Tag Archives: james altucher

US anti-intellectualism through a glass darkly: the end of our national self-inquiry.

Today, Rebecca Schuman wrote a worthwhile piece in Slate, “The End of Research in Wisconsin,” covering the academic outcry against Gov. Walker’s $250-million budget cuts and subsequent demolition of tenure at state universities.  It’s mildly sensational Slate fare, which is to say, it’s well-written, informative, and disturbing.  I think one of the main reasons we’re seeing upsetting stories like this about the “worth” of a college education relative to the poisonous fallout that attends it is because anti-intellectualism is a theme in American culture that has never gone away; though it’s never seemed this poisonous.

Consider: higher education has always been a battleground in WI (and just about everywhere else). We know that the collision of opposing values (and the economic landscapes created by those values) that emerges when government and academia vie for power is as old as the United States. Or we would know that if history was actually considered as valuable as STEM.  The current STEM-fetish in the States is likely the invisible elephant in the room.  But Shuman’s piece doesn’t get into that.  Instead, she talks about how angry the University of Wisconsin faculty are at Gov. Walker’s maneuvering, citing the exploits of sociology professor, Sara Goldrick-Rab, who tried to strike back by warning incoming freshmen about the situation.  Well, that’s interesting and dramatic, isn’t it?

Gov. Walker is probably interested in (1) consolidating power; (2) controlling high-profile programs (STEM–ever see an English department with a research budget in the millions?) that will be directly and indirectly lucrative; and (3) silencing all opposition. What else is new? He’s a politician.  Do we expect him to have humanistic values?  His entire worldview is based around trying to eat the appendages of his opponents without letting his opponents eat his.  He is not interested in φιλόσοφος.

This is the same struggle going on in most state-funded universities throughout the country.  This is the same collision of values we’re seeing (in a far more complex and apocalyptic sense) in the current presidential campaign.  Sure, we should care about it; we should debate and discuss.  Our policies should reflect our deepest beliefs.  But college is not going away and neither are state governors.

The usual doomsaying is well represented in the media; though, many Americans still believe and will still believe in going to college, in tenure, and even in the humanities–despite the fact that self-help celebrity James Altuscher makes a pretty good argument to the contrary: don’t go to college because it costs too much.  If all we cared about was ROI, yeah, I could agree.  I guess that’s all many, if not most, people care about in the West: job skills, earning potential, stability.  And who could blame them?  They’re nervous wrecks, mostly because they’re in debt and jobs are scarce.

Still, I don’t buy the entire argument. You can’t commodify learning; you can only try to commodify what a particular degree is “worth” according to what the economy seems to be doing.   For example, student loan debt in the States is ridiculously exploitative. Few disagree with this.  And so when Altuscher says college is a horrible investment, he is more or less right. But sometimes an investment is horrible on one level and profitable on another.

How much would you pay to stay out of the rat race for 4 years, talking about ideas while learning how to communicate, lead others, and discover what really makes you tick?  Sounds priceless to me.  But maybe “priceless” doesn’t mean you want to go into debt for the rest of your life.  When the anti-intellectuals use ROI as an argument against the Academy, what they’re really talking about is student debt vs. the state of the economy.  And they’re conflating these things in an argument against all “useless college degrees” because humanistic inquiry runs contrary to the business values congruent with STEM.

But then, of course, there’s Penelope Trunk, a writer who often seems as damaged as she is imbalanced.  She comes across mostly as an internet troll masquerading as a career advice guru.  I’d like to present an impartial façade when I talk about her, but she’s good at what she does.  Ten minutes on her blog and I feel horrible about the world because she does; she’s making a living off of it; and she is a strong writer.  Sadly, all that learning she did in college has been aimed at destroying what made her.  She is the vanilla Ann Coulter.  And her perspective is where the University of Wisconsin controversy is destined to end.

Trunk has argued vociferously that graduate school, especially in the humanities, is now a frivolous pastime for the idle rich. She intensifies and extends Altuscher’s argument by saying that “non-science degrees are not necessary for a job” (the STEM fetish raises its head once again) and adds that “If you’re looking for a life changing, spiritually moving experience, how about therapy? It’s a more honest way of self-examination—no papers and tests. And it’s cheaper.”  This, my friends, is the fine art of trolling.

She loves it: “I do tons of radio call-in shows where I say that graduate degrees in the humanities are so useless that they actually set you back in your career in many cases. And then 400 callers dial-in and start screaming at me about how great a graduate degree is.”  And so I bring her up because this is the answer to what my friend, Al Cabal, has called “the end of America.”  It’s not the end of higher education.  It’s deeper than that.  It’s the final termination point of our self-inquiry.  As a country, at least in the media, we cannot bring ourselves to think past the trolling.  Cabal puts it like this:

New York City just shut down the subways because of snow for the first time in the 101 years that system has existed. Twitter trolls are grounding aircraft. A drunken federal employee landed a drone on the White House lawn. The entire American police state has been built on panic driven by bullshit with low production values. Never underestimate the taste of the American public. If you doubt that, just turn on a radio to any contemporary music station. Watch the most popular TV shows. Tell me who the Kardashians are and why I should care. Google “Operation Mockingbird.”

Bullshit, indeed.  In “The Great American Delusion,” Cabal writes, “When I think of the incredible hubris of this country and its anencephalic and heartless citizenry, I think of the Greek goddess Nemesis, and an old Elvis Costello lyric: ‘She’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake.’”  

Today, in Wisconsin, academics are screaming because their privileges are being abrogated by a power-hungry state government.  Today, in the United States, this dynamic is in flux on every level and all we hear are the trolls arguing an anti-intellectual bottom line so utilitarian that it would make George F. Babbitt blush.

 

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Problems and Solutions, Part 2: This is Why You Fail

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.