Time to think

by Yule Heibel on May 15, 2005

When I was a graduate student at UBC, I had a friend who decided to work on a Canadian topic for his master’s thesis. One of the department’s faculty advised against that choice, noting, “You are burying yourself in a very shallow grave.”

Well, well. That’s what our faculty thought, and I’ll never forget the verdict. It rather stunned us die-hard neo-marxist theorists, so convinced we could overturn hierarchy. But after many heroic years of struggle, flailing in that shallow grave filling with just enough water to drown the non-swimming toddler at the pool party of art historical titans, the student realised the faculty were right. He set his sights on Soviet and Parisian art instead, topics forever chi-chi in the hothouse atmosphere of the politically charged circles that attract pomo theory and attention. I mean, dahling, Canadian art is so hopelessly provincial and backward and dull.

One must go with the flow of the times, it seems, lest one finds oneself stagnant in a bywater without feeders, outlets, or tides. The moon itself has no purchase, and your connection to planetary lights is extinguished. Curtain falls.


It’s a game of strategy, and just because you have the right (or noble) idea, doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out in your favour. I had to think of that past incident when I came across the following passage in a somewhat over-the-top baroque-ish melodrama of a mystery novel, Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Flanders Panel :

The eyes of the boy in the grey jacket were dull with weariness and shame. The knowledge that his game was superior, more daring and brilliant than that of his opponent, could not console him for his inevitable defeat. His fifteen-year-old’s imagination, extravagant and fiery, the extreme sensitivity of his spirit and the lucidity of his thought, even the almost physical pleasure he felt when he moved the varnished wooden chessmen elegantly across the board, creating on the black and white squares a delicate network that he considered to be of almost perfect beauty and harmony, all seemed sterile now, sullied by the crude satisfaction and disdain evident on his opponent’s face: a sallow-skinned lout with small eyes and coarse features whose only strategey had been to wait prudently, like a spider in the centre of his web, a strategy of unspeakable cowardice.

So this too was chess, thought the boy playing Black. In the final analysis, it was the humiliation of undeserved defeat, with the prize going to those who risk nothing. [p.264]

Yes, the prose is a tad overheated, but can’t you just see it?

I haven’t been posting much because my time has been completely colonised by matters which, due to my own stupid self-imposed guidelines, aren’t fit for blogging. I’m a bit of a simpleton, meaning that if something really has me by the nape of the neck, I have trouble concentrating on other things to blog about, regardless of how interesting they are. At times like this, my energy is like a one-way street, and that’s very unfortunate since it means I’m heading the wrong way.

Even itty-bitty shallow graves have traffic markers directing the corpse’s movements. Look at this one: where is it? A desert? Death Valley? Note that the arrows don’t point to the sky, …nor into the ground:

So you keep going, is that it? To the left, to the right… Anywhere but here?

Here’s a book I absolutely have to have: Chronophobia by Pamela Lee. The review in the Spring 2005 issue of Art Journal notes:

…there are few subjects seemingly as timeless as time itself. Despite time’s intractable, ever-advancing force, the experience of time has been shown to be both a highly subjective and a socially constructed phenomenon. For example, E.P. Thompson has argued convincingly that nineteenth-century industrialization brought about drastically new conceptions of lived time, as rationalized work schedules replaced the environmentally structured calendar of agrarian labor. (…) [Lee] extends this analysis into the twentieth century, arguing that the introduction of new information-based technologies in the 1960s dematerialized and greatly accelerated this process of industrial rationalization, leading people to experience “a marked fear of the temporal” (8) and, more to the heart of her thesis, shaping the major aesthetic debates and artistic production of the period. [From review by Robert Slifkin of Pamela Lee’s Chronophobia in Art Journal]

Some matters cut so close to the bone that one starts to see connections everywhere — for example, the business of time (and time management) discussed above. The off-limits topic that’s colonised my time has to do with how schooling-related matters directly affects my kids — it would be an invasion of their privacy to vent about the severe limitations of many curricular aspects they have to deal with. However, it’s a fact I’ve noted before here: although we homeschool, I’ve let us get pulled into distance education schooling this past schoolyear, but now I’m at the point of realising that it was a grand delusion to buy into the system like this. I don’t see education. Just to stir the shit up some more, take a look at John Taylor Gatto’s Sept. 2003 interview with Phil Dru (Gatto being someone mentioned often here before, despite the fact that he sometimes sounds perilously close to being a raving conspiracy theorist), and, for all the professional educators who ponce off to conferences (as well as for all the blogging conference organisers), chew on this:

The ritualized academic structure of panels and the non-communicative form of the keynote speaker feed into the celebrity system reinforcing hegemonic paradigms that get in the way of genuine dialogue and of diverse, emerging voices being heard. Some will read this criticism as an attack on the scientific community as a whole. We disagree. Academics are not a species in danger of extinction and it is time to get out of the defensive mode. Panelism is part of the dark side of ‘academism’ and needs to be addressed, exactly because it is spilling over to other contexts such as the arts, culture, new media and even activism. (…) Within the American ‘university of excellence’ (1) language and research formats in the arts are modeled increasingly after the business logic of the sciences. People who decide about grants in turn are looking at the military-industrial complex that supports them to an ever-growing extent. The possibility of failure, even in the sciences becomes almost impossible due to an all-powerful result imperative. Instead of addressing this topic directly, a culture of academic simulation is being introduced in which a wide range, from designers, programmers and activists to net artists are persuaded to respond to ‘call for papers,’ motivate each other to submit a ‘proposal for a panel’ and even have to buy into the dirty business of (blind) peer reviewing, enforcing lengthy citations, in order to get something ‘published’ on a website. Increasingly, dull formats of the sciences are imposed on the arts.

We designed the FreeCooperation conference scenario after the dramaturgical structure of a Brechtian play. The somewhat staged environments of the event were rather theatrical. In order to make way for new structures there it was a crucial need to crush all hope amongst possible followers of panelism. The mantra “no lectures, no panels” took a long time to sink in. Yet, at the same time the event had to be as open and participatory as possible. There is a wide range of alternative formats one can choose from nowadays. To state that keynotes plus panels is the only possible way of doing a conference is pure nonsense. All it takes is the willingness to experiment, undaunted by the prospect of failure. [More…]

Substitute “blogging” for “arts” and you see a connection to recent conversations about hierarchy and about who gets invited to speak. About who gets to speak. Substitute “distributed learning environment” for “arts,” and similar lights might go on for those involved in that milieu. At any rate, it’s not rocket science. All it takes is the willingness to experiment, undaunted by the prospect of failure. The shallow grave awaits us all anyway. May as well dance while still on our pins.


brian moffatt May 16, 2005 at 6:07 am

Panelism. I love it.

maria May 16, 2005 at 2:27 pm

Digging myself not so much deeper but wider into nowhere, I think I have too much dust in my mouth to make an intelligent comment — besides, I am limping from the pinprick, but I do love that Brechtian approach, that anti-panelism.

On another note: it’s nice to hear your “blog” voice again!

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