Friday, February 29, 2008

Who Said Being an Adjunct Was So Bad?

Look what you can do if you are only a professor part time!

But seriously, the problem of an over-reliance on piece work professors is quite severe in the U.S. The opportunities for exploitation are enormous and exacerbates the issue of the corporatization of the university.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Will the Future be Gay?

In this article in the UK Guardian, Peter Tachell argues that there won't be gay people in the future. For that matter, there won't be straight people either. Instead, human sexual orientation will be much more fluid and shifting, and people will be attracted to individual persons of either gender. He points to sex surveys today that indicate growing numbers of men and women are having experiences with others of the same gender. As prejudice and bigotry against homosexuals break down, we can expect that more and more people will feel free to express themselves in a variety of ways.

The interesting point he makes is that as the walls of homophobia come apart, so will gay identity. In his view, gay identity has developed in contrast to straight culture, that is, as a reaction in opposition to being marginalized and discriminated against by heterosexuals. As we move toward a more accepting and tolerant society, individuals will be less interested in identifying with gay culture, even though they will be having sex with people of the same sex.

The idea that we might be able to live lives outside of the narrow boundaries imposed by a gay/straight dicotomy is very appealing. Such stark opposites rarely capture the full complexity of how we live our lives and express our uniqueness.

But this book review offers a more troubling vision. The Joy of Sex is now 35 years old! What Julie Szego finds fascinating is how dated parts of it are, but also, what it says about our contemporary attitudes toward sexuality.

She focuses on the question of body hair, particularly pubic hair on women. Some thirty five years ago, it was quite the rage for the famous sex manual to contain drawings of quite hairy women. Nowadays, Szego point out, this would not be considered sexy. The trend now is toward Brazillian waxes and total shaving.

Where did this trend in hair (or lack of) for women come from? Porn.

What Szego finds most troubling is that today so much of our imagery of sexuality comes from pornography (usually through the internet). She cites Robert Jensen's work to show that these stories are starting to influence how many people understand what is sexy, erotic, fun, and fashionable. So while today people may be engaging in more "wild sex", it is not something that expresses intimacy or, more importantly, play and experimentation (exactly what the authors of The Joy of Sex were trying to get us to appreciate more). Instead, influenced by porn, a lot of sexual expression is about power, dominance, and control. As Szego writes:"If you could somehow measure today's bedroom antics against those of, say, 20 years ago, it might in fact reveal that we're more squeamish, more conformist, more self-conscious, more self-loathing and less adventurous now than we were then."

Maybe the future doesn't looks so free and liberated after all.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Should Your Love be like a Red, Red Rose?

Just in time for Valentine's Day! An article in the newest issue of The Atlantic advises women in their 30s to stop looking for Mr. Right and just settle down and have kids with the next guy that is nice to them. Mr. Good Enough might not be the love of your life, and the sex might not be so great, but marriage is not about living an excited life and sex and intense connection with your partner really isn't that important to a good life. Here's a telling quote:

"The couples my friend and I saw at the park that summer were enviable but not because they seemed so in love—they were enviable because the husbands played with the kids for 20 minutes so their wives could eat lunch. In practice, my married friends with kids don’t spend that much time with their husbands anyway (between work and child care), and in many cases, their biggest complaint seems to be that they never see each other. So if you rarely see your husband—but he’s a decent guy who takes out the trash and sets up the baby gear, and he provides a second income that allows you to spend time with your child instead of working 60 hours a week to support a family on your own—how much does it matter whether the guy you marry is The One?"

In a way, I sympathize with the sentiment driving this article (though I think the author makes some very suspicious assumptions about what all women want out of their lives). I do believe that much of our anxieties about love and relationships are based on expectations about what love can do for our lives that are simply false. For instance, I think the model of the soul mate offered by Aristophanes sets us up for co-dependency. So maybe its good to try to be realistic about what we can get out of a relationship.

This reminds me of some of Stendhal's reflections on different types of love. Stendhal believed there were four types of romantic love. The first is "sympathy love". This is love based on common tastes, ideas, and outlooks ("We can talk for hours--we have so much in common and we want the same things in life!"). For Stendhal, most relationships are based on this ideal, but he found nothing particular interesting about it.

The next types are "vanity love" and "sensual love". Vanity love is essentially wanting someone because of how they make you look to others; Trophy spouses, in other words. Sensual love is pretty much what it sounds like--love of the sensual pleasure someone gives you. Stendhal thought there was nothing particular admirable about these types.

For Stendhal, what was most interesting was "passion-love". This is a kind of attraction to someone that inspires imagination, fantasy, and even painful thoughts. This kind of feeling brings out vibracy, euphoria, and creativity. But, as with all good things, there is a dark side to this as well.

Tied to this kind of love is the phenomena of what Stendhal called "crystallization": "I call 'crystallization' that action of the mind that discovers fresh perfections in its beloved at every turn of events" The story behind this concept is quite lyrical, but the main idea is that when one starts to fall in love with someone, the lover's imagination begins to take over the powers of perception, so that he sees the beloved as the most beautiful they can be. The lover can see only the admirable qualities of the beloved and starts to "see" the world in terms of the beloved. Every small gesture by the beloved is a message and this can bring great joy or despair, depending on whether the message is about mutual feeling or rejected love.

There is now a clinical term for this: limerence. This is the idea of "falling in love" with someone. All the feelings of joy, expectation, hope, passion, and excitement are part of the limerant stage. But this is different than "being in love" with someone, which usually involves having some kind of relationship with the person in which concerns are shared and people work for one another's well being and feelings.

It is "being in love" that takes effort. People in limerence are usually self-absorbed on their own needs and are unable to attend to the needs of others, especially the beloved, whom they have crystalized into someone different than what the real person is. Its even worse if the love is unrequited, because then the lover feels inadequate and depressed that someone so great would not even notice them or want them.

So perhaps there is some wisdom in the pop psychology of The Atlantic. Perhaps we do need to attend to the difference between the feelings of falling in love with someone (which are great) and the reality that being in love means having to think beyond yourself and attend to the well-being of others, respecting them as having a full range of emotions like oneself, and wanting to be with them despite the set-backs and the difficulties of being an "ordinary person".

I'm not sure this is the same thing as "settling". Settling seems too much like resignation. As Robert Burns suggests in the poem, being in love is a real struggle, not a passive acceptance, but it is journey worth taking:

"Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun :
And I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee weel, my only love,
And fare thee weel a while !
And I will come again, my love,
Thou’ it were ten thousand mile."

"Red, Red Rose" Robert Burns (1794)

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Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Europe Up in Smoke

Europe is often referenced in discussions about the sorry state of welfare services in the United States. Look at how the Europeans offer national health care, or free education through university, or generous paid vacations!

But as this article reveals, European nations are displaying very surprising amounts of poverty and infrastructure decay. Much of the poverty centers around immigrants. It turns out that the United States isn't the only place that relies on cheap, undocumented workers to maintain the lifestyles of most of the native born citizens. But for some Europeans, coming to grips with this reality is difficult since for so long Europe has prided itself on being a more tolerant and generous place, with governments that care to offer real social safety nets for their peoples. Social justice, and global justice, have seemed to be more valued there in the minds of many Europeans.

But global justice concerns seem to be sneaking up in many different ways.

Take the case of the Netherlands. For years, the Dutch have been proud of their decriminalization of "soft drugs". It has given rise to the coffeehouse culture, so infamous among visiting American college students, in which people are allowed to use small amounts of marijuana within the cafes.

The problems come from the issue of the "back door". Cafes can sell small amounts to patrons through the front door, but they have to have a supply come from the back door. However, the Netherlands doesn't allow pot plantations in the country. So there is a demand, but not a system for a big market suppliers. The result is that people are growing marijuana in neighboring countries, such as Germany, to sell in the Dutch market.

The concern here is not so much with illegal pot growing. Greater decriminalization throughout the EU could take care of that and there are signs that this might take place in the next few years.

The global justice concern is that the market for drugs in the Netherlands creates suppliers elsewhere and, in some cases, fuels criminal enterprises. The Dutch are very proud of showing how they have an extensive health service to deal with addicts, and they have very few drug related deaths, as well as lower drug use than most other EU countries. But the Netherlands is also a major transit point for drugs being grown by West African drug gangs. About 80% of the pot used in the Dutch coffeehouses is domestic, but at least 20% comes from other places, and increasingly, this means cartels who are using young men and women as drug mules and prostitutes.

This is not a worry unique to the Netherlands. After all, drug demand in the United States fuels the drug cartels from Mexico to Colombia and the bodies line up all over the streets of Juarez and Cali. But it does mean that under such conditions of global inequality, the individual freedom to toke up cannot be seperated from a concern with the enabling situations that bring the pot to the coffeehouse counter (or the college dorm room) in the first place.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Life isn't All its Cracked Up to Be

Aristotle recounts the Greek bit of wisdom that one cannot know if one is happy until one reaches the end of life. Happiness is not a momentary feeling but an overall good life dedicated to virtue. You won't know until you are about dead if your life has had this kind of arc to it--for tomorrow, you might be hit with tragedy or disease and be unable to live a very good life for many years. We could at that point say you had an unfortunate life, not a happy one.

Happiness in life is a very tricky philosophical subject. Definitional issues are primary: what do we mean by "happiness"? Can there be a universal standard of happiness?

Two new happiness studies are out. The first, multinational survey suggests that there might be a universal experience, or arc, of happiness. The reseach implies that people are happiest when they are younger and when they are older (researchers controlled for factors that might affect happiness such as income, divorce, job loss). People tend to be the most unhappy during middle age. Why? Three possible interpretations of the data: 1) People tend to get realistic about their life and give up some of their aspirations or hopes. 2) Happy people live longer and skew the results. 3) People tend to be grateful for what they have once they get older.

The second study suggests that happiness may not be all that good for you overall. It turns out that people who claim to be extremely happy tend not to be as well-educated, rich, or politically active as moderately happy people. They also don't tend to live as long. Possible reasons: 1) Happiness makes you content with yourself and less likely to strive for something different, or more. 2) Happiness makes you overly optimistic and not as careful about your health or well being.

So maybe melancholy is not such a bad thing. Albrecht Durer's woodcut, Melencholia I (above), depicts a winged genius unable to do her work, her tools spread out before her, unused. Her eyes suggest that she has been without sleep, without concentration, leading her to despair.

Aquinas thought these kinds of spells were a result of sin. Melancholy was a kind of sloth, an "oppressive sorrow" that made one unable to do anything, especially to love God.

But perhaps we are weighed too much by happiness, and the pursuit of happiness as a national project, instead. Maybe we need to let ourselves be more unhappy to appreciate what we can do and what we have.