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Amor Mundi: Listening And The Lecture

Listening And The Lecture

(photo by Karl Rabe)

Miya Tokumitsu offers a defense of the much maligned university lecture. The attack on the lecture—that is passive learning and offers one-size-fits-all education—should not be true. A good lecturer engages her students. In any well-performed lecture, there is a give and take between professor and student. And students are active, taking notes, thinking, and asking questions. Most important, Tokumitsu argues, learning by lectures teaches students to listen, an art that is as necessary as it is endangered today.

“Neoliberalism has also made it hard to recognize the work students perform in lectures. Many critics dismiss lecture attendance as “passive learning,” arguing that students in lectures do not do anything. Today, declaring something passive completely delegitimizes it. The sociologist Eve Chiapello and the linguist Norman Fairclough argue that in today’s management culture, activity for its own sake has become essential to personal success: “What is relevant is to be always pursuing some sort of activity, never to be without a project.”

Indeed, in our constant scramble to project adaptable employability, we must always seem harried, even if our flailing about isn’t directed toward anything concrete. Without moving around or speaking, lecture attendees certainly don’t look busy, and so their activity is assumed to be passive, unproductive, and, consequently, irrelevant.

But lecture attendees do lots of things: They take notes, they react, they scan the room for reactions, and most importantly, they listen. Listening to a sustained, hourlong argument requires initiative, will, and focus. In other words, it is an activity. But today, the act of listening counts for very little, as it does not appear to produce any outcomes or have an evident goal.

No matter how fast-paced the world becomes, listening will remain essential to public dialogue and debate. As Monessa Cummins, department chair of classics at Grinnell College, explained to The New York Times: Can students “listen to a political candidate with an analytical ear? Can they go and listen to their minister with an analytical ear? Can they listen to one another? One of the things a lecture does is build that habit.””

The Liberal University in Illiberal Times

I have lectured twice at the Central European University in Budapest. It is a remarkable institution that stands firmly for an open society and the beauty and meaning of intellectual freedom. And for the past seven years it has been a target of Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s President who argues in favor of what he calls “illiberal democracy.” Now Orbán and his government have proposed a law that is aimed directly at forcing the Central European University out of Hungary.

CEU is a fully independent university with its own board and independent priorities. But in the world of Eastern Europe today, being associated with a Jewish patron who advocates for openness and liberal democracy is a sin. It is imperative that the world stand up and let Hungary know that such a blatant act of illiberal discrimination is unacceptable. Daniel Penev is a Masters student at CEU and a journalist. He writes both about what is happening in Hungary and the reasons it is important to save the Central European University.

“In line with the values and principles of open society, CEU has since its establishment brought to Budapest prominent thinkers and scholars to discuss the most pertinent topics of the day and further inspire students and faculty. Whether it is a guest lecture, a discussion panel, a conference, or a workshop, it doesn’t matter much. What matters, instead, is the fact that CEU hosts multiple and diverse events virtually every day throughout the entire academic year. If I confine myself to the guest lectures of interest to me only during the winter semester (9 January – 31 March), I can, with great delight, say that I had the chance to listen to internationally renowned speakers, politicians, and diplomats like Timothy Garton Ash (professor of European studies at Oxford University), Mark Lilla (professor of humanities at Columbia University), Jan-Werner Müller (professor of politics at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna), Ivan Krastev (chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna), Jacques Rupnik (professor at Sciences Po), Morgan Johansson (Minister for Justice and Migration of Sweden), and Liubov Nepop (Ambassador of Ukraine to Hungary). Events of this kind not only benefit CEU students and faculty but contribute to the academic vibe of Budapest and Hungary as a whole.

Budapest has been CEU’s home for more than two decades. In return, CEU has made Budapest a more visible and attractive spot on the academic and cultural map of Europe. CEU and Budapest need each other.”

Portable Radio

Michelle Dean wonders: whither the podcast?

“We are living through a great flowering of the podcast industry, whose province of iTunes is something like a frontier boomtown right now, teeming with hastily erected new storefronts. The podcast form has been around since about 2004—it is kissing cousins with the iPod, in that way—but it was only in 2014 that the idea struck gold. That would be the Serial moment, when Sarah Koenig’s twelve-episode exploration of a long-forgotten murder in Baltimore morphed into an amateur crime-solving hobby for millions of bored listeners. Before that, podcasts were a thing audio nerds did and talked about. Now, in the comfortable, educated, middle-class households of America, podcasts slot pleasantly into the routine of daily life. They help pass the time commuting on a crowded train or cleaning the bathroom. The experience lies somewhere between binge-listening and background noise.

Even though podcasts share no particular style and very few conventions, a sense of high purpose lingers around them. Podcast listening carries with it a faint aura of cultural snobbery, a notion that to cue up an episode is to do something highbrow and personally enriching, whether it’s a history lecture broadcast from a university, or an amateur talk show recorded in someone’s garage. Both types of show are somewhat educational, in the sense that they expose listeners to unfamiliar subjects and subcultures. But the essence of a podcast is to be esoteric, specialized. And sometimes it’s hard to draw a line between the specific and the trivial.”

We Are Here

Salar Abdoh introduces Baroj Akrayi’s photographs of a refugee camp in Iraq:

“Alongside the three-way intersection you will find the best olives in all of Iraq, they say. Lined up next to the casks filled with olives are also dozens of barrels of pickled fruits and vegetables. The work of bringing all this here and taking it back to… where? seems extraordinarily difficult under the circumstances. When I ask what happens with the olives and pickles at night, when, I assume, everyone leaves for whatever place might serve as a home at this point, they say that they cover them, leave them, and come back in the morning. This seems reasonable and absurd. Which is how the photographer, Baroj, sees it too. His stoic stare travels the length of the road to where a broken city, Mosul, begins. From an earlier interview he’d given in an Iranian journal, I find out that as a Kurdish child refugee himself, some forty years ago, when Saddam was pounding this very geography, he watched as first one of his sisters then another committed suicide through self-immolation. I ask him what he thinks nowadays, standing here four decades on, taking photographs of more refugees, more ruins.

“I think that every day that we live is a day stolen from death.”

In the surrounding camps his lens follows the children and the old. The vulnerable. It’s as if by capturing them he is also lending them protection. They’ve been seen; they are here. In the same Iranian journal interview, Baroj also talks about moving from Iran to Sweden and ultimately back to his native Kurdistan. In Sweden the photographer spent ten years working in an old-age home, where death was a business. He wrote, in Persian, a collection of short stories based on his experiences: We Are Here.”


Mencius Moldbug, or Curtis Yarvin (By BIL – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Shuja Halder describes the history of an esoteric branch of the alt-right movement that emerged from the techno-utopianism of machine learning:

“This tendency is brought into stark relief in Google’s Deep Dream program, in which a neural network scans an image for recognizable patterns, attempting to identify its contents the way a human would. The program produces evidence of its thought process by superimposing other corresponding images onto the original. Google’s image recognition system, trained by its programmers to recognize human faces and differentiate between kinds of pets, sees eyes and dogs everywhere. The desires, conscious and unconscious, of the machine’s creators are inevitably implicated in its ostensibly autonomous development.

If the builders of technology are transmitting their values into machinery, this makes the culture of Silicon Valley a matter of more widespread consequence. The Californian Ideology, famously identified by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron in 1995, represented a synthesis of apparent opposites: on one hand, the New Left utopianism that was handily recuperated into the Third Way liberal centrism of the 1990s, and on the other, the Ayn Randian individualism that led more or less directly to the financial crisis of the 2000s.

But in the decades since, as the consumer-oriented liberalism of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave way to the technological authoritarianism of Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, this strange foundation paved the way for even stranger tendencies. The strangest of these is known as “neoreaction,” or, in a distorted echo of Eliezer Yudkowsky’s vision, the “Dark Enlightenment.” It emerged from the same chaotic process that yielded the anarchic political collective Anonymous, a product of the hivemind generated by the cybernetic assemblages of social media. More than a school of thought, it resembles a meme.”

Empty Places

In order to think about what happens when capitalism passes by a place’s, or a peoples’, usefulness, Tom Whyman considers what’s happened to Cornwall, in England, where the tin mines, productive for more than 4000 years, have gone silent:

“How does a place respond when it’s been hollowed out of everything that makes it distinctive, of everything, indeed, that gives it a reason to exist? This is an important question, because increasingly it seems like that must be the kind of place in which all of us, soon enough, will find ourselves. Oh, it’s a well-worn shibboleth of digital-age economic forecasting that we are on the cusp of increased automation of labor—or indeed, that we are about to experience the total such technological displacement of the mere human worker. The advent of 3-D printing and AI technology means that all of our devices will soon be able to build, design, and oversee themselves without any human assistance. In the not-too-distant future—just as soon as it is profitable for whoever is in charge to impose this post-work regime upon us—we will be ferried around by self-building, self-powering, self-driving cars, on routes approved by a city plan developed algorithmically, to buildings managed internally by intelligent environmental regulation software. No human input will be necessary at any stage of any process; even reports of the effects of mounting automation will, soon enough, start writing themselves. Even if Cornish mining ever were to be revived, the renaissance would probably be jobless: a tin-mining program would be able to source all the hardware and mechanize the whole operation by itself.

The total automation of labor has been something that leftist authors such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Paul Mason, and Aaron Bastani have actively called for, believing that it will liberate us from the dull, thankless work human beings are otherwise forced to perform. With our tasks taken over by machines, we will come to exist in the utopia of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” as Bastani likes to call it—a state of limitless opulence in which we will have all the time in the world to fulfill whatever creative ambitions we might happen to possess.

But to my mind, it seems more likely that automation will impoverish us, and perhaps even lead to our extinction. Under capitalism, each of us reduces to our function in the labor market. This is how the capitalist state considers us, at least: as things that perform, either successfully or otherwise, a certain useful (i.e., profitable) purpose. If this function were to disappear (and no other function could be found to replace it), then so, too, would any reason capitalism might have for keeping us alive. Total functionlessness would mean human obsolescence. Why should the obsolete expect to live in conditions of opulence? It would be far more realistic to expect the abattoir.

Cornwall has responded to its own loss of function in a number of ways. The tourism industry, for instance, has expanded (although that inherently seasonal labor regime does not typically bring with it steady, sustainable jobs), and the county has certainly become a popular retirement spot for wealthy Britons (although it is hardly a sign of vibrancy if your area is turning into what is essentially a gilded coffin). Oh, and the Cornish have recently started to worship a big puppet.”

No Monuments Over Babi Yar

Yevgeny Yevtushenko died this week. He was perhaps best known for his poem Babi Yar, a poem in honor of the Jews massacred at Babi Yar in Ukraine in 1941. The poem begins:

There are no monuments over Babi Yar.
But the sheer cliff is like a rough tombstone.
It horrifies me.
Today, I am as old
As the Jewish people.
It seems to me now,
That I, too, am a Jew.

Raymond H. Anderson memorializes Yevtushenko in the New York Times.

“But it was as a tall, athletic young Siberian with a spirit both hauntingly poetic and fiercely political that he established his name in 20th-century literature. He was the best known of a small group of rebel poets and writers who brought hope to a young generation with poetry that took on totalitarian leaders, ideological zealots and timid bureaucrats. Among the others were Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina, Mr. Yevtushenko’s first wife.

But Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, taking care not to join and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

Some critics had doubts about his sincerity as a foe of tyranny. Some called him a sellout. A few enemies even suggested that he was merely posing as a protester to serve the security police or the Communist authorities. The exiled poet Joseph Brodsky once said of Mr. Yevtushenko, “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.”

Mr. Yevtushenko’s defenders bristled at such attacks, pointing out how much he did to oppose the Stalin legacy, an animus fueled by the knowledge that both of his grandfathers had perished in Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. He was expelled from his university in 1956 for joining the defense of a banned novel, Vladimir Dudintsev’s “Not by Bread Alone.” He refused to join in the official campaign against Boris Pasternak, the author of “Doctor Zhivago” and the recipient of the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. Mr. Yevtushenko denounced the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; interceded with the K.G.B. chief, Yuri V. Andropov, on behalf of another Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.”

The End of History

Paul Sagar looks back at Francis Fukuyama’s, prediction 25 years later:

“It’s worth elucidating the actual argument of The End of History. For a start, Fukuyama never suggested that events would somehow stop happening. Just like any other sane person, he believed that history (with a small h), the continuation of ordinary causal events, would go on as it always had. Elections would be held, sports matches would be won and lost, wars would break out, and so on. The interesting question for Fukuyama was about History (with a big H), a term that, for him, picked out a set of concerns about the deep structure of human social existence.

With regards to History, Fukuyama advanced a complex thesis about the way opposing forces play themselves out in social development. Here, he drew inspiration from the work of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, via the reinterpretations of the Russian émigré Alexandre Kojève. Hegel (and Kojève) proposed that History is a process by which contradictions in the ordering of societies work themselves out by eventually overcoming conflict, so as to move to a higher order of integration, where previous contradictions drop away because the underlying oppositions have been solved. The most famous instance of such a ‘dialectical’ view is Karl Marx’s (also made under Hegel’s influence): that the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would eventually move past their combative opposition, via a period of revolution against capitalism, into the harmony of communism.

In essence, big-H history was, for Fukuyama, an understanding of human development as a logical progression (or dialectical working out of contradictions), generating a grand-narrative of progress, in which each step forward sees the world becoming a more rational place. For Fukuyama, the long-run development of humanity was clearly discernible: from the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, and then crucially the Enlightenment, with its inventions of secularism, egalitarianism and rational social organisation, paving the way in turn for democratic liberal capitalism. This was the cumulative, and thus far upward-curving, arc of human development.”


Today is opening day. Amidst the punishing philistinism of political and intellectual life since that brilliant World Series in October, I have been waiting for this day. Baseball is not simply a game. Unlike football, basketball, soccer, hockey and all the other mainstream sports in America, baseball has no clock. It ambles at its own course. It is a sport you can take in on a long sunny summer evening with your children or your parents. It is replete with long pregnant pauses for conversations, arguments, and, above all, stories. Baseball is a world of stories. And recently a member of the Arendt Center gifted me an elegant, small, masterful book of baseball stories, Kevin Guilfoile A Drive Into the Gap. If you love baseball, and even if you don’t, this book is worth it. I have cried and laughed my way through it. Here is the first story. See you at the game.
—Roger Berkowitz

“My first memory is of my father carrying a hammer into our bedrooms and smashing open our piggy banks on the night Roberto died. I couldn’t have known what was happening. I didn’t know about the sputtering airplane, carrying one Major League superstar and too many supplies for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. But I might have understood what Roberto meant to my dad.

Three years earlier, as my father arrived for his first day on the job with the Pittsburgh Pirates, he had been intercepted by Dick Stockton in the parking lot of McKechnie Field, the Bucs’ spring training home in Bradenton, Florida. Stockton is a first-tier play-by-play announcer now, but in 1970 he was a Pittsburgh television sports anchor, and he asked if Dad was the team’s new public relations director. When my father said he was, Stockton said he would like an interview with Roberto Clemente. My father explained he’d only been on the job a few minutes, and that he hadn’t even met Clemente yet. Nevertheless, he would see what he could do.

My dad has Alzheimer’s now so I can’t ask him what happened next, but when his memories were still present he took out a yellow legal pad and wrote down many of his baseball stories. In these pages he describes his first encounter with Roberto. Dad introduced himself as the new PR guy, and in the next breath asked if Clemente would do an interview with the sports director from KDKA-TV.

Roberto reacted with a three or four minute outburst, combining English and Spanish, to let me know exactly how he felt about Stockton. Apparently he and Dick had had a falling-out some time ago over something Stockton had said on the air.

Then Roberto paused, regained his composure, and looked at me with a little smile. “Would it help you if I did the interview?” he asked.

“Well, it’s my first day on the job and I’m trying to get off on the right foot,” I said. “Yes, it would help me if you would talk to him.”

Clemente nodded and said, “Ok. For you I will do it, my friend.” He finished dressing, walked out on the field, and gave an interview to Dick Stockton for the first time in years.

That night in my bedroom, early in the morning on New Year’s Day, 1973, I don’t think my dad had words for what he was feeling. He’d just finished a call with Joe Brown, the Pirates’ general manager. In his grief, Joe didn’t hang up the phone on his end, which, in the context of early seventies telecommunications, meant our home phone was disconnected. So Dad poured change from his kids’ banks into an old sock that he would carry, along with his little green address book, a mile through the cold and snow to a parking lot pay phone outside a general store, and from there he would tell the world that his friend Roberto was dead.”

Posted on 2 April 2017 | 9:00 am

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