Sunday, July 19, 2009

Unsatisfied Fools

I am new to Karl Pilkington. That is to say I have yet to read the books, and I have only just ingested the years of radio shows and podcasts. Of course I have also spent considerable time searching out clips on youtube and the like. While I certainly enjoyed the three part program I found on youtube (probably originally for BBC TV) entitled Karl Pilkington: Satisfied Fool, I think it is rather misnamed. Surely the point is that he is unsatisfied. Is it not this quality of his that makes him so interesting? Most fools (by which I mean most people, but I will get into Karl as a representation of the population at large in a moment) are entirely satisfied, at leas the appear to be. They don't ask questions, they don't make documentaries about their quest for answers to questions (however stupid those questions may be). Perhaps Karl named the documentary himself?

In the program Karl searches for an answer to his question: “Is it worth it to be smarter?” Since Karl is an idiot, he naturally thinks that being smarter means knowing more stuff, so what underpins his asinine question is the belief that if he worked harder at being smart i.e. if he read more, he would amass a repository of more facts and bits of information and thus would be smarter. Of course he leans toward not doing this, toward not learning, because what little he does pick up from reading – and it should be mentioned that he is a terrible, terrible reader with no attention span and no sensitivity to nuance – does no make him any happier. This is also crucial – he thinks knowledge should equal happiness.

The fascinating thing about all this is that it seems irredeemably idiotic when you watch this man bumble his way through these ridiculous questions, but somehow he represents a fundamental human problem. I think we all have it in our heads, even those of us who try to exercise it like a demon, that happiness is the ultimate goal. Whether one views it as a birthright or a responsibility, we treat life as a quest for happiness. Every other activity gets filtered through that lens. Will knowledge make me happy? Will money make me happy? Sex? Drugs? Marriage? Religion? Health? Hobbies? Instead of attempting to balance these these things to achieve some semblance of a whole human most people focus on one or two. Most of us do not have sufficient time for emotional, intellectual, spiritual and physical fulfillment or satisfaction. We pick the area that tickles us, the one that is easiest, and focus on that. The reason why this never results in happiness is that the other aspects of existence or consciousness have been neglected and the simple fact of the matter is that all need to be nourished. The intellectual lives in quiet desperation, unable to relate to his fellow human beings emotionally. The poet dies young because he neglects his body which he sees as the cage that traps his spirit. And so on.

Karl is not going to keep his desperation quiet and this is his illuminating quality. He is a fool, but perhaps no more so than most people. (One could argue that the title card inserted at the end that shows his Mensa test score of 83 in relation to the average score of 100 would indicate that he is indeed stupider than most people.) It's just that most people keep their mouths shut. My junior high school science teacher was fond of telling us, “You know if you didn't open your mouth, no one would know how stupid you are.” Alot of us learned that lesson despite the deluge of reality shows in which people give vent to every fleeting eighth-grade emotion and inane notion in their heads and despite that we are taught that self-expression is the supreme purpose in life. This contradiction causes a problem: when people do open their mouths they have a delusional sense of entitlement because they have learned that every utterance is a sacred expression of self-hood than no other person has a right to judge. Nobody wants to speak up, but when they do, you had better thank them for it.

I go through this in every course I teach. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's attempts to educate Karl sound like exactly my experience with students who are supposedly much smarter than Karl is. I beg them to talk. I try to interest them in anything so I will have a point to jump in. But somehow they think that it was the talking that was the important thing in itself. When they start talking and I correct them or critique them in any way, they are flabbergasted. Why am I talking if I am not going to receive adulation and affirmation? In one season of the radio show, Ricky would give Karl books to read – little introductions to various historical figures of note like Churchill and Rasputin. The comedy of it was that Karl kept thinking that he was supposed to get out of it whatever he got out of it, when Ricky was trying to get him to learn specific, key points about the subjects of the books. A lot of this has to do with Karl's reading comprehension and short attention span. This is why Karl's “search” is ultimately doomed to fail – he isn't really searching because he does not how. I think of the student who refuses to accept a single premise proposed by the course, but insists that he is really trying hard. Trying is not only a decision. It is also a skill. Learning is not the addition of information. It is acceptance of ways of knowing that sometimes nullify the ones you used previously.

Karl believes that Knowledge is a collection of facts. In his conception the only advantages to being smart are for “chat” and to avoid coming across “daft.” Substitute “chat” for “classroom discussion” and “not coming across daft” for “getting a good grade” and you have the average college student. Almost every student I ever had wants me to tell them a list of things they can repeat to me in class and in papers. They just want to know what it takes to impress me. How can I not think of Karl exclaiming to the man who quotes Socrates, “See? That's what I want to be able to do.” All of the people Karl interviews tell him the same thing: intelligence is not merely knowing a bunch of stuff. Karl just does not get it. He glazes over like a dog shown a card trick and says, “Yeah but I just think if I had some quotes....” He thinks being smart is the same as impressing other people with quotes. The rub is that a lot of academics think so too! Karl might be better off though, because he knows that he just wants to appear to know stuff, where academics typically think they know a lot of stuff.

I am drawing parallels to the academic world, but it should be clear that Karl's inadequate understandings are indicative of what we might call, for lack of a better term, “human nature.” Perhaps “human tendency” would be better. We all want recognition. What is recognition but an appearance? When a student tells me he really is trying so hard, he is usually merely putting on the appearance while resting firmly within previously established boundaries. These limitations are precisely what stops learning from ever happening. One of the worst arguments I had with a student was over a paper she had written about Stranger Than Paradise. In the prompt I carefully specified that her essay should address the slow pace of the film without using the word “boring.” I regard this as a fairly straight-forward technique. The idea is to encourage the student to think about a very conspicuous aspect of the work without the facile category she would want to plug it into. Perhaps forcing one to use different words will engender new ideas. “If you are bored, you're boring,” someone once said. John Cage said if you are bored for two minutes, try it for four minutes; if you are still bored try it for eight more, and so on. I said that Stranger Than Paradise is slow but it isn't boring. Explain why it is slow. You can imagine what she wrote. After she saw her “D” she screamed at me about how she's entitled to her opinion and all the familiar excuses against thinking and learning I mentioned at the beginning.

Gervais is in Satisfied Foool for about 30 seconds, and he says simply, “Karl won't learn anything from this.” Maybe it's because he really is stupid, and maybe my student who thinks Stranger Than Paradise is boring is stupid. We are not all created equal. Yet there is something fundamentally human about the way Karl will ask a question, but not accept the answer because he already has an idea of what the answer should be. I think of the time (I don't know if it was the podcast or the XFM show) Ricky tries to convince him that dinosaurs and humans never shared the planet and he just cannot entertain the notion. “Surely their paths would have crossed at some point,” he says. He does not conceive of how vast the past is; he only knows that it happened before he got here. In some form or another, we all have that problem. We all know we don't know everything. Most of the time we are dissatisfied with our inadequate understanding of life, the universe and everything. It is only when we are being told answers that we suddenly feel protective of everything we already know.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Hazards of Academia Part 249

Just a heads up to draw whatever attention I can to a couple essays recently posted on my website:

One of them is the result of a commission of sorts gone haywire. I was asked by a scholarly journal to write a review for Black Dog Press's Tarkovsky Anthology. No easy task for me to tackle a collection so disparate and voluminous and treat all the contributions fairly and equally. I gave it a shot, but in the end my ideas of fairness and equality did not match those of the editors. I believe the phrase "conclusionary screed" was used. Moreover, and this was the irresolvable conflict, the essay I submitted was too damn long. The version that appears at my site, which I cut several pages from, comes in just over eight thousand words. Apparently I was to shoot for something closer to 4500 maximum. I was given the chance to trim it down to 5500, and they even gave me a headstart by slashing the first three or four pages which constitute the entire aesthetic foundation as far as I am concerned. In the end I was unable to hack it up to fewer than six thousand, and I found that version to be a semi-cohernet rant at best, an author by author denunciation of each essay in the Anthology. I had hoped to publish that hatchet-work version then post a link to it so that readers could compare the two essays side by side, and perhaps learn something about academic freedom. Unfortunately, it was not to be and I can offer only the "original" review.

The other essay is something I wrote years ago about Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter I suppose that I am primarily a film scholar insomuch as I usually write about films. On occasion I do write about books. I have some training in that discipline after all. Recently I unearthed this essay which I had submitted as partial completion of my Master's degree in English. Surprised at how good it was (I had not considered anything in it for six or seven years), I punched it up and sent it to a major American literary journal that shall remain nameless. Upon rejection I decided to post the entire text at the website. Some might say I should have tried another journal, but the old song and dance that accompanies nearly every rejection I receive i.e. "lack of critical engagement with recent scholarship" has won the day. I cannot fight for everything, and besides needs some fresh content. So I'll let you be the judge. Does the piece need "a better sense of the contemporary and ongoing debates" over the novel in question? Would it benefit from a more up to date bibliography; the editor used the phrase "since the 1980's"? (I should note that all quoted passages above are cut and paste from the email I received from the editor.)

Please check out the essays. Perhaps you will find them amusing.