Dream Diary: “Five Charles Dickens Novels”

An ordinary housecat is painted to look like a tiger. I know it is a housecat but am afraid of it anyway.

* * * *

A prostitute and her client speak in euphemisms to avoid the law. People are supposed to talk about “books” instead of sex.

“I’d like five Charles Dickens novels.”

“Honey, just say ‘books.’ You want five books.”

* * * *

I spend most of my time searching every power outlet for a very specific type of charger that I have left somewhere. I speak to a man through flowers.

Dream Diary: “Bzzzzzzzzz”

We were writing a sitcom about college-age men but struggling to come up with jokes. A sample scene, between two people:

“Our dorm has stickers of bees on the door.”

“Yeah?”

“They say ‘Bzzzzzz.’”

“Uh-huh.”

“But the girls’ dormitory doesn’t have bee stickers.”

“No?”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Well, with girls it becomes dirty, doesn’t it?”

“What do you mean?”

“It means vibrators. Bzzzzzzzzzzzz. You can’t say that.”

“Oh, I guess not.”

* * * *

I was politely asked to stop photographing Rev. Billy Graham’s cornrows.

“I’m just trying to get some reference pictures of 1970’s furniture,” I protested.

Dream Diary: “The Google Button”

Setting: post-apocalyptic America. All surviving humans have crowded into the grand hall of an old conference center. We have one useful tool left: a floating Google button. You can say anything to the button, and it will produce an exact (though unusable) replica of it. The only thing we have been warned not to say to it is “100 million consequences of globalization”; because doing so will turn half the world into the carcasses of factories and robots.

A boy named Chip says the fateful words; not only that, but he says them indoors, where the results are even more sudden and devastating.

* * * *

“If you’re such a political scientist,” says Abby to me as she hands me a Scantron, “let’s see how you do on this test.”

I look at the questions.

“What causes political strife?”

My choices include “A. Because they said so.” and “B. The 99%”

I skip this one and examine the next.

“Who is the transit manager for the city of Quincy, MA?”

“Abby,” I say, “I’m offended by this test. It’s clear you’re just trying to make a point about how little I know.”

Abby continues to pop one lens out of each pair of glasses she finds.

Taking “Taking Seriously” Seriously

A trope is haunting JSTOR– the trope of “taking seriously.”

A cursory browse for academic articles of the form “taking X seriously” turns up hundreds of entries, including “Taking Learning Seriously,” “Taking Sin Seriously,” “Taking Superstitions Seriously,” “Taking Hindrance Seriously,” “Taking Poets Seriously,” “Taking the Bishops Seriously,” “Taking Families Seriously,” “Taking Mathematics Seriously,” and “Taking Reichs Seriously.” Ronald Dworkin told us to take rights seriously, now we are “Taking Dworkin Seriously.” Canadians will be glad to know that someone is finally “Taking Canada Seriously,” and the Japanese take comfort that at least one article announces it is taking them seriously. Since I wear them, I’m pleased to know the world beyond optometry is “Taking Eyeglasses Seriously,” though perhaps “Taking Drugs Seriously” is a worrisome pastime. Time, Art, Education, all have never been truly grappled with before, but are now being taken seriously.  Reassuringly for public health, someone has finally endorsed “Taking Heart Failure Seriously,” and seismologists will smack their heads to realize that all along they should have been “Taking Quake Prediction Seriously.” At last, then, we are getting serious.

The trope is hypocritical, however. Very little of this actually takes anything more seriously than it was taken before. Most of these subjects have been taken reasonably seriously for a very long time; many people have spent their entire working lives thinking about them. A “taking seriously” title rarely delivers on its implied depth of distinction from prior scholarship. The authors do not often actually argue that the object or phenomenon in question has never before been seriously considered. Those who promise to take seriously often continue to plod along using the standard methods of their field, in the same manner of many others who go about their research but do not issue grand promises.

And herein lies the sin. When authors insist they are “taking seriously,” they not only fail to deliver on their claims, but they unfairly imply that prior academic work is unserious noodling, lacking in consequence. The Seriously-Taker casts all prior philosophizing into the fire, assuring us that now we will get down to business, before proceeding to do more of the same. In this they simultaneously insult their disciplines and perpetuate the very same irrelevance to social action that they have implicitly accused their forebears of.

This is not to impugn the particular scholarship behind the titles. The scholarship itself is not especially relevant to the problems of the trope. The point is not to attack any author’s particular claims about time, poets, or Japan, but to attack the idea that the author is likely to be taking these things more seriously than they have hitherto been taken. Many of these articles make contributions to the advancement of thought, the point is that they do not do so in any greater degree than those who avoid taking-seriously’s “my work/all prior work” distinction.

The desire for novelty and relevance cannot be condemned. Novelty is a professional mandate, essential to the advancement of academic careers. And relevance is crucial if one’s life’s work is to be meaningful. Under pressure to come up with a grand new theory, and personally desperate to have one’s narrow and abstruse specialty be significant, deployment of the “taking X seriously” is ideal. By taking seriously, I simultaneously claim that my work is different and important. The phrase does its job to sublime perfection.

But the multi-decade rise and entrenchment of “taking seriously” is therefore is an unhealthy reflection of wider academic dysfunction. In it, we see the problems of both the panicked need to differentiate one’s work and the failure of the academy to meet demands of engagement with the existing world. It is, foremost, symptomatic of the brutal crabs-in-a-barrel capitalistic individualism that leads to one to have to destroy others in order to take care of oneself. And with heavy pressure from outside to create work with “cash value,” (see Nicholas Kristof’s prototypical broadside attack, or Barack Obama’s disparagement of art history degrees), one further has to cry furiously that one’s work is not only of some use, but of enormous and immediate use.[1]

It should not, of course, be this way. Study for study’s sake, rather than for the sake of accomplishing immediate productive outcomes, is valuable and good. One should not feel the need to disparage one’s entire field of inquiry in order to have made a valid contribution. That so much taking seriously goes on suggests that the beautiful yet frivolous has no place.

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Dream Diary: “Two Examinations”

The PhD examinations included a “custom” section that was based on the profile of your interests as determined by your online history. I opened the test packet and found that I was expected to answer forty questions on Mo Willems’s Pigeon book series.

* * * *

To my surprise, the bar exam had introduced a “golf” component, and I wondered whether “not being good at golf” qualified as a disability for the purposes of an exemption.

* * * *

“I can deal with rats,” I told the hotel manager. “The mere presence of rats in my room is not the problem. It is the fact that they are so very unashamed.”

Dream Diary: “Gilad X”

I was attempting to get to the airport, but there were military checkpoints throughout the neighborhood. The soldiers were searching for a fugitive, Gilad X. I had seen Gilad X only an hour before, but I knew if I disclosed this they would never let me make my flight.

We were waved through the first checkpoint. But then my mother told me she had left Gilad X’s golf clubs in the trunk of the car, and that they had his name sewn on them in enormous bubble-letters. If the soldiers looked in the trunk we were doomed.

We made it through the second checkpoint as well, but at the third we were asked to get out of the car. The soldiers were all bald women. They said they were Israeli, but this was clearly untrue.

They looked in the windows, but didn’t notice the golf clubs. A soldier took me into a trailer, and began asking me questions. Then I felt a sharp pain in my spine and wrist, and noticed there were needles in me. A TV monitor began showing my memories. Flashes of Gilad X’s forehead appeared, from just the angle I had seen it an hour before.

“Aha!” said the soldier.

“I didn’t consent to this,” I said. “You can’t extract my memories without permission.”

She laughed louder and I gave up all hopes of making my flight.