Why being the creative type sucks, an ironical freeform pwm.

Question to ask somebody:

When you think, do you do as I do

and sing the words a little bit

to a tune you do not know,

nor to which you might not see

the next bars of on the score?

Do you like me swing low

over the phrases of this poem,

thrashing, gesticulating explosively? Continue reading “Why being the creative type sucks, an ironical freeform pwm.”

On University of Chicago’s Biggest Lesson

I’ve long joked with my friends that the most valuable skill one can take away from a University of Chicago education is the ability to genuinely forget everything one learned during the course of that education.

I learned today that intelligence is alienating, that criticism and critical thinking is the surest way to lose friends, that it acts as a prophylactic measure against developing friendships and relationships. I learned that I am fortunate to have the opportunity to attend a college as glorious, prestigious, and engaging as the University of Chicago, and that I will be spending much of my life with individuals who went to schools without the small group discussions, punctilious focus on writing and argumentative articulation, and peer-to-peer collaboration so celebrated at U of C. Rather, I will spend much time with the blessed majority who spent their college days in lecture halls, assiduously taking notes, knowing them cold, passing tests and writing papers. And drinking heavily on weekends.

I call this group the “blessed majority” in complete honesty, un-ironically. With any luck, they’ve gone through schooling with their world largely intact. Whatever stories students told themselves about what their worlds are remain true. They have not been exposed as fiction, because the blessed have not been forced to confront these personal fairy tales. Continue reading “On University of Chicago’s Biggest Lesson”

In Defense of Darkness

My post “JDR Makes A Film” received the comment below:

– – –

This was disappointing. A worthless, somber look at a day that brought many neighborhoods together and gave joy to countless curiously eager and vigorous young people. You missed a great portion of the people’s positive spirits during today’s citywide snow day.

Sorry, I just really didn’t like it.

– – –

This individual, who left neither a functioning email or their name–choosing instead the nome de plume Disappointed–might be a bit, how to say it, misguided in their expectations. What I mean by “expectations” is this: in order to be disappointed this person must have possessed some hope or aspirations for what the video was supposed to be, and that, in posting the video I posted, I let down this individual. I, by implication, failed this person somehow.

And this brings up a sticky issue. Continue reading “In Defense of Darkness”

On College, Critical Thought, Cattle, and Baking

I’m not afraid of expressing my misgivings with the “education” I’m receiving at the #4 ranked institution in America. UChicago possesses a certain self-righteous rhetoric pertaining to its general, or Core, curriculum. Founded in the constructivist school of learning theory, the Core’s teaching methodology consists of reading “primary-source” text documents and leading students, like cattle through the slaughterhouse chute, to the captive bolt of stunning revelation. Unfortunately, unlike a slaughterhouse, where livestock are funneled one by one to their end through hard-walled chutes, the texts are deployed thematically and without guidance. This fosters “critical thinking” skills, enabling students to draw connections between sources toward a prevailing image—not theory—of the time.

In UChicago’s Civilization courses, students are given texts and encouraged to make assertions about overarching historical themes. Without the benefit of a critical, theoretical framework any assertions made skitter across the trite surface of the vast intellectual sea.

I approached my professor today and asked why there isn’t more structure in the class, why mention of larger theoretical frameworks is verboten, why whenever I try to probe deeper in class discussion she stares at me as she calls on another person. Why, when I “zoom in” argumentatively the natural inclination is to deflect and remove conversation to the rarefied atmosphere of platitude and placate me with a vaguely patronizing, “A poignant observation about the corporate nature of the Catholic church, but let’s shift the focus to how women are presented… B—, why don’t you go?” B— answers. “They are portrayed, as you say, ‘to be bad.'” Astute.

Please, professor, if you are reading this, I don’t blame you. I am sure you too are frustrated with the somewhat constrained nature of the course, with its “learning objectives” and whatnot. You and I could carp on and on about our shared frustrations at the lowest-common-denominator level of intellectual rigor prerequisite of a Core class, that this like all of ’em are rendered passable even for say, um… the more desultory among us, to be nice about it. I imagine we’d cackle together, laughing at our self-conceptions of our inflated noetic badassery… In some alternate reality, professor, we might be afforded this opportunity, but instead you smiled wistfully, squinting, and said:

“We are trying to teach you how to think. Imagine it this way: we could give you all the instructions for baking a cake, or we could give you the required ingredients and you do it for yourself. We want to empower you, so you can bake that cake.”

There are a couple of sticky issues to address. This statement predetermines that cakes are the goal, and necessarily means that someone measured out the ingredients for a cake, laid them out, and assumed that some unsuspecting person would come along, see the spread, and ineluctably conclude that a cake is in order. Punishment is meted out to those who bake biscuits or cookies or transcend the whole category of baked-goods altogether and instead mix water, sugar, yeast and some flour to distill alcohol, which might be then flavored with vanilla or whatever flavor was intended for the cake.
Those who bake cakes, no matter how lumpy, soupy, squishy, or dense, are commended for baking a cake; because we’re all good postmodern cognitive relativists here, we can’t criticize the craftsmanship of the cake. Cake soup is but an interpretation of cake, and all interpretations, due to their subjective nature, are inherently valid… provided, of course, that they are interpretations of cake. Biscuits and grain alcohol, no matter how well-executed are not cake: you, hapless baker or distiller, fail the test.

It isn’t the biscuit-maker’s fault he didn’t bake a cake when he was given ingredients and told to make the most of them. Without instruction, he can neither be held accountable for his product or the quality thereof. I understand that given an infinite number of tries, some random, novice baker will execute one hell of a cake, but given finite ingredients and some hinting, winking burlesque show of the pinnacle of the cake form, a novice is still a novice.

The best bakers trained with the best bakers. At the kernel level, it disturbs me that undergraduates are doomed to hapless experimentation to autogenously construct the properties of a given set of flour, eggs, sugar, water, etc. and condemned for looking in a cookbook to ascertain some method by which they might come together, some technique: an artistry. That two years of my four are spent in classes teaching me to cherrypick quotes to support baseless, absurd theses, how to render and construe and augment the absurdity of said theses, how “context” “frames” “the lens” of the “text,” how to disbelieve everything, how to laugh at claims of absolute truth—at base, how to intimate, interpolate, and extrapolate bothers me. We are taught to stir and pour when we are smart enough to bake. The details can be figured out along the way, and with the help of a skilled, involved instructor.

En masse we students are funneled toward one moment, a bolt to order the brain, but our handlers failed in one capacity. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned animal-welfare and autism advocate, intuited that animals being led to slaughter know “what’s up,” they knew viscerally what lay around the next turn. At some basic level, they were aware of the machine’s cogs’ turning.

I demand the same sort of recognition by our professors for all UChicago students. We know what the curriculum is trying to do, and this self-consciousness hinders its ultimate transformative goals. Because of Grandin’s work, meat processing facilities now implement long, undulating passageways through which cows blithely wander to their doom. They don’t need cattle prods. If I were unaware that just around the bend lay frustration, emptiness, and disappointment at the waste of my academic journey, I’d be less recalcitrant. I too would walk blithely. I’d be bovine. I am. But for now you’ll take me kicking and screaming, rhetorically of course.

Introducing Oratorize.

Of many things, the prime one that precluded me from writing on The Halcyon Days is not my college workload (which can be largely shirked and/or explained away) but the fact that I’ve been doing a lot of freelance writing for a couple of websites and fleshing out the skeleton I built for Kairos Praxis.

It looks like I’m going to be writing the promotional documents for their NYC 2011 Global Summit, which will be a solid long weekend of writing. In light of these requests to put my noetic machinery to some constructive cause, I’ve founded a company I call “Oratorize.”

Oratorize is a copywriting, copyediting, and “special situations” writing service. Oratorize seeks to provide competitively priced writing and editing services with prompt, highly responsive, and intuitive user interface. A list of specific services is forthcoming, as is the website, which will be at www.oratorize.com.

On Social Networking and Personal Branding

I stopped tweeting last week. I did not, however, delete my Twitter account. What prompted me to do this was an interview on a radio program, Fresh Air. Interviewed was a journalist who just won a Pulitzer prize for a series he did on distracted driving: how cell phones–talking, texting, and emailing–change the way we drive. The conversation drifted from the specific venue of technology consumption in cars to technology consumption writ large and how technology changes the way we think, how we live, and in many instances adversely effects our quality of life.

I forgot which early psychologist twisted Aristotle’s assertion that we humans are rational beings by saying that we are rarely rational but possess an astonishing ability to rationalize our decisions ex post facto. Computers–holding onto the aura of seemingly magical productivity instilled by good IBM branding in the 1960s and 1970s–confer an “I’m getting things done here” message upon their users, and still do, even though what we use computers for as of late can rarely be called productive

My issue with Twitter in particular is that, when engaged in heavy use, I feel my brain quicken. It is volatile, and thoughts–instead of coming out nicely punctuated with a sort of droll, discursive spirit–come out in fits and starts, as if my noetic works are gummed up.  I felt the refulgent glow of wit between my ears, but found upon further examination that this readiness to rhetorically lacerate a subject, in practice, rendered itself in spluttering 140 character syllogisms and overly precious plays on words–which I then proceeded to hashtag, so that when the meme goes viral I’d be pegged as its progenitor.

#Hegelgasm: n. The palpable feeling of transcendence characterized by mental quietude and a glimmering warmth about the head and neck; likely a psychosomatic response to self-congratulatory notions of intellectual achievement resulting from successful implementation of dialectic thought processes.

I propose the following methodology for dealing with social networking utilities, especially if considering their use as a “personal-branding” tool: use Twitter and Facebook as native, parallel, back-end distribution channels for autogenous content. What this basically means is that I know that the vast majority of my blog hits are linked from my Facebook page, and that Facebook qua Facebook and Twitter qua Twitter make for extremely disappointing personal-branding experiences. One must create more substantial content than 140-character witticisms, or wacky status updates, or anemic attempts at “keeping in touch” to be considered valuable.  

Who do people respect more, the creators of content or those that re-tweet or post shortlinks to content?  Who is more valuable, the creators of content or the disseminators of otherwise unread material? It’s a tough question, and a little too philosophical to get into here.

So, here’s my new Social Networking Paradigm in a nutshell: It is my belief that the greatest currently-available tool for personal branding is the weblog. Little to no direct engagement with various social networking utilities is required, as posts linking Facebook and Twitter users are created endogenously, simultaneously to when a blog post goes up. This directs more users to the blog, and frees up otherwise wasted hours spent surfing Facebook to write better blog posts, read, engage face-to-face with friends, and re-learn deep concentration and other mental processes lost through interface with technology.

––––

Ultimately, I don’t want it to seem that I’m writing this blog only to build the brand of Jason D. Rowley. In fact, personal branding is the least of my reasons for writing The Halcyon Days; I view it as a good mental workout, as a peer-reviewed version of what I keep tucked away in a growing pile of Moleskine notebooks, and it ultimately forces me to keep my love of arcane verbiage at a manageable level.

If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to check my Facebook and deny a random Foursquare request and retweet some nonsense and address my iPhone, which has been jittery with text messages for the past ten minutes. 

Now, how ridiculous did I sound?

On The Hating of Haters

This is a co-blogging effort with a couple of friends in response to negative feedback some of us received on our recent posts. Check out Patrick Ip and Ted Gonder‘s response to the following question, phrased so eloquently by Ted: 

As young guns rise to the archetypal “top”, they are often discouraged, doubted, and “hated on” by naysayers, pessimists, and…well…H8RZ. What are some ways that young, ambitious people can a) avoid being discouraged by such naysaying, b) extract constructive takeaways from intentionally destructive criticisms, and c) deal practically with the critics themselves?

I’ll break this down into its a, b, and c answers and follow up with a general overview or “takeaway,” as Ted is so fond of finding.  

A) How do young, ambitious individuals avoid being discouraged by such naysaying?

Ultimately, it boils down to self-confidence, or, to use a more buzz-word-y term, “conviction” in one’s team, goals, and belief system is crucial to avoiding discouragement. When facing negative sentiment, which more often than not boils down to a superficial, rhetorically invalid ad hominem attack. If Adolf Hitler comes into a room soaking wet and says it is raining, it’s somewhat of a logical non sequitur to disbelieve him solely on the grounds that it is Hitler who claims it is raining. (Note: I acknowledge that mention of Adolf is a sure way to lose any argument. Just lettin’ you know…) Similarly, just because I’m a bit of a verbose, convoluted writer who takes stylistic cues from D. F. W. and W. T. V. and R. P. (congrats, if you get the references), and that my slavish devotion to what ought to be often puts me at variance with those dreadfully pragmatic realists who decide to deflate my romanticized notions of the world… &c. Just because I am all of this and more doesn’t automatically mean that what I’m saying is wrong: it means that I am the one who’s saying it, and that, if you disagree with me, I’d highly recommend peeling back the layers of verbosity and romanticism and all the rest and take the kernel of my argument with a grain of salt. Don’t criticize me for my style, or Ted for the fact that his writing implements many buzzwords, or Patrick for seeing the world through rose colored glasses which render him overly optimistic and bleary-eyed to the logistical difficulties of some of his ideas; don’t criticize me for being a hater of the insipid, or Ted for his constant drive toward optimization of all levels of his existence, or Patrick for dreaming dreams potentially too big for his proverbial britches; instead, feel free to lacerate my argument, their arguments, not our style. I invite you to do so.

Takeaway from the above paragraph: Know that most criticism levied is ad hominem, and that such criticism holds no argumentative water.

B) How does one extract constructive takeaways from intentionally destructive criticism?

First of all, I’m not a big fan of needing to find “takeaways” (or, more precisely, “the personal, subjectively applicable salient points” of things) in every thing I experience or encounter. It is, for me, too much effort to bother with, and runs the risk of distilling ersatz meaning from where there was none. Even when done correctly, what one gains in simplicity one loses in nuance. Nuance matters; it is the stuff of life.

Once one winnows the critical field of the ad hominem chaff–and there is a lot of chaff, as a general rule–one is left with usable, consumable grain. (It’s nice how agricultural terminology and metaphor works here) This grain is what one is after, for it is from this raw criticism that one can grow.

I don’t believe there exists anything positive contained in intentionally destructive attacks. Such attacks masquerade as criticism. One can only chuckle smugly because, if only privately, one knows that the attacker has made an ass of himself, and that ad hominem aggression is in innumerable and nuanced ways beneath the deportment of the chuckler: he (i.e. the chuckler) knows better than to pass aggression off as criticism. 

What one is looking for is the really good criticism, the little point that gets under the skin and engenders the little niggling fear that the critic might be more correct than his target.  This feeling of anxiety, of unease, that the world has been rendered skewed in some way, is what leads to improvement of argumentation and, if exceptionally powerful, a shift in perspective entirely. One wrestles with this fear internally, and one must have the self-possession to admit error when this fear is faced and resolved not in one’s favor. Even when “proven wrong” (or, because we are all [Post- ?]Post-Modern relativists at heart, “less right”) we “grow.” Whether we change our views to reflect a corrected misperception or become further convicted in our previously held beliefs because we are forced to argue for them, “personal growth and development” occurs. 

Takeaway from the above paragraphs: Ad hominem attacks do not equal criticism and should not be treated as such, and that once one separates the criticism from the aggression, as one does wheat from chaff, one finds what is usable. By volume, there is always more chaff than wheat, both within this metaphor and on the farm.

C) How does one, in practice, deal with these critics?

I believe that this nested question was to be applied specifically to blogging, so I’ll answer to this interpretation.

Not coincidentally, most aggressors make their attacks under the shield of anonymity. The internet provides a safe space for them to go about their actions without being held accountable. Because finding their location via IP is often hit-or-miss, it isn’t worth looking. 

When someone posts a comment to a blog post of mine, I have to give it the go-ahead. I have the option to edit a comment before it is posted, although I never do unless someone made an egregious orthographic or grammatical error that might hinder comprehensibility to outside viewers. I am ruthless in not approving baseless, uncritical attacks, or those that are too obscene to be read aloud to a group of worldly sixth-graders (my favorite litmus test for appropriateness). If it isn’t civil, it doesn’t go public.

No, I don’t really care about censorship. I’m socially conservative in this way. Although I believe that taking offense is a choice, if one whose execution is so quick it is difficult to intercept, there are things that are objectively offensive; whether one becomes offended, and I use “becomes” very intentionally here, is beside the point.

In the event of a really good critical comment, I not only post it but feel in some way obligated to answer to it. This is the basis for my earlier posts On Thinking Critically and On Reading Critically.  

Takeaway from the previous paragraphs: Always remember that “haters gonna hate,” and learn to assiduously, guiltlessly strike down comments that, chaff-like, take up space and do nothing but act like black holes of moral turpitude and instigators of intellectual degeneracy via the logically and linguistically flaccid thought processes characteristic of so many who troll the internet looking to rain on one’s parade.