Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Different Prizes pt. 2

Replying to a previous post, Brandon (The Enthusiast) writes:
I've been thinking more and more on those prizes— those "external goods" dangling around here and New York, that seem to keep working their way further and further inward— and it makes me really stick closer to that Internal Good.
I hadn’t considered the issue precisely as Brandon has portrayed it here: for me, I was thinking of Doc in the Boston Aquarium (from Robert Kramer’s Route One USA) musing on the “different prizes” of the culture that strays from the standard ideal of bourgeois America. In Doc’s (and my) original conception, prizes are differentiated between cultural norms, and it is in some sense the burden of those who have devoted their lives to a particular culture that they may only strive towards their culturally-determined prizes. Different pathways lead to different prizes, neither are objectively worth more. Doc’s goal in this little pep-talk is to remind the non-bourgeois individual, whose heart is heavy when he catches a glimpse of the comfortable, domestic life from which he has opted out (I use the masculine, because it seems likely that Doc is directing his talk self-ward, or possibly at director Kramer), that his choice of a different path also brings with it certain opportunities, its own lonely, precarious, yet noble prizes as well.
Brandon’s conception of the “external good” versus the “inner good” considers the situation from within a single cultural milieu, separating the prizes of an endeavor itself (in the university, the love of learning, the φιλοσοφία) from those which stem from the social and economic factors which affect those who partake in said endeavor (the cushy jobs, salaries, stipends, wine and cheese receptions, esteem of peers, cultural capital, etc.).
I’m sure Brandon is thinking also of the art world in NYC, where the actual artworks on the walls are often the least important things at a gallery opening—and are duly ignored by the majority of the socializing crowd. Artworks are sold not for their aesthetic value, but for the current position of the artist/gallery on the market. This position is always determined 90% by pure marketing, 10% by the quality of the artist’s oeuvre as a whole (although there’s no accounting for taste), and 0% by the quality of the work in question. No one would deny this, I think. (And if I sound bitter, it’s because I am: Chelsea is an absolute shit-show these days).
In the academy, the situation is different, and perhaps much more naive (which is not necessarily a bad thing: cynical collaboration is sometimes much worse). It is, in fact, pounded into the heads of incoming students that they are here to learn, to enrich their minds, to become better people. The motto "non scholae sed vitae discimus" (we learn not for school, but for life) provides the cover for what is at heart a training in docility and discipline, picking up enough cultural capital along the way to clear the path towards the highest-paid positions of bourgeois society. The ones who really get fooled return to the fray, and let themselves be trained to do such training, navigating an intricate obstacle course of groveling and pedantic ostentation, ending up with tenure in middle America. The first thing thrown aboard is this ideal of learning for life—the pure encounter between living man and printed word—rather than for school. Unlike the art world insularity, which is openly accepted, the academy never acknowledges the fact that it operates as an enclosed economy, that learning occurs as a stepping stone not towards enlightenment, but towards academic success—the key which (supposedly) unlocks the reservoirs of capital.
All this what I’ve just said is pure Übertreibung (exaggeration), yet to quote Thomas Bernhard, “ohne Übertreibung kann man gar nichts sagen.”
At any rate, I think its important to point out that there are certain ‘prizes’ in the academic world which have naught to do with the “inner good” of the literary experience, and everything to do with the sociological function of the university in present-day capitalistic society. Unlike the art-world, which (for better or for worse) accepts its new role (however ironically), the academy naively presumes idealism where there is only cynicism.

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