Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Archive for the month “April, 2011”

>Happy Belated Birthday to Pagan Topologist!


Happy belated Birthday to Pagan Topologist whose 
presence on this blog contributes a lot to its continued success.
Happy Birthday, dear friend!

>Male and Female Sleuths, Part II


The reason why I enjoy Michael Connelly’s Hieronymus Bosch series is that this writer manages to create a truly complex and ever-evolving male protagonist. This is a risky proposition since it means that the novels in the series have to be read in order. Otherwise, Harry Bosch’s personality simply doesn’t make sense. I have now read seven of the novels in the series and the main character still manages to surprise me. 
There is, however, one area of Harry Bosch’s life where he sadly resembles the classic male sleuths of Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Chesterton. What Holmes, Poirot and Father Brown have in common is a complete absence of any personal life whatsoever. Not only are these characters completely and utterly sexless, they also lack any family members. It is true that Miss Marple is also not known for her wild sexual exploits. She does, however, have a slew of relatives whose stories provide her with clues she uses to solve her mysteries.
The reason why the classic male protagonists of mystery novels lead such sexless lives is, in my opinion, that the authors of these books cannot afford to antagonize their female readers. In the noir genre and the spy novels that are geared mostly towards male readership, male protagonists engage in numerous sexual adventures. Female readers, however, do not appreciate male characters who have too much sex. When recently Elizabeth George killed off the character of Helen, Inspector Lynley’s wife, and had Lynley have sex with another woman, a huge number of her readers reacted with outrage. 
Of course, Connelly couldn’t have Bosch, a police officer in Los Angeles at the turn of the XXI century, lead a completely sexless existence. Instead, the writer chose the path of turning Bosch into a constant and wistful victim of women who use him, manipulate him and dump him. Every single one of Bosch’s love affairs follows the same path: he acts the role of a sad troubadour to a woman whom he keeps serving long after she betrays and abandons him.
Connelly’s Bosch novels are an important step in the direction of creating believable, multi-faceted male sleuths. This project, however, is far from being complete, and even Connelly took a huge step back when he introduced his new Mickey Haller series which features a one-dimensional protagonist who follows all of the worst conventions of the genre.

>Male and Female Sleuths, Part I


It is extremely rare to find a male detective in a mystery series who has a complex, multi-faceted personality which grows and transforms over the course of the series. Male sleuths tend to be assigned a set of quirky characteristics in the very first novel of the series. Then, references to these quirks and tics are made in the subsequent novels to remind us of what this character is supposed to be like. Even Ruth Rendell, whose greatest talent (among many) resides in creating complex, fascinating characters, fails to do so with her Inspector Wexford. In Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, we see this character over the course of fifty years and can safely say that he experiences absolutely no changes in terms of his personality. For this reason, I have always found this series to be quite boring.
Or take, for example, Elizabeth George’s Lynley and Havers series. Lynley, the male sleuth, is always the same. If you have read a single one of these novels, you know all there is to know about this character’s personality. Female sleuths, however, fare a lot better. They are given personalities that are complex, profound, growing, changing with every new installment. Barbara Havers, the female protagonist of George’s series, differs from her male counterpart Inspector Lynley in that her experiences in these novels help her grow. The Havers of A Great Deliverance (the first novel in the series)  is not nearly the same person we encounter in This Body of Death, which is the most recent installment.
The same could be said about many other female detectives. Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Lisa Gardner’s D.D. Warren, Tess Gerritsen’s Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles are complex, interesting characters whose personalities undergo profound transformations in the course of the series.
I believe that the reason why male sleuths are frequently so flat, cartoonish and boring lies in the tradition of the early classics of the mystery genre. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown are the models on which the entire cast of later male sleuths was built. These three classic sleuths are quirky and original. They are, however, always the same. Poirot’s personality is exactly the same in The Mysterious Affair at Styles as he is in Curtain. As for Holmes and Father Brown, I have read all stories featuring these characters (usually more than once) but for the life of me couldn’t figure out the chronological succession of these stories.
(To be continued. . .)

>Algorithmic Pricing on Amazon

>I just discovered the following hilarious but true story about algorithmic pricing on Amazon:

A few weeks ago a postdoc in my lab logged on to Amazon to buy the lab an extra copy of Peter Lawrence’s The Making of a Fly – a classic work in developmental biology that we – and most other Drosophila developmental biologists – consult regularly. The book, published in 1992, is out of print. But Amazon listed 17 copies for sale: 15 used from $35.54, and 2 new from $1,730,045.91 (+$3.99 shipping).

Want to know how that happened? Read the full story here. I still can’t stop laughing about this.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part II


I want to dedicate the second part of my review of Liquid Modernity to those of its parts that I found to be objectionable. My problem with the entirety of Bauman’s work is that whenever he talks of people, humanity, or mankind at large, he always ends up making statements that are only true for a certain part of humanity, namely, white heterosexual males. Let’s take, for example, the following statement, in which the erasure of women is so complete as to be shocking:

‘Work’ so understood was the activity in which humanity as a whole was supposed to be engaged by its fate and nature, rather than by choice, when making its history. And ‘work’ so defined was a collective effort of which every single member of humankind had to partake. All the rest was but a consequence: casting work as the ‘natural condition’ of human beings, and being out of work as an abnormality; blaming departure from that condition for extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity. (137)

These statements are, of course, completely true if by “humanity as a whole” and “every single member of humankind” we refer exclusively to men. For women, the situation was and still is the exact opposite. Working mothers are routinely blamed for causing “extant poverty and misery, deprivation and depravity” of their poor, abandoned children. Women are constantly exhorted to “opt out” of the workplace and demonized for not doing so. Working conditions are geared towards making the life of working women as inhospitable as possible. If we keep this in mind, Bauman’s references to “humanity as a whole” become egregiously offensive.
In a similar vein, Bauman bemoans the disintegration of the patriarchal family, which brought about the liberation of all those pesky females he loves to erase. He becomes as preachy as any fundamentalist when he begins to lament the evils of divorce, especially when people who dare to abandon loveless marriages are not rich:

There is little doubt that when ‘trickled down’ to the poor and powerless, the new-style partnership with its fragility of marital contract and the ‘purification’ of the union of all but the ‘mutual satisfaction’ function spawns much misery, agony and human suffering and an ever-growing volume of broken, loveless and prospectless lives. (90)

How dare you, poor and powerless folks, look for satisfaction outside of the confines of the patriarchal family? You need to sit tight, patently bearing your miserable, loveless marriages.
What Bauman prefers to overlook in his anti-divorce rants is that, in the absolute majority of cases in the developed countries, it is women who seek the divorce (in 2010 in the US it was 72% of divorces petitioned for by women to 28% by men). The situation is even more clear-cut among college-educated couples where, according to the data provided by American Law and Economics Review, women file for divorce in about 90% of cases. This is not at all surprising since marriage is still a losing proposition for women even in the most developed countries. Women are still stuck with more housework, the greatest burden of child-rearing and very little gains coming out of being married other than some dubious prestige the TV shows try to convince us exists for women who get married. Married women live shorter lives than single women, while married men live longer than single men. For this reason, in real life (as opposed to what we are being told by television and newspapers) men are a lot more interested in marriage than women. The disintegration of the patriarchal family that bothers Bauman so much is, indeed, robbing men of power. At the same time, it liberates women. Women, however, are not a group that Bauman ever notices. 
It is often difficult for me to distinguish whether on this topic Bauman is being purposefully obtuse or if he genuinely, sincerely does not realize how biased his statements are. This is one of the foremost thinkers of our times. Is it possible that the whole history of women has passed him by? Look, for instance, at the following statement:

It is no longer the task of both partners to ‘make the relationship work’ – to see it work through thick and thin., ‘for richer for poorer’, in sickness and in health, to help each other through good and bad patches, to trim if need be one’s own preferences, to compromise and make sacrifices for the sake of a lasting union. (164)

Can Bauman really not know that to suffer in silence, practice resignation, trim one’s own preferences, compromise and make sacrifices was only and exclusively the task of a woman in patriarchal family structures? Can he possibly have missed the entire history of manuals for married women that proliferated from the Middle Ages until today and that exhorted (and still do) women to sacrifice themselves for the good of the family in the very terms that Bauman employs here? Is he being disingenuous with full knowledge of what he is doing, or is he truly this blind to the situation of an entire half of humanity? Note also the slippage into the Christian rhetoric that is quite unexpected in a Communist and a Jew. Apparently, Bauman’s need to push women back into the confines of the patriarchal family structure is so overwhelming that he forgets even the Marxist dogma that religion is the opium of the people.

>Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity: A Review, Part I


Liquid Modernity (2000) is probably Zygmunt Bauman’s most important work. This is where the philosopher introduces concepts that will inform his Liquid Love: On the Frailty of Human Bonds (2003), Liquid Life (2005), Liquid Fear (2006), Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (2006), etc. Since Bauman is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers (probably the second favorite after Žižek), I hope eventually to post reviews of all these books on my blog. As usual, I will dedicate the first part of my review to going over some of the ideas from Liquid Modernity that I found to be useful. Later, I will publish the second part of the review that will discuss what I consider to be flawed parts of Bauman’s argument.
The main idea that Bauman advances in this book is that it is a mistake to see modernity as a monolithic period that stretches more or less unchanged from the late XIXth century until today. Bauman distinguishes between two stages of modernity:
1. The first stage of modernity, according to Bauman, is the “solid” stage. This is the moment in history of our Western civilization where solid certainties of pre-modern times had disintegrated to such an extent that the only thing to do was to sweep these rotten underpinnings of pre-modern societies out of the way completely. The goal of this first stage of modernity was to erect its own solid certainties in the place of the ones that were going to be swept away by change. If we think about the trajectory of the Soviet approach to modernity, we will see that it fits Bauman’s argument perfectly. The transformative push of the first few years of the revolution led to an impenetrable fortress of a repressive Communist regime.
Bauman points out that the main fear of this first stage of modernity was that totalitarianism would emerge from its push to create a new set of certainties on the wasteland of the old society that had been destroyed by the advent of modernity. Orwell’s 1984, says Bauman, is a perfect example of what this solid stage of modernity saw as its worst-case scenario. As we know all too well today, totalitarian regimes did, in fact, flourish during this first stage of modernity.
2. Bauman refers to the second stage of modernity as “liquid.” At this stage, there is no more effort to replace a set of old rules, certainties and identities with a new one. The freedom to switch identities as often as we want, move around, transform ourselves is now seen as an end in itself and the most prized characteristic of our existence. Bauman’s goal in Liquid Modernity is to analyze the main concepts that inform this liquid stage of modernity and to point out the limitations of this freedom.
One of the main struggles of individuals in pre-modern societies consisted of defending their private sphere from the encroachment of the public sphere. People belonged to their families, their clans, guilds, social classes. Their identities that were assigned to them at birth were inexorable and inescapable. If you were born a woman, for example, this very fact implied a set of roles, behaviors and life strategies that was pre-ordained and that you could try to escape at your own peril. If you look at the history of art, you will see that it isn’t until the birth of the Romantic movement in late XVIII century that individual emotions and minute shades of personal feelings start being discussed as something valuable. It is only at the end of the XIXth century that we begin to see a slow process of liberation from identities one is assigned at birth.
Today, however, Bauman maintains, it is the public sphere that needs to be salvaged from the constant encroachment of the private sphere. According to the philosopher, our public sphere has been eroded by a constant parade of exhibitionist private issues that there isn’t any public sphere left to speak of. Think about the following statement by Bauman in terms of what we are witnessing in today’s politics:

What are commonly and ever more often perceived as ‘public issues’ are private problems of public figures. . . Not one among the ‘great and mighty’, let alone the offended ‘public opinion’, proposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton for abolishing welfare as a ‘federal issue’. (70-1)

We can see that this tendency has become even more pronounced today, 11 years after the publication of Bauman’s Liquid Modernity. To give just one example, there is a huge group of people whose political activism is limited to a painstaking investigation of whether Sarah Palin’s child is truly hers (I blogged about these folks here), as if her motherhood had anything whatsoever to do with whether she will make a good presidential candidate. We get regaled with endless stories about Michelle Obama’s personality, President Obama’s shoes, George W. Bush’s daughters, Donald Trump’s ex-wives. In the meanwhile, a discussion of what it is they are doing as politicians gets relegated to the realm of the inconsequential. 
While we are concentrated on discussing the private issues of others and exhibiting our own private sphere to the world (blogging and Facebook are a perfect example of this), we fail to notice that the very nature of power has changed. Formerly, those who possessed the greatest masses of land were the most powerful. Power was bogged down by the enormous apparatus of hardware and people needed to maintain it. Today, says Bauman, power has become liquid:

We are witnessing the revenge of nomadism over the principle of territoriality and settlement. In the fluid stage of modernity, the settled majority is ruled by the nomadic and exterritorial elite. Keeping the roads free for nomadic traffic and phasing out the remaining check-points has now become the meta-purpose of politics. (13)

The power today is hard to pinpoint in every sense of the word. As everything else, it has become mobile and uprooted.

(To be continued. . .)

>So Has the Movie Atlas Shrugged Already Been Released?


And if so, then why isn’t it showing at our local movie theater? I haven’t been able to find it anywhere in St. Louis either. I absolutely need to watch this movie, people. Even if I have to schlep all the way to Springfield. And yes, I’m sure that the book must have been mangled horribly in the course of making the movie, but still I have to see it for myself.
Has anybody seen it? Any impressions to share?

>The First Post From the New Work Space


And now, as promised, pictures of my workspace before I got my first desk in 8 years and now that I finally have one.
Here is the work space before the change. And yes, I’m messy, it’s the end of the semester, no need to make me feel even worse about it than I already do. 
And here is the new work space. Now I can have all my reference books right where I work. There is no need to run upstairs to get them every five minutes or leave them strewn around on the floor.

And this is how the living room looks now that I have removed all the work-related mess:
I’m absolutely loving this new arrangement.

>Dr. Antonio Calvo’s Tragedy: Could It Have Been Avoided?


What happened to Dr. Calvo who killed himself after being fired in a really nasty way by Princeton University is truly tragic. The question that, of necessity, is on everybody’s mind is what can be done to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future. At-will firing that is the norm in the US is a horrible, inhumane practice. People can be told to clear their work spaces and leave without any warning whatsoever. Often, they are escorted from the premises by security guards and prevented even from saying good-bye to their colleagues of many years. In academia, getting fired between the months of April and September also means that you will not be able to go on the job market until it reopens on September 15. Furthermore, you will not be able to start working until September of the year after that. People who are not US citizens face almost immediate deportation after their work visas are revoked. Obviously, this system implies a lot of pain and suffering for the employees. Workers have to live in a constant fear of dismissal which takes a huge emotional toll.
Unions seem to offer a solution to this issue. They will protect employees from getting kicked out with no warning. However, unions have their problems, too. As important as it is to protect the rights of the employees, it is equally crucial that employers are protected as well. Unions make it extremely hard to dismiss bad employees and reward the good ones. To give an example, the union prevented my department from offering a monetary reward to a stellar instructor on the grounds that every member of the union should be compensated equally. And all my whining about how hard it is to get students to speak Spanish in class? This issue would be easy to solve if it weren’t for the union.
It seems like the only productive solution to balancing the needs of both workers and employees is to have a disinterested third party that will impose a system of regulations to protect everybody. That third party has to be the government. Take Canada, for example. I’m not a complete and utter apologist of Canada, in any way or manner. However, it is evident to me that the way Canadians deal with the issue is quite productive. There is a system of regulations in place that outlines how, when and for what reasons an employee can be fired. People are also provided with a financial cushion that transforms the loss of a job from a tragedy into nothing more than an annoying temporary setback.
Contrary to Libertarian beliefs, this did not hamper Canadian job market in any way. Compared to what we see in the US today, the situation with employment in Canada is quite good.

>Quit With the Images!


Recently, I wrote about my annoyance with people who include huge, slow-loading images into the body of their emails. Since that post, I have discovered that some folks take this irksome habit even further. We are at the end of the semester, and everybody’s Inboxes are filled with emails from students, colleagues and administrators. Many of those emails include important attachments that are huge in size. To give an example, my students are submitting their oral exams in .wav files that occupy a lot of space. If the Inbox overflows, the university will freeze my account, and it will take a while to unfreeze it and get my stuff back. Obviously, this is something we are all trying to avoid.
And, of course, this is precisely the moment that an inconsiderate colleague chooses to send an invitation to his talk in an email that consists of an unwieldy message with a set of useless but huge graphics in the body of the message. They take forever to load and clutter up the mailbox. I wouldn’t have blogged about something like this, of course, had it not been for the fact that this colleague immediately resent the same huge graphics-ridden email to everybody with a note that the indefinite article in line 4 from the bottom should be substituted with the definite article. And then he sent the whole thing once again to remind us of his event. And then he sent it once more. 
I really wonder if anybody will come to this colleague’s talk after such a show of disrespect from him.

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