What is College?

For Mattie—hope this helps

College is a whole lot of things, most of them bad. Your classmates will be going to college for three main reasons. First, because of the vague feeling that they are supposed to, implanted in them by teachers, parents, and television shows. The desire, in other words, for “The College Experience.” Second, because they believe it will help them make money, either affording them upward mobility into a higher economic bracket or, if they’re already well-off, giving them the means of staying in the upper class. Third, sports.

These three reasons for going to college translate into three of the main purposes of college, especially big state universities (like the University of Memphis). Here are a few things you might say college “is for,” on account of these reasons. First, as a very expensive recreation center for teenagers, a place for pursuing the youthful pleasures of parties, drugs, and sex. Second, as a workforce training center, producing a vast array of different kinds of managers and technicians. (Most “practical” skills—carpentry, plumbing, how to work an X-ray machine, etc.—are taught at community colleges and other kinds of training centers; these are great programs and the pursuits they train are noble. 4-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, mostly produce people who become lawyers and professionals with titles like “Associate Project Developer.”) Third, a multi-billion-dollar sports entertainment complex that has nothing to do with—and in most cases, is actively hostile to—the academics of the institution.

Universities have a bunch of other purposes, however: a collection of high-level research institutes for experimental science, mostly physics and neurobiology; a feeder for the exploitative academic publishing industry, which slaps multi-hundred-dollar pricetags on books and articles while paying the authors nothing; a money laundering operation where billions of dollars of federal loan money (not to mention all the foreign capital provided by international students) are soaked up and transformed into who knows what. Smaller liberal arts colleges have less of the first of these, but just as much of the second and third. Spend any time on a big university campus, however, and you’ll be surrounded mostly by these kinds of activities. Genuine learning is a minority position.

Which brings me to the fourth reason for going to college: actually thinking about, reading about, learning about stuff. Despite what you will hear from almost literally everybody, these activities are good for their own sake. There is no reason for learning beyond the fact that done properly, it contributes to a richer and deeper life. Learning about the important things is tough, and often necessitates a teacher, who at the very least can help you figure out what and how to learn. But for many (if not most) professors, teaching is just part of their job, and their real focus is on “research”: writing articles and books about whatever subject they are supposedly an “expert” in. This is usually not their fault, but has to do with the way the academic job market works: professors are demanded to “publish or perish”; in many cases keeping a job depends upon publishing articles and books and has little to do with their skills as an educator.

But in most of these institutions, there exists some dedicated professor—or group of professors—who cares about asking questions that pertain to the permanent problems of being a human being: how we should live, how we find meaning in the world, how old books might help us see these problems and find ways to solve or at least understand them. These professors care about the art of teaching, and their interest in students and their willingness to engage in discussion rather than just lecturing distinguishes them from the other group of indifferent researchers. This fourth purpose of college is the one of least interest to most students and professors and the hardest to actually pursue at a school—but is the most valuable one. And the places that still carry out this kind of learning are precious and rare.

One term you’re likely to run into when talking to people about college is “The Humanities.” This is usually referring to a collection of academic disciplines that concern “the humane sciences,” which is what we used to call the study of things outside the purview of such “natural sciences” as biology, chemistry, physics, etc. Academic disciplines and majors lumped into “The Humanities” usually include English, creative writing, theater, history, philosophy, Western Classics (the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations), anthropology and archaeology, religion, various languages, etc. Hardly anyone can really articulate what “The Humanities” are for anymore, and if you ask, nine out of ten answers will have something to do with making the world a better place or challenging stuffy old understandings of the world that we don’t like anymore. But however noble these goals might be, they still miss the point.

“The Humanities” are important because they allow for focused, disciplined inquiry of what it means to be a human person—not just as an organism, as the biologists might have it, but as a thinking, feeling, loving self, who must make decisions about how to act both individually and with others. They provide room for questioning the ways we live today, and regard anything human beings have ever done—writing, art, ways of building, methods of burial, whatever—as potential sources of wisdom for how we might live otherwise. The ethos of the Humanities can be summed up by a famous aphorism by the second-century Roman playwright Terence: “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” A twelfth-century manuscript on astronomy may be just as valuable to our understanding of human life as the ruins of a prehistoric city, or a style of clay pot construction in ancient Crete, or a quietly brilliant book published 50 years ago by a relative nobody. Different fields have different focuses, and some demand more disciplinary narrowness than others. But they all agree that human life as it is lived is something to be examined, and that carrying out this examination makes our lives richer.

Obviously these kinds of investigations can happen elsewhere than in a college or university: there are countless brilliant readers, writers, and thinkers pursuing these kinds of researches all over the world who have no affiliation with any institution of higher education. But there are some colleges where smart and gracious professors have dedicated their lives to preserving a space for this kind of inquiry. These places are not necessarily the “best” schools: Harvard, Yale, and all the big fancy Ivy League universities are, and have been for a long time, mostly places where the upper-class get the credentials they need to stay upper-class. But there are lots of little schools, and little departments in bigger schools, around the country doing a very special and valuable thing that would be of benefit to you. And these are places where you will also find yourself among other people on the hunt for the truth, with whom you can talk, think, plan, and forge lifelong friendships that keep the fire of learning lit forever.

Hopefully this lends a bit of clarity to an otherwise very confusing subject. I love you, I’m insanely proud of and excited for you, and I’m so lucky to be able to help you navigate this next chapter in your life.

fragment

They all agreed that the age was gray and dull, and time felt cheap and endless, as if continually extruded out of a machine. The men were sad and listless, too scared to admit their loneliness for fear of breaking their own hearts. They watched boxing matches, played video games, and gave themselves extraordinary chests with barbell exercises and strict dieting. But nobody was happy. And the women wrote essays about love and breakups, and others about women writing about love and breakups, and cried alone or with one another about their lives not living up to what they imagined. They bought expensive little dogs and wore skin-tight leggings and hated how much they loved the attention from ugly strangers. All of them agreed—the women and men both—that someone needed to do something, but nobody could say just what.

Our Band Could Be Your Model

I’ve been reading Michael Azerrad’s miraculous book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which is less a collection of “music writing” than a Plutarchian collection of sketches of the lives of poet-philosophers who exemplify different possibilities for being-in-the-world. Where Plutarch’s Lives was a study in the vice and virtue of individuals, however, Azerrad’s book focuses on the small group. From a different angle: the focus of the book is not so much the person, but the institution. While reading, I find myself asking—and finding answers to—certain practical questions about the life of institutions. How do the relative strengths and weaknesses of a band’s members contribute to—or detract from—the success and flourishing of their small institution? How do personality, interpersonal harmony, and the pressures of necessity affect this success and flourishing?

In Azerrad’s telling, Black Flag were a motley collection of guys who hardly knew each other, united initially around the mysterious brilliance of Greg Ginn and, later, the brooding masculine intensity of Henry Rollins. This pattern—of personality as unifying principle—was repeated by bands like Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Big Black, and Dinosaur Jr, all with roughly the same conclusion: a few years of intense creative output followed by a precipitous decline once interpersonal conflict set in (fomented by, say, a bassist who yearned for recognition on his own terms) to or the power of the frontman’s charisma wore off.

Against this, a few bands found themselves united around an idea. The two principle cases—diametric opposites to one another—are the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi. The former was committed to self-destructive abjection, and whoever might be willing to subject their blood-brain barrier to a psychedelic assault while writing naked on a stage might be welcomed into the fold. The latter, on the other hand, refined the proletarian frugality of the Minutemen and united it with the Stoic ethical seriousness of MacKaye’s earlier Minor Threat, becoming less a “band” than a roving artistic institution that served as a symbol for how any future DIY endeavor might be done excellently.

The chapter on Fugazi is the climax of the book, and reading it one can feel the Idea of DIY punk rock unfolding toward its fulfillment. What begins in the self-destructive dysfunction of Black Flag ends in the passionate but workmanlike earnestness of Fugazi. This is, I think, the model for how to do almost anything.

See also Chris Morgan’s essay on punk rock, youth culture, and Girolamo Savonarola:

American punk rock has been reliably infused with the creedal. In the decadent southern California scene of the late-1970s, Black Flag was off-putting not for their chaotic performances but for their “Calvinist” ethic of daily rehearsal and seemingly perpetual touring schedules. Big Black’s salacious and dissonant sound was girded by Steve Albini’s rigid commercial and aesthetic asceticism. Greg Sage of The Wipers took the asceticism further, going so far as to abstain from touring, even with Nirvana. This was a disparate idealism driven by a vague notion of “politics,” not unfamiliar in the United States, which prized autonomy from the stultifying effects of mainstream uniformity. Yet the advent of Fugazi reasserted the idealism, both in expression and example, with an unprecedented consistency and accessibility too timeless to be confined to mere political fashion.

Some More Recent Writing

Today at Tablet Magazine: on “Boomers” by Helen Andrews and how the Me Generation is playing fall guy for the foolishness of their elders.

At The New Atlantis: on how a top-down collapse of governmental authority unfairly burdened individuals with the responsibility for coronavirus mitigation.

At Breaking Ground: on how the thought of Ivan Illich might help us find our way out of the crisis of the humanities.

And two pieces for The Point‘s ongoing newsletter series, “Forms of Life”:

  • “Fun Till Death”: on the Capitol protest and the American legacy of creative disruption.
  • “Cash Mob”: on the GameStop stock market raid, the beauty of solidarity, and the danger of crowds.

Lux aeterna luceat eis

From: jk <jk@————.org>
Subject: Re: dear you
To: ————@yahoo.com
Date: Tuesday, September 9, 2008, 2:03 PM

dear you

i just got done being locked up in the richland county jail in mansfield
ohio for 3 days. i’m now in oberlin ohio at a goofy college with a couple
wonderful friends of mine who drove up from louisville to bond my broke
ass out.

let those folks know that regardless of whether or not a real show will
happen, id love to meet them! maybe there could be a small show with me
and —— playing. i have a couple friends in bands who havent played in
a while and i think that if we all got together could have a lot of fun.

i had a dream about you last night that involved some sort of yellow
mustard-based sauce dripping on you while we were cuddling and i wiped it
off with my finger and ate it and it tasted delicious. your dream sounds
fucking awesome. lets ride a wolf someday?
-joey


> i just got back to pittsburgh about an hour ago.
> half of — —– —– — —– are in fact not in town, but i did give
> —— your email address but it seems as though he ran off to new
> hampsire to go see —– (aweeee!!!! cute)
> actually, !up to date information!
> i just got this message from him
> “we just got offered to open up for – —– on the 11th, which should
> be a big awesome show, so who knows when we will ever make it out to
> louisville. it’s just going to be me and kevin too, so we will probably
> just busk on bardstown.”
> who knows what those kids will do.
> i had a dream about you the other night , we were sneaking around this
> ancient cliff dwelling waiting for people to spraypaint messages on the
> side of a mountain to tell us if its okay to go inside, i think we
> eventually decided to go to my hometown, we rode a wolf and took our pet
> squirrel.
> very strange
> lisa
>
>
> — On Sat, 8/30/08, jk <jk@————.org> wrote:
>
>> From: jk <jk@————.org>
>> Subject: Re: dear you
>> To: ————@yahoo.com
>> Date: Saturday, August 30, 2008, 10:05 PM
>> hey you
>>
>> me and —— are leaving tomorrow night but i have still
>> been unable to get ahold of —–. do you have a phone number i can reach
>> him at? i’ve also been unable to find your green shirt though ive been
>> looking everywhere.. but ill try to find it still!
>> -joey

On Pain and Its Overcoming

Nerves are in a class of things that work best when you don’t notice them. Like floor joists, plumbing, and your car’s suspension system, we are only ever dimly aware of the existence of one’s nerves and their place in the architecture of our bodies until they stop working. And when normal functioning breaks down, so too does the trust in one’s own body: just as a mysterious front-end rattle might force the cancelation a road trip, the hot, nagging pang of a malfunctioning nerve is an order to halt. The pain is distinct from any other. Most injury and irritation to which our bodies are subjected is temporary; even broken bones and torn muscles whisper a promise of healing. Nerve pain, however, feels ongoing, interminable: less like a wound and more like a glitch in the system. The program might keep running, but with endless compounding errors. You can get used to the messages but they aren’t going away.

In the summer of 2017 I was in my bedroom reading Thucydides when I felt a spasm in my hip and a tingle in my foot. I was healthy, active, and in reasonably good and improving shape: some months before I’d pulled off my all-time best squat and deadlift (385 and 475, respectively), I could run a mile in just under ten minutes with little trouble, and I ate well. Having turned 30 that spring I had begun to think about the importance of “aging gracefully,” and I was determined to make my third decade a story of constant, hard-won self-betterment rather than gradual decline. Sitting at my desk that day, however, I knew at once that a wrench had been thrown into that plan.

The sciatica that hit me like a bolt from the blue would stay with me for the next three years. It would eventually be joined by a mysterious burning sensation that seemed to travel between my knees: always present in one, never both, the location never predictable and no known injury to point to. First, my ailments diminished my performance at the gym, but they quickly added a new dimension of difficulty to everyday life: I went from being able to squat nearly 400 pounds to groaning through 10 reps at body weight. A day of moving furniture in 2019 kept me bedridden with searing knee pain for a weekend; scarcely a month ago a random pulled muscle had me limping for three days. At different points in this span of time (when insurance permitted) I visited an orthopedist, a radiologist, and two physical therapists, most of whom shook their heads and suggested stretching regimens. The last round of PT involved dry needling, which was amazing in the moment but carried no lasting impact.

Last month, though, after being out of the gym for the better part of 2020, I found a place with a decent-enough weight room and decided to get back to work. At sign-up they talked me into personal training, which I’d never once opted for but seemed like a good idea: not only did eight months out of the game mean I probably need some help with form, but it seemed worth trying to address my mobility issues at a fraction of the cost of a physical therapist. Three sessions in, after some preliminary work on my squat, bench, and deadlift form, my trainer recommended some band exercises to address the tightness in my hips. I groaned through a few sets of silly exercises and felt a lightness in my leg I hadn’t experienced in years. I’ve been repeating these same exercises every other day with similar success, and for the first time in over three years I’ve been able to go about my life without tingling or burning in my leg or foot. It’s been a wonderful, totally unexpected change, and I suspect it also hides a more general principle.

The specialists I saw throughout the process were focused on just one thing: alleviation of symptoms. They attempted (minimal) interventions and suggested practices that would serve the singular goal of freeing me from pain, however momentarily, so I could go about everyday business with some sense of normalcy. All seemed to regard my interest in weightlifting as a “form of exercise,” something that “keeps one in shape,” staves off obesity, and kills time. All were either indifferent to or taken aback by my interest in weightlifting as a way to make oneself better, to reach the limits of and then deliberately extend one’s capacity for action, to make oneself “stronger, faster, and harder to kill.” Their expertise was meant to get people back to work, not to help them flip bigger tires for fun.

My trainer, on the other hand, is focused on my excellence. He wants me to get stronger, not only to get better at doing the things I’m in the gym to do, but to become better more generally. Of course, he’s not a philosopher: his sense of “better” is limited to the physical, to the cultivation of strength and the development of my body’s capacity to manipulate the world. Nonetheless, the mobility exercises he showed me were not merely for the sake of pain-alleviation—rather, the pain-alleviation was for the sake of self-improvement, because you can’t get stronger if the movements cause you pain.

One of these forms of expertise suggests easy interventions aimed at returning to a baseline “normalcy”; the other informs far more strenuous activity for the sake of constant personal improvement. The former might restore your functioning, if it works—but the latter strategy aims to restore your functioning for the goal of ultimately enhancing your functioning.

Apply this principle broadly. Avoid the former; seek the latter.

Dizzy With Nostalgia

Aaron Lake Smith, considering the cultural politics of the moment, writes:

These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been. 

Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football.  By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.

And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.

The piece is worth reading, for what it says as much as for what it doesn’t say. Smith nails a feeling that I’ve been struggling to articulate for years: the sense that people who started paying attention in the last five minutes believe they’ve mastered ideas that my friends and I devoted our lives to articulating and shaping 15 years ago (socialism, anarchism, feminism, transgenderism, black bloc “Antifa” stuff, whatever). We questioned and disputed; they sermonize on the basis of assumed expertise. We held these conversations at anarchist conferences, forest rendezvouses, in the pages of clandestine journals and the comments section of anarchistnews.org; they read Verso books in grad school and publish essays in academic journals. We poured blood, sweat, and tears onto the dust of the earth to bring these ideas to life; they inherit them whole-cloth while pretending they’re the first to ever think them. It’s a maddening, disorienting experience to watch as the people who once blinked at you in utter lack of understanding or turned their heads away in apathy now shout vulgarized tirades based upon questions you tried raising decades ago. “While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling,” Smith writes half-sympathetically, “it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops.”

But it’s weird and conspicuous that Smith never considers that this experience sucks because the ideas themselves are bad. That the knowledge we pretended as early-twenties anarchists is false and to be criticized rather than nostalgized. That the newcomers are frustrating not because they’re newcomers, but because they—and by extension, we—are wrong. I’d anticipated a reflective payoff, some kind of soul-searching self-criticism about whether what we’d been doing when nobody was paying attention was worth it after all. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the essay is a smug indictment of the zealous latecomer, the convert who takes the project more seriously than its founders, and whose danger lies in an attitude rather than the content of certain beliefs. It’s not that feminist sexual separatism and the general disparagement of men are bad ideas, it’s that the newcomers are too excited about them. It’s not that vulgar historical narratives about the evils of “white people” are misguided, it’s that the newcomers took it too seriously. We may have subjected people we considered friends to “accountability processes” more cruel and dehumanizing than what the cops do, but at least we were “on time,” whatever that means. We calmer heads may have believed these things—but we did it stylishly, with an ironic detachment that kept us from losing our cool.

There were a lot of praiseworthy aspects of early 2000s counterculturalism: enthusiastic communitarianism, DIY skills-acquisition for its own sake, a passionate engagement with the world and with each other. The ideas, however, were awful. It’s okay to admit that we were wrong. Anyone who participated in this milieu and doesn’t look back on the beliefs they held with some tinge of regret is either dizzy with nostalgia or hopelessly insane, and it’s time we were finally honest about this.

Some Writing Elsewhere

Yesterday I published a piece in The Point Magazine, an expanded and extensively-edited version of my previous post “Philosophy and Alienation”:

I have also been writing and editing at Athwart Magazine, where some recent publications of mine include: