Soviet Union Is a Diagnosis

The caption to this great poster says: “Soviet Union is a diagnosis.” I couldn’t agree more. It isn’t a country that fell apart years ago. It’s a state of mind, a way of being that is not bound by history and geography. Its symptoms are: a cult of mediocrity and a hatred of everything and everybody that stands out from the crowd, an intense materialism, a dislike of everything intellectual, a corruption that is so wide-spread that it penetrates into every aspect of existence, cynicism, and indifference.

 I found this poster here.

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Switching From Blogger to WordPress

Before I made the monumental decision to transfer my Blogspot.com blog to WordPress, I read everything I could find online about what this switch augured for me. When I first started blogging, I, as one of the most unsociable people in the universe, was sure that maybe three people in the world would read the blog if I was really lucky. Then, somehow it turned out that what I had to say was relevant to a whole bunch of people from all over the world.

These strangers’ interest in me led me to become more honest about myself. I have made huge strides in my personal development thanks to blogging. A fellow blogger admitted in a comment on my blog that blogging helped her drop the superwoman facade and start talking about who she was honestly. My experience is very similar to hers. The “PhD Vanity” post I published in September of 2010 marked the start of a more personal and honest kind of blogging for me. I was severely criticized for publishing this post on some blogs. Two bloggers used it to research who I really was and threatened me with revealing my real name (one actually followed through on the threat.) Long-time readers might not remember it as anything special, but that post marked the beginning of my journey to a more sincere, pretense-free kind of blogging.

Of course, when I decided to move my blog to WordPress, I was terrified of losing my readership. 300.000+ hits in less than two years is nothing to be sneezed at. (If in doubt, try to get 100 hits  per day on your blog and tell me how that goes.) I was terrified of losing my readers who were used to the previous format and wouldn’t welcome the change. However, after installing the redirecting code on my old blog, I had the record number of hits in my two years of blogging: 2,068 hits yesterday, May 23, 2011. And that was after just five days of blogging at WordPress.

As usual, there will be people who will tell me that 2,000+ hits a day is not a big deal and that they have made extensive calculations that tell them how only 5 people in the world read the blog. However, I have researched the issue and from what I hear, WordPress.com considers this kind of readership to be exceptional. So If you want to tell me that I’m nothing special, I will have to disagree. I think I kind of am, and my blogging record proves it.

So if you are considering moving from Blogger to WordPress, just install the code I linked to and sit tight. Readers will follow you to your new platform if you have anything of relevance to tell them.

Blogging Code of Ethics

I did a search for a Blogging Code of Ethics but found nothing I like. Take this one, for example. I thought if it made Wikipedia, it must be marginally useful. But its stated aim is to promote civility on the blogs. I have no interest in that, to tell you the truth, especially if to achieve this dubious goal I have to ban the anonymous comments and never say anything online I wouldn’t say in real life. The beauty of online communication is precisely that it allows you to be more honest about things, and if you need to be anonymous to do that, then that’s got to be fine.

So I came up with my own Blogging Code of Ethics that will serve both bloggers and commenters. As everything on this blog, it is based solely on my personal opinions. Feel free to dispute or add anything. If you want to do it anonymously, that’s good, too.

1. Don’t leave links without express permission. When I first started blogging, it took me some time to realize that people don’t particularly enjoy it when you leave links to your blog in their comments section without being asked to. Polite people don’t promote their blogs on strangers’ websites. If you want to attract attention to your blog, simply leave comments that will be interesting enough for people to follow you to your own blog to continue the conversation.

2. Every quote needs a link. If you are going to quote a person, insert a link to the post you are quoting. And don’t quote people’s posts in full. Leave something for the readers to discover at the original location of the post.

3. Surfing the wave is good – if done respectfully. If somebody published a post and it’s proving to be hugely popular, it’s OK to surf the wave. Write your own post on the same topic to attract readers. It’s good form, though, to mention the blogger whose wave you are surfing. Start your post with something like “I just read an interesting/horrible/stupid/fascinating post at clarissasblog.com and it made me think. . .”

4. Say all you want about other bloggers – but let them know. If you are appalled by something another person wrote on their blog, it’s perfectly fine to express your outrage about it on your own blog in any terms you like. It’s not nice, however, to talk behind people’s backs. This is one of those times when it’s not only acceptable but necessary to leave a link to your post at the offending blogger’s site. They will delete it if they don’t like it, but at least they will know that you are talking about them.

5. Don’t investigate bloggers and use the information against them. Even if what a blogger says annoys you to no end, it is very stupid (and really creepy) to investigate them and send letters to their place of employment demanding that they be fired or punished for expressing their views online. (This didn’t happen to me but it did to Hugo Schwyzer – see how I linked back to him here?, and I think it’s absolutely wrong.) Unless the person in question is engaged in illegal activities of which you have evidence, it is not your place to censor them. If the desire to shut people up for disagreeing with you persists, try getting a life.

6. If asked to leave – just go. If a blogger asked you to leave their site, just do it. Believe me, even if it’s the most fascinating blog in the universe, the Internet still doesn’t end there. You will find other places where you can express your opinions. Or just start your own blog and nobody will be able to ban you from it. Don’t overanalyze the banning either. Who cares why this particular blogger doesn’t like you?

7. Read before you write. Before making outraged accusations, make sure they don’t make you look stupid and waste space. If a blog’s header says “Feminist Blog”, it might make little sense to inform the blog’s author “Oh, you sound like a total feminist!” If a blog announces itself as “An academic’s opinions on everything”, do everybody a favor and don’t exclaim triumphantly “It’s just your opinion!”

Everything besides this is, in my opinion, fine. Want to post anonymously or use 15 different identities? Feel free. Want to be aggressive, rude and obnoxious? That’s perfectly fine. If you can’t be your true nasty self on the Internet, then what’s its point, really?

Unreliable Narrator

For a long time, I kept trying to explain to N. why a first-person narrator is unreliable. (If you don’t want to be lectured at all the time, don’t marry an educator. Otherwise, get prepared to being educated in perpetuity.) “But if the narrator is telling his or her own story, they have to know what they are talking about, right?” N. kept saying. “I don’t understand why I should doubt what a first-person narrator tells me.”

Then, we traveled to San Francisco for a conference. Before we set out, N. donned a huge and heavy coat that I’d never seen him wear before.

“We are traveling to California,” I said. “Why the hardcore coat?”

“You know this book series that I love that is set in San Francisco?” he answered. “The main character always complains about how it’s extremely cold there. It’s always foggy and there is this piercing wind. I need to be prepared for that.”

Of course, when we arrived in San Francisco, the weather was lovely. It was warm and sunny. I walked around in my business suit while N. suffered in his coat meant to withstand Siberian winters.

After a day of sweating in the coat, he finally exclaimed,

“Oh, now I get it!” N. suddenly exclaimed. “You should never trust the first-person narrator because he doesn’t talk about how things really are. He just relates his own subjective perception of reality that might be very different from mine.”

And then there are people who say that literary criticism is useless.

Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right: A Review, Part II

Aside from tampons and contraceptive devices, another thing that the Soviet Union did not have was literary critics. The anti-intellectual tendencies in the Soviet Union started with Lenin who routinely talked about “whining and decaying intellectuals” who are “the  lackeys of capital” and “not the brains of the nation but its shit.” If I were a really mean person, I could entertain myself with imagining what the Soviet regime would have done to a nerdy erudite like Eagleton. It is always very curious to observe how people strive to extol and promote the same regimes that would have killed them faster than you can say “dialectical materialism.”

In 1928, the Central Committee of Eagleton’s dearly beloved Communist Party declared its own right to “exercise guidance over the creative process.” This means that artists who refused to practice the artistic style of socialist realism were banned from making their work accessible to the public in any way. If these artists happened to be non-Russian, they were killed. The only literary critic who was permitted to survive was Bakhtin. He was put in charge of creating a new Soviet canon. Works of the world literature for which Bakhtin managed to find a pro-Communist explanation were included in the canon. This means that the Soviet people were allowed to know that these works existed and even read them if they were so lucky as to find a copy. (I can blog about access to books in the Soviet Union later, in case anybody is interested.)

Rabelais and Cervantes made it onto the approved list. Bakhtin and his school managed to create a theory according to which Don Quijote was a leader of a class struggle who opposed his more genuine values to the ideology of ruthless capitalism that was making its way into Spain. (If you don’t believe me, there is a 1957 Soviet film Don Quixote that embodies this scarily insane reading. It was shown during the celebrations of the 400 anniversary of the publication of Don Quijote, Part I. After the showing, an older specialist on Cervantes who came to our university for the festivities came up to me. “My health is not very good,” he said. “Somebody should have warned me about this because I almost had a heart attack while I watched them destroy Cervantes this way.”) Pretty much no literature from the twentieth century made it through the censors. As I mentioned before, world literature for us stopped at Dickens. I hated literature classes both at school and at the university because they consisted exclusively of scouring Homer, Moliere and Pushkin for evidence of class struggle.

Eagleton, who used to be a brilliant literary critic, has now adopted this style of literary criticism. I could have forgiven him for a crappy propaganda of Marxism. What has me completely disgusted by the book, though, is an attempt to discuss Milton, Shakespeare and Goldsmith as proponents of class struggle. Here is an example of this kind of analysis in Why Marx Was Right:

Take this couplet about a wealthy landlord from Oliver Goldsmith’s poem “The Deserted Village”: “The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth.” The symmetry and economy of the lines themselves, with their neatly balanced antithesis, contrast with the waste and imbalance of the economy they describe. The couplet is clearly about class struggle.

Or, take the following gem on Hardy’s Jude the Obscure:

In Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, Jude Fawley, an impoverished artisan living in the working-class area of Oxford known as Jericho, reflects that his destiny lies not with the spires and quadrangles of the university, but “among the manual toilers in the shabby purlieu which he himself occupied, unrecognized as part of the city at all by its visitors and panegyrists, yet without whose denizens the hard readers could not read nor the high thinkers live” (Part 2, Ch. 6). Are these poignant words a statement of Marx’s base/superstructure doctrine? Not exactly. In materialist spirit, they draw attention to the fact that there can be no mental labour without manual labour. Oxford University is the “superstructure” to Jericho’s “base.” If the academics had to be their own cooks, plumbers, stone masons, printers and so on, they would have no time to study.

Not only is this kind of literary analysis boring and reductive, it has also been done to death. I spent countless hours as a Soviet and post-Soviet student copying precisely this kind of drivel from the Soviet alternative to literary criticism. I could not have invented a better way of demonstrating the profoundly anti-intellectual nature of communism if I tried. Eagleton demonstrates to us how an intellectual, a famous literary critic, a thinker is reduced to spouting senseless inanities in his own field of knowledge the moment he attempts to defend an ideology that has proven to be a failure time and again.

Researching Bloggers

This really cool Stats page that WordPress provides has revealed to me that a reader is busily searching the Internet to discover what my real name is. (“Professor Clarissa Spanish literature real name” Google search tipped me off, in case anybody is wondering.)

I have no idea why anybody would have this kind of curiosity. I now follow almost 300 blogs in my Google Reader. Many of them are by anonymous bloggers. I have, however, done absolutely nothing to research what the authors’ real names are. Maybe it’s because of autism but I don’t see how it is going to benefit me to figure out that somebody I know as “Blogger John” is called “Stephen Smith” in real life.

If anybody is really dying to know what my actual name is, shoot me an email and I’ll relieve your suffering. Now that everybody at my university seems to be aware of the blog and read it, the point of the anonymity is mostly to prevent students from alighting on it by Googling my name. As I said, I don’t want my strong political opinions to impede students’s free expression in the classroom.

When / if this book of mine finally comes out, I will, of course, place it on the blog and extol its virtues, so the anonymity will be shot to hell anyways.

Choosing a Major in College

I know that I don’t have many readers who are at the stage of choosing a college major, but Jonathan just published a really great long post with very useful advice on the subject. As a student advisor, I often meet students who chose a major that sounded cool and prestigious, like “Communications” and who in their senior year have no idea what people who majored in this vaguely defined field do for a living. I have tried to get students to explain to me what “Communications” as a field of knowledge means but all I get in response is a lot of hand-waving and vague, incomprehensible noises. This is not aimed at picking on Communications. Crowds of people go into Marketing, for example, (for personal reasons I am very familiar with the field) only to discover upon graduation that the industry is nothing like what they’d imagined. Here is part of the advice that Jonathan provides:

Beware of “generic” majors like “communications” and “international relations.” I’m talking about majors that attract students that don’t really know what they want to do, so they choose a major that sounds vaguely interesting and popular. There are a lot of communications majors, so what is going to make you stand out, if you chose the major because it sounded vaguely interesting? And everyone else did too? If you have a passion for sociology, go for it, but don’t major in it because that’s what your sorority sisters do.

One thing that I would add to Jonathan’s great article is the following: if there is a field of knowledge that fascinates you, that makes you want to bring a cot and bunk down in front of the department’s door during the weekend, then this is the field you need to choose, even though it might sound completely unprestigious and people keep telling you that you will never find a job if you major in it.

I have a student who loves Spanish. He probably loves it as much as I do, which is a lot. He is constantly hanging around our department, trying to organize Spanish-related activities with other students, coming by my office, using any opportunity to speak the language. I have no idea how he finds time to do anything else since he is always around our department. This student, however, not only isn’t majoring in Spanish, he isn’t even doing a minor in it. He wanted to initially but then he got discouraged by all the “you need to choose something more practical” talk that people kept giving him. There is nothing practical, in my opinion, in forcing yourself into a career that doesn’t make you light up when you think of it. When I first started taking undergrad courses in Hispanic Studies, I once heard my father say to a friend, “I’m not sure I understand what she is doing but I can see that she starts glowing whenever she talks about it, and that’s good enough for me.”

Choosing a major just because you think it will end up bringing you more money than the field you really love is like rejecting a person you are crazy about in favor of somebody you don’t much like because s/he is rich. In the long run, it is never worth it.

Read the rest of Jonathan’s post here.