Friday, November 29, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse's Heroes: The Perfect Courtier's Sprezzatura in A Damsel in Distress

P. G. Wodehouse's A Damsel in Distress is one of my favorite Wodehouse novels. In it, the disenchanted and disheartened composer (for musical comedies) George Bevan has an encounter in London with Lady Maud, who is attempting a rendezvous with a man she has fallen head over heels in love with the useless Geoffrey Raymond, much to the disapproval of her family. She happens upon her brother, and attempts to elude him by jumping into a taxi, and into the arms of George, who defends her from her attacker (her brother, the absurdly snobbish Percy Wilbraham Marsh, Lord Belpher).

Wodehouse often makes references to Shakespeare, particularly A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the quixotic nature of love, and the possibility of falling in love at first sight (as though pansy juice were sprinkled in one's eyes). There is also a kind of Tristan and Isolde energy in much of Wodehouse -- the love potion is quite strong. For me, the fact that there are mistaken identities, doubles, and absurd encounters, makes me think of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and also Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

A Damsel in Distress has the elements I enjoy -- the kind-hearted, not snobbish Earl of Marshmoreton, a very determined aunt, Lady Caroline Byng. There is a plucky heroine (Lady Maud Marsh) and a romantic, wry, enterprising, and upwardly mobile American (George Bevan), a decent, lovable but rather useless young peer (Reggie Byng), and lots of golf, in the form of George Bevan, Reggie Byng, and also Lady Maud.

Alice Faraday, a born caretaker and reformer, excessively involved and maternal, is a perfect match for Reggie Byng.

Billie Dore, a stenographer, then stage actress and star, loves roses, is American, kind-hearted, expansive, and energizing -- perfect match for Lord Marshmoreton, whom she initially mistakes for a gardener.

Lady Maud Marsh, hopeless romantic who pines away for her knight in shining armor, whom she thought she met in Wales; little did she know he would turn out to be a womanizing bounder who promised (in the guise of another person) eternal love and affection to an actress, whom he then jilted, and little did she suspect that he would become almost obese in the year he spent wandering the Atlantic and the Mediterranean on a yacht equipped with a top-flight chef. She is a perfect match for George Bevan -- composer for musical comedies, and extremely successful; his songs are played on Victrolas everywhere. Further, he is a romantic and utterly knightly.

There are other Shakespearian characters, who act as catalysts: Keggs, the butler -- wily, self-interested, petit-dictator, the perfect butler. His greed leads him to set up a kitty to gamble on who will marry whom, and the behind-the-scenes machinations advance the action of the story.

Albert, the page -- young Machiavelli, preternaturally quick, whose desire to get ahead in the world make him the perfect rascally "picaro" in the genre of the quick-witted Lazarillo de Tormes or Huck Finn. Necessary catalyst.

Lady Caroline Byng and her son, Percy Marsh, Lord Belpher, are a perfect pair - they hate any perturbations to the social order, at least as they might relate to the aristocracy.

Favorite scenes:

Traveling with Reggie, who is meeting Percy, back from Oxford, Maud flies off to London in a rush, hoping to meet Geoffrey Raymond, the man she fell in love with in Wales, who is, in theory, back in London with his uncle Wilbur. Maud is spied by Percy, so she plunges into a cab, which just happens to hold George Bevan, who rises to the occasion and defends Maud by crushing Percy's hat. Percy reciprocates by hitting George; Percy is arrested and spends the night in jail.

Obsessed with upholding the "family honour," Percy, Lord Belpher decides to follow Maud and prevent her from meeting the American (presumed to be Geoffrey) at the Platt's Cottage. He follows her, but to avoid detection, walks in an English drainage ditch, and becomes coated with mud. Quick-witted Maud leads him to a vicarage, where the curate in charge takes seriously Maud's claims that a vagrant is stalking and menacing her. He tricks Percy into coming into the vicarage, where he locks him in a closet. He engages the help of the local blacksmith to open the door (and quell any desires to punch the curate). The curate hands him a shilling and a pamphlet on the evils of drink, and tells him to go one his way.

Albert's meddling -- his attempt to be the catalyst to bring together Maud and Reggie; all the pamphlets and advice letters are employed by Reggie to good effect -- on Alice Faraday. Alice, who has never had much to say about Reggie until she thought he needed protection and nurturing, looks at him with new eyes.

Percy's 21st birthday party -- Reggie drinks for courage, but ends up thinking he's pickled his brain when he thinks he sees George as a waiter (he does, in fact); George gets a job as a waiter (thanks to Albert's quick thinking); Albert quick-wittedly ties Reggie's sheet in knots to create a climbing rope to extricate George from the balcony from which the historical legend, Leonard, had dove to protect a lady's honor.

Echoes of honor, knightly behavior, and self-delusion -- Cervantes's Don Quixote and the knights of the round table in Mort d'Arthur. One can't help but thinking of Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. In fact, most of Wodehouse's heroes demonstrate perfect sprezzatura (innate grace, coupled with prudence, continence, magnanimity). In clumsy hands, they may seem to mock. But, they are much too kind-hearted to do so. They are perfect courtiers in a rather rough and quickly changing (confusing) world marked by shocking changes of fortune.

Thursday afternoon at the Castle: George thinks Lord Marshmoreton is a gardner, gives him a letter to deliver to Maud; Billie Dore thinks he's a gardner and shares tips for getting rid of rose aphids and thrips. There are echoes here of She Stoops to Conquer, and also Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn). The point of the action and mistakes is to strip away the mediating influence of title and social position, to look regard individuals in terms of their own character and merit. In the context of the times -- socialist and communist dialectics abounded, and there were major social order upheavals -- Wodehouse's approach was neither reactionary nor conservative. His was an approach that focused on humor in order to restore diversity and re-admit "characters" and eccentrics into a society that was pushing everyone into small, labeled boxes.

The trajectory of Lord Marshmoreton's travel toward psychological independence from his snooty sister is fun. He's a great character -- obsessed with roses and gardening; and also very alive when he meets a woman of similar interests. They are so perfect for each other, it's a delight. It's also fun to see that he judges a person based on character, not social rank, and instantly likes George Bevan.

George and Reggie on the golf course; Deeply impressing Reggie, George did not "foozle a single drive" and admirably got out of the bunker at the fifteenth hole in a masterful way.

The afternoon in the London tea-shop, Ye Cosy Nooke, where Maud and Geoffrey unite after a year of not seeing each other. Geoffrey has read the notice of Maud's engagement to George. Maud is lucky because she does not have to generate the rejection - she is horrified by Geoffrey's obesity and his obsession with food; it does not help that a process-server comes in and presents Geoffrey with notice of a lawsuit for "Breach of Promise of Marriage" -- Geoffrey has mascaraded as a "Mr. Spenser Gray" to woo an actress, Miss Yvonne Sinclair, even presenting her with a gift of a signed photograph, "To Babe from her little Pootles" --

The final scene is a lot of fun -- as George is packing to return to New York, Maud calls him from the lobby of the same hotel (the Hotel Carlton). She asks him a series of questions (how much does he weigh? how much did he weigh last year? has he ever been to Florida? what does he think of the fish called the pompano?) to assure herself he's not at all Geoffrey-like, and finally to ask him about wallpaper for his den...

It is a very engaging and satisfying way to accept a proposal of marriage ... I love Wodehouse's female characters, who are spunky and independent, while maintaining kindness and a great sense of humor.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

St. Patrick’s Day on the San Antonio Riverwalk

The first thing you notice is that the water has been dyed a bright shamrock green.

The next thing you notice is, after you take your eyes off the proliferation of strollers and women with lace-patterned tattoos peeking out of their low-cut “wife beater” tank tops, are guys stretched out in a prone position, their lace-tattooed significant others holding down their ankles, as they become human grappling irons, arms plunged shoulder-deep into the thick green, fishing for wallets or other lost valuables.

What will they find? A wallet? A toy? Coins? Bones?

It’s probably not as much as one might hope. After all, it’s March 17, and only a month and a half after the annual draining and cleaning in which all the detritus left by revelers and unfortunate disequilibriated (not a word, I know!) ones … equilibrium lost, potentially for an entire span of a weekend, by a need to lose cares in a constructed Fiesta-space – a mindspace that is both escapist and grounded in history and historical longing.

I firmly believe that there are ghosts here.

It’s a perfect setting for a murder mystery, with brightly ornamented tour gondolas with tour guides telling about the history of the place, replete with legends and facts selected to flower in one’s imagination.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, though, and the ear-splitting keening of bagpipes are precipitously accompanied by mariachis playing polka-inflected “rancheros” with huge bass guitars and accordions. What else do these flat-bottom boats purvey? In a word, everything.  Everything under the sun.

Melange usually refers to the jumbled up rock, ice, and snow at the foot of an avalanche.

It’s the word that occurs to me now – a rapid cultural avalanche has deposited its mélange in the San Antonio River, and I’m only half-buried by it, consequently, I’m still half alive, half sentient. I’m not sure quite what to think – my independent thoughts are trained on wishful thinking and romanticism, and I love to think of ghostly apparitions of elegantly clad women from the time of the missions, and then later, during the 19th century, when mills were constructed and Germans, Irish, English, Spanish, and Mexican populations blended and awkwardly co-existed. I’m not sure about the Native Americans, so I do not mention them now.

I am pulled away from my thoughts by another group of kilt-clad bagpipers. They are clearly feeling the heat, but soldiering on, red-faced. I smile and spontaneously enjoinder, “wonderful!” and one grumpily visaged bagpiper scowls at me.

Bagpipes on the Riverwalk: St. Patrick's Day

I guess I’m just too touristy. I am wearing green, but not really in any kind of purposeful way. I pulled out a sleeveless Dri-Fit shirt and put it with jeans and hoodie and comfortable walking shoes as I commit myself to serious “ambulation” in an attempt to heal feet crushed in a car-pedestrian accident (I was the pedestrian) that occurred a month and a half earlier.

The bagpipers debark and haul their instruments on their back, catch their breath, and ascend the stone steps to street level. Their kilts remind me of policemen in Fiji, where the skirts seem tough and masculine. If feminine, the closest neighbor would be pleated skirts used in lacrosse, a lady sport with weaponry. Unlike tennis, softball, and other ball sports which require smacking a ball with something, lacrosse sticks can and should be used to intimidate.

The skirts are not wool. A cotton-poly blend, I suspect, or perhaps a new, crisp, “smart” fabric. I am impressed with the plaids.

Later, as nightfall approaches, the avalanche reactivates itself. This time, it clatters downhill with an obliterating focus on sports; college and professional. I find this to be highly depressing, but what else can be expected if so many individuals in our culture are not active participants in the life of the mind, but find ways to amuse themselves or feel emotional connection to a concept at a time when religion has been problematized, and it’s no longer very easy to achieve social mobility via education, technical skills, or entrepreneurship.

Evelyn Waugh’s novels set in early 20th-century, post-Empire England come to mind, specifically Decline and Fall, as I think of ways in which our country has been distracted from the reality of a lack of production and de-industrialization. War is one distractor, since it employs people and gives the illusion of employment security. Another distraction offers itself through the Faustian bargains of disability and other attempts at securing a government sinecure, which is, in point of fact, a go-nowhere proposition, but as yet, there are no dynamic alternatives, since re-industrialization as yet is not economically viable.

My hopes back in 2008 in the height of the economic collapse, revolved around a wisely-administered Stimulus Bill that would rebuild our infrastructure and re-invigorate industrialization and entrepreneurship. Perhaps that happened, but it is hard to see how or where in terms of macro scales.

At the micro level, ingenuity and creativity are alive, but they are often in anoxic environments, buried deep beneath the avalanche, in need of a positive environment and cheap, available credit and other ways to leverage time to have time to build productive potential and serve the needs of markets.

So what gave rise to Empires in the first place? Creativity, innovation, trade, positive institutions, available credit, educated workforce, supportive legal framework.

Which of those are missing today?

I’m not much in the mood to think in terms of dirges, but bagpipes play in more than funerals, do they not? They accompany wars, and inspire warriors to feats of valor and blood-driven sacrifice. I’d like to think of such things in metaphorical terms, even as I’m considering the avalanche of culture and global political economic events.

So I return my gaze to the green shamrock waters of the river that flows along the edge of history, of the Alamo, which in itself, hearkens back to the Anglo-Saxons’ Battle of Maldon, where heroic sacrifice meant a turning point in a nation’s conception of self. For the Alamo, it meant becoming Texan. For Maldon, it mean becoming resolutely English.

It’s always the same people who ask all the questions. I am one of those annoying ones, I fear.

For me, the idea of retreating to history and living in a tree-shaded home with a veranda and an extensive library, where I spend my time writing and overseeing the sundry activities of a working ranch (with extensive mineral resources), draws me in.

I’d like to find old manuscripts and translate them. I’d like to publish meditations drawn from my own metaphysical and intellectually-triggered avalanches, where the humanistic studies are part of a larger mélange of technology, business, and art. In the end, the ice and snow-elements of the mélange melt away, and the remaining rocks have space in the interstices for creative thought and generative impulses.

I am relieved to hear the bagpipes recede and the splash of water from fountains surge forth.

Baudrillard’s Proxy: Disney and the Deterrence of the Production of Awareness

Baudrillard says it is too simple to say that Disney is a simulacrum of our world. Disney – the idealized experience – gives us a way to deter the production of awareness.

The deterrence of the production of awareness occurs in several ways:
First, you’re able to focus on the appearance of things and the world of phenomena, rather than introspecting and considering your own inner landscape; and
Second, you’re able to put off awareness conceivably indefinitely by reaffirming and perhaps even replacing your own beliefs, values, and assumptions with the embodiments of those you see externalized in the gorgeous and satisfying manifestations of Disney productions and artifacts.

Disney is simply the car with the hood up where you can actually see the engine of the production and transmission of a set of the idealized “real” and a belief in truth.

In most fabrications of reality, or productions eminating from the Matrix, the hood is resolutely slammed shut so that you cannot glimpse or peer into the inner machine.

Toto pulls back the curtain.

The Wizard was the first layer of production, but of course, there’s something behind the Wizard.

What lies behind the Wizard?
            Barthes would suggest Desire.
            Baudrillard would suggest distraction.
            Others (Nietzsche, etc.) would suggest production of the antitheses, antipodal, and oppositional relations (but not, it’s useful to observe, in a dialectic)
            Nietzsche would also suggest a set of juxtapositions that engenders a postmodern knowledge of self.
            Foucault might suggest that Disney exists as a Rosetta stone to our culture – a litmus test of which narratives have positive or negative valence in the world at large.
            Others might look at Baudrillard’s stance (the skin of reason, a “produced” reality, a privileging of the false) as an opportunity to import geomechanical paradigms and hyper-effective metaphors.

For metaphors and discourses of explanation, let’s look at a hardness and brittleness of the culture itself.

            What is our cultural Poisson’s ratio?  Young’s Modulus?
            What is the fundamental strength of materials and brittleness?
            How strong are our constructions?
            How brittle are they?  Can they be hydraulically fractured?
            How pliable are they? Do the fractures self-heal? Do they self-seal?

I’d like to look at the essential permeability of a culture.  Let’s think of ourselves vis-à-vis an idealized vision of how a utopian society would or should be?

            What is the ultimate ontological permeability?
            Penetratability of influences and substances?
            How well do outside values flow through our own values? What is the flow quality?
            Where do things swell and block the transmittal of ideas?  Is swelling all about emotion?
            Diagenesis:  under what condition does the original matrix alter? Where do our original values start to alter? Do they imitate the future?
            Where and when do we feel extreme heat? Hydrothermal alteration?

Baudrillard regards Disneyland as a machine that generates metaphors and mirrors.

Hence, its efficacy of a deterrence to people seeking to posit that there is, in fact, a “real” or any “meaning” in the world we now inhabit, with the minds we currently socialize into conformity with what will allow us to feel a part of a community (even the community as a whole, or a community of resistance, which is always problematized by dependency on the original essence, making resistance ultimately futile; it’s actually simply an outgrowth or an unwitting reinforcement).

If someone were to feel sad at Walt Disney World, I would wonder if what we’re seeing is a re-animation of the Sublime – the great “awe” (and “awfulness… awe-full-ness) – and a sense of loss at the constant contact with that. An ultimate awareness of one’s essential Fallenness – that it’s not possible to stay hooked into the Sublime given the consciousness available today, given today’s ideas of consciousness, spirituality, mind, and cognitive / numinative structures.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Post-Postmodernism: Technocratic Cultures?

I don’t think we’ll ever completely separate ourselves from postmodernist notions. After all, some postmodernist ideas have been percolating around in discourses of consciousness and meaning-making processes at least since Dante’s 13th-century Letter to Cangrande della Scalla in which the author (presumably Dante) discusses the fact that his work is polysemous. He expounds upon that notion and discusses four types of meanings which result in multiple strategies for interpreting texts.

Further, if postmodernist expanded the notion of “text” to include signs, natural phenomena, and more, well, we’ve had that in our consciousness ever since early Babylonian astrologers. In terms of creating patterns and developing codes / numerical strategies for text interpretations, we’ve certainly had that since Jewish gematria, and then also Kabbalistic practices.

This is not the place to develop a genealogy of postmodernist thoughts. I would love to do so, but I don’t want to deviate from the central idea, which is to say that for the last 10 or 20 years, theorists of all sorts have been attempting to declare postmodernism has declared officially “over” – and have proposed a wide array of alternative theories, many of which have to do with culture, technology, gender, and ethics.

There are aspects of postmodernist thought that I find very useful and I would not want to give them up. For example, I don’t want to give up some of the more interesting notions of reality and reality construction.

Perhaps it’s not productive to say that the world is completely an illusion, but it’s fun to think so. I also like the social constructivist ideas, especially when connected with power. For example, I have to say that I agree when Foucault and Baudrillard suggests prisons exist not only to enforce behavioral norms, but also to delude us into thinking that there is a “free” world and that “freedom” is an absolute, when in reality, there are all kinds of constraints to our freedom, beginning with language itself, and ending in behaviors, beliefs, and values that may be, in essence, coercive.

I think it is interesting that many of the new ideas of post-postmodernism have much to do with new technologies and the impact on identity (digital communities), selfhood (genetic engineering), privacy (Internet, surveillance, UAVs), communication (communications technologies), understanding the world (computing, Big Data), and more.

In fact, once one uses technology as the primum mobile of consciousness and global epistemological constructs, it’s easy to see how a next logical step would be a preferential shift to technocratic social organization, from individual communication to bodies politic. The implications could pretty scary. Technocracies are notoriously dehumanizing, especially when combined with command economies or oligopoly-tending capitalistic economies.

Here are a few recent ideas:

Pseudo-modernism / digimodernism: Digital technology can dismantle persistent postmodern issues such as “existential uncertainty” and “artistic anti-essentialism.” Kirby argues that the post-postmodern generation reverts to modernism, at least in the sense that there is a renewed belief in agency and in individual ability to influence others (by means of technology).  See Kirby (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture.

Automodernism:  Robert Samuels argues that new technology allow a new level of neutrality to emerge. At the same time, postmodernist identity “flux” is supplanted by new, hardened identity politics.

Complexism:  Philip Galanter has created a fusion of technology and the arts; it has been suggested that he echoes and updates the Russian and Italian Futurists (who were certainly pro-technology, with the idea that technology helps establish a coherent New World Order. Some of the enthusiasm died in WWI and in the early Soviet Union.

Hypermodernism:  Hypermodernism, coined in the 1990s, is a chaotic, high-intensity, fast-paced world of rapid and always evolving identity and social relationships. The hypermodern is not characterized by indeterminacy (as would the postmodernist world), but in quick moments of stasis, followed by discrete, lenticular “pods” of culture / socioeconomic / socio-political ontology.

Altermodernism: Nicolas Bourriaud embraces alterity and takes it further, suggesting that the creolization of our cultures in the global context will create a universal aesthetic. Multiculturism is worn out. The next stage is the “creole” (which will probably change, given the colonialist overtones implicit in the word itself.)


Alighieri, Dante. Letter to Can Grande della Scala. Accessed November 13, 2013

Awet (2013). Other Post-Postmodernisms: A Glossary. Heterodoxia. April 2013. Accessed Nov 15, 2013.

Kirby, A.  (2009) Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure our Culture. London, NY: Continuum Publishers.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

May Oil Rain Down on You! is the business world’s Facebook. As social media goes, it’s pretty useful, but it has a few attributes that I find utterly creepy. One of the little “features” is the fact it automatically generates a notice to all the members in one’s “network” when you achieve a 5 or 10-year work anniversary. asks your contacts to  “Congratulate So-and-So on their Work Anniversary!!” I suppose some people like this, but I most assuredly do NOT. I have looked for a way to keep it from sending out notices to people in my network, but I have failed.

So, consequently, when I reached the five-year mark at my current job, I received a number of congratulatory emails and “likes,” including one from a poet friend I have known for many years, and through that time have been condemned by for being associated with the oil industry: “Congratulations! May oil rain down on you.”

It does not seem like much of a congratulatory message to me – seems more like the old Chinese curse, “May you have an interesting life.”

The mental image his “congratulations” invoked is that of big vats of boiling oil being poured down from the turrets of a medieval castle as I attempt to scale the walls. Attacking the fortified castle is, in my own mind, a gesture that is partly heroic, as I seek to connect with whatever is inside the castle, and partly a “conversation” with all the fantasies and narratives of adventure and romance that involve risk and a grand vision. 

If I’m storming a castle, I’m in the service of a grand vision of “the new.” Officially, my vision involves trying to determine how to use new technologies to improve petroleum exploration and production efforts. In reality, it’s a quest for the “new” – and it’s probably, at least on one level, a deliberately Pollyanna-esque quest.

My vision is my ostensible subject. In literary critical terms, we can say I’m manifesting an example of the Bakhtinian dialogical imagination.  Mikhail Bakhtin, if you may recall, was a Russian philosopher, literary critic, and linguist who wrote The Dialogic Imagination in which he points out all utterances and conversations have intertextuality embedded within them, and it’s impossible to extract them.  The intertextuality has to do with references, allusions, and concepts that come in from texts that are either in the general zeitgeist are in a specific context.

Bakhtin’s view of embedded intertextuality extending far beyond the text itself was evoked as well in The Anxiety of Influence (1973) in which literary critic Harold Bloom seeks to show how deep intertextuality in poetry not only invokes previous ideas and authors, but also seeks to subvert or re-envision them.

“May oil rain down on you” invokes voices: his, mine, and all the works of literature, philosophy and art that intrude with their fragments, phantasmic energies, ghosts, and the “trace” of ideas and intellectual histories. These are intellectual repositories I interact with even if I’m not completely aware of them.

I respect the fact that my poet friend actively protested the construction of a pipeline near the south New Jersey shore where he lives. He rode out Superstorm Sandy from his high-rise apartment on the beach that had, as I understand it, inadequate electricity, water, and worse for weeks and weeks.

“May oil rain down on you.”

The same oil he wishes on me will rain on him as well. There is no way to avoid it.

I see his note as a desperate, last feverish hope for a restoration of a world that is essentially dualistic, rather than the place it really is, where everything is interpenetrating and interdependent.

There’s no real differentiation in our roles; we’re just in different places on a continuum. No really goes without consuming petroleum products, and the “moral high road” is largely an illusion.

In fact, in Baudrillardian terms, there is no moral high road in terms of one’s choices. Further, a unique, differentiable “footprint” is a fiction created to inspire the creation of a “virtue yardstick” and the possibility that one might be saved by means of his or her actions.

The reality is the socially agreed upon construct, the “virtue yardstick” which one uses to measure one’s environmental footprint.

So, although no one really avoids consuming the world’s resources, people are social animals and they like to organize themselves into groups, and they like to rank them. There will always people willing to set themselves apart as the priest class (closely related to the madman class, where madness & divine visions are potentially interchangeable … the old “vates” or prophets of Plato’s days).

But even if you manage to place yourself in the priest class, it’s not as comforting as a dualistic vision of reality, which gives you neat, easy moral clarity and “either/or” decisions.

Yet another intrusive thought distracts me with images of large vats of boiling oil being poured down on the heads of hapless warriors. I wonder where the high road is in this scenario.

If you’re the one pouring the oil, are you guilty of murder? You can argue that you were simply defending the castle, but what did your castle represent?  You’re trying to keep your own ideas intact.

Or, perhaps you’re protecting your own intertextuality and trying to keep it free of outside invaders. You don’t want the ideas of the general zeitgeist to intrude your own, or at least you’d like to control them.

Well, all I can say is, “good luck with that.”

Controlling what influences your own message is about as easy to accomplish is controlling the automatically generated messages, the “Congratulate so and so on their work anniversary!” messages your social networking site sends out.

Monday, November 18, 2013

College Football: The Hermit Crabs of Universities?

After hearing, for the thousandth time or so, complaints that college football dwarfs the colleges it purports to represent, it occurred to me that it might be possible to characterize the large NCAA football teams as hermit crabs that have lodged themselves in shell of just the right size, shape, and location. Then, once firmly inside, the football team’s locomotion is what moves the school along its track.

The new underlying school vision has been changed, and it puts football front and center, instead of the “old school” notion of college courses, exams, dorms, sororities, fraternities, late nights in the “old stacks” in the library, and the adrenaline charged exploration of old knowledge, new ideas, canonical thinkers, and new, fresh people and their energy for the future.

In an ideal world, the football program would help make the traditional college experience a viable part of today’s world. Critics scoff and say they’ve turned some colleges into pro football farm teams. And, who are the people who park their RVs for days in the largest college parking lots? Why has the university paid to install RV hookups?

The majority of tailgate campers are not and never will be alumni, and yet, they have driven a hundred or so miles to spend a few days relaxing with their friends and families, charcoaling, and streaming video from the internet connections supplied by the university. Why is the college team so important to them? And, given that the team is a gateway to an appreciation of the university as a whole, what are the implications?

It’s all in the hermit crab.

What’s a hermit crab?
Before we begin, let’s refresh our knowledge of hermit crabs. As you may recall, a hermit crab is born without protection for its soft, vulnerable belly, and it grows very quickly in warm, nutrient-rich waters. So, it finds a shell of just the right size and moves in. Once it’s in that shell, it’s in its own little paradise – it can move about at will and can go wherever it needs to go to find the best conditions and the best food for it to thrive. It may be a bit creepy to the spectator.  After all, those huge, spiny ungainly hermit crab legs drag the weird, unmatching shell under shipwrecks, into reefs, over tricky, rocky terrain, and into other places where the original inhabitant of the shell would never, ever go. But, at the same time, there is something sublime about it (and I’m using the word as Edmund Burke would use it, to mean awe-inducing as well as horror-inducing), and the spectacle is strangely riveting. It is a grotesque perversion of the original shell owner’s métier and way of being, but that’s neither here nor there. The shell belongs to the hermit crab now.

Now, let’s look at Hermit Crab Football. The football team is the hermit crab. The college is the shell. But is that the end of the story?

No. It’s more complicated than that. But, it’s worth examining, because there are many new revelations and insights about our world and our society that come to the surface as we look at the metaphorical model.

It’s not simple. In fact, the situation has become fairly vexed  (and complicated by the emotional nature of the topic), and there are many areas of contention in the new Hermit Crab Football of the nationally ranked NCAA football teams. I think I could extend this to basketball, too, but that’s another story. 

Win at any cost.
First, there’s the issue of “win at any cost.” I would say that this is a consequence of the importance that college football has, not just to the local economy or college enrollments and endowments, but to an entire swath of the populace that may have never had even the most ephemeral or tangential contact with the university in question, except for their football team.

In a society that is more and more fluid and faceless, where jobs are  uncertain and technologies are both door-opening and disruptive, there is very little to cling to that offers a constant, unchanging feeling of security and belonging. There is very little to cheer for – in the past, we could cheer for our employer, but that’s hard to do when you’re working three or four jobs, all part-time and without benefits. In the past, we could cheer for our hometown, but how many of us live in the “exurbs” – an affordable place to acquire a home where we can sleep, but requiring a 2-hour commute?

Or, if we’ve chosen to live near our downtown jobs, how many “warm fuzzies” do we feel about our one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartments with gated parking and security to make us feel better about the gunshots at night, noisy 3 am altercations at street level, and the people who roam the streets, perhaps homeless, perhaps simply drawn to the classic Craftsman home that has now lent its shell to meth entrepreneurs? It’s hard to get behind a community like that, and to find like-minded, like-spirited folk we can wear face-paint with and cheer heartily at the arrival of familiar mascots and colors.

The college football team provides all this. It’s provides a sense of home, of community, and belonging, and above all, it does not change, disappear, or make you feel physically threatened. The college football team creates a uniting presence, and games are a way for people to come together to share their time, energy, ideas, hopes, and dreams. The game is the cocooning moment – the time when you and your group can comfort retreat to a safe, pre-birth existence where all is possibility, and all is safe.

In the past, the “game cocoon” (at the field, at buddies’ homes with snacks and big screen, or in sports bars), usually involved alumni.  Now, it’s not the case at all. Loyalty to the team (and by extension, the college) extends far beyond alumni. Now, the team’s fans consist of people who feel passionately about the team, the team concept, and their fellow fans.

But, the team has to win.

No one likes to back a loser, and if you’re affiliating yourself with a team that makes you feel good, then, it’s clear that you’re going for that winning “winner” feeling – something that will help you feel good about yourself, your life, and the world, just by watching a game. Losing – especially losing to teams you do not respect – corrodes that good feeling.  So, when a team starts to lose, fans stop attending games. They stop flying banners and wearing branded, logoed outfits. They move to their “second choice” school’s football events. All the positive publicity that the college once received suddenly turns bitter, unpalatable.

If a college football team turns a blind eye to ethical and moral infractions being committed in the interest of “winning,” then no one has won at all, and the college team runs the risk of hurting not only its program and the university, but also the hearts and spirits of the fans, who look to the team for spiritual as well as emotional release.

So, there is no doubt that the burden to win brings with it a lot of baggage.

However, I think it’s too facile a solution to simply advise the university to get out of the football business. The world is what it is, and a university with a mission to develop the community and create an anchor in the world has to acknowledge the very real drivers (even if there is quite a bit of pressure, and the potential of an unanticipated ethical morasse) of what constitutes community and what constitutes an important intellectual wellspring.  So, like it or not, the university must do all it can (within reason and legal strictures), to help its team win.

Coaching staff salaries.
There is the issue of coaches’ salaries. The day before the local college football team’s first game of the season, I happened to overhear the familiar grumbling about the fact that the head coach was now earning a salary of $9 million per year (I did not confirm this). The tone of the person’s voice suggested shock and outrage, but there was also a bit of perverse pride in her tone.  It mattered that the university’s football team performed well – which meant winning a championships, going to bowl games, achieving high national rankings, and, above all, whipping arch rivals in games held in sometimes decrepit "neutral" stadiums equidistant between campuses.

I think you could make the argument that head coaches, in fact, could be paid more and the additional pay would be justified. In the past, the captains of industry – the industrialists who managed to corner the market on commodities (Carnegie and steel production, Rockefeller and oil), or to promote effectively (Jay Gould and railroads, J. P. Morgan and finance) – reaped the benefits.

I know there are fallacies in the analogy and that coaches are not robber barons, but we have to admit that in our post-industrial times, entertainment (which includes sports), has come to dominate a large sector of our economy. Yes, there are inequities – shouldn’t players be paid? And, as in the past, the media helps make empires, as in the role that ESPN, Sports Illustrated, etc. play in college football.  It echoes the role that Hearst and Pulitzer played on public opinion.

The head coach, along with the coaching staff, must find a way to create a team that inspires the enthusiastic devotion of the fans. Not only does that require winning, it also involves a positive public image that must take the raw material of new recruits and skillfully craft a narrative that aligns with the university’s vision and mission. It’s not easy.

Further, there are the technological considerations – intelligence gathering to prepare for upcoming games; disinformation and dissembling moves to upset the competition’s intelligence-gathering moves, and also strength and conditioning training to assure healthy players who perform at peak physical and psychological levels at all times. Again, it’s not easy.

Exploited players.
It has always bothered me that college football players are not paid salaries. Yes, I do understand that it would not be fair for the smaller, poorer universities because they would not be able to compete for the best players.

However, I would argue the small, unranked teams can’t compete anyway. The best players are hoping for a berth with a pro team (at least that’s the conventional wisdom), and only the top-rated teams have lucrative (and frequent) television appearances. Scouts have to work hard to find good players in the small teams, and even if they see them, they have no idea how those players might fare against the big boys.

It bothers me to think that a college star might have a career-ending injury and never have a chance at a place with a pro team. It also bothers me that the player has helped the college achieve its rank, standing, and has been a fundamental part of the gargantuan hermit crab, but is never really compensated.

I realize it’s complicated, but there must be a better way.

The hermit crab represents the soul of our people.
Educational purists (and some faculty and staff members) maintain that the state’s premier research university should stick to academics. Colleges and universities should educate the populace and promote the creation and dissemination of knowledge. 

That’s all well and good, but it disregards the trajectory that college football programs have been on for the last 30 to 40 years, and which has accelerated in the last 10 – 15 to achieve a fever pitch, thanks to technology, social media, social change, and economic structural changes. Football programs create fans. Fans come from all walks and stages of life, and the football team becomes a part of their identity, sometimes to a remarkable (even shocking) degree.

Identity questions.
What have we become? How has social change altered us? What are we as a people? The need for community has not gone away; people still have a need for affiliation. However, the old methods of obtaining that sense of togetherness, belonging – even enfranchisement in a society – have disappeared. We do have many, many online communities, and social media gives us a way to connect.

The connectedness of social media may ultimately fail to satisfy, and the void is filled with concepts and events that unite people by means of their emotions, connected at times (but not always) with shared beliefs and values.

The college football program that can be a successful hermit crab and move the shell of the university to being aligned with the hearts, minds, and spirits of a changing social milieu can be an important bellwether for times to come.

That said, clear, calm hearts should prevail.

(c) 2013 by Susan Smith Nash / Texture Press