Monday, March 19, 2012

Kids These Days

I know it's ironic to write about why it's difficult to write. I know this is narcissistic self-indulgence at its worst, but most of what I've written on this blog comes from the "I" before slouching toward the "We" or the "They".

Maybe it was because I was a hack writer for the government for a long time, but the style seems to suit me, and so if you're reading this, and most of you who will have been reading for a long time, you won't really mind. But I nevertheless feel the need to point this out in part because missing the point of one's online writing is the force that drives online writing.

***

I recall a time, years ago, when I would discover some publication that would open me to thinking about the world in a new way. Harper's, perhaps more than any other, comes to mind, as well as periodicals like N+1. These magazines became a crucial part of my intellectual engagement with the world, in large part because the arguments and insight they brought to various issues forced me to improve and adjust my own perspective.

And so, over the years, I have had pretensions to start my own periodical, my own publication that would add to these voices in a new and interesting way. But I never got around to it (which, given the rate of successful things on this blog is not particularly surprising) and so this blog has remained my one small outpost in this world.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, mainly that I was in a government job that, shall we say, limited, if not in law at least in spirit, the kinds of things I could write about on this blog, especially as I have not written anonymously for a long time.

I was never really worried about being fired because of what I wrote, rather I was worried that what I wrote would become a justification by some petty manager to screw me over in some way. (The irony that things wound up being a lot worse over things that had nothing to do with this blog is not lost on me....). The reality was that in government, as in much of the world, one's soft power is often more real than the hard power of the either the law or the collective agreement.

I've been out of the government for over a year now, and I've finally tied off some loose ends around my old job, so I'm more open to speak freely about myself and the world so it is perhaps funny that my own desire to reengage comes at a time when political engagement, especially on the left, has become a hot topic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, new publications have emerged, like Jacobin and The New Inquiry, that reflect this new engagement, and I was hopeful that these magazines, like the one in my head and the ones that I've been reading for years, would spur me into writing and thinking in new ways again.

But they haven't really. And this is something that has surprised me, because they are generally really well-written, and populated by the very kinds of people I wanted to leave the government to engage with - smart people who want the world to be a better place than it is.

And yet...it doesn't feel like there's anything new here. There's a kind of writing in them, especially in the New Inquiry, that is difficult not to characterize as anything but deeply steeped in the culture of North American English departments.

It goes like this - take a current political issue, and analyze it under the perspective of a well-known method taken from the humanities to find a conclusion that both affirms the political feelings of both the reader and the writer while leaving them also with a sense of having accomplished something, in the way that anyone who has spent any time in a graduate program would find comfortable.

In other words, all these critiques wind up being a form of entertainment for a particular class of people.

Now some of the writers execute this method much better than others, but there's still a feeling that we have reached a kind of limit here, some kind of an impasse, that will not be addressed by the mainly young, mainly white, mainly reasonably affluent people who desperately wish to change the world, but not the way they are already doing so, because they are affluent, but in some new way, some way that overrides their affluent whiteness.

I want to say there's something Kantian about all of it, but then I am revealing myself as totally one of these people, which only adds to my own desire not to write, but to remain in silence, in a peculiar kind of silence.

The only difference between myself and many of the writers of these publications is a generation gap. When they focus on exploding student debt, I can completely relate, not because I have student debt, but because I went to university at a time when tuition costs tripled between my first year and my last.

But there is a problem when they talk about student debt as something that puts them into a position of an underclass. And I say this because of a much more recent event, namely the near-strike by the graduate students union at the University of Toronto. As the union steward in the German Department, a position I took only recently, I was rather surprised by the ways in which many of the graduates students spoke of themselves as education workers, as though for many of them this was a permanent state, when in fact it would not be, that very few of them would see themselves, when tenured professors, as workers.

I mean, it is true one doesn't get rich by being a graduate student, and that there are, as in many places, horror stories about how people are treated. And I'm pretty happy that there's a good strong union at the U of T - having spent nearly my entire working life in a union, it's nice to be in an organization where people are genuinely invested in making their workplace a better one.

That being said, this most recent round of bargaining struck me as caught in a strange place between the theoretical desires of the people who write in these magazines, and the practical aims of a trade union.

Again, I know I'm being needlessly vague here, but maybe the easiest way to put it is that a lot of people saw striking as an opportunity to address a range of institutional wrongs at the U of T that are, at best, tangentially labour issues. This desire culminated in a strange and very exciting meeting last month where about 1000 CUPE members gathered to debate whether or not to send the latest collective agreement to ratification.

Personally, I had large misgivings about the fact that we were planning to go out on strike over a lot of things that seemed more like political goals than labour issues. So I was greatly relieved when the bargaining committee at this meeting admitted this very fact. However, there was a sizable contingent of union members, including two people who had resigned from the bargaining committee in protest of the agreement being brought forward, who felt that the agreement was insufficient because it failed to address everything they had asked for, and that striking would somehow magically put all these things on the table.

Where am I going with this? I suppose I resented the fact that a lot of people in the union really wanted to go out on strike. Like they wanted that moment in their lives, and this struck them as a perfect moment to have that moment, in part because they would be paid while on strike, they could be paid to be part of something larger, even if that something larger was costing the very union they were so passionate about a ton of money.

So there was this line between protest and striking that I felt was being violated, amplified by the fact that the rhetoric of those who wanted to go on strike was roundly the same as what one finds on these new periodicals.

Here we have a bunch of people who, for the most part, because they are getting a grad degree from the University of Toronto, will wind up doing pretty well in life. And yet they, just like the angry white men who made up a lot of the public service while I was there, struck me as people who desperately want to identify with the victims and not the rulers. But this is the problem - they are part of the ruling class. We are part of the ruling class.

And maybe I sound like a concern troll in pointing this out, but having lived through some pretty wretched strikes in the government, I'd also like to think that I'm coming at this from the perspective of experience and not some nearly middle-aged desire for order and stability.

But I cannot help but wonder why I liked N+1 so much when it started except that the people who founded it are of my generation, and that why these newer publications leave me cold is because the people who run these newer publications are rather younger than I am. Maybe it's also because they seem to have a fair bit of money behind them (especially The New Inquiry) that kind of troubles me. But then I wonder if it's just that I'm getting older, because all these publications come from the same place, namely, Ivy League schools and Brooklyn...

So maybe why so many people start these publications and want to go on strike to fight the Man is because they know, they know, that by the time they get to my age they will be tenured professionals professing those same beliefs without having had much more to show for those beliefs than some strike, or some other brief moment like writing in a publication that gets profiled in the New York Times to point to where they really tried to do something about the world.

***

Which leads me to another reason as to why I never really tried to start my own magazine - I realised that, as a Canadian, it seemed that no one would take anything I/we put together seriously because it was coming out of Toronto. And this is a problem, not just for me, but for the "left" as it's broadly construed in North America. That the left, just like the right, is basically the purview of the same people, with the same status markers, that ultimately, what makes anything serious and important in writing these days is still not really who writes, but where the writer is from and how they got to know about the things they are writing.

Perhaps I am wrong, but the eternal recurrence of new literary journals, and the ones that somehow achieve some kind of seriousness, or authority, are invariably the ones who are staffed by the same people who staffed the older authoritative journals. They exist as a peculiar form of intellectual entertainment for a specific section of the ruling class.

And I have no idea where to go from there.

1 comment:

Marlo Alexandra Burks said...

"Perhaps I am wrong, but the eternal recurrence of new literary journals, and the ones that somehow achieve some kind of seriousness, or authority, are invariably the ones who are staffed by the same people who staffed the older authoritative journals. They exist as a peculiar form of intellectual entertainment for a specific section of the ruling class."

Perhaps it is entertainment. I don't really read them, to be honest, which is a) a sign of my lack of connection to this world or b) a sign of my distance from the ruling class (my lower-middle class family was not exactly the space for such things; though I would consider both my parents to be intelligent people). Well, maybe I don't have much to say about this after all. But a question, then: in what *way* are these the same people? background (educational? familial? economical?) perhaps? or do you mean trend/development? And how does this come about? Does generation separate them in any way?

"Intellectual entertainment" seems to me to be a not entirely superficial, but also not entirely satisfying way of spending one's time. I am not familiar with these journals, and I'm glad you've posted your thoughts about them -- I am rarely looking for "mere" entertainment these days, not because I think it has no value, but rather because I am -- perhaps ironically -- in that place in my life where what is meaningful to me is that which takes certain things of life seriously: not merely as springboards for commentary.

Do you think these journalistic endeavours are addressing this potentially divisive dichotomy, namely: how do we speak about something a) intelligently, with clarity, and with passion and not b) as fodder for our own intellectual fancies and day-trips? It's a hard thing to manage. Do you think there's something missing? I'll simply mention a few words: sincerity? genuineness? investment? critical faculty?

Is there even an element you could add to the 'formula' to make these literary journals 'better'? (Of course, you'd then have to define your goals quite clearly, which I'm not sure these journals have done...?).

Apologies, I didn't mean this comment to become as long and winding as it did. I'll end now!