Friday, October 26, 2007

Retro-Journal: Blooming of an American Mind

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As I headed back to Brown in early 1988 to finish my freshman year, I took inspiration from a winter vacation that included reading Allan Bloom’s Leo Strauss-influenced book The Closing of the American Mind (recommended to me by my high school friend Paul Taylor’s conservative dad, one of the numerous suggestions he gave me, Paul, and our friends Chuck Blake and John Hersh from high school whenever we’d all gather in Norwich during college vacation). Bloom seemed to give a pretty decent diagnosis of what I’d experienced at Brown the previous semester, arguing as he did that higher education had become a hotbed of relativism, the idea that there are no truths and that everything is simply a matter of arbitrary perspective — which by some non-sequitur always implicitly means the Marxists or feminists win any argument (or in certain formulations, Marxists, feminists, and Freudians, though Freud’s prestige was declining).

I hadn’t yet chosen a major, but there were hints of where things were headed, as Bloom helped inspire me to purchase Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics as vacation reading — but also Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan and Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. My interest in timeless truths wasn’t going to eliminate my awareness of the absurd (quite the contrary), nor would it make me an enemy of modernity in general, since I shared Bloom’s enthusiasm for the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideal: reason as the thing to strive for, not only in science (the sole place where some moderns would concede it resides, if anywhere) but in philosophy, economics, ethics, and art — not to mention, in the case of the Enlightenment-spawned American Revolution, politics. All of these things would have to be defended against the relativists, anti-rationalists, and egalitarians to whom crime and justice, ugliness and beauty, were interchangeable, fluid concepts.


At the same time, I felt at home with people like a hammer-and-sickle-earring-wearing, half-black, punkish girl named Tonya Strong from my high school, whose lamentations about the inability of some of her classmates even to locate oceans on maps (let alone follow the details of the Iran-Contra hearings) reminded me of my own chronic concern, so common among nerds, that I was surrounded by psychopaths and cretins. Tonya (then a member of the high school band Anal Staircase) and some smart New Wave and punk girls in my high school were a valuable reminder that punk, like conservatism, is an elite, often judgmental creed, not a hooray-for-everyone love-fest like their arch-foes the hippies, and I liked that in the punks. Yet I even liked some of Brown’s neo-hippie relativists, such as a cute Oregonian relativist named (poetically) Jonny Skye. Though I ended up arguing frequently about philosophy with her (she was more consistent in her relativism than philosophers like Richad Rorty, insisting, for instance, that you could fly unaided if your beliefs about gravity led to that conclusion), I nonetheless wrote her a friendly letter (excerpted here), dated January 6, 1988, about my newfound sense of mission — and my (literal) dreams, which I was much more prone to remember in detail back when I was eighteen, and which around then took a combative turn that may have been influenced by my coalescing political views:

After pondering these things and sleeping, I dreamt recently that I was a child again… (In real life, I never had youthful energy and always hated riding bicycles, but it was a dream.) With Chuck and Paul, I ran through the woods and larger-than-life backyards, wielding toy guns. Pursued by a crazed killer resembling professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, we fled to a Toys ‘R’ Us where we gleefully but efficiently bought up all the plastic Uzis and M-16s to defend ourselves. A friend of mine named Tewksbury was there, at a big party, and demonstrated that he’d put on fifty pounds, grown sideburns, and joined a lousy rock band… The party continued and I fell in love with a girl who wanted to know if I was interested in photography of the solar system, as the dream ended…

I woke up happy, with a renewed conviction that I could do the world good by writing comic book stories about convincing good vs. evil conflicts.


Precisely as horrified paleoconservatives would predict, my indirect influence by Leo Strauss (via Bloom) led me quite directly and immediately to a certain admiration for Secretary of Education William Bennett — who was emphasizing the need for high standards, Great Books, teaching about the Founding and American traditions, and the like — and thus contributed to my intention to cast my first-ever presidential vote later in the year for George H.W. Bush, who planned, if elected, to keep Bennett on in some capacity. (That capacity would turn out to be drug czar, though, making him head of a doomed policy I came to think should be abolished, along with the rest of the government — but that’s leaping ahead in the story.  Bennett reportedly went on one blind date with Janis Joplin in 1967 — around the time he was playing in a band called Plato and the Guardians — so I think he’d boost critics’ sympathy for him if once, just once, he broke down in tears while giving an anti-drug speech and said “I just don’t want anyone else to end up like Janis.”)

My own growing conviction that I should use writing to transmit values — perhaps in the mode of satirist Jonathan Swift, who I read that semester in an English class taught by Prof. Rhoda Flaxman — caused me to drift away from acting, which I’d done in high school (also writing the play we performed as high school seniors, a large-cast production called A Simple Machine about over-idealistic professors whose social reform movement descends into factionalism — not a plot based in the tiniest way on anticipation of what might lie ahead when I got to Brown, nor even the slightest awareness of what campus politics was like, but rather concocted by sheer coincidence from a vague desire to have an excuse for brainy characters to argue about big issues) and also done my first semester of college, playing Mr. DePinna in a production of You Can’t Take It with You, about an eccentric family who, among other things, refuse to pay income tax.

As a budding writer, I might not intend to act, but I imagined I might still take an interest in writing for TV or movies someday, and so I decided to take a film production class — but film production classes at Brown were subsumed under the university’s most overtly ideological (and strange) department, Modern Culture and Media: in effect, the semiotics and deconstructionism department. While semiotics is technically just the study of signs and symbolism, deconstructionism was an elaborate, verbose, obscurantist philosophy largely created by French and German writers with communist or fascist sympathies and unmitigated contempt for capitalism, individualism, tradition, and any pretense of objectivity or rationality.


There was no way to take a film production class (praxis) without first taking a theory class as a prerequisite, and so, despite being newly enamored of the rational Enlightenment and timeless moral absolutes, I signed up for one of the most relativistic, anti-rationalist, anti-bourgeois, capitalism-bashing, patriarchy-lamenting classes the Ivy League had to offer, MCM 66, “Cinematic Coding and Narrative,” taught with dreary resignation by black-clad professor Mary Ann Doane, who would solemnly intone such claims as that, in the Hollywood Text, the Male is capable of action just as — and in part because — he is capable in nature of achieving ejaculation, while Woman, in film, serves only as “a receptacle.” She would then look vaguely disappointed if students responded with “Ewww” noises instead of nods of assent.

The teaching assistant overseeing the class section I was in was one Brian Goldberg, also consistently clad in black (and resentful of innocent freshman questions about this very common MCM color choice), who I was told had come from a fairly well-off DC-area family but had converted to Marxism and who told us that he was alarmed when visiting his parents to look back through his old Snoopy comics and see how “they were preparing me for my insertion into capital.” Since all narrative conventions were regarded as mind-controlling, bourgeois propaganda by the decons, we not only watched strange avant-garde films but were asked to type our papers without margins or paragraph breaks and to make sure they always filled exactly one side of a single sheet of paper, presumably to teach us some sort of lesson about the arbitrariness of academic conventions and, by extension, the arbitrariness of the entire corrupt capitalist system and Western civilization. One shy, well-meaning, and thoroughly left-wing student raised his hand to ask, sheepishly, if we should use conventional grammar and punctuation. Goldberg seemed annoyed by the question and said yes.

My friend Andrew Clateman — one of my fellow comedy writers at the Brown Film Society’s comedy publication, the Film Bulletin, which I joined that semester — was quite enthusiastic about decon, seeing in it an extension of the skeptical mayhem he loved in the Dadaists and the Marx Brothers. He was convinced that filmic conventions — and by extension, all perceptions of reality — were so much a product of social conditioning that, as he put it, an ancient Native American shown a film of a buffalo would not even perceive the buffalo.

Three years later, surprisingly, the Forbes Foundation would donate $2 million to the MCM department, which responded to skeptical questions about the seeming mismatch between ideologies by assuring everyone that giving millions to MCM was a perfectly logical extension of the Forbes family’s interest in media. By contrast, this blog entry — like next week’s Retro-Journal entry — is currently unfunded.


Sean Dougherty said...

I just listened to the Lux Radio Theater version of “You Can’t Take it With You,” a few days ago.

Let me know if you want a copy.

Brain said...

I am glad to hear that you at least talked to some girls your Freshman year.

You are like that character in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, gently mocked for going to the Opera to actually listen to the music. In reading your reminiscences, one gains a newfound admiration for the block-headed anti-intellectualism that is so pervasive among most American undergraduates. Earnest young intellectuals, of which you were certainly one, as was I, hadn’t gotten the punchline to the joke yet:

School has little relation to the real world. Most importantly, academics is really not the point of college, even if that is it’s stated raison d’etre. In this, the deconstructionists and the Marxists actually have some valid arguments. An extension of primary school, secondary education is more about socialization and baby-sitting that anything else. I appreciate this with my four-year old son. The hardest lessons for him to learn are not those about numbers and letters, but rather how not to throw a tantrum when someone sits in his rocket ship.

Reading your memoirs makes one want to write one’s own, but the delicate process of dredging up memories also brings up old regrets, best left undisturbed. Yours seems a cheery life thus far in the chronicling.

Todd Seavey said...

In a sense, though, aren’t you implying that the point of higher education is actually to _get_ someone to sit on your rocket ship?

Brain said...

You’re very carelessly mixing metaphors here. I assure you, to my four year old, the rocket ship really is just a rocket ship.

: )

Did you ever notice that some of your best improvised philosophizing riffs would be when you were talking to a cute girl? The Greeks knew what they were talking about in making the muses pretty young maidens.

I wonder what inspires women intellectually?

Todd Seavey said...

I’m heading away for the weekend shortly, but that certainly gives people a question to debate in my absence.

(And I think for me, there is an obvious tendency for a mingling of the dialectical process and the impulse that Plato’s version of Aristophanes metaphorically described as a reunion of opposite halves of a formerly more complete being — I want to overcome stupid divisions like left and right and, as a side effect, am sometimes more pleased when friendships or romances afford the opportunity to do so than I am when finding mere likemindedness, if you follow me. More _fuse_ than _muse_ in my case, you might say — and I may as well say it now, since the Greeks and Bloom and Strauss will be less prominent in future installments of this Retro-Journal, as the Enlightenment moderns ascend in my thinking.)

Koli said...

Fusing flirtation and philosophizing into one intoxicating cocktail was something Plato was very fond of. The dialectic process in “Meno” was hilariously interreupted at times by Socractes stopping to say he was distracted by his young companion’s charms!

Jerry Mayer said...

I never took an MCM course, but my good friend Monica Owusu (who went on to write for Charmed, Alias, and Lost!) did, and I’ll never forget her account of a TA taking them through the writings of a Westerner who loved how in Morocco, you could have sex with young boys (was it Paul Bowles? no clue). And the TA said, if you have moral problems with this, then you are simply homophobic. If memory serves, Monica pointed out that in fact, it was Western capital that permitted pedophilia in this instance…Brown was like that in the late 80s…but still, a great place to wrestle with ideas that the rest of the country had never confronted.

Koli said...

The Todd Seavey of yesteryear – like the Todd Seavey of today – is an interesting tension between traditionalist and anarchic impulses. The people he speaks most highly of seem to be non-conformists, yet he is gearing up to defend tradition, even at that early age, when so many choose “rebellion” for its own sake.

There seems to be some conflation (at least the way I’m reading this) of tradition and “timeless absolutes” with rationality and the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was more concerned with rational inquiry into “timeless absolutes” than with a defense of absolutes themselves. In the 18th Century you didn’t really have to “posit” the _idea_ of absolutes. People believed in them pretty much by default. The essential rationalist argument was that the nature of things had to be understood through reason and not simply assumed without examination. What’s most valuable about the Enlightenment is not its exponents’ elaborate rationalization of presumed truths, but their insistence on the rational testing itself. We owe many if not most developments in modern thought to this concept. The idea that socialization is responsible for much of our behavior and beliefs, an idea that today’s neo-absolutists balk at, comes from the Enlightenment thinkers. In some sense, even extreme deconstructionist philosophy is a descendant of the skepticism born of the Enlightenment. It is really just skepticism taken to an absurd extreme, whereby the skeptics reject the possibility that their questions might actually have answers.

p.s., not that readers – or Todd Seavey himself – would be so unforgiving as to care, but I apologize for the typos in my previous comment. I swear I wasn’t trying to apply relativistic spelling conventions to the words “interrupted” and “Socrates”.

Koli said...

Speaking of relativists/perspectivists, I find it fascinating that Todd’s summary description of the characters in “You Can’t Take It With You” is that they refuse to pay taxes! They also refuse to do productive work, to conform to or engage with the outside world in any “normal” sense, and to attach much value to money and material possessions. That last fact (given the title) is what I would have found most salient in trying to come up with a one-sentence description of the Vanderhof-Sycamore family. But “taxes” stood out most prominently to Todd! Our assessments of things are infused with our own perspectives after all! (I probably wouldn’t have taken such special note of Todd’s comments about the play if it weren’t for the fact that I played Essie in a production of it during the time when I too was considering majoring in Theater.)

On an unrelated note, I don’t often hear people declare explicitly that they like others _because of_ their elitist tendencies. Wow. Not saying I like that in substance but the unapologetic expression of it is refreshing.

Brain said...

So, Koli, do you feel you understand Todd better through his memoirs so far. Have they helped explain some present day eccentricities? Or are you like, the rest of us, still waiting for the really juicy stuff?

Koli said...

“Understand” is a strong word, my friend.

David Allyn said...

It was “Cinematic Coding and Narrativity” (which, for some reason, has a much better ring than the more prosaic “Cinematic Coding and Narrative”), and I visited the class as a pre-frosh and thought I’d entered an alternative, thoroughly loony universe. Nonetheless, you have a tendency to conflate semiotics and deconstruction, the former being popular at Brown, the latter being much more so at Yale. (Come now, don’t you wish you could still hang with people on the steps of the Green Room and casually use the word ‘conflate’?) I came home from my first semester and gave each member of my (rich DC) family a different book on the virtues of dialetical materialism. Which reminds me of my favorite Film Bulletin piece of all time (I paraphrase): “This course will examine the topic from a variety of perspectives — Marxist-Leninist, Leninist-Stalinist, Trotskyite-Marxist, Socialist-Communist and Communist-Socialist.” True genius. The difference between us, I suppose, is that I loved Brown (and wore plenty of black and majored in Lit & Society, which was a division of MCM) and I still believe in all that Brown stood for, I just think there were moments when we needed a little more sense of humor. Had I gone to Princeton or Dartmouth (where no one would have even considered that there might be a relationship between theory and praxis) I think I would STILL be denouncing bourgeois humanism as an element of the ideological state apparatus. (And just reading about the Republican party’s latest antics can revive my Marxist fervor in a milisecond). Taking life s/nc and forever true…..