May 16, 2013
When historians look back and write about the collapse of the university, they will point to the precise moment we started giving credit for these.
Aaron Bady at The New Inquiry has a great piece on the MOOC phenomenon. Read it. MOOC fear has become such a universal fear in the academy that I forget most people don't know what's about to happen. I usually get the incredulous look when I talk about the collapse of the university model over the next couple decades. How could a hundreds of years old system actually collapse over a single invention? Same way a single instrument called a derivative can crash a finance market- it was always primed to be taken advantage of. Now the technology to kill it off is finally here.
California has a three-tier system for higher public education: UCal, Cal State, and city colleges. The city college network is meant to turn out associate's degrees and/or be an inexpensive two-year GenEd period where students complete the IGETC requirements guaranteeing transfer into Cal State or UCal schools. Only it doesn't quite work that way. I know this because before she recently transferred to Pepperdine my wife dealt with the bureaucratic mess that kept many of her peers in the city college system for 4 years or more (again, to get only half a BA). The problem is too few classes, which in turn is a result of budget cuts that eliminate teachers. It's a big problem throughout California. The simple solution would be to fund the colleges. But why do that when a corporation lobbies to make a profit off desperate students?
State Senator Darrell Steinberg (D-CA) has sponsored SB 520 to allow students to receive credit for MOOC course produced by for-profits like Coursera and Udacity. It's a terrible thing disguised as a half-way decent thing. It's solving a problem that we created via funding cuts in order to shift public capital to private corporations (not to mention the price could justify cutting thousands of professors in the process- PhDs on food stamps!). Adorno and Horkheimer call this a staged theater. It's a con, a distraction, a solution to keep things basically the same. In this case, same is where a capitalist economy simply has no mechanism to reward humanities disciplines (or thought in general), and so it shifts to generating STEM degrees. We just need to generate STEM students or else [something about southeast Asia].
As California goes, so goes the nation. Public and private universities are scrambling to rethink traditional online courses (which differ in giving credit to small sets of students already enrolled at that institution) into pre-filmed, YouTube length lecture snippets that can be served up day and night for potentially millions (yes, millions) of students (NB: a student is a commodity that generates loan revenue for a university). Classrooms on autopilot. "Peer-grading" is the leading edge for the "but how will we grade papers?!" question, which is what you are asking if you still think the system is going to care about measuring quality.
Daphne Koller: What we're learning from online education
I'm not at all opposed to online education per se. I'm opposed to credit. I learn as much listening to iTunes U lectures from Yale as I do listening to my profs lecture at Claremont. Podcasting lectures is a great workaround, particularly for humanities students who already have to know hundreds of authors. Combine that with my interests spread across multiple disciplines, and I have serious limits. I realistically only have time to read around 150 books per year, which is well short of what I need to cover in the 7 year MA/PhD process. So online audio/video options are great for filling in gaps. But there are no replacement for real professors, strenuous reading, and conversations over drinks with colleagues after class- which is where actual learning happens. I'm as much a TED Talk fan as the next academic. Here is one I listened to discussing peer-grading. I listened to it last summer on my cross-country drive back to Los Angeles to begin my PhD program. I distinctly remember being in some godforsaken desert in New Mexico, the bleak environment an ironic background for the prophecy of my future.
By the way, if you are tenured Harvard prof earning well-above-average salary and you film a MOOC for a couple thousand dollars- knowing full well your actions could mean the end of hundreds or even thousands of young prof's careers- you are a deplorable person.
This is the way the critically-thinking world ends
Only one thing is putting the breaks on any of this: course credit. If the Harvard/MIT venture edX offer cheap or free courses, it will be "democratization of education" until it isn't- until course credit is given at which point nobody in their right mind wants to pay actual money for not-Harvard/MIT. But the brand- how will they protect their elite prestige?!- no, no, I'm sure Harvard/MIT will have no trouble creating a two-tiered system where its clear who the poor kids on YouTube were. But as for Neverheardofit State, which now has to compete with Harvard/MIT's free program, you can bet on credit for pre-recorded lectures. When that happens, the university collapses into nothing but another commodity factory.
I though giving up teaching - teaching! - to grad students eliminated so many tenured jobs that universities would think through the ramifications of doing something a hundred times worse? Sure, because good intentions and noble goals can defend against capital, right?
Doesn't that mean even the senior professors at MOOC-recording schools are jeopardizing their own future? This is a catastrophe is moving fast, but it will still take a decade or two- most of those tenured profs will have checked out by then, no worries.
Doesn't this mean more learning for more people? If you think watching YouTube clips is the same as a university education...
And most importantly: isn't creating a system where more and more people are incentivized to take cheap, easy degrees until they are thirty+ while simultaneously slashing the jobs available to them afterward by converting public funds into private capital and then crushing those same students with debt repayments that keep capital out of the economic flow and confined within Wall Street accounts and Sallie Mae- isn't that a bad thing? What a worthless and irrelevant question- you ask that like you think you can do something about it.
May 12, 2013
When we go to hell for our sins against others, Jesus will tell us "the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath" had implications beyond sabbath rules.
Entrenchment has no use for imagining the origins of the sacred taboo or the ethical horrors wrought through repetition. When Meister Eckhart prayed, “God, rid me of God,” God probably retorted, “I tried, usually on a sabbath- it didn’t take.” The concrete universal did not appreciate our abstract particularities. The only thing worse than Hegel's master of a slave is Lacan's master’s discourse that dreams of the day the slave will set the master free. But in an economy of debt, somebody else definitely has to pay. So we had better find something to scapegoat. Repetition, repression, reification, repetition.
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
- Mark 2:23-7, TNIV
May 11, 2013
The good people at Ebook Collective have posted Jacques Lacan's Écrits: A Selection. Ebook Collective is a fantastic site for leftist literature and they continuously disseminate texts that are either already on my bookshelves or on my bucket list. Download the pdf of Écrits here or connect with them on facebook here. They also have Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle, but if you are really interested in learning Freud I recommend his slightly more mature text The Ego and the Id.
The English Écrits is significantly shorter than the French version, but its still a massive volume. The greatest frustration with studying Lacan is that so few of his seminars have been translated. And most of the material I'm interested in regarding psychopathology is trapped in french only, which means non-french-speakers like myself have to rely on far to many secondary texts. Only 3 seminars (XI, XVII, and XX) are translated from his years in which he truly developed his mature theory. XVII is one of the best political documents I've ever read. I'm rereading Seminar XI for a doctoral seminar at CGU this Fall, so I'm looking forward to getting reacquainted.
May 10, 2013
Comrades, take a break from your term papers on dead German philosophers:
May 4, 2013
“I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” -Mark Driscoll at recent Catalyst Dallas conference.
I always get this incredulous look from liberals who have a hard time understanding that one reason climate science doesn't seem to matter is that 41% of the US literally believes Jesus will come back to destroy the world before 2050. I have even discussed this with college-educated pastors who tell me that slowing climate change could be seen as working against god. Driscoll may be a charlatan and an extremist, but let's keep in mind he reflects the sentiments of nearly half of America.
And that is why we can't have nice things.
Here are the stats:
May 3, 2013
I read a lot of Freud in the past few weeks, and a couple of his works - specifically Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and The Ego and the Id - have been phenomenally helpful in my understanding of pathology and cathexis in relation to (de)conversion.
Pete Rollins claims it’s usually those who believe too much (rather than not enough) who experience a cascading loss of traditional religious beliefs. And those who remain dogmatic almost never believe with the consistent integrity that they imagine themselves to epitomize:
"This is why fundamentalist communities are not threatened by the anemic liberal claim that they believe too much. This is what they want. This is the fantasy that sustains them. Rather the truly radical claim is not that they believe too much but rather that they don't believe enough. That their belief is sustained by a disavowed unbelief." - Pete Rollins
My experience loosing dogmatism produced an all-too-common conversation script when reengaging the more traditionally religious. Wording ranges from disinterest to concern to hostility, but usually the questions imply theology has “liberalized” (that seems to be the only category, so...)- I have the wrong facts. And the more dogmatic the faith of the interrogator, the more likely they are to label difference as “pathological.” This used to frustrate me quite a bit (it is insulting, after all), but psychoanalysis gave me a language to work out what was really happening.
Who knows whether St. Paul was an obsessional or hysteric neurotic, but I’ve always liked his pretentious Pharisee-of-Pharisees claim. I think he cracked because he over-identified with his code. It was only a lack of integrity that allowed his former comrades to remain Pharisees. A kind of apostasy is actually the normal route for obsessives, but it isn’t for hysterics and perverts. In psychoanalytic terms, the ego redirects id-libido and appropriates its as narcissistic libido, selecting a cathect-object which the super-ego attacks. The ego deploys repression to quiet the super-ego, but repression hits limits where the ego cracks and rebels. Martin Luther is a clear case of this obsessional neurosis - I’ll return to this below.
My theory is that social systems tend to drift toward hysteria over time. Hysteria is disposed to be the tool of someone’s ideology because it, as Freud says, represses anxiety specifically to keep conflict unconscious. Hysterics may genuinely feel no anxiety over abuse as long as they feel their relationship to the Other is secure. This schema is roughly what is happening when women happily submit to norms of patriarchal dominance or LGBT citizens feel they don’t deserve full marriage. Usually the ego represses in order to satisfy the (social/religious/moral taboo) demands of the “harsh taskmaster” super-ego, but hysteria seems best at keeping anxiety unconscious. Obsessives rebel against the harsh super-ego once repression becomes overwhelming.
Martin Luther did not ignite a Reformation because he rationalized his way out of Catholic teachings. Instead, his fidelity overwhelmed the limits of repression. His severe ego-identification with doctrine created a narcissistic object-cathexis which his superego proceeded to assault: “Luther, you are not righteous enough; you will suffer my wrath for forgetting to confess!” Luther even exhibited what we call “negative therapeutic reaction” - a resistance to healing due to feeling the distress is deserved - which is often the penultimate step to therapy’s beneficial conclusion.
“In certain forms of obsessional neurosis the sense of guilt is over-noisy but cannot justify itself to the ego. Consequently the patient’s ego rebels against the imputation of guilt and seeks the physician's support in repudiating it. It would be folly to acquiesce in this, for to do so would have no effect. Analysis eventually shows that the super-ego is being influenced by processes that have remained unknown to the ego. It is possible to discover the repressed impulses which are really at the bottom of the sense of guilt. Thus in this case the super-ego knew more than the ego about the unconscious id.” - Freud, The Ego and the Id, V.
The neurotic ego either frees itself or becomes more enslaved to the super-ego. The ego of the obsessive tends to revolt once the repression becomes too much to handle. “I once was found but now am lost”- we loose beliefs because we believed too much. The stories are painfully similar because they tend to come from the same obsessive psych profile.
May 1, 2013
"I guess the trouble was that we didn't have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist." - John Steinbeck, 1960
Apr 29, 2013
Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins, "Becoming a Brain: The New Materialism and the Challenge of Liberation," Union Theological Seminary. Responses from Cornel West and Mark Lewis Taylor.
And thanks to Bo Eberle for helping make this event happen.
Apr 27, 2013
For the next few weeks, I'll be posting on Fridays at Homebrewed Christianity. First article is up:
Apr 25, 2013
This post is part of a Homebrewed Christianity blog tour on Crockett and Robbins’ Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism.
I’ve written previously on what is new about the New Materialism, but the politics of energy by Kevin Mequet was a most fascinating explanation of a energy catastrophe waiting on the horizon.
It’s Not Just the Mass-Extinction Event...
It is not simply an environmental problem. The 5-8 degree Fahrenheit change will issue a mass extinction event, but the severity is difficult to frame because 1) most of these effects will not be evident for two generations, 2) most of these effects will not be catastrophic for first world states, and 3) these projections rely on hard science which is - as we all know - effectively dissolved by the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. Mequet’s chapter is about a whole different crisis on the horizon - one which can be communicated in math that has not (yet) been politicized by capital.
“In its most basic sense, life is energy conversion. In a way, being or reality itself is also energy.” - Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 87
Capitalism rose on cheap energy over the past two centuries. First, we have to understand that capitalism is only capable of rewarding continuous expansion. By definition, capitalism only rewards surplus which can be extracted and reallocated up a corporate hierarchy. If the earth has limited resources, then the capital=energy-conversion metric bumps up against real limits. Not just environmental limits or carbon limits or mass extinction limits. Mequet is talking about absolute physical limits in the form of EROEI. And these limits involve very simple, predictable numbers that plot like a bell curve.
History of EROEI
Homo sapiens hunted and gathered for 200 millennia, and then 10,000 years ago we had an agricultural revolution on the backs of domesticated animals and burned wood. For 9,800 years, burning wood was the only energy resource available. It was plentiful, but even the Roman Empire bumped up against energy limits as it faced a deforestation crisis (in other words, we’ve seen a milder version of all this before). Wood has an energy return on energy investment (EROEI) of 4:1. We get 4 BTUs of energy for every BTU of energy we put into its production.
The EROEI of coal is 10:1. The 2.5x uptick in power output and ease of transport allowed coal to fuel an industrial revolution that could not have happened without a new energy source. That sentence was important, because economy is energy conversion. We exploit new sources of energy not only because of the power output but because the new resource solves alternative problems. Coal allowed mechanization which cut down on the animal needs still associated with wood use.
“Although natural petroleum and tar deposits were well known in the world before 1859 in Titusville, Pennsylvania, it was at this propitious moment that alternatives to coal were being widely sought... Natural gas, while significantly cleaner than coal, was unfortunately far more difficult to transport for consumption... Petroleum was waiting for the right confluence of innovation and diffusion to propel human technological prowess and advancement to new dizzying heights... The amazing outcome was that petroleum performed initially 15 times better than coal at 150:1 EROEI.” - Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 95
Nothing Competes with Petroleum
150:1 is the reason there is simply nothing like oil. But there is a catch: EROEI decreases over time as a resource becomes more difficult to extract. By the mid-20th century, petro EROEI stood at 100:1. Even at that rate it was still able to fuel the rise of American economic supremacy along with globalization. It is extremely difficult to pin precisely, but petro EROEI is now floating between 100:1 and 50:1 (probably closer to the latter). Part of the reason we have not and cannot recover from the current recession is that the mortgage/derivatives crisis hit in what was likely the peak year for oil extraction.
By the way, tar sands have an EROEI of between 7 and 10 to 1. Yes, tar sands are less efficient than coal two centuries back.
This is the Way the World Ends
EROEI eventually falls below 1:1 for a non-renewable resource like petroleum. Now that we are likely just a few years after peak oil, 1:1 is only a matter of time. Reaching this point would be so unimaginably catastrophic (not just economic collapse beyond recovery, but the collapse of entire civilizations) that energy wars will continue to be fought leaving millions and millions dead in its wake (no doubt under the guise of “war on terror”). This is not speculation. This is simple math, and the wars are already happening. This is what your grandkids will be dealing with.
There is No Hope (Yet)
So what about renewable alternatives? Whether we are measuring solar, wind, hydro, or nuclear fission, none have an EROEI much better than 4:1. Mequet has all these numbers cited from government regulatory sites for those interested. Yes, not even nuclear. Nuclear fusion consumes so much energy in construction, maintenance, base power, and disposal that it performs at the same EROEI as wood. If we converted all power usage to nuclear at todays rate of use (which is not realistic since usage will actually double over the next two decades), our fissile material reserves would deplete in 10-20 years. And most alternatives use petroleum in some form, so their EROEI will fluctuate.
What can be done? First and most unfortunately, it is not at all sensational to claim we are looking at a mass extinction event around the end of the 21st century. The change in climate guarantees this much. But whether humankind will be able to avoid a Hollywoodesque dystopian future will depend on how we address our very serious energy problem. One possibility is the mass scaling of low EROEI alternatives, but there are geometric limits involved. Another possibility is the “always twenty years away” option of nuclear fusion:
“David Goodstein, a physicist at Caltech, suggests that even inside a heat-dependent point of view, nuclear fusion is humankind’s best long-term hope for the future whereby 1 gallon of water if converted by nuclear fusion would equal the current exploitation of 3000 gallons of gasoline. At petroleum’s 100:1 EROEI that would be a phenomenal increase to 30,000 EROEI... It is reasonable to speculate that the expected jump for athermal nuclear technology could be in the range of 25-30 times the petroleum EROEI.” -Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 98
Athermal nuclear power generation is Mequet’s proposal. Our current nuclear fission (and fusion if it ever happens) technology still treats nuclear reactions as a byproduct, a means to an end which is heat. Heat converts water to steam to turn a turbine. The turbine interacts with a magnetic coil and produces a current. But Mequet argues we can model a reactor on the para-magnetism created by the earth and learn to harvest nuclear energy directly from magnetism created by atom-splitting. The proposal is the topic of the next chapter. Mequet recently delivered a TED Talk on his athermal nuclear energy proposal, and I will link to it when the video goes online.
Religion & Apocalypse
Here is why energy matters in a book about religion. Theology is largely a product of economy. Economy is energy conversion. Religion is energy conversion. Religion is about money. Religion, particularly American Evangelicalism, is a powerful tool which is being wielded by capitalism. Capitalism is structurally incapable of thinking long-term because of the high reward for short term investment yields, and thus capital deploys its legion of Evangelicals to parrot propaganda that calls science into question. However, there is an opening provided by the EROEI concept.
While capital interests have focused Evangelicals on climate science denial, EROEI is an entirely ignored flank. Climate science and EROEI might be based on the same basic math, but the numbers are (forgive the patronizing tone) too simple to obscure. Unless you don’t particularly care about the welfare of your progeny, you don’t have the option of saying “Drill baby, drill!”
Religion can be redirected to address energy conversion. Religion is and always has been about energy conversion. Religion has been, can be, and should be about material reality. No god is going to save us from what we are about to do to ourselves.
“As Homo carbonicus goes extinct what can we do? Exactly what we’ve been doing- evolve... again.” -Mequet, Religion, Politics, & the Earth, 96.
The meek will inherit the earth. We just hope that’s not because a catastrophic collapse extinguishes everyone else.