The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

Social Media And Envy

Of the many states of mind I fear–trust me, there are many precincts of my mental spaces where I fear to tread–I dread envy the most.  And a prime domain for the evocation of envy is social media: it is where, after all, your ‘friends’ and those you ‘follow’ let you know how wonderful their lives are, how loving and sensitive their partners, how accomplished their children, how many books and essays and articles they have published, how productive their writing and reading day has been, how well-traveled and fed they are; we feel indirectly slighted when praises Y but not us. I’m guilty of all of these forms of behavior, and I do not doubt for a second that I’ve irritated and vexed many by my behavior in turn; with probability one, many of my ‘friends’ have stopped ‘following’ me, turned off by the content of my posts; my apologies to one and all, including those whose timelines I cannot bear to look at any more. I’ve often thought of departing from Facebook and Twitter, and only really stay on so that I can have a place to post links to my posts here; but if I leave, I do not doubt that it will the fear of envy and the memory of some particularly debilitating attacks that will have made me pull the trigger.

The damage that envy does to relationships–friends, lovers, family, co-workers–is, I think, quite well-known. That damage is especially pronounced in competitive fields of endeavor; academia is one of them. This is not as strange as it might sound; advanced education, no matter how abstract or philosophical, offers little by way of defense against the assault envy mounts on our mental ramparts. Moreover, jobs are scarce; those without secure employment envy those with; in turn, the supposedly ‘lucky’ ones may spend their time fretting they have not published enough, in the right places, gotten praise from the right quarters, attained the right kind of recognition, and so on. If you are afflicted by impostor syndrome, social media is a very bad place to be. Sporadic reassurances that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome are of no help when the vast majority of your daily diet consists of various species of trumpet blowing.

Envy is corrosive, an almost instantaneous killer of self-esteem; it damages one’s relationships with those we are envious of; we resent them, and worse, we may come to seek distance from them so as to prevent a recurrence of the emotion. In these moments, we forget the wisdom in George Orwell’s remark that “Every life, when viewed from the inside, is a series of small failures.” Those we envy are quite cognizant of their own failures and would not recognize our perspective on their lives; we, in our turn, fail to recognize their flourishes of triumph as quite possibly their attempts to beat back the ever encroaching doubt that one’s life is an irredeemable failure. The chief cause of our existential unhappiness, as some wise person once put it, is that we imagine others to be happier than they are. And social media, of course, is where we all go to pretend to be happier than we are. Envy follows in our wake.

Freidrich Hebbel’s ‘Profound Question’

In ‘Notebook 11, February 1817’ from Writings From The Early Notebooks (eds. Raymond Geuss and Alexander Nehamas, Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2009, p. 81), Nietzsche cites “a profound question of Friedrich Hebbel” [link added]:

If the artist made a picture, knowing that it would last for ever,
But that a single hidden feature, deeper than any other
Would be recognized by no man living either now or in the future,
To the end of time, do you think he would omit it?

Well? Do you write for an audience or do you write for yourself, to bring ‘a work’ to fruition, whether or not anyone reads it? I write because I like to write; because I like to express, verbally, on the written page, thoughts and ideas that seek expression; because I enjoy watching the written word appear on the page and screen; and so on. But I like readers too–and their responses to what I write can affect what I write, in both form and content. I’d like to think this is not the case, but I’m not sure I’ve always resisted this pressure. I do not disdain the praise and appreciation some readers occasionally send my way; I might even ‘crave’ it, turning it into a stimulus for writing. And of course, I make efforts to secure readers for what I write: I send links to posts I write here to folks who might be interested (and in this desperate world of social media ‘promotion,’ I hope they ‘pass it on’); I participate in marketing efforts for my books; I am disappointed by poor reviews and sales, by the lack of critical attention sent my way by those well placed to ‘promote’ my writings; and so on.

Still, to address Hebbel’s question, which is more narrowly pitched than my question above: I would incorporate that ‘single hidden feature’ into a written work, even if I was sure that it would never be read by anyone till the end of time. This is because, more often than not, I write simply because I want to, because I have convinced myself that I am ‘a writer,’ and thus, I must write as often as possible. Whether or not anyone reads what I write. Bizarrely enough, I do not always hate what I write, and sometimes even do enjoy reading what I’ve written. (Yes, I know, this is terribly arrogant.) The presence of that ‘single hidden feature’  provides, crucially: a sense of completion, because that piece might be ‘incomplete’ without it, and the knowledge that it has found its ‘appropriate’ place within a larger whole, a sensation familiar to all kinds of creators, ranging from those who paint to whose who write computer programs. This could give me all the pleasure I might want out of a piece of writing–readers or not.

Note: Characteristically, Nietzsche precedes the lines quoted above with “[W]ho would doubt that the world of the Greek heroes existed only for the sake of one Homer?” and follows up with “All this clearly shows that the genius does not exist for the sake of mankind; although he is definitely the peak and the ultimate goal of it.”

John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.

Black Mirror’s Third Season Nosedives In The First Episode

Black Mirror used to be the real deal: a television show that brought us clever, scary satire about the brave new dystopic, over-technologized world that we are already living in. It was creepy; it was brutal in its exposure of human frailty in the face of technology’s encroachment on our sense of self and our personal relationships.  We are fast becoming–indeed, we already are–slaves to our technology in ways that are warping our moral and psychological being; we are changing, and not always in ways that are pleasant.

That old Black Mirror is no longer so–at least, if the first episode of the rebooted third season is any indication. (Netflix has made the show its own; six new episodes are on display starting yesterday.) In particular, the show has been ‘Americanized’–in the worst way possible, by being made melodramatic. This has been accomplished by violating one of the cardinal principles of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

Season three’s first episode–‘Nosedive‘–takes our current fears about social media and elevates them in the context of a ratings scheme for the offline social world–complete with likes and indexed scores of social likeability based on instant assessments of everyone by everyone as they interact with each other in various social settings. See a person, interact with them, rate them; then, draw on your cumulative indexed score to score social benefits. Or, be locked out of society because your score, your social quotient, the number that reflects how others see you, is too low.

The stuff of nightmares, you’ll agree. Except that ‘Nosedive’ doesn’t pull it off. Its central character, Lacie Pound, a young woman overly anxious about her social ranking, commits to attending a social encounter that will hopefully raise her social quotient, thus enabling her to qualify for a loan discount and a dream apartment; but the journey to that encounter, and her actual presence there, is a catastrophe that has exactly the opposite effect. In the hands of the right director and writer this could have been a devastating tale.

But ‘Nosedive’s makers are not content to let the story and the characters speak for themselves. Instead, they beat us over the head with gratuitous moralizing, largely by inserting two superfluous characters: a brother who seems to exist merely to lecture the young woman about her misguided subscription to current social media fashions, and a kindly old outcast woman–with a low social quotient, natch–who suggests there is more to life than getting the best possible ranking. These characters are irritating and misplaced; they drag the story down, telling us much that only needed to be shown, sonorously droning on about how the show is meant to be understood. It is as if the show’s makers did not trust their viewers to make the kinds of inferences they think we should be making.

The old Black Mirror was austere and grim; its humor was black. This new season’s first episode was confused in tone: almost as if it felt its darkness needed to leavened by some heavy-handed relief. I’ll keep watching for now; perhaps the gloom will return.