Friday, March 31, 2006

in defense of pretentiousness

i haven't been too into blogging lately. i have been angry about a lot of things, and i want to prevent my blog from becoming nothing more than an outlet for my rancor. despite what some of you think, i don't enjoy being angry. so i have been trying to channel my anger more productively, as my therapist might say. although he also agrees that my outrage at so much of the idiocy i must suffer is justified.

still. who likes being mad?

today the summery weather had some kind of a strange effect on my attitude. it reminded me of one of my favorite memories from grad school, a memory of an event that happened on a day a lot like this. but i am getting ahead of myself.

all week i have wanted to say something about pretentiousness. like the changing of the seasons, it is with predictable regularity that a number of graduate students express their outrage at what they perceive as pretense among their fellow students. unfailingly, these graduate students assume that they are the first to have to suffer such insult and they proceed to offer their dissatisfaction to the community at large, thinking, perhaps, that they have uncovered some secret of academia, the secret shame of our universities, and now it may be snuffed out so that they can continue their studies unimpeded by such tomfoolery. either that, or they think that they have finally figured out the secret to making the people who are smarter than they are look bad.

well, graduate students of the world, i have news: we're pretentious.

in the same way that this complaint is nothing new, the ability of the rest of us to see it for what it is - an expression of insecurity - is long-practiced. because, for one thing, many of us have tried this one. and we realized that, as intellectuals, criticizing other intellectuals for being too intellectual is a good way to make sure that nobody ever listens to you again.

and that's because, when one argues this, one is not really saying anything. it's like criticizing supermodels for being vapid. we use jargon? well, yeah. we're learning the vocabulary of theory and criticism. in any specialized field, there is a specialized vocabulary. some folks call it a "discourse," and, predictably, one's success in this field depends upon one's ability to master it. we're pretentious? in this case, meaning that we "pretend" to know things that we don't, this charge is also a precisly the point. that's how humans learn. just as graduate school exists to model the profession for us while we engage in the training necessary to undertake a career in scholarship, so we are not expected to emerge, fully formed, as scholars on our graduation day. remember the "old" logic of students as empty vessels, the one that we so vehemently disavow in our progressive pedagogical training? remember it? same idea.

a large part of what we do is based on the functions of communication within social systems, that is, discourse and narrative. if learning about this didn't entail being inside that discourse and sometimes straining, even breaking, the narrative, none of us would be here. so what's your complaint again? should we throw up our hands when we read, say, Adorno, and say "this doesn't make sense," or dumb it down in some disingenuous attempt to expose difficult texts as nothing more than trickery? to the end of what? being liberated? fidning the "truth"? has the ridiculousness of this path become clear yet?

instead, as i often tell my students, we should slowly lower our hands and ask "how can i make sense of this?" or "what kind of sense does this make?"

3 years ago, at the end of my first year in graduate school, a group of us proposed an English Department flag football challenge. We had 4 shared offices, and we split into teams based on office affiliation; 103 and 105 Neville Hall was to battle 107 and 109 Neville Hall. Since all but one person from 107 pussed out, a few professors and my boyfriend at the time - Josh - stepped in to play with my team, 109. Dr. Laura Cowan represented for the NPF; Professor Dick Brucher brought the Shakespearians; Pat Burnes, our esteemed head of Composition volunteered all 5 feet of her 60+year-old self. Laura's husband - who turned out to be a valuable player, showed up with their 2 young sons. Every corner of literary studies took its place on the field.

poetics was noticeably absent, Steve Evans and Ben Friedlander having cited the absence of football as one of the main reasons why they got into poetry in the first place.

what does this have to do with anything? well, pale, pasty, weak English grad students aren't generally strong football players. nor do we traditionally know anything about the game. we decided to take to the field to do something that we knew would be a farce. we were collectively, communally. and humorously expressing our weakness, highligting our inadequacy, and getting it all out in the open.

our team lost, despite such stellar plays as the "windowless monad," the "negative dialectic," and "difference." Brooke cracked a rib; Josh broke his nose. Deb Levine showed up with gatorade and beer. Stefani Bardin took pictures. Justin from 105 sacked professor Cowan, a move that ended with both of them lying flat on the field, crippled by laughter. never was the charge of "pretentiousness" levelled again. how could it be? we were all a bunch of shameless idiots, and we all knew it.

with that, i propose a game of flag football, english department style, on the Wayne State field. 10th floor versus 9th. we'll bring the pretentious jargon; you guys bring the beer.


Anonymous srt said...

you a baaaad muthafucka Ruddy...I got ya back all the way...

1:51 AM  
Blogger Kim Lacey said...

Somehow I have a feeling we 9th-floorers are gonna get killed. One helluva a great suggestion though--game on...

9:07 AM  
Blogger kfd313 said...

Right on Ruddy, as usual. I will be "participating" sideline-style, with a martini in hand but sans cigarette, alas.

The intellectual football game idea reminds me of the hilarious philosopher's soccer game skit from Monty Python. Have you seen it? Nietzsche doesn't play by the rules....

1:37 PM  
Blogger JustinP said...

Ruddy, although agreeing with you here is a sure sign of pretentiousness, I'm throwing caution to the wind and sending you an e-hug. I've always thought of "pretending" as something intellectually productive, and you've put it into much more compelling, non-jargoned language than I ever could (self-depreciation, I might add, is also an important characteristic to acquire).

As for "touch" (ha!) football, I'll interpellate and/or deterritorialize any faculty member who touches the field, baby. Or wimpy sideliners.

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Blogger sarah ruddy said...

Your skills at deterritorializing/interpellating/fucking shit up are exactly why you're on my team, uh, dawg.
And yes, everyone should be warned: touch football doesn't stay "touch" for very long. I believe we have a lot of pent-up agression. And some of us don't get out much.

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