Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

Civil Lies a Ton

Often I began my classes by asking a basic question: if something pervasive, invisible, and very powerful were affecting you daily, in all aspects of your life, would you want to know about it? I don’t recall too many sleepy shoulders shrugging. We want to know what it is that is impacting us on a daily basis. Of course, I meant religion. Our secular society has a peek-a-boo affinity with religion; if we close our collective eyes, it will go away. Time and history have long put the lie to this idea—religion is a deep and pervasive force in society, and it is not about to go away. In our one-size-fits-all culture, however, we like to think that the bottom-line of greed and personal promotion will satisfy everyone. Statistics, however, seem to indicate otherwise. Not just America, but the world is a pretty religious place. I have always wondered at the strange elitism that considers itself above the influence of hoi polloi (in the literal sense). “If I’m not religious,” so the reasoning goes, “then no sensible person can be.” And we ignore religions until they explode and then go on ignoring them some more.

Although my career hasn’t turned out the way I’d hoped—I am an academic through and through—I still believe in the conviction that got me started down this rough and tangled trail. Religion is important. It is important to understand because it is very much a part of what it means to be human. Even those who are not religious have had to switch off an instinct that every child feels during a thunderstorm, and every adult feels at a time of deep, existential crisis. We may not believe, and yet we believe we believe. Religion is part of us. If we ignore it, we become strangers to ourselves.

I often look at our insipid culture. Sure, the internet provides hours of entertainment, and even some bits and pieces of knowledge. We have, however, consistently devalued those things that make us civilized. Art, music, literature, and yes, religion, all played a part in the very founding of what we consider civilized existence. Prior to that we were hunter-gatherers, roaming after the necessities of daily life. While our institutions of learning struggle to make entrepreneurs believe they still have value, we train our children to hunt and gather. It may not be food, but it is something not so different from food. Only money truly satisfies. If there were another way of being in the world, it might imply—why, it might imply that there is something more to be gained from life. And since that idea is a religious one, it is safest to ignore it and pray it will go away.

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Academic Omelets

As an erstwhile accidental adjunct, I came to see a side of the academy increasingly rare these days: the professional who must earn his or her keep. That life is less than half-a-year away and I still look to see what is happening as higher education crumbles under its own excessively disproportionately top-heavy infrastructure. An article in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education outlined how an adjunct, on his own initiative, began a survey of working conditions for those in similar academic situations. The results went viral and universities felt the need (only occasionally) to justify their actions. Expediency at the cost of a few eggheads nobody worries about, but when the news starts to leak like so many yolks, it is about time to at least act concerned. The phrase that stuck in my shell as I read the piece was this: “many adjuncts nevertheless feel they embody a lower class in academe.”

I felt like a bulls-eye had just been struck, and that bulls-eye had been painted on my forehead. Higher education has always been subject to claims of elitism and exclusivity. I entered the industry because at every stage along the way my instructors encouraged me to continue since I thrived in that atmosphere. I had entered higher education, however, from a humble, working class family. No dreams of power drove me—it was the sheer joy of learning. When I tried to situate myself among those who had had a leg-up in life, it was an uneasy fit. It’s like that uncomfortable feeling when a homeless person sits next to you on the subway. You know you could help, but you know there is an invisible wall that separates your world from his or hers. And hopefully, somewhere deep inside, you also realize that that homeless person could have been you.

The adjuncts are the working class among higher education. At some schools the full-time faculty teach very little and get to earn their lights as the brilliant minds who write books. I’ve written a couple myself. The difference is, they are bona fide. Privileged. Education used to be considered a great leveler. As in most myths, the truths in that sentiment are heavily metaphorical. Education could level the playing field if people weren’t prone to accept privilege when it is offered to them. What adjunct would not just as soon become the full professor with a light load and the fame of being featured on television and interviewed in Time? I don’t mean to single out universities—people in all situations tend to behave that way. No, I don’t single out universities. It was just that I hoped they might have been above this kind of thing.

This is your life, on adjuncts.