogy of books and pages and even libraries becomes meaningless. The government’s war on drugs is a decidedly modernist conception, a vertical column of rigid infrastructure that they expected their opposition to also adhere to. By contrast, those trading in drugs are following a more horizontal organizational style, focusing on distributed systems and cell based communications – all very postmodern. By framing their offensive on a modernist conception of reality, the government locked itself in to a method of behaviour that virtually guaranteed failure.